Recently, I’ve become incredibly frustrated with the amount of things vying for my attention. There are people sure, but also email, texts, meetings, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Slack—it’s overwhelming and makes me inclined to respond with a firm “fuck off.”
The problem is what the always connected state does to concentration and focus. I knew my work quality was suffering. It led me to pick up Deep Work by Cal Newport for some answers, or at the very least some potential solutions. What it ended up being is one of the most important books about work, creativity, and getting what you want out of life that I’ve ever read.
Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown, and although you might expect him to blindly embrace all new technology, he doesn’t. He’s careful to weigh both problems and benefits, while still considering other viewpoints or individual circumstances. While I won’t try to relay everything I found interesting, I wanted to leave you with three takeaways I had.
1) Focus matters. The masters of any field are incredibly focused and have a exceptional ability to concentrate. If you want to be that good, you need dedicated time to focus. The other reason deep focus is worth harnessing is that it enables us to learn difficult things fast. This is a crucial skill to have when the world changes so quickly. Success is not about knowing everything, it’s about your ability to adapt and never stop learning.
2) Attention residue is real. We’re not robots. I was familiar with switching costs, but the reason that happens is that when you stop doing a given task, your brain is still working on it in the background after you think you’ve stopped engaging in that activity. One strategy can be to schedule out blocks of your day and what specifically they will be used for. Make sure to build in some time for breaks or rest between activities.
3) Just because something has a benefit doesn’t mean you should do it. Applying this to social media, Newport discusses how we are often quick to defend use of platforms because there’s some benefit. Our thinking is that we don’t want to miss out, or that it can’t hurt. The reality is that it can hurt because it’s detracting from something else. Instead of being active on Facebook, for example, you may have been able to use that time to learn a new skill, exercise, or spend time with a close friend. A good approach is to list out what your priorities are. If your top priorities were say, to become a better photographer and invest in a few close relationships, you might consider eliminating Facebook and Instagram. It’s hard because you might think back to a time where you found someone on Instagram you ended up collaborating with or became good friends with someone through Facebook, but it’s not the best way to achieve your desired outcome. Be smart about what you use.
You don’t have to agree with every point Cal makes in this book to make it worthwhile. The nice thing is that you decide what warrants experimentation, but I’d be shocked if you read the whole thing and didn’t find a few useful strategies that dwarf the cost of the book and your time spent reading it. Give this one a shot.