How to Focus on “Deep Work”
How many of you, while reading this newsletter, have any number of windows and emails opened at the same time on your computer? How frequently do you switch from one to the other? How do you avoid all these distractions and actually focus on “deep work”?
“Deep work” is a concept created by Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” and “Digital Minimalism.” In a recent interview in the New York Times, Newport described “deep work” as the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. To do so, there must be zero distractions. Every time you switch your attention from one thing to another, you create what psychologists term “attention residue.” Attention residue reduces your cognitive capacity for a significant amount of time. In other words, constant “quick checks” of various devices and in-boxes can leave you in a state of persistent attention residue.
Newport offers four rules to avoid attention residue. First, work deeply. According to Newport, you should not wait for periods of free time, or when you find yourself in the mood to concentrate. Rather, you need to block off – and guard – time on your calendar for deep work, just as you would for a meeting or appointment.
Second, “embrace boredom.” Newport recommends training yourself to concentrate by exposing yourself to boredom. If you always turn to your phone for entertainment at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will develop a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli. When you need to think deeply, which might seem boring at first, your brain won’t be able to tolerate it.
Third, “quit social media.” Or at the very least, be intentional and selective. Avoid a digital life cluttered with distractions. Finally, “drain the shallows.” Minimize administrative tasks such as answering emails tasks that don’t require uninterrupted concentration. But per Newport, don’t think of shallow work as bad; rather, recognize that deep work is so valuable you have to make room for it.
Now, about all those answered emails….