For Productive People, The Position Of Choice Is Head Down

An author, a programmer, a Zen Master, and many others agree: to do your best work, create the space for it and don't look up.

Justin Jackson is writing a book about highly productive people. When he reached out to entrepreneurial legend Derek Sivers, the founder-speaker-programmer replied thusly:

"I’d love to do an interview! But could we wait just a few months?
I’m deep in the middle of my programming. Very head-down. Not much to say. I’d be a pretty bad interview right now. But if you don’t mind waiting a few months, I’ll be more head-up with a lot of new stuff to talk about.
Is that OK? Ask me again after July or so?"

Sivers, clearly, is being vigilant about protecting his time—a productivity practice advocated by Warren Buffett.

Why do you need to put your head down?

Because, as Jackson asserts, focused minds produce great work. This is why he advocates "heads down" time: a section of the day for focused, productive work—a sprint, if you will.

The problem, he says, is that we're usually "heads up," wading through the sundry stimuli of tweets, meetings, and other assorted tasks. Before we know it, it feels like we've sacrificed our career to the fickle gods of email.

Why does putting your head down work so well?

The more you're multi-tasking, the worse you are at realizing that you're so bad at multitasking. Look at anyone texting while they drive—all that switching tasks produces is a major cognitive load, taking up your brain-bandwidth and crowding out your capacity to monitor your actions.

The advantage of keeping your head down, then, is that you get to take full ownership of the stimulation you're wading into. You get to be intentional about the way you invest your cognitive load. You get to be mindful about what's entering your mind.

If it sounds a little Zen, that's because it is: As Shunryu Suzuki, who brought Japanese Buddhism to the U.S. back in the '70s, once wrote, discipline is creating the situation. So when you put your head down, you put yourself in the situation to do meaningful work.

Heads down

[Image: Flickr user Nanny Snowflake]

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  • Carey

    Peter Drucker also said that anyone's "to-do" list should only have one action item on it. Finish it, then move on.

    But you're reaching here, Blake.
    While being a big fan of Drucker and Derek S. (not only because he always responds to and has nice things to say about my frequent emails to him), I resist your idea that what works for him works for everyone. And as a long-time Buddhist, I also disagree with your conclusion that in that quote the saintly Suzuki-san was proposing some form of single-minded dedication. Discipline is indeed important, but no serious Buddhist ("if-you-meet-the-Buddha-on-the-road-kill-him") would consider a worldly project a situation worth removing yourself from the world to pursue.

    I unapologetically keep my head up. Your central point sounds very industrial age.

  • Jonny

    Sounds like it parallels some points made "Flow" as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Focus your energy, get lost in what you are doing.

  • Jeff

    A reiteration of what I like to call the "Charles Emerson Winchester approach to work:

    "I do one thing at a time... I do it exceptionally well. And then I move on." 

  • Bobby Ray Burns

    I love this! Short, sweet and, oh, so to the point. Another great reason to not fill your calendar back to back with stuff - unless some of that "stuff" is head-down time.

  • Justin

    Thanks Bobby. I think the best way to start is to list out what's most important / valuable (and prioritize it). Then you can start checking things off one by one.