Almost all of us have trouble focusing on our work at times.
Sometimes, we’re just tired and can’t seem to muster the energy to truly concentrate. However, the more common culprit is the myriad of distractions we face on a daily basis.
Social media accounts, websites that provide shallow, momentary doses of novelty (as opposed to high-density fun), rectangular pieces of metal and plastic that live in our pockets and glow sometimes… we’re never more than a few feet and a few seconds away from something that can pull us away from our work.
With so many distractions surrounding us, most of us spend more time than we’d like giving into their temptations. This results in an unfocused, ineffective style of working which takes far too long to get anything done.
The opposite of that is deep work, which is the topic of today’s podcast episode. I’m once again talking with Cal Newport, who is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, the author of five books, and a massive proponent of doing deep work.
Cal defines deep work as the practice of focusing for a long time (well over an hour) on a cognitively demanding task without giving into any distractions whatsoever.
One thing that Cal stresses in the episode is that deep work is a skill, and it must be acquired through practice.
“You have to train your mind to concentrate, just like you’d train your muscles to be able to do a pull-up.”
Most people don’t think about attention and deep work in this way; instead, they’re apt to say, “eh, I probably don’t do enough of that,” and believe that they could work deeply right away if they just put their mind to it.
According to Cal, that’s really not the case. To be sure, a determined mindset to work deeply is important – but you also really do need to be practiced at it in order to do it well.
In this episode, Cal and I discuss the importance of building the skill of deep work, and also get into methods of doing it. As Cal puts it, becoming adept at doing deep work is like having a superpower if you’re a knowledge worker – it gives you the ability to finish complicated work in a fraction of the time it takes other people.
This episode focuses heavily on the ideas from Cal’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
If you know anything about Cal, you’ll know he’s generally hard to get in contact with – and that’s on purpose. Cal deliberately structures his life in a way that provides him with long, uninterrupted blocks of time that he uses to focus deeply on complicated, difficult work – math proofs, computer science problems, writing books, etc.
Deep Work is essentially an argument – and an instruction manual – for that kind of work style. Cal’s main argument is that the ability to dive into complicated work in an intensely focused manner is a skill that is becoming increasingly rare, and hence increasingly valuable in our economy.
After making his argument, Cal proceeds to cover strategies for building your “attention muscle” and cultivating the skill of doing deep work. The book covers different styles of scheduling deep work, analyzes some of the practices of highly successful people, and emphasizes the importance of becoming accustomed to boredom rather than constantly seeking out small bits of novelty.
To be honest, I’m keenly aware that my own deep working skills aren’t as honed as they should be, so I’m going to be putting some of the strategies from this book into practice going forward (in particular, I’m going to try to adopt a bimodal work schedule and basically disappear for a couple days each week to write).
If you feel the need to improve your own skills in this area, this book may help. If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can support College Info Geek by using the link above!
Things mentioned in this episode:
- Why You Should Embrace Boredom and Learn to Do Hard Things – Ransom’s post on Deep Work
- Randall Munroe’s (xkcd author) method of avoiding internet distractions
- Freedom (site and app-blocking app for Mac)
- SelfControl (free alternative, but doesn’t block applications)
- FocalFilter (similar, but for Windows)
- Gary Vaynerchuk
- Why “Follow Your Passion” is Bad Advice (Ep. 35)
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You
- In Defense of Boredom – a great related article at Brain Pickings
- The Internet Is Destroying Your Ability to Focus. Here’s How to Fight Back
Want more cool stuff? You can find all sorts of great tools at my Resources page.
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