“A commitment to deep work…is a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion dollar industry in less than a semester” ~ Cal Newport.
I’ve been tossing statistics at my son this month about multitasking, distraction, and focus. He, I think, feels like they’re hand grenades. He’s taking them personally as if I’m insulting the things he loves. He loves video games. He loves random videos of ducks quacking to Prince’s "Purple Rain." Not that that exists. In my mind, it would actually be sacrilegious. I’m sure he’d think it was hysterical. I’m not objecting to the things he loves. He has a pretty sophisticated sense of humor and other than when the preteen boy hormones kick in, the things he shows me are really funny. It’s just that I’m taking a hard look at how our habits are affecting our lives. Especially our mental habits. And the more I read, the more concerned I am that we’re changing our minds in ways that aren’t healthy.
Basically, the results of my research say this: We live in a culture that is full of distractions which we both invite and have come to crave. We think we can do more by multitasking and we can’t. We’re losing the ability to concentrate and focus for more than a few minutes at a time. This is causing mostly negative changes to our work, our health, the way our brains function, how we experience emotion, and how we act within relationships.
Even in the midst of writing this episode, I just caught myself somehow watching a video of people being scared by excessively large fake spiders. What? A lost few minutes of life I’ll never regain. Even though I’m hyper-aware of it this month, I’m still struggling with distraction. I am improving though. I thought to wrap up this month, I’d share some of the things that have worked for me as I’ve been putting into practice ideas that I’ve come across. These might be a bit random, but they were either new ideas to me, or I found them surprisingly helpful after trying them.
As much as possible, I’m doing one thing at a time. When I’m not, I’m choosing to multitask intentionally, knowing I’m taking a productivity hit. This means in the car, cooking dinner, working, talking to friends…all the situations I might have previously been multitasking, I’m not doing so anymore. Are there things not getting done because of it? No, not that I’m aware of, except I may be missing out on some videos. Not spider vs. crying child videos, but marketing videos or educational videos. So far, I’m not feeling the loss. And the work that I am doing is better. This is an easy change to make and just requires noticing when you’re multitasking and choosing one thing at a time. This is one of those things that you really should try instead of just hearing me talk about it. Choose a day. Go through it doing one thing at a time. See how hard it is, how it affects your mind, your productivity, and your work.
We have the ability to concentrate intensely for no more than 5-6 hours a day altogether. So, schedule that time when you’re at your best and limit busy work to the best of your ability. Restrict those shallow things more than you think you can and schedule it when you normally feel the least productive. For me that’s between 2 and 4 pm.
Be Hard to Reach.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t have to be available all hours of the day. I don’t have to be available to clients, friends, facebook acquaintances and random app notifications 24/7/365. I can limit the ways I’m reached and I can limit the times I’m available to all those people. You are in charge of the use of your time, not random strangers, not your phone, not even your friends.
This has been a game changer for me. It’s a practice to help you learn rapidly the skills needed for deep thinking. The idea is to structure a thought exercise and practice it while doing something physical that requires no thought. So, walking, biking, swimming laps, or running for example. Here’s how to do it.
Downtime is critical to productive concentration. Our minds need the downtime. But, it’s very easy for unfinished business to intrude on our downtime. In order to close the door on work for the day, when you’re ready to switch to home mode, try following a shutdown ritual. This shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the day. It will prepare you to start the following day in a productive manner and will help close the mental loops on work issues. Here’s a sample routine.
This isn’t something I’ve done before and my work location and practices are far from consistent. I do often practice checking my email and schedule, but I tend to never actually intentionally switch work mode off. I’m looking forward to trying this. I think it may save my sanity.
I found this really easy and interesting. It’s essentially practicing delayed gratification in small steps. One way I’m doing it is setting a timer for 30-minute work sessions. I’m not checking email, using the internet, or any other app on my phone until that session is done. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes. It doesn’t even really matter if you do whatever you’re delaying sooner than you’d planned. Unless, like me, you’re killing digital trees in your Forest app when you ditch the plan. Then it matters! The point is to simply practice the art of resisting distraction. Practice choosing focus.
Teddy Roosevelt's Approach
As a Harvard student, Teddy Roosevelt got a crazy amount of things accomplished outside of school work and made good grades, mostly honors, while studying significantly less time each day than his classmates. He had tons of interests outside of school, including writing books. He managed to include all of his interests in his life, including publishing books by blocking out his workday - including classes, workouts, and meals. Then in the leftover time between those scheduled blocks of time, he studied. In the evenings he was free to pursue his projects and interests. That meant that he had far less time than most to hit the books, so the time he spent studying, he had to really double down.
The application for us is to similarly set an artificial or real deadline to accomplish your goal, one that requires you to cut out the fluff. Create a need to work super-intensely, or be faced with not accomplishing what must be done. I heard an interview with the founder of Basecamp not long ago in which he was talking about what happened when he cut the company work week back to four eight-hour days in the summer. Because they had less time, they cut out the things that didn’t matter, the wasted time and still accomplished everything they needed to.
I have a business strategy weekend planned over the holiday weekend. Probably by the time you listen to this, it will be over, or almost over. Three days. Multiple two-hour sessions per day. Fourteen to sixteen hours total to plan the next year of a new business. That might sound like a lot, but there’s a ton of work to do. This is a Teddy Roosevelt weekend with the evenings devoted to mental downtime. I’m excited to see how far I can get by the end of Memorial Day.
I’m going to leave you today with one more quote from Deep Work,
The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid email messaging, and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. It’s safer to comment on our culture than to step into the Rooseveltian ring and attempt to wrestle it into something better.
I know my personality is geared toward the deep, it’s my natural bias. But, the uneasiness felt when stepping out of your comfort zone is still scary. The resistance Steven Pressfield talks about in the War of Art is a real thing.
Social media has turned us all into armchair experts where our love of comfort keeps us curled up with a bunch of empty opinions and a rapidly shrinking ability to create important things. But, I’m not satisfied with that. While I may never win a Nobel Prize, I may never do important things according to the world’s measurements, I’m going to make my time matter. I’m taking control of my attention and doing my part to wrestle our culture into something better. I’d love you to step into that ring with me.