Here’s why deep work isn’t for everyone (Nov. 12, 2019 issue)

Hi friend,

In the words of Visa founder Dee Hock, it’s far too late and things are far too bad to be pessimistic. So big smile, buckle your seatbelts and prepare for flight. We’ll be ascending above the dark clouds of generic advice and flying around the Bermuda Triangle of impractical concepts. Our destination: the land where all leaders are above average because every conversation is an opportunity to grow.

My claim to fame

Master difficult conversations

Learn my best tips for staying cool under pressure and elevating your leadership in complex times.


In twenty years of coaching, nobody has fallen asleep in a meeting with me. Not one single person. 

Is this because of something I do? Hardly. It’s more Jim Collins: get the right people on the bus. During initial interviews I screen for sleep dysfunctions, because I have sensitive mirror neurons. If you fall asleep, I fall asleep, and then I can’t charge for the session.

This is my claim to fame to date. Let’s hope the new conversation skills training tops it. 


Works for some

Different folks needs different strokes. It’s as true for advice as for tennis, massage, and sex. Last issue we saw this with Brene Brown urging you to dare greatly. This week: Cal Newport’s notion of deep work.

Newport is a computer science professor on a holy war against distraction. Not just email, but anything that keeps you from doing creative work or, God forbid, thinking. (How much time do you have to think each day? Be honest.)  In Deep Work, a Wall Street Journal bestseller, Newport describes it as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Newport suggests blocking off large chunks of time each week for this. You shut the door and turn on the sound machine. Message to others: don’t fuck with my flow state. 

I love this advice. On Wednesdays my calendar shows a recurring five-hour event called “Deep Work.” This is when I write, podcast and, these days, play around with new names for the podcast.

Deep work, however, is not for everyone, has side effects, and works better with specific supplements.

  • Works for: people who need, but aren’t getting, solo time for deep thinking and creative projects; managers on the meeting treadmill
  • Contraindications (doesn’t work for): people wired to avoid contact with others, e.g. many Enneagram Five Observers
  • Side effects: missed meetings. People puzzled by your new behavior. Sudden eruptions of relief and joy.
  • Supplement with: hot tea; regular practice of declining or counter-offering meeting invitations; collaborative deep work if your creative flow happens in conversation with others. 


Minimum effective dose

Is there anything in life you tend to overdo? If so, you may want to determine the minimum effective dose of that action and stick to it.

For me, it’s doing research. I’ll spend an hour selecting a nine-dollar pair of soccer socks for our younger son or a half day figuring out whether paintball is safe. No, I’m not proud of this. Yes, it’s connected to the mental habit of anxiety common to the Enneagram Six Loyal Skeptic. A photograph of the scene would show me leaning forward with a tense jaw, furrowed eyebrows, and eyes more alert than a baseball batter awaiting a 95 mph pitch. 

This isn’t my best self nor what you get in a coaching session. It’s my fixated self, the one stuck in a box of its own making, with neurons firing down familiar pathways.

The surplus research doesn’t harm anyone. But it doesn’t bring anyone joy, and there are more valuable uses of my time. 

For better results, I ask myself what’s the minimum effective dose? What’s the least amount of research needed to gain clarity.

This isn’t the 80/20 rule. It’s the 100/20 rule. The first 20 percent of effort gets a better result than the last 80 percent, because exceeding the minimum effective dose makes me stupider. And less happy. Conversely, sticking to the minimum effective dose is a triple win. I make better decisions, free up time, and relax my nervous system.

What do you habitually overdo? What’s the minimum effective dose? What happens when you stick to this dose? I’d love to hear.


Raising the stakes: clear requests and the National Guard 

After two decades of teaching people to make clear requests, I feel irritated. Many smart people treat this skill like underwater basketweaving: irrelevant to life on the ground. 

  • Me: “Making clear requests is essential in life. It’s how you accomplish things with others, express your needs, and work your mojo.”
  • Them: “That’s really interesting, Amiel…Pass the beer nuts.”

This is offensive. I don’t drink beer, and the whole thing is driving me nuts.

Maybe it’s the examples I’m using. In workshops, I have you practice requesting a pen. The last time a pen made a difference in anyone’s life was in the movie Say Anything when John Cusack’s character notes “I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen.” We did only slight better on the podcast by asking for a cup of tea

No wonder many people think requests are irrelevant to complex situations and big decisions. 

Fortunately, if you go anywhere I’m not teaching, requests are central to the story. Behind many headlines are people making inept requests.

Consider a recent incident in Portland between the white nationalist Proud Boys and the antifascist Antifa. The Proud Boys scheduled a march, and Antifa announced a counter-protest. I remember thinking, “This might not go well.” Portland’s mayor felt the same way, so he asked the Governor to call in the National Guard. 

Here’s where things went south. The Governor turned down the mayor’s request (and in a sloppy way that eroded trust, which is another story). So at moment of risk, the National Guard wasn’t around. Luckily, the confrontation between the two groups happened without violence, but things could have gone very differently. 

Last week, a local paper reported that the whole thing was a miscommunication. What the Governor declined was a request for the National Guard to go into immediate service. But that wasn’t what the mayor wanted. He wanted the National Guard on standby. And his staff claims he made this clear to the Governor. 

What’s going on here?

You and I are in the business of building skills, so it’s not necessary to assign blame. Instead, put yourself in the shoes of the mayor. What would you do differently next time? 

I would do two things:

  1. Make the request so clear that even a zombie would understand it. Repeat the words “on standby” a dozen times. Write them on a white board. Say and write “not about immediate service,” because declaring what you aren’t requesting rams home what you are requesting. 
  2. Ask the Governor or her staff to say what they’re hearing, and make sure thing line up. Clarity is in the ear of the beholder. 

Before you leap into upgrading requests in your own life, standard disclaimer: Customize to what makes you tick. Some people are so relentlessly clear in their requests that my advice could cause harm or distract them from their real growth edge. However, for most folks a little more clarity goes a long way.

Cheerfully real,
Amiel Handelsman

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