The 12 Week Year and Deep Work

The 12 Week Year and Deep Work
The 12 Week Year and Deep Work

Two books that have had a great influence on my productivity over the last six months have been The 12 Week Year and Deep Work.

I expect that I first heard about both of these books from The Productivity Show, a weekly podcast from Asian Efficiency which is always packed with thought-provoking discussion and ideas about how to improve yourself.

As I’ve been saying to anyone who will listen, thanks to the ideas in these two books I really have managed to achieve more in the last three months than in the previous nine (even taking into account that I was ill for much of 2017).

The 12 Week Year

The 12 Week Year
The 12 Week Year

The central idea in The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months (Wiley, 2013) by Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington—as the title suggests—is that there is too much uncertainty when planning a year at a time, so break your year down into four blocks of three months. It’s a simple and obvious idea but. as I discovered for myself from October to December, it works.

If you are at all familiar with Agile project management then a lot of the ideas in this book will be familiar. While the book offers a closed framework that contains everything you might need for implementing their ideas, I found that taking some of their core ideas and merging them into my existing productivity system worked for me. But if you don’t already use a system like Getting Things Done or Take Back Your Life then I would definitely recommend that you follow their framework to the letter.

Part 1: Ideas

The book is in two parts. Part one looks at the ideas behind their ideas: why you should reject the idea of 12-month planning in favour of quarterly; how your emotions and habits come into play; why you should measure your results; how to block your time into strategic, buffer and breakout blocks; and why you must be accountable for and own the work you commit to.

I found a lot to consider in the first part and particularly liked this quote:

“There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”—Jack Welch

Part 2: Execution

Part two looks at what the authors call the 12 Week Year execution system. They argue that there are eight elements that are fundamental to high performance, which they arrange into three principles:

  • Accountability
  • Commitment
  • Greatness in the moment

and five disciplines

  • Vision
  • Planning
  • Process control
  • Measurement
  • Time use

Emotional cycle of change

Something I’d not encountered before, which I found really helpful, was Don Kelly and Daryl Connor’s emotional cycle of change model. It describes well the emotional ups and downs you generally feel while working through a project from the initial hopeful and blind optimism before you start, through the informed pessimism and valley of despair you encounter when you realise just how much work is actually involved, to the informed optimism when you realise that you just might be able to accomplish this, and the final success and fulfilment. If you’ve ever read the children’s book The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper then you know exactly what this looks like.

Three months

But for me, it was simply the idea of breaking down our goals into smaller chunks—something I do every day at work as an Agile project manager—that has been the most life-changing.

I now have a vision for what I would like to achieve in the next few years, supported by a list of projects that would help me achieve this vision, and then every three months I review my goals and select a few projects to move me closer.

You can see how I have broken these down in OneNote:

My projects road map for 2017 and 2018
My projects road map for 2017 and 2018

If you are looking for ways to get more done then I recommend this book wholeheartedly. You can pick up a copy at Amazon UK: The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do in 12 Months (Wiley, 2013) by Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington

Deep Work

Deep Work by Cal Newport
Deep Work by Cal Newport

Having read The 12 Week Year, I started Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World (Wiley, 2016) by Cal Newport, who is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

In this new economy of knowledge work, he argues, there are two core abilities emerging that are crucial:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And the ways we are working now often let us down. Office workers get distracted, one study concluded, every 10½ minutes. Another study suggested that it takes about 15 minutes to get into a state of ‘flow’—that mental state of deep concentration where we are most productive and most creative. So, it’s no wonder so many office workers are frustrated about reaching 5:00pm and feeling as though they have not achieved anything.

Shallow work vs deep work

Newport distinguishes between shallow work and deep work.

Shallow work is any task that can be performed, often while distracted, that doesn’t require much thought and that doesn’t create much new value in the world.

Deep work, by contract, is any activity that is performed in a state distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These effects, he says, “create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

The goal, if you consistently want to achieve something remarkable is to ensure you make space for deep work. He points to a psychology study from 1990 that revealed that in fact people are generally happier while working than relaxing. “Human beings,” he says, “it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.”

Newport introduced four rules to working deeply:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

Work deeply—He supports the idea of measuring your progress (it’s that old business analyst adage: if you don’t measure it, you can’t control it), and establishing rituals to tell our lazy brains that we are starting a period of deep work, or ending one. These help get us into the right frame of mind. You cannot work deeply forever, though. Schedule a few hours, then rest. Rest is just as important for mental activities as it is for physical.

Embrace boredom—The ability to concentrate intensely is not something we are born with, it is a skill that must be trained. These days, with mobile phones we live in an almost constantly distracted world. Notifications ping and we pick up our phones to feed the addiction. An email notification pops up on our computer and we switch from what we’re doing to read what may only be a trivial message about a pizza special offer that’s running this week. Newport urges us to not take breaks from distraction in order to achieve things, but take breaks from focus, and schedule this shallow work.

Quit social media—Unless your job requires you to be on social media all day. Newport advocates quitting social media completely. Or at most, scheduling when you check it but always with specific goals in mind and setting a limit, for example in the next 10 minutes I want to find what the closest members of my family are doing. Social media apps are designed to be addictive and to draw you in to hours and hours of perpetual scrolling. Stop it! It doesn’t help you create deeply valuable work.

Drain the shallows—Deep work is tiring. You can’t do it all day, every day. So schedule it in. Be accountable for every minute of your day. Work with purpose. Schedule the deep work, and schedule the shallow work. Quantify the depth of every action and group it with actions of the same type. Learn to say no more. Become harder to reach. Create filters so others can decide for themselves whether they should contact you or not, and set expectations on whether they should expect a reply or not, and if so when.

I like this book very much, and have already begun to put some of these insights into use. Such as right now, as I want to start blogging more regularly.

You can order it on Amazon UK: Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World (Wiley, 2016) by Cal Newport.

Deep work in 12 weeks

Reading these books back to back has been useful as there is quite a lot of crossover between the two. In The 12 Week Year, I’m encouraged to set myself goals that I can achieve within three months. In Deep Work I am given the tools to begin working at a deeper, more concentrated level into order to deliver these projects on time.

When I said that I had already achieved more in three months than in the previous nine, what I didn’t say was that I managed that on only six hours per week. I scheduled three hours every Tuesday and Wednesday evening to deep work, and I achieved almost everything within those timeboxes.

An example, each year I compile a digital calendar for Scottish Episcopal Church clergy. Last year it took me about six weeks to complete it. This year the core tasks took me five days—I scheduled it during a week of annual leave; and the rest of it took two evenings of three hours. I was amazed! Look what can be achieved in such little time when you really put your mind to it.

I was encouraged by Cal Newport’s experience that so much could be achieved in so little time, but I found The 12 Week Year‘s three blocks (strategic for deep work, buffer for shallow work, and breakout for rest) to be really helpful in helping me schedule the right time for each type of task.

This year my big goal is to make significant steps in writing a book I’m currently working on, about my eight plus years in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. I expect I’ll blog about my progress as the year continues.

If you are looking to boost your productivity this year then I thoroughly recommend both of these books.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Former Scrum master at Safeguard Global, Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

3 thoughts on “The 12 Week Year and Deep Work”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Gareth. I’ve read a little about both techniques, but hearing your view on how you actually implemented them is more helpful than trawling through reams of comments in the backwaters of the internet. I’m also writing a book so I might give these a go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.