Today I’m talking with Rachel Tham, a principal statistician, about a book that has been incredibly impactful in both of our lives—Deep Work. We discuss what deep work is and how it can help statisticians at work. 

Deep work is a concept developed by Cal Newport which encourages people to focus intensely on one task for an extended period of time without any distractions. This type of focused work allows people to produce higher-quality results in less time than if they were trying to multitask or do shallow tasks.

Join us and learn more about deep work concepts and how they can improve your productivity and satisfaction.

Rachel and I discuss the following points:

  1. What is deep work
  2. When have you stepped over this concept of deep work?
  3. Which aspects of deep work have helped you most?
  4. Were there any guidances in deep work, that you found difficult to follow?
  5. How do you use deep work concepts currently in your day-to-day work?


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Rachel Tham

Senior Statistician at Veramed

Rachel Tham is an experienced statistician and programmer, who is passionate about improving patient lives and healthcare experiences. She leverages 10 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry: 8 years dedicated to Real-World Evidence studies, and 2 years in Data Management. Prior to that, she was a pharmacy technician in community and hospital pharmacies.

Rachel is currently a Senior Biostatistician at Veramed and holds an MSc in Medical Statistics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine along with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.


Deep Work Interview with Rachel Tham

[00:00:00] Alexander: Welcome to another episode of The Effective Statistician, and today I have the pleasure to speak again to Rachel. Hi Rachel. How are you doing?

[00:00:10] Rachel: Hi. I’m doing very well, thank you.

[00:00:12] Alexander: Very good. We have been speaking on the show before, which was pretty cool. And today is a topic that we stepped over. Speaking about, work and stuff like this in general, and we found that we have a common interest in that. And several, this is a really nice topic today and it’s deep work. But before we dive into that, could you quickly introduce yourself.

[00:00:41] Rachel: Sure. I’m a principal statistician at Veramed and I should probably put the disclaimer that these are my thoughts and opinions particularly about reading the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. So I danced around in different areas. I knew that I wanted to do something in healthcare, but it took me some time for me to become the statistician that I am today. I explored being a pharmacy technician for a little while and realized that I wanted to be closer to the research side of things. So I dabbled in preclinical trials in animals. I then became a data manager for a while, and I was a SAS programmer for quite some time as well. Before completing my MSC and becoming the statistician that I am today.

[00:01:19] Alexander: Very good. So and the MSC is actually an interesting topic for today.

[00:01:25] Rachel: Exactly, yes. I’ll touch on that a bit.

[00:01:27] Alexander: Because, deep Work and the books that you mentioned by Carl Newport really helped you a lot in terms of that. So what is deep work for you? Actually?

[00:01:37] Rachel: I was listening to some of Cal Newport’s podcasts and YouTube channel and things like that because I needed to refresh myself on deep work. It’s been a while since I’ve read his book. But essentially deep work is when you are focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. So there’s a hard thing and you’re thinking hard about it without distractions. And I think the without distractions is the key part of this. So there’s a few different types of work. We have shallow work and this is doing something non-cognitively demanding. So it could be like formatting something or having a discussion about something. And there’s then pseudo deep work, which is essentially doing something cognitively demanding but also being distracted. Things like maybe checking your phone, checking your email those teams or slack messages that you get. These context shifts degrades your cognitive effectiveness and results in you only using a fraction of your full capable deep thought.

[00:02:33] Alexander: Yeah. And everything then takes longer and you actually get more arrows usually as well. Yeah.

[00:02:38] Rachel: Exactly. Yeah. And Cal had a really nice quote. He said, shallow work keeps the lights on, but deep work moves the needle. So it’s really there’s a proportion that you need to spend doing each. I’m not saying that one is more important than the other, but you need to have a harmony of both in order to be successful, particularly as statisticians as well. .

[00:02:58] Alexander: Yeah. Yeah. Can you give some examples where you think you are doing deep work as a statistician?

[00:03:06] Rachel: As a statistician? So I think particularly in the field that I’m in with, which is a lot of Late phase HTA submissions, RWE. This area is very new and exciting, which means there’s new concepts, new regulations, ways of working that are constantly coming out. And so to stay on top of all of these new trends that are emerging, it’s important to read articles, read the new guidelines that are coming out and process them and understand them. So it’s really important for me to create those boundaries of time where I can focus deeply on these new things that are coming out so that I can perform where the current trends are, but at the best on top of those as well.

[00:03:50] Alexander: Yeah. I think another aspect of deep work can also be group discussions. Yeah. So if you are, for example Design a new study and to talk about what are the best ways to set up the design, things like that is deep work. I think if you have a intensive discussion with your supervisor or your direct report, one-to-one, so it’s not just casually speaking about your weekend, but about, critical things, that also is deep work.

[00:04:23] Rachel: Yes. Yes.

[00:04:24] Alexander: If you’re brainstorming with with teammates on how to solve something, I think that is also deep work. Of course, all of these, if they’re not distracted Yeah. Interrupted all the time. So yeah, I think the, reading something, writing long form content like a protocol. Reviewing tables for whether they are, correct and things like this. Writing specifications for program, all these things. Yeah. Are deep work in a sense.

[00:04:55] Rachel: Definitely. And certainly when I was a programmer at the time, I took to program and create the, Program of all the code and how it was going to fit together and maybe link to other pieces of code that also took a lot of deep work too.

[00:05:09] Alexander: Yep. I think this is really important work and as you have just seen PS the quote from Coal Newport really fits. Yeah. This part of the work. , which brings you the promotion, which brings you the credit. Yeah, of course. You need to follow up on emails. You need to respond to chats. You need to have these kind of casual interactions with people. You need to, check maybe what’s going on within the company, things like that. All of that is also important. Yeah. But if you look back over the year, what were your major accomplishment? Most of these will come from this type of deep work. And if you don’t have any time to do deep work, then you’re in trouble. I would say..

[00:05:55] Rachel: Yes. And I think for each role, the proportion of deep work versus shallow work is different. And so it’s also nice to know that. And if you don’t know what that is, have a conversation with your manager or somebody else that’s influential in what you do on a day-to-day basis. And ask them, this is what shallow work is. It’s maybe some admin things, discussions and things like that, that are light. But they keep the business moving. Whereas deep work is re really moves the needle. It’s when we put value to our thoughts and what is the right proportion that you’ll need me to have for each of these in this role. So that’s a key thing to know as well.

[00:06:34] Alexander: Yep. That’s very good. When have you stepped over this concept of deep work the first time?

[00:06:40] Rachel: So I think I read it just as I was starting my master’s, which was a very influential time because I needed to figure out how I was going to balance both the demands of my MSC that I was embarking on at the time, and also the job that I had. Since I did it part-time, I was working. So I managed to do my master’s part-time, which when they say part-time, I think it still is quite more than just half your time.

[00:07:07] Alexander: Yeah. As a 50 50 don’t really add up .

[00:07:10] Rachel: No. I remember feeling guilty all the time that I wasn’t doing something that was related to studying. But in addition to that, I was working I was 80%, so I cramped four days into three days at that time. So as you can see, that adds up to more than 100% of someone’s time. And deep work was highly influential because it helped me balance and create boundaries between the time that I was working destruction free and the time that I was allocating to having a life maybe doing the work at the company I was working for at the time. And a few elements. I really used a lot and this really progressed my ability. So I rearranged my daily routine and I utilized the mornings. I woke up at four 30 in the morning and then had deep focus study time from about 5:00 AM to 8:00 AM and then I would get ready and either go to classes or go to work. I did that every day.

[00:08:08] Alexander: Wow. When did you go to Pattons night?

[00:08:11] Rachel: I went to bed at nine. So I came home I ate some dinner and then to try and process all of the frustrations or emotions that I had of the day I would sleep. And that meant I woke up the next morning with a clean slate and a fresh brain to focus on whatever I needed to focus on for my master’s.

[00:08:31] Alexander: Why did you choose the morning time? Not evening.

[00:08:35] Rachel: So i, it’s odd because I am a night owl. I do prefer the nights. This was quite a shift for me. And I chose the mornings because I remember one of the first times I did it, I was distracted. I, tried to go on social media just for a, I dunno, a small brain escape. And it was pretty much how I left. before I went to bed, and then I picked it up about 15, 30 minutes later and nothing changed. Even if I wanted to be distracted the time and whatnot did not let me be distracted by social media and things like that. Even though I tried to create some boundaries, of course, you always, I don’t know, maybe hear your phone ping or there’s a sound, something distracts you and pulls your thought like, oh, I wonder what is doing, or I wonder what’s new on LinkedIn or something, and you pull out your phone or something like that. And since everyone else was sleeping at those hours there wasn’t really that opportunity to be distracted, even if I tried to be distracted.

[00:09:32] Alexander: That’s good. Yeah. I think. . That’s a quite helpful tip. I think the other important thing is really having energy to do this. Yeah. And if you have already worked a complete day, learning something new in your masters can be really hard. Yes. And so I think matching your personal energy level to the, to this time, deep work is really important.

[00:09:58] Rachel: Yes.

[00:09:59] Alexander: What else ha has helped you in terms of deep work? What other aspects?

[00:10:03] Rachel: So deep work has helped shape the way that I’ve worked since I’ve done the Masters. So Cal also has this concept called time blocking, where you actually write down the different I do it every half hour, so I know it sounds painstaking, but I write down my day from every half hour of what I’m going to do at work. I box out the meetings that people have made in my workday. And then I see the gaps when I have time for myself or if I’m able to be proactive, I can try and block some time. before so that I know, oh, I’m going to be needing to focus on reading this, I don’t know, SAP or something, and I can block that time off in advance.

And this time blocking allows me to see the gaps that I have to play with. And then I also write down the top three tasks that I want to accomplish for the day, which is actually something I got from your podcast as well. Ok. The combination of those two things allows me to find those gaps that I have and figure out what I’m going to be working on during each of those gaps. And then I sometimes also have maybe a shallow task. So if I have, I don’t know, those spare 15 minutes between meetings or someone’s a little bit late to the meeting, I can try and, accomplish a shallow task item during those times as well.

[00:11:20] Alexander: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That helps you to have bigger blocks of time to do actually something meaningful. Yeah. Because lots of these more important things take more than just five minutes. Like reviewing like those paper or things like that usually takes a little bit longer. How did you come up with the 30 minutes?

[00:11:41] Rachel: The 30 minutes?

[00:11:43] Alexander: The 30 minute blocks, is it more than 50? No. Or 20 or 60?

[00:11:48] Rachel: I think it’s to harmonize with the way Outlook has a default of either 30 or 60 minutes. So many people create meetings with me that are fall into 30 or 60 minute blocks, and okay in my notepad with each line represents 30 minutes, and that’s roughly what I’ll do for those 30 minutes of whatever I write in the line. So it’s mostly to mimic the system that was already in place. Although I think there are some nifty tools that I think Google and Microsoft have where you can try and make your meetings a little bit shorter depending on the length of the meeting.

[00:12:22] Alexander: Ye ah, I have Google has this approach so that you get shorter meetings and then, 60 minute meeting always ends after 50 minutes and then so on, which is actually quite nice. So you don’t have, especially if you have many meetings that you actually plan for some breaks in between, so

[00:12:40] Rachel: Exactly.

[00:12:41] Alexander: You get a grab a coffee or whatever. Yeah

[00:12:44] Rachel: Yes.

[00:12:46] Alexander: So do you also then schedule your shallow work?

[00:12:50] Rachel: I don’t schedule my shallow work, but I might have a few activities like, oh, when you have a few spare moments. This is the, I don’t know, something that maybe you need to read and update a little bit. Okay. Maybe it’s that I’m organizing another meeting and I try to come up with an agenda in between or things that don’t require a lot of that deep, deep work.

[00:13:12] Alexander: Okay. What else did you do in terms of deep work?

[00:13:16] Rachel: So I think Cal has a few other books out and one of them is this digital minimalist. And it’s this concept he takes the concept of being distraction free, to be a lifestyle. I wouldn’t say I’ve gone all the way into it, but I have a small footprint when it comes to my social media presence and whatnot. I’ve taken that on board a little bit and I feel some of my friends, if they consume too much social media, there’s a bit of comparison going on where you compare yourself to other people and a lot of times people. Best self on social media. So you’re comparing yourself to their perfection perfected image of themselves. So I think that sometimes that can give people a distorted sense of reality. So that’s another one that, another concept that he has, and I’ve adapted it a little bit, but not to the extent that he advocates for.

[00:14:05] Alexander: Yeah. I, kind of creating a distraction free environment is really important. So if you, your iPhone or smartphone in general, buses every 10 seconds or your smart watch buses and, distracts you or the incoming emails make a beep and all these kind of different things. That is really distracting and I probably need to do another cleanup but because over time, somehow these kind of notifications sneak in. But I’ve turned them on off, pretty much all of them except reminders for a new meeting is starting now or something like this. The other thing is that I’m using is I have this electronic notepad that has no Access to social media, the internet and these kind of things. So when I wanna work distraction free, I can just take that one. It’s called Remarkable. I’m not an affiliate here, by the way. And that helps me to get my mind sorted without, becoming easily distracted because, the browser or the internet browser or social media is just a click away. .

[00:15:14] Rachel: Exactly. And along your, along these lines, deep work takes training. So like creating these blockades, they might start off really small, like 15 minutes, at first because it’s like a marathon. You’re not just gonna go out and run a marathon. You need to work up to it. Cal mentions that some of the masters that have been practicing deep work, they can maybe go for four hours, which isn’t even, a full workday, so nobody would be able to fill up their entire workday with purely deep work. So it’s it’s something that you really do need to block out, but also work up to as well as blocking that time out.

[00:15:50] Alexander: Yeah. The other thing is, I’m just thinking as people are now moving more back into the offices. Yeah. If you’re sitting in an open plant, Office it’s much more difficult. Yeah. So maybe, find a conference room for yourself or these kind of things which help you, making sure that you’re really undistracted. I’ve also heard about people said, put on noise cancellation headsets or these kind of things. So put on signs on the cubicle. Please do not distract at the moment or says all kind of these different things so that you can really stay focused. I’ve not worked in that environment for a very long time, and when I’m now getting. Something like that. I think I cannot work here. It’s completely impossible for me. Just the visual distraction of people running around me is, I don’t, I can’t work. It’s so yeah, the environment makes a big difference. And your training makes a big difference.

[00:16:47] Rachel: Yes. And on top of that, the world is like becoming more distracting. There’ s social media sites, apps, and all those other things that are working on trying to get more of your time. So the world is constantly becoming a little bit more distracting and I think this return to the offices is a big tribute to that as well. So it’s important to find out the right environment. And Cal also mentions creating rituals. So maybe you have something that helps your brain prepare for this deep work. It’s going to enter into by grabbing a coffee going to a certain seat, or I don’t know, going for a short walk before you have that, that deep work time.

[00:17:26] Alexander: Yep. That is, So this is a trigger for you to get into deep work. And if you wanna learn more about creating habits, I can highly recommend the book Atomic Habits which is awesome, and helping you to deliberately create habits and break the bad habits that you probably, that we all have. That’s good. Okay. Deep work. Which of the guidances from Cole did you find most challenging that you wanted to implement?

[00:17:56] Rachel: I think that when I tried to do it with my MSE, I tried to jump into it and I tried to distract myself even though it was a bit not the right time for people to be using social media. So I definitely had to work up to it and that was something that I took challenge, I’ve found challenging, but after two years, I think I got into a nice routine about it. But since my master’s, I’ve struggled to set those boundaries that I had so disciplined during my master’s. And I don’t even have a deep work session. Like for myself, every day I do it when I’m working. I try to block off certain hours so that I can accomplish the deep work. But it would be nice to have something that maybe I personally am working on myself outside of work to push my own thoughts and areas that I’d like to improve in.

Yeah. Okay. That’s an interesting thing. Having deep work outside of your usual work or for reading or for other things. That’s, that moves the needle in terms of your overall life, not just your corporate life.


[00:18:57] Alexander: So cool. Thanks so much Rachel. That was really awesome. In terms of deep work, I think we covered quite a lot in terms of what it is, where it is coming from, that it has a lot to do with setting boundaries. Planning, managing your energy so that you can, have the right energy when doing it. So it takes quite some time to actually get into the rhythm. So be, don’t beat yourself up if you are not directly running for four hours, which is really long.

[00:19:31] Rachel: Yeah.

[00:19:31] Alexander: And that you can actually use it within and outside of your. . And we talked about a couple of different strategies that you can also use within the work to be more effective there. If there’s one key takeaway from this concept of deep work, what would that be?

[00:19:49] Rachel: I think, it would be just to try limiting your distractions. I think the world has become, so it’s normalized these distractions and it’s almost strange to mute your notifications on your phone. Try to spend an hour where you don’t pick up your phone outside of working hours. And it’s really difficult to go back to a time where we didn’t have all these distractions because they’ve creeped into our life. I guess my biggest recommendation would just to be, like, to try it to try to go on a little bit of a distraction diet and just experience it, see what it’s like and see what changes. Anything that you notice differently about yourself.

[00:20:28] Alexander: Yeah, and don’t be surprised if you have some kind of symptoms. If you’re trying to get away from from an addiction. Yeah. It’s like if you lost your phone and you can’t find it anymore, and, or if you’re, sitting somewhere and you really want to be there, you get a little bit. It’s grabbing your phone and, but it’s not there. It’s this is a weird feeling, but I think it’s worthwhile to get into this distraction mode because that’s where, as we talked at the beginning, So work happens that moves the needle. And yes, so things also in personal life, maybe it’s with your friends or your spouses or your kids. If you’re there distracted all the time, that’s also really bad.

Thanks so much, Rachel. That was an awesome, good discussion about deep work and we’ll of course put the links to all these kind of different things that we mentioned into the show notes. Have a nice day.

[00:21:27] Rachel: Thank you. Stay deep.

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