Optimize your productivity for Deep work vs Shallow work vs Idea generation
As young hustlers and future millionaires we know there are many components to success. There are many things and many types of things that must get done. The main categories are:
- Generate ideas (good or bad we’ll find out later).
- Implement the ideas into business with Deep work.
- Come up with creative solutions, Deep work again.
- Maintain the business with Shallow work.
- Once the work is done, relax properly so we can go again tomorrow.
Each of these areas requires a different state of mind and your productivity should be optimized in a different way.
Deep work is when we have to create something out of nothing, out of thin air, out of our thoughts and into reality.
Examples: Writing an article, writing a book, writing a piece of code, designing an app, designing a logo.
Another deep work category is creative problem solving, coming up with solutions to problems we haven’t faced before: writing algorithms , coming up with strategy for our business, getting more clients, selling your product, breaking through the noise online etc.
The third category of deep work is learning. Perhaps not as creative as the other two, but still requires the same level of focus and effort. You are creating new mental models in your brain to understand the concepts you are learning.
These tasks are the most important to our progress and also the ones most likely to be procrastinated upon. They require the highest level of effort and concentration but are also the most rewarding to do because we get to activate our entire brain and get into flow.
Here are my top tips on optimizing productivity for deep work tasks.
Long uninterrupted stretches of time
The reason most of us get up early is to do our deep work in peace and quiet for long periods of time. Sometimes it takes good 20-30 minutes to get into the context of the task and actually start producing.
This is all fine and well for tasks that are challenging but we are familiar with, for me that’s programming. But I often procrastinate on writing articles and they take much longer than necessary to finish. This is because I’m still not skilled at writing as I am with programming.
For these types of tasks, the ones I tend to procrastinate on, I commit to a small period of time at first.
This is my writing task: Write for 15 minutes.
At least 90% of the time I end up writing for about an hour. The key is to commit to small time period to make it impossible to procrastinate. I don’t commit to writing perfect words or any number of words, it’s just time, it’s easy.
Be as specific as possible when defining your tasks
Another common procrastination excuse is getting overwhelmed by a vague and large tasks.
Build authentication system or Set up my blog or Write article about productivity are all too vague.
Define and break down these giants into the smallest actionable items, then put those on your Deep work todo list.
Plan deep work the night before
Do the planning and defining of tasks the night before. Then in the morning go straight into execution mode. Planning in the morning can mess up your workflow because it takes effort to look into all the things that should get done and filter them out.
You fill your brain with details for 10 different tasks only to choose 3 in the end. If you planned in the evening, when you wake up next morning you only concern yourself with the context of the selected few.
Take short physical breaks
After working for 2-3 hours you will get fatigued. The first thought is to get a cup of coffee, but this is not optimal. In fact don’t even wait 2-3 hours to get fatigued, that’s when you will need a longer break.
Instead take often but shorter breaks. Yes you do have your 2-3 hour deep work period but every 30 minutes get up off your chair and move for a bit. It won’t break your flow (unless you stare at your phone).
If you work in an office, take a walk down the hallway or to another floor, move your body.
If you’re in charge of your own schedule as a freelancer, founder or remote worker, you have much more fun options for shorter breaks. This is my solution:
The fastest way to refresh your brain and your body is to move and get the blood flowing naturally. Sitting is not natural but it is necessary.
Professional athletes do not run until they are completely exhausted and then rest. They go in and out of the game often, they get timeouts and substitutions. It’s better to rest for short periods to delay the big fatigue moment where you’ll have to get an hour or more rest.
Eat small low carb lunch (or nothing at all)
You know what happens after a big lunch? Nothing, that’s what.
You get sleepy and no work gets done (unless you have a deadline today). Especially carb filled lunches. Leave the carbs for dinner, or at least after your workout.
You might think food gives you energy but after any meal your body spends energy for digestion. That always takes precedence over your long term goals, the body does not care.
Optimizing productivity for shallow work
Shallow work tasks are the ones that an assistant can be trained to do for you. But most of us aren’t at that stage yet so they have to get done. Examples of these are answering emails, sorting out your taxes, answering support tickets, updating documentation or making phone calls.
These should be done after the Deep work is finished and they can be batched together. You allocate 1 hour for answering emails, or two 30 minutes sessions, one morning and one evening session. Resist the temptation to read and answer every email as soon as it comes in. It takes away your focus from the actual work that matters.
They are often inherently boring so again the timer is your friend. If you commit to 30 minutes of answering emails and support tickets then you are more likely to do them all at once, rather than answering 1 here and 2 there.
Optimizing Idea Generation
Become an Idea machine
Start writing 10 ideas every morning. Get a waiter’s pad that fits in your pocket and go to a caffe or a park or wherever and write 10 ideas every single day. No breaks on weekends if you want to get good at this.
Coming up with 5 is easy, but going for 10 is when your brain starts to sweat, that’s what we’re after.
The more difficult part for me is coming up with a theme for the ideas. As a programmer I might come up with 10 app ideas, as a writer 10 article ideas, but these obvious themes can easily dry out. So don’t be afraid to go crazy with the themes. They don’t matter. You are practicing. Here are some crazy ones:
- Ten ways to go from my house to the gym.
- Ten ideas for cars without wheels.
- Ten ways to hold a pencil.
- Ten app ideas for writers.
- Ten apps an AI could write.
The point is not to come up with 10 brilliant ideas (you have no idea which ones are brilliant). The point is to develop your idea muscle.
Over time as you keep doing this your ratio of good to bad ideas will improve significantly.
Enter the hypnagogic state
The hypnagogic state is the state when we’re just between being awake and falling asleep. The moment when our brainwaves go from beta to alpha. As our brain starts to move into deeper relaxation and falling asleep we start seeing images and insights. If we normally sleep we forget them almost always.
How Salvador Dali entered this state every day.
It helped him draw this thing
Every day after lunch he would sit in a chair and rest his arms onto the side while holding his keys in one hand.
He would put a ceramic plate on the floor next to the chair, right under the keys in his hand.
When he started falling asleep he would drop the keys, hit the plate and wake himself up.
Right there, in that moment he would receive all sorts of weird images and inspiration. He would be very quick to write or draw these down before he forgets them. This process led to ideas for his best work.
There has been some research done on this state and it turns out that the imagery and content that appears in this state is largely influenced by what we were doing minutes before falling asleep. They call it the Tetris effect. If you played Tetris or similar game with dropping parts, then in the hypnagogic state you would see falling objects.
To hack this to our advantage we can occupy our mind with some creative problem we are having. Then go to sleep with a setup similar to Dali’s and have a pen and paper ready to record the ideas. When we enter the hypnagogic state our mind would continue to think about the same creative problem and come up with some interesting stuff. Try it out and see.
Optimizing relaxation and entertainment modes
I’m writing about the last two modes, entertainment and relaxation, under one section because they are often related and confused with one another.
Relaxation mode is when the analytical part of our brain takes a break. We are no longer working or thinking about a particular problem or a task. This is called Diffuse mode and it is the state where our brain is free to come up with new insights and creative solutions subconsciously.
The best way to enter Diffuse mode is to quiet the analytical part of the brain directly or by activating another part of it.
Quieting the brain:
Activating the creative part:
- Draw or Paint – activate the creative part of the brain
- Walking, Running, Playing sports – activate the physical and spacial part of the brain
Entertainment mode is when our attention is hijacked by a made-up story. These stories come from a movie, podcast or a good book. Sometimes it comes directly from conversations with other people.
And guess what, if we are so engulfed by a story of some movie or book, our brain is not relaxed, it is engaged, so no insights can happen.
The relation between the two.
We often times mix these two together. We need to relax and open up some entertainment channel, Neflix, Youtube, Instagram etc.
If our relaxation is in the form of entertainment then our brain will be preoccupied with the story and will not relax. The golden rule is this.
The higher the resolution of the entertainment, the lower the relaxation.
I’m not against Entertainment but only after the work is done. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by trying to come up with insights while going to the movies, it will rarely happen.
List of entertainment items ordered by resolution:
- Watching movies (Visual and Audio) – Highest resolution -> Lowest relaxation
- Watching Youtube videos (lower resolution, no characters, no great story)
- Listening other people’s stories
- Listening podcasts
- Listening music
- Reading a book
- Reading newspaper (smaller stories, no characters)
Here are again the activities that actually help getting into relaxation mode:
- Going for a walk
- Playing sports
- Playing an instrument
Activities that activate the brain but are easy to do. You’re not consuming anything because consumption is literally filling your brain with more random stuff. That is not relaxing at all.
Just like running shoes are optimal for running and climbing shoes are optimal for climbing, there are optimal ways to do the different types of intellectual tasks we need to do.
Let me know in the comments what are your favorite ways to optimize your workflow.