It’s a cliche. But it’s true. We live in a world of distraction. Every moment of our day ‘things’ are jumping out at us for our attention. Most of them do nothing to further what is most important to us and should be classed as shallow activities with little meaning to us. In this regard, social media is perhaps our biggest enemy. Although it can be a useful tool when tightly managed, most of the time it seduces us into focussing on the pointless. Continuously checking emails, Facebook, twitter, instagram. Little scooby snacks that twitch our neurons but most of the time serve little purpose in advancing our cause.
Apparently, the brain doesn’t do as well as we like to think at multi-tasking. For shallow simple tasks it can handle it; flipping from one thing to the next. But to effectively tackle something that is complicated and meaningful requires long periods of high quality uninterrupted focus. Cal Newport goes ‘deep’ into this idea in his book ‘Deep Work’ and explains the seriousness of the effect of these seemingly trivial distracting activities. This blog post summarises some of the ideas in his incredibly well articulated book.
The Fundamental Idea of Deep Work
Every time we switch out of a task that we’re working on, our limited cerebral resources are directed in an alternative direction. When we then come back to our original task our brain continues thinking about the shiny exciting distraction we’ve just succumbed to. We are then left with an “attention residue” that lasts a significant amount of time; our thoughts become fragmented and our effectiveness sub-optimum. This interferes in a non-trivial manner in the task that matters most to us, making us less focussed and less creative.
Newport continues with the idea that our brain works at it’s best in ‘deep flow’ when it is fully consumed by one task. We should work deeply on tasks consecutively rather multi-tasking on various at the same time. If we have five projects at any one time, for example, it is better to dedicate a week for it before moving on to the next. Although this may not be possible depending on the constraints in one’s life, we can strive towards this as far as possible.
Make no mistake, we must wage war with distraction. It seems harmless but its effects are insidious and destructive. With billions of dollars a year invested into the best minds in the world working out how to distract people and manipulate their attention to meet their own ends (at the likes of Facebook and Twitter), how can we fight to get back our minds?
Cultivating ‘Deep Work’
Once we have decided that deep work is important we must find ways to cultivate it. Here are some of my summaries and interpretations of Cal Newport ‘s ideas.
First we must categorise our activities. What tasks or projects require our undivided attention? Divide activities into those that require long periods of uninterrupted concentration and those that are less complex or unimportant and do not require deep concentration. Consider crossing off the list completely those activities that are unimportant.
The shallow activities can be done when we are not at are optimum, i.e. tired and not feeling motivated or sharp (late afternoon after a heavy lunch for example). In fact I’d go as far to say this is the only time we should be doing them. Our best should be reserved for what is complex and truly important. We must identify when we work at our optimum and rigorously defend this time to focus single-mindedly on a particular task or project.
The extreme version is to find complete isolation for days, weeks or months. For example a wilderness retreat. Only work solo without distraction. Turn off all internet access. Be unapologetically unavailable. Characters such as Bill Gates employ this technique to work on opportunities or solutions to significant problems. It was during one of these ‘retreats’ that he came up with the idea of Netscape. This could be tackled in a ‘bimodal’ fashion: for the rest of the year a return to a more ‘normal’ and integrated work lifestyle but these periods require some strict scheduling: set aside a specific time period when we are at our best. e.g. 6 to 8 a.m. every morning. Stick to this no matter what happens. For these two hours focus on nothing else but the highest priority project. The shallower activities that don’t require such focus can be bulked together into the periphery periods in the afternoon or (perhaps better) a different day entirely. Never waste our best moments of attention by focussing on the trivial.
How can one implement this on a bicycle tour? A bicycle tour can consume long periods of time so how can one still be productive and cycle long distances? I am experimenting with different options, however, here are my thoughts on how this might work.
First one needs to identify behaviour patterns in order to integrate a relevant schedule. During my bicycle tour I am aware off two main modes of behaviour. I am either riding and camping for several consecutive days or resting in a fully serviced hub that meets all my needs (with wifi, decent food options etc – normally a reasonable sized town or city). And so:
1. For the days cycling, I can set a aside one of two hours in the morning, perhaps the same time each morning. But it means I need to get up early since some of the best cycling hours are in the morning. Sometimes circumstances can make this hard (e.g. bad climatic conditions or an insecure place where I need to move on), but I should be able to set aside at least an hour or two each morning of uninterrupted focus. I can sit in my tent or on a park bench and e.g. write some prose, study photography, plan the future etc using a laptop or a notepad. The thoughts spill over into the hours I’m actually riding and during this time I can brainstorm ideas and mull over different solutions to problems. Any pertinent thoughts that I would like to return to later are captured on a small audio recorder that I carry. So often one can have a great idea that is forgotten minutes later, we must have a way to remember them.
2. For the days off, I have far more time so I can schedule long chunks for deep concentration. We have up to four hours a day when we can be at our most effective according to Newport’s book so perhaps two morning chunks of two hours separated by a significant break where the brain can relax could work out well. If one needs to use social media, have a plan of exactly what needs to be achieved before logging on and set aside a time frame that is as short as possible.
Other Ideas for Deep Work
Other ideas to help cultivate long periods of uninterrupted concentration. (For more details, Newport’s book is definitely worth the read):
- Find the motivation to stay on task: identify a wildly important goal so the mind is consumed with interest.
- Set rituals and routines that bring out your best and help minimise the use of will power: for example, have a cold shower, meditate, drink a coffee, ensure you are in a room free of distraction or noise, clear the desk, disconnect from the internet. Work out when and what helps one work optimally. Perhaps in an environment that can’t be fully controlled put on earphones with white noise or (eg.) Beethoven. Partly so that people don’t speak to you.
- Be structured: identify where you’ll work for and how long and how you’ll work once you start.
- Choose the time for deep work when no one is awake – e.g. @ 5 a.m. in a hostel
- If you do nothing else except stop repeatedly checking emails, Facebook and Twitter and eliminate trivial tasks from your life in general; your productivity levels can only improve. Avoid ‘whack a mole’ type of behaviour – instant gratification. We must become more active in their approach to behaviour and less passive / responsive. Do what we need or want to do, not what others want us to do.
- Accept boring moments, don’t check Facebook whilst waiting at the bus stop for example. This helps strengthen the ‘mental muscle’ to stick at a dull but important task and teaches our mind not to always feel the need to switch to something more novel and exciting.
- Set aside plans for the future weeks of when certain projects will be tackled so they can be done consecutively rather than multi-tasking all of them at the same time. This helps the mind relax knowing they will be done.
- Take ‘idle breaks’ – eg. walk in nature. These help the mind recover and often new ideas surface. Gentle distractions can help but it is important to not use social media on these occasions.
- Have a break from the concept one full day a week. A ‘cheat day’ to accomplish those shallow tasks that have been building up. Bulk these altogether.
- Set metrics for achievement so you can measure your progress. Eg. write 200 words per half hour average. Use a ‘lead score card’ measure – results that don’t have a time lag and can be seen immediately so progress can be easily be measured.
- Experiment until you find what works for you.
In summary, Cal Newport breaks it down into four main steps.:
- Do the Deep Work (careful selection of projects and scheduling)
- Embrace Boredom (wean ourselves of a dependence on distraction and train the mind to stick to high quality yet potentially boring topics)
- Quit social media (or at least cut down and control)
- Drain the shallows (cut out the trivial)
If you have any thoughts or ideas please comment below.
Now, if I could just follow some of this advice…