There is a theme in the book “Deep Work, Rules for Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport: isolating the activities we perform in our lives creates better results. This idea does not fit with the increasingly connected world we live with. When we decide to do a task, whether it’s work, play, rest, mindless, or intellectual, we do it best when we can concentrate our attention on it without distraction from other activities.
The internet, our workplaces, and the leisure activities we increasingly enjoy destroy our ability to focus on one activity at a time. Work emails intrude on our rest and leisure time, and the easy access the internet provides to distractions destroys our ability to focus on doing productive work. This isn’t a new concern. It’s a worry thinkers have had for at least a century, but it is still something to be mindful of and counteract.
Newport wrote his book to describe and teach a way of working with deep focus that we’ve all kind of known exists but is now getting more academic attention. He calls it deep work, and defines it as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work is what happens when you are able to focus your mind so completely on a challenging mental task that you produce the absolute best work your mind is capable of producing. It’s not easy to perform and does not come naturally. It’s something that you have to train yourself to be able to do and it requires willpower to stay focused. On average, most novices can perform no more than an hour of deep work in a day.
Work that isn’t deep has its own definition as well — shallow work:
“Non cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Deep work is developing a version of BASIC for the Altair 8800 in 1974 as Bill Gates did during a six month stretch with Paul Allen and Monte Davidoff. He would work for hours so long and intense he would fall asleep in his chair in the middle of writing a line of code.
Shallow work is answering morning emails.
Increasingly, the kind of work required to produce things with real value require deep work. Shallow work is something that may be necessary, but it isn’t going to produce anything particularly valuable. Business writer Eric Barker considers the ability to do deep work “the superpower of the 21st century.” The global economy is moving towards a world where the people who will most benefit are the ones who can produce things of real value, and not spend a day performing shallow work like entering data and answering emails.
Humans seem to be neurologically wired to benefit from the focus required to perform deep work. It’s actually good for us. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a study that found people are at their happiest when they are engaged in deep, mentally straining work. In fact they are often happier doing deep work than when they are relaxing.
One reason why seems to be because you can lose yourself in doing something you personally find productive. You can lose yourself to the point that you actually forget the problems in your life. Newport points to studies showing that your worldview is not constructed by what is happening to you, but by what you pay attention to.
The problem is that to be able to focus long enough to do deep work requires willpower, which Newport considers an expendable resource. Rest and leisure restore this willpower so you can do more deep work, but you can’t properly rest or enjoy your leisure time when something other than rest or leisure is on your mind.
This is where the theme of activity isolation comes into play. We have a great deal of difficulty isolating the activities we perform from other aspects of our life. In other words, we are easily distracted. We actually desire distraction, and distractions are more accessible than they have ever been in human history. When you are trying to work it might be click-bait that distracts you — a leisure activity intruding on work. When you are trying to relax at the end of the day it might be the desire to check your email that keeps your mind focused on work and negates the benefits of rest. You’ll have less willpower the next day.
We’ve all experienced a moment when we try to work on something, decide to glance at Facebook, twitter, or Reddit for a quick moment, then lose our concentration and get lost for a few minutes browsing pictures of friends’ vacations and cute puppy videos. You may have also experienced that moment when you are trying to relax Saturday morning and receive a panicky work email you can’t do anything about until Monday. It affects your whole weekend. All of these are intrusions of one activity of your life into the other, and they all affect your ability to focus on the activity you want to do in the moment.
Even briefly switching from one activity to another destroys, at least temporarily, your concentration. When you switch from one task to another your brain will not immediately re-calibrate. Part of your brain’s attention will remain divided. Newport calls it “attention residue.” We aren’t a species that multi-tasks as well as we’d like to think.
It isn’t only distractions that occur in the moment that are a problem either. An incomplete task, even a small one like taking out the garbage, will dominate your attention when you know you still have to do it. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect.
The focus of the world right now is connecting everything together and eliminating barriers. We’re using the internet as a model for all aspects of society and life. We all want instant communication that can grab our attention at all hours of the day. Companies want and expect employees to answer work emails and texts at any time. Social lives blend into our corporate lives through social media. Leisure activities like browsing cute animal pictures, talking to friends, or playing games can be done on our phones while we are trying to work. All that’s required to lose your concentration is a finger tap on your phone.
The obvious point is that this is being taken too far, and we need to remember that we do need barriers to isolate activities in our lives. Cal Newport isn’t a luddite who recommends scrapping the internet and returning to an older way of living, and neither am I. The point is to be aware that although you may be capable of multitasking and mixing different activities in your life together, you’ll probably be more productive and happier if you can learn to isolate and focus on one thing at a time.
“Deep Work, Rules for Success in a Distracted World” is a good book that could change the way you approach your life. It has an entire guide to train yourself for deep work and structure your day around it. It should make you think about just how much connection you want in your life and where you should put up barriers.