Contributing Author: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Well-being Task Force Chair

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Ughh! After a long meeting, do you ever get back to your desk and see that your in-box has 300 unread and bolded emails, and they all want a little piece of you? Some you can toss; some archive; some go to the “read later” folder — and let’s be honest, which will never get looked at again — but most of these loud messages need your attention. Even the best color-coordinators get overwhelmed with the amount of time spent every day tending to our in-box. I often spend at least half of my day beholden to my in-box leaving me craving clarity and craving time to do more meaningful work.

Recently a podcast came up on my feed called Time Blocking and Productivity, featuring Cal Newport being interviewed by my favorite modern-day stoic, Ryan Holiday. Newport’s expertise on corporate success is not something I’d normally take the time to ingest, but having benefitted greatly from Holiday’s Daily Stoic (short and sweet nuggets of wisdom on living a life with value and meaning), I thought I’d give it a listen. And the algorithm was right again. It was good stuff.

Newport discusses the benefits of ditching social media. In Deep Work — Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Dr. Newport documents the importance of single-focus problem solving while offering tips of making the most of “deep work sessions” and managing “shallow work” time. The author, who managed to write several books while obtaining a graduate degree, working, and raising a family, offers four rules to help us make the most of our limited time: work deeply; embrace boredom; quit social media; and drain the shallows. I admit I haven’t followed each rule literally, but the gist of the message is worthy of weaving into our weekly routines.

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Work deeply. Deep work — the kind where you are able to check off a box on your big picture list, requires intention and, for most brains, a training period. Newport recommends scheduling sessions when you completely turn off distractions and myopically focus on a single, important task to the exclusion of email, twitter, etc. He recommends using a transition ritual to tell your mind that this is time to buckle-down. I’ve been scheduling just one or two relatively short (2–3 hours) DWS [deep work sessions, NOT driving while suspended] a week, in the mornings when I am less apt to be suffering decision fatigue. I start with a little walk, make a cup of tea, put on some study music, and go.

Embrace boredom. Though I’ve never actually been bored working as a prosecutor, the author explains that our brains work better when we give ourselves space for quiet, unscheduled time. Big ideas surface when we are taking a walk, looking into water or even in meditation.

Quit social media. This one is self-explanatory. Social media is not necessarily bad and, at times, can be a useful tool. However, even then, it is not an efficient tool. For those trying to find ways to be more productive, social media time is low-hanging fruit.

Drain the shallows. Explore ways to reduce the amount of shallow work, like email, meetings, other tasks that could be completed by someone with a different focus and expertise. Shallow work can be important, but must be managed. Unsubscribe. Delegate. Be busy. Look at your calendar and make sure it reflects, not where others want you, but your own articulated values.

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Though I’m pretty new to the idea, my DWSs have been productive and helped me break through a particular work-plateau. For more than a year, I have been procrastinating the daunting task of updating my office’s policy manual, to include our mission and values statement, objectives and operations. Thanks to a couple of DWS, I’m well on my way and it feels really satisfying, despite leaving some emails unanswered and articles unread.

Brene Brown, my favorite leadership guru, recently said it best — “We can mindlessly go at our to-do list, but are we doing the right things? Are we thinking about what’s important and why, or are we just chasing down that satisfying check mark?”

Pictured: Kirsten Pabst

Kirsten Pabst chairs NDAA’s Well-being Task Force and serves at the County Attorney for Missoula County, Montana.

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.