“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say- ‘come out unto us.’ But keep thy state, come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity.”
—– Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Self Reliance”
Although written 176 years ago, Emerson’s astute words are eerily relevant today. Just substitute the words Email, Text, FaceBook or Twitter for his list of “emphatic trifles” clamouring for attention, and Emerson could easily be speaking to a 21st century audience. For who among us hasn’t heard the siren call of these addictive network tools, and social media platforms, and then surrendered to a “weak curiosity,” when we meant to be accomplishing our “real” work?
The first time I read Emerson’s insightful critique I felt instantly the sting of recrimination. I saw myself lured into confusion time and again, seemingly against my will. In a recent blog post, I examined how I use author Steven Pressfield’s rule of distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important to establish the priorities for my work. Once I know what I want to accomplish as a writer and an artist, I do those things first. But I also have a “weak curiosity.” Sadly, it is not enough to sequester myself in my studio because those “emphatic trifles”, only a click away, are incessantly knocking at my closet door.
Why is it so hard to resist their power I have often wondered? Is there any antidote to their addiction? And, how can I build my resistance, so that I can regain control of my own attention and feel satisfied with my creative accomplishments at the end of the day?
I recently discovered Cal Newport’s book entitled Deep Work, Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, which addresses these very concerns. His book confirmed what I innately knew, that an environment of quiet focus is essential to produce quality work. But it also helped me to understand why and how technological connectivity can actually hinder my productivity, making me think twice about how much of it I want in my life. Most importantly, Deep Work provided me with tools and rules that I can use to minimize the powerful allure of the Internet and Social Media while maximizing my creative goals, both daily and for the long term.
Cal Newport, is a theoretical computer scientist and assistant professor at Georgetown University who has managed to become a successful blogger and respected author- without the help of Social Media, as he proudly claims. He defines Deep Work 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.”
He begins his book with the basic premise that now, and in the future, the best jobs and careers in our “technologically driven and constantly changing information economy” will be awarded to those who possess the Deep Work skill, because Deep Work allows you to “master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level again and again.” The problem for most of today’s knowledge workers, as he sees it, is that they have lost, or have never learned this skill.
Newport further asserts that it has now been well studied and well documented that much of the blame for this dearth of skill lies with the overconsumption of what he calls “network tools.” They are: “… a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.”
While initially his book seems to address those workers in his own sphere of computers and technology within the framework of 9 to 5, his book is for anyone who wants to succeed at anything that requires concentration, whether that be in a conventional workplace or not. It is for anyone who wants to know the sense of well-being and gratification that come from fully engaging their minds. For me, I found his concepts applicable to my own work as a writer and musician.
Deep Work is divided into two parts. In Part One the Author begins by making three claims: Deep Work is Valuable, Deep Work is Rare, and Deep Work is Meaningful. Already convinced of the validity of these statements, I felt the urge to skip ahead to the practicum in part two, but I had many “aha” moments learning some of the neuroscience behind how our brains tackle cognitively demanding tasks which Newport divulges in part one.
For instance, studies reveal that multitasking creates a brain byproduct called attention residue that impedes our focus on each subsequent task that we engage in. And then there is the fascinating psychology behind the state of “flow.” That sense of well-being and deep satisfaction that can only be entered into by a total immersion of concentration. Interspersed amongst the studies and research, Newport shares real life success stories of individuals who have understood the value of deep work, how they have used it to their advantage, and how assiduously they guard it, including one executive who took a round trip flight to Tokyo just to have all those hours of distraction free time on the plane to write his book!
In part two of Deep Work, entitled, The Rules, you will find both good news and bad news in the application of a Deep Work regimen. A first bit of good news is that, as humans, we have a limited capacity for cognitively demanding work, so you needn’t imagine yourself isolated and chained to your desk for hours on end. According to the Author, even experts, accustomed to intense concentration, only have about four hours a day worth of this “brain strain” in them. As novices, we should shoot for an hour and think of our Deep Work practice as a muscle we can build gradually with training. So, baby steps.
Now a bit of bad news. We are going to need willpower to attempt a Deep Work practice and “we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it up.” Citing recent psychological research on the subject, Newport informs us that “your will… is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires out.” All day long as we resist distractions including television, the Internet, Social Media, (and all those other “emphatic trifles,”) we are making withdrawals from our willpower account. Between limited resources of willpower and undeveloped brain power it is imperative that we have a strategy in place before we begin.
To that end, Newport offers a variety of Deep Work scheduling philosophies to try out coupled with the support of routines and rituals and other pragmatic practices. He suggests that you “execute like a business” and employ tactics of lead measures, goals and accountability. But he also offers up the surprising good news that any Deep Work Practice needs a shutdown ritual that includes permission to leave tasks undone at the end of the day and to periodically be lazy, all without guilt.
Perhaps more than any other, the Deep Work rule of “Embrace Boredom” spoke most directly to my personal dilemma of distraction. According to behavioral research, 24/7 access to “on-demand” distractions, (like the internet via your smartphone, or a t.v. remote and hundreds of channels) is literally addicting to the brain. And, Newport writes, “…constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” (emphasis mine) Scientists say we have rewired our brains in this way making it difficult to flip the switch to “concentrate” even when we want to.
So, while we must train our brains to tolerate long periods of concentration, we must simultaneously and consciously work to overcome our brain’s craving for novelty and distraction. In other words, we need to “Embrace Boredom.” For practice, see if you can resist checking your smartphone every time you find yourself waiting for a friend or standing in line for more than five minutes. Newport suggests that we take breaks from focus rather than breaks from distractions, and he lists various strategies on how to schedule Internet usage even if your job requires constant Internet and email use.
Rule # 3 may be the most difficult and controversial of all, “Quit Social Media.” Albeit given with a dash of hyperbole and wishful thinking, Newport’s advice is worth your consideration and he makes a solid case for why we should quit it. Newport argues that FaceBook, Instagram, Google +, Twitter, and Snapchat, et al., are Social Media tools, and like any other tools we use, we cannot justify using them with what he calls an “any-benefit” mindset. We must weigh the pros and cons and find a middle-ground. In this chapter he elaborates with great tips on how we can assess our own individual needs and discover which tools truly add value to our work and personal life. He would also like you to remember that besides being highly addictive,
“These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.”
Herein lies the crux of Deep Work I believe, and it’s why Cal Newport’s book has so resonated with me. The myth that Social Media has somehow made us a more connected human race was busted long ago, and most of us would admit that we know the vacuous feeling of too much Internet and Social Media. How it drains us and leaves us fractured and unfocused.
For me, the concept of a Deep Work practice is to live more consciously and deliberately, choosing to protect my limited resources of time, energy, willpower, and concentration. I do not want to give others the “power to annoy me,” with their “emphatic trifles” as Emerson would say, due to my “weak curiosity.” More days than not, I want to know the satisfaction of having fully engaged my brain in the creative work I have already determined to be deeply necessary for my sense of well-being. I want to close my ears and my door on the confusion.
Dear Readers, can you relate? What Deep Work is inside you that you need to get busy doing? What are your biggest and most persistent “emphatic trifles” that are keeping you away from that work?
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