Staying Focused in a Distracted World

On a single track mountain bike trail, the line between enjoying an awesome ride and bailing onto a pile of rocks or a thorn patch is thin. It takes intense mental and physical energy to ride a challenging trail, and I have a few scars to show what happens with a lack of focus. Most extreme sports are this way — focusing in the face of challenge is the trait that separates the best from the injured.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport explores the topic of focus in the quickly-changing world of knowledge work. The book is not a judgment or a list of rules about productivity for knowledge workers, rather it's a manifesto for changing how we look at our work. It’s about getting control back over your life. It’s all about how we THINK about work - not just about how we work. 

The author has been a hugely successful academic while writing popular books, all while spending quality time with his young children at home. Inside the book, the author shares his secrets of working smarter and harder for intense chunks of time, not necessarily longer. 

Does this definition of shallow work sound like your efforts at work over the last few weeks? 

Shallow Work: “Noncognitively 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.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work 

This sentiment sums up periods of my work over the years all too well. Hopping from meeting to meeting, call to call, and at the end of the day being exhausted but not fulfilled. At the end of too many days, the nagging feeling that I didn’t make much of an impact on the world bugged me. It takes a lot of deep work to truly create something of value, and my work style was missing depth.

In today's modern knowledge working environment, distractions and serendipitous interactions are the norm. Most modern offices use open floor plans, and tools like Slack and text messages make us available...even with our headphones on. The author hypothesizes those able to tune out these distractions and focus on deep work will succeed in the future. 

The Deep Work hypothesis reads: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work

It makes intuitive sense. The way to meaningfully create is to allow your mind to engage in deep thoughts. At the same moment, constant access to conversations, friends, news streams and notifications is doing its best to crowd out our ability to think in this way. My kids, experts at the games Simon and Concentration 64, seem to have more of this deep thought ability than the average adult these days. Although, they do have a key advantage — no iPhone (yet) notifying them of the latest updates. 

Many tips are shared in the final 2/3 of the book — some of my favorites are: 

  • The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: be selective about every website, social media outlet, and other “tools” we use… similar to how farmers approach the tools they use to maintain their fields and livestock. 
  • Do More Work When Sending/Replying to Emails: think about email as less of a messaging system, and more of a memo-style communication tool. Email is not the enemy if we are using it wisely.
  • Be Hard to Reach: set boundaries around your availability, especially for meetings and phone calls that take away large chunks of time. This is even more important when the intrusions are during the part of the day when your mind is most ready for deep thinking. 
  • Focus on the Wildly Important: apply the 80/20 rule to our work lives, find the most important tasks in reaching your goals, and absolutely crush them. 

The book is already having an impact on how I think about how I work. I now have a bunch of ideas on how to focus with that shiny iPhone on my desk (or more aptly, now in my desk drawer) and a renewed sense of the impact I can have while spending 4 focused hours in exhausting mental work...outside of emails, meetings and phone calls. To wit, a first draft of this blog post was hand written in a composition book while sitting in a corner of my local library. 

I hope it has a similar impact on your work style. Next up on this topic: The Shallows12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, and Willpower.

Josh Carlton is the Principal of 500THz, a boutique market research firm that delights in using creativity to solve marketing problems. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This post also appears on LinkedIn

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