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Deep Work: Focus for Longer Periods of Time

22 November 2016

Barbara read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and learned that future jobs will go to the people who can think deeply about complex subjects and come up with solutions to difficult problems.

Tags: balance, barbara read, focus, learning, mindfulness

Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, says intense concentration is a learned skill, like playing the guitar. You must train your brain to concentrate in the same way you must practice a musical instrument or exercise regularly to keep your body healthy.

Examples of deep work are thinking long and hard about a problem, reading a difficult book, writing a paper, and paying attention without letting your mind wander. For Newport, deep work also includes math theorems and computer programming, but not for me. (Although based on Eden’s recommendation, I am making myself read How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.)

Our relationships with our technological devices are destroying our ability to concentrate. Newport says email and social media are shallow work that doesn’t require hard thinking, but they affect your ability to do deep work when you want to. You cannot just grab a few minutes and concentrate well if you haven’t been asking your brain to do it regularly for significant periods of time.

Newport believes the Internet is addictive because sometimes you get an emotional high when someone likes your post on Facebook or sends an uplifting email. You don’t get the reward every time, and often email creates a sense of dread, but the hope that you will get the good hit keeps you wanting to go there often.

Most people must do some shallow work to keep their jobs, but Newport recommends setting aside hour-long blocks where you won’t let yourself check email, go to Facebook, Twitter, or your most cherished social media site. Don’t even answer the phone.

I decided to try it. As soon as I began, I heard the text ding on my phone, which was across the room in my purse. I wanted to jump up and look at it, but I had told myself, for the next hour I am only going to think about writing this blog. A few minutes passed, and the phone dinged the second time. By then I also had the excuse that I needed to go to the bathroom, so I thought—I could sneak a peek at the phone on the way, but I didn’t. At the end of the hour, I congratulated myself by writing in my journal, “You are doing a good job of staying with the plan.”

Being able to tolerate boredom also helps deep work. The ideas we need can be forming beneath the surface in our subconscious, in the back of our brains, in the ether, or somewhere that will deliver solutions if you let them simmer and stew. Going for a run, taking a shower, doing crafts, riding in the car can enable the process. Accessing screens does not. If you are stuck on a project after an hour, take a walk rather than turn on a device. Even a trip to the bathroom is better than checking your texts.

Newport suggests that you plan exactly what you are going to do the next day, with the caveat that if you stumble on an innovative idea, you change and pursue deep thinking about that. He says, “...a deep work habit requires you to treat your time with respect... Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural at first to resist this idea... But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.”

Since I no longer work full time, I get to plan my days my way. I outlined what I would do if I followed his advice, and then, I tried it for a week. I don’t like to be tied to a specific structure, so the experiment was not easy. However, I did notice improvement in the length of time I could concentrate, so I’ve stuck to not checking email for the first couple of hours after I’m awake on more days than I used to.

According to Newport, occasionally giving a whole day to deep work would be ideal, but in many cases that would be unrealistic. If you still have a job like I did where hundreds of emails came in every day, plan when you will check them and schedule some blocks of time to work on a project uninterrupted even if you must come in before everyone gets to the office or stay after they all leave. It will be good for your brain.

If you try the uninterrupted hour block or even a whole day of deep work, I’d love to hear your reaction.


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