Getting Work Done With The URBEST Grand Gesture
News Article by Tracey Baas, Ph.D., URBEST Executive Director
I was recently introduced to the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, written by Cal Newport. The book gives you ideas on how to spend more of your time on deep work that is meaningful to your primary goals and just enough time on shallow work that is necessary for others requests and supportive to your primary goals. One of the reasons why I found the book useful was that Newport shares many ideas that you can pick and choose from to make the concept of deep work succeed for you.
One idea that I really liked was The Grand Gesture: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.
Newport referenced the examples of J.K. Rowling checking into the five-star Balmoral Hotel, Bill Gates working in a cabin, Alan Lightman retreating to a tiny island in Maine, and Peter Shankman booking a round-trip flight to Japan in order to focus on their deep work. I couldn’t offer those options to trainees and supporters, but what I could offer was a 2-hour URBEST Grand Gesture. I planned four sessions, one in September, October, November and December.
I reserved a very “grand” room in the Georgen Institute for Data Science, which gives a great view (two full walls of windows) of the “gear head” sculpture in the garden and easy access to Peet’s Coffee. I provided the first ten students, postdocs, faculty, or staff that arrived at the URBEST Grand Gesture a crisp five-dollar bill to buy coffee/snacks. The deep work each individual selected to focus on was completely up to each person; there was no group task, lecture or workshop. It was all about each person working toward one of his or her primary goals with focus. If uninterrupted time for thinking and working wasn’t enough of a draw, I promised a copy of the book Deep Work to each person that attend all four URBEST Grand Gesture sessions.
The September URBEST Grand Gesture was a small success. We had twelve people attending and half of those individuals were staff or faculty. Many of the attendees shared the deep work they wanted to accomplish by writing their project on a white board in the room.* There were people working at the central table and along the edges of the room with their laptops balanced on their laps. I handed out all of my money. What I had not expected was the almost equal balance between trainee and non-trainee. It got me thinking. Could this be the environment that staff and faculty needed to get together and foster a small supportive community? Deep work could be their common goal that fit within the promotional structure of the university?
The previous year, I had hosted informal monthly coffee hours for URBEST-aligned faculty, but the events had limited success: small attendance (0 – 4 people) with large leftovers of coffee and cookies. Definitely more of a small failure than a small success. I’m guessing faculty weren’t interested in attending because the time would be better spent on developing ideas, managing projects, writing, and mentoring – tasks that could provide a more concrete return on investment (ROI). Could this year’s URBEST Grand Gesture provide faculty the gift of time to focus on their projects, writing and mentees, providing a temporary buffer to shield them from shallow work? I wanted to find out.
I typically only advertise URBEST events to graduate students, postdocs and URBEST supporters. What if I was to do an additional blast to faculty through their program directors? Could I get more faculty participation? I tried it. I received three direct email responses from faculty telling me what a good idea this was, sharing their interest in the book, and even providing an additional article that supported the idea of deep work. I was optimistic!
For the October URBEST Grand Gesture, two faculty attended and zero students and postdocs. What did it mean? We still had the faculty outnumbering the trainees, but the “n” was much smaller than the first session. Interestingly, all three of us were fine being a small group. Two of us took the table and one of us took a standing desk. We got started on our deep work and were grateful for the uninterrupted time to think, write and work with the ideas that were the most meaningful to us. I’ve got two more sessions to decide if the September session or the October session was more representative of the true average.
If the idea of deep work intrigues you (and it should), come join us Friday November 10 (9 – 11 am) and Friday December 1 (9 – 11 am) in the Georgen Institute for Data Science in room 1201. All are welcome: graduate students, postdocs, staff and faculty. You don’t have to stay for the whole session and are allowed to move in and out freely during the time we have reserved the space. Hope to see you there!
* Mine was completing an application to a Leadership Program.
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