The first time I sat down to write this article was actually in the middle of a lecture. The professor had reached a part of that day’s lesson which was covered in the textbook reading which had been assigned to the previous class, and I felt comfortable turning him out for a bit. The first time I tuned back in, he was on an entirely different slide, I turned in took note and hoped I hadn’t missed something entirely. After a few minutes he started an anecdote that I didn’t care much for so I took to the internet, checked Facebook where I had a few notifications and a message to respond to, my thigh buzzed where my phone was resting, and a text came up on my screen as banner which made me realize I should check back on the lecture.
This time I knew I had missed something, there was at least one slide I had no notes on. I glanced at my neighbor’s screen to get a sense of what I had missed but couldn’t see it clearly. An email notification popped up that I knew needed immediate attention, so I clicked to respond right away. Then down the rabbit hole, I went. I checked all four of my commonly used emails, responded to several messages, got back to the text I had ignored, got a text that reminded me I hadn’t checked Instagram this morning inspiring me to pull out my phone. Soon I had completely given up on my class notes and turned back to writing this article.
I was the perfect demonstration of the problems that plague almost every person I know, problems that Cal Newton aims to help out device-addled brains overcome in “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” A book filled to the brim with psychological studies and practical tips, his book makes the case that high-level focus is not only becoming more difficult but also increasingly rare, and therefore valuable.
Managing one’s attention not only makes you more productive, but it helps you to improve every aspect of each experience in your life. To achieve deep work, we must focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s not easy, and I’m sure Newport would agree with me, that it is necessary to reach the highest quality of work you are capable of.
Inspired by Deep Seven, here are seven tips for learning to do deep work and cultivating time for it.
- Be bad at email
Newport advises people to resist the need to appear productive. Emailing at all hours, constantly in meetings and returning messages right away can feel productive but in reality, it can often just add to your distractions. Letting there be times when you are actually engaged and not worried about getting to the next thing is beneficial. Not every email indeed demands a response.
- Embrace boredom
If you spend time being bored, you will get distracted less. Once you are wired for distraction you crave it, you need to rewire your brain to stay focused. Next time you need to relax and find yourself turning to Facebook or Twitter, do nothing, just take a minute and bathe in the silence.
- Eliminate known distractions
Put your phone in the kitchen if you’re working in your living room. Find a space where you won’t be tempted to turn on the television, or can’t hear your roommates watching a movie. Go sit in the library where everyone around you will be working, focused and quiet. You won’t be near as tempted to goof-off if you create a real sense of needing to get things done.
- Follow the law of scarcity
Jason Fried, the co-founder of 37signals, did an experiment with all of his employees where he had them all work four-day work weeks. He discovered something vital, “once everyone has less time to get their stuff done, they respect that time even more.” When you have fewer hours to accomplish a task, you are going to spend them more wisely. Set yourself deadlines and create penalties if you break them. Just watch how much more focused you get.
- Allow time to take a break
Distraction to a certain extent is inevitable. The brain can have the true and full focus for 60-90 minutes at a time. Keep this in mind when scheduling an event or series of meeting. You need to decompress and get a glass of water, have a snack, get some fresh air. Know this, and it will help keep you present in your other activities.
- Track yourself
Pay attention to the things that cause you to fall into the traps of distraction. Are you hungry? What thoughts happened just before? Does your mind jump? Could you have a note sheet to jot down that email you need to respond to instead of dealing with it during a lecture?
- Turn off the world
When you can turn off the internet on your computer. Put your phone on airplane mode during your meeting, or a class you struggle to pay attention in. Force the distractions to fall away for a while, and you’ll find that it’s easier to handle the net chunk of time when you need to give something all of your attention
Taking the time to reevaluate your habits and improve your own productivity is such a productive activity. If you’re stuck and looking for inspiration beyond this post, check out Prof. Newport’s book, it’s definitely worth the read. I know that reading books and articles about improving my own focus have already impacted the way that I interact with those I work with. Just today I made just my laptop was in do not disturb mode so that no incoming emails or text messages would pull my focus from the meeting at hand.
I will expose how I have achieved superior focus for the first time in my career