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IFS research & writing retreat 2021: The value of deep work

The IFS team: Back from left: Dominic, Roy, Clara, Dr. Jane Wathuta, Ahawo and Sussie. Front from left: Christine, Abby, Mupa and Bernice.

Without a doubt, the recent Institute for Family Studies and Ethics (IFS) research and writing retreat set a high productive tone for the year. The retreat was a two-day event that commenced on 4th of January 2021 and ended on the 5th.  The Sir Thomas More Building (STMB) 1st floor offered a conducive retreat space, enabling each of the attendees to work on specific individual and collective projects, while feeding off each other’s focused energy. The research topics encompassed family and ethics related issues. It was engrossing, enriching, and refreshing, an endeavour that any team involved in research should pursue. It helped our cohesiveness, organization, and setting of goals and deadlines.

The retreat was officially opened by Dr. Elizabeth Gachenga, DVC Academic and Student Affairs, who painted a picture of the University’s vision for IFS. The retreat was presided over by Dr. Jane Wathuta, the IFS Director. The other participants were IFS interns drawn from Strathmore Law School (SLS) – Mupa, Christine, Anita, Dominic – and School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) – Roy, Bernice, Clara, Abby –  not to mention our mentors, Sussie and Ahawo, both from SLS. Before embarking on our respective research tasks, we each informed the rest of the group about our research topic, target output, and our collaborators. We then got immersed in a series of research time blocs, interspersed with periodic health breaks, finishing off with lunch and great conversations. With our phones and any possible distractions kept at bay, this experience really highlighted the importance and satisfaction of deep work.

What we thought of the deep work review

Even before we commenced the retreat, we had decided as a team to delve into a book, a good book, as a way of preparation. We chose Deep Work by Cal Newport, and you will see and understand the reason in a minute. The plan was to read it and analyse it jointly, keeping in mind the goal of our retreat.

Imagine the last piece of work you were tasked to do and the process you went through to complete it. Now answer this, ‘Would you say that you fully invested your time and brains to that work? Can anyone with a bit of training and time complete the same task as you did?’

If your answer to these questions is yes, then, unfortunately, yours can only be considered shallow work. If it’s a no, then it is automatically deep work. According to Newport, “Shallow work entails non-cognitive, logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distraction.” The distraction may be email pop-ups, or, sneaking on and off into your social media pages during your working slots. Examples of shallow work as whole may include: planning or arranging logistics, responding to colleagues in chats, viewing emails, making work phone calls, among others.

On the other hand, deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Moreover, it’s a skill that cannot be replicated, that adds value and perfects your skill. A good example is the research we set out to do over the two days. We quickly realised that in order for us to be effective we needed a couple of things:

  1. Long hours of research – this meant “embracing boredom” within our research time and “exercising social distance” from our social media platforms (well, at least in the hours dedicated to research and health breaks). We hardly used our phones, and if we did it was mainly for research and taking team pictures, which, to be fair, we hadn’t done in a while due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.
  2. To engage in activities that elevate our souls and mind. In as much as we had breaks we intentionally engaged with each other; shared our thoughts on various topics; went for short walks; enjoyed the outdoors and the sun’s weak and struggling rays. It was a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively.

Ms Lucy Mulli, a faculty member at Strathmore University, who, besides, runs professional book clubs, helped us better assimilate the meaning of deep work. She left us motivated to employ deep work strategies during our retreat, and after, with questions and thoughts such as the ones in the paragraphs above. She also recommended other titles: Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), Born a Crime (Trevor Noah), Becoming (Michelle Obama), and Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl).

At the end of the two-day experience, we each gave an update on our respective work plans, explaining to the team what we had accomplished, and the further action points identified. Gratifyingly, each person had made notable progress, and since we have kicked off the year with such an intent to work, we are certain that our research momentum for the months ahead has been greatly boosted.


This article was written by Bernice Nyambura and Clara Kariuki (SHSS 3rd year, IFS interns)