Deep Work for Educational Leaders

Our attention is fragmented. There are a million things that are trying to grab our attention. We all have attention deficits at the moment.

When our minds are fragmented, when everything looks important, then nothing is important.

Deep Work by Cal Newport provides some insights into how to get our most important work done.

Cal’s webpage describes him as “an MIT-trained computer science professor at Georgetown University who also writes about the intersections of technology, work, and the quest to find depth in an increasingly distracted world.”

“To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.” p. 13

No one can tell you what your important work is. It depends on your job, your building, and your district. However, every educational leader has important work that they know needs to get done.

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.” p. 77

As educational leaders our attention is always being diverted from this important work. Phone calls, text messages, emails, visitors, etc. are a constant distraction every day. How do we find the time and peace to focus on what is really important?

“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not” p. 62

We all need to do some soul searching to identify what matters most. When you know what matters, you will also know what doesn’t matter; then, you will know what your most important work is.

How do we find the time to do high quality work?

“Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.” p. 227

Timebox your calendar. Schedule everything. Schedule certain tasks at the same time every day. It doesn’t matter what the task is or when you schedule it, but make it a routine part of your day.

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” p. 100

Find a specific time each day to respond to email and phone calls. Block out times on your calendar when you are unavailable. Make sure that everyone who works closely with you knows that this time is sacred, and you should only be interrupted if there is a true emergency.

When you know when you are less likely to be interrupted is an excellent time to schedule the deep, meaningful work. What is scheduled is what is important and what gets done.

“To master the art of deep work, therefore, you must take back control of your time and attention from the many diversions that attempt to steal them.” p. 182

We are all like Pavlov’s dog, but rather than a bell, we respond to every ding from our devices. Our brains are not meant to multitask.

“A study by the University of California, Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get yourself back on track after being interrupted. This means that even if you’re lucky enough to get distracted only a few times a day, you lose an hour of work!” – How to Get Back on Track When You Get Distracted at Work

“When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem at hand, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later, then redirect your attention back.” p.172

Keep a notebook, a Google or Word Doc, a Note in your phone open to jot down those invading thoughts.

Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done

“To work deeply is a big deal and should not be an activity undertaken lightly” p. 121

It is ok to be unavailable at times. It is ok to only respond to emails and phone calls at specific times of the day. It is ok to silence the notifications on your phone or put it on do not disturb. It is ok to shut the door for a specific amount of time to concentrate on what matters.

We have to learn to say no. Not every “crisis” needs our immediate attention or our attention at all. Someone else’s emergency is not necessarily ours.

You don’t have to be superhuman to get the important work done. You have to be willing to make it a priority.

“Priority – the fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important; a thing that is regarded as more important than another.” – Oxford Languages

Priorities are impossible by definition. In education everything seems to be a priority. Again if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority.

So what is your priority as an educational leader? Are you willing to commit to the deep work to make it possible?

Powerful Learning First, Technology Second

This is the title of chapter 9 in George Couros’s book The Innovator’s Mindset. Many people feel that technology is the answer. The answer to inequity. The answer to reopening schools. I disagree. Technology is a tool. How we use technology is part of the answer.

“Giving kids iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for the high-technology economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics. “ – Cal Newport, Deep Work

We have to get away from using iPads, Chromebooks, laptops, etc. as expensive replacements for the worksheets many teachers rely on. This is where the powerful learning comes in. We, as educators, have to design experiences that allow students to think critically, collaborate, and create. Even more powerful than that, let the students design the learning experiences.

“And yet educators at schools where personalized learning is viewed as an overarching philosophy, rather than a digital panacea, say that adapting to the pandemic has been relatively painless, and that students are continuing to progress in their studies. The key difference between their approach and the popular narrative around personalized learning is that these educators have built their schools around the idea of student agency.” – Ainsley Harris, “Learning Gets Personal,” Fast Company, September 2020.

We have no choice but to give students more freedom in their learning. Students will be home either every day, three times per week, or every other day for at least the near future. We cannot assume that how we engaged students before will work now. In many cases what we were doing before wasn’t working any way.

We need to leverage the technology to make education better. We have to teach students to be creators. For that to happen our teachers need to be creators. It’s not enough that they move their PowerPoints to Google and provide a Form at the end of the lesson as an assessment. We need to fundamentally rethink what and how we educate our students.

We have an opportunity to remake education, so that our students now and in the future come out of this stronger, not weaker than before. Powerful Learning before technology.