“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”
In this new series, we will be exploring the science of optimal performance.
We are only just beginning to see the long-term effects of our hyper-connected internet and smartphone era. Research from neuroscience and performance psychology is beginning to paint a compelling picture that people in the modern world may be permanently damaging their abilities for sustained attention, concentration, and focus.
Think about this for a moment—How important are attention and concentration to your long-term workplace success and your personal relationships?
If people lost this ability, what would happen to our world?
Would we still produce great works of art or literature?
Would we lose the ability to connect deeply with those we love?
Would it destroy our capacity to sit in quiet contemplation of nature or the Creator?
The Big Idea—If we want to create important work that has an impact on the world, it is essential to have strategies that protect our brain’s capacity for deep focus and sustained concentration.
What my days used to look like
Not long ago, I would often wake up and check email right away, while incoming messages were flashing across my computer screen every few minutes.
Every new message was like a torpedo to my concentration, often pointing me down numerous rabbit holes.
To make matters worse, I almost always had one or two smartphones within arm’s reach, which buzzed or dinged seductively with text messages, emails, and any number of alluring notifications.
Then my desk phone might ring with an urgent call.
Before I knew it, it was time for the first of several meetings that would further fragment my day.
Worse still, my personal life only reinforced my bad habits. I would come home and turn on the TV to “relax,” while surfing the internet on my iPad and responding to text messages on my phone.
Before bed—more work email.
I was literally rewiring my brain into a constant state of extreme distraction.
It should be clear that producing any important work—would be difficult, if not impossible—in that scenario.
But what bothered me most, it made listening to other people—including my wife—much more difficult.
The case for deep work
In his compelling book, Deep Work—Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Georgetown professor Cal Newport argues that many people in the modern world are losing their abilities for sustained attention, concentration, and focus.
He poses the question—What will happen to our world if we lose the ability for focused concentration to produce deep and meaningful work?
He persuasively argues that those who can train the skill of focused concentration will be incredibly rare in the future. And this skill will not only be increasingly valuable, but likely profitable as well.
He includes a wealth of compelling research, from the myths of multi-tasking to attentional residue (this is what happens when we move from one task to the next, but a portion of our brain is still stuck thinking about our last meeting or email for a while—not fully concentrating on the new task).
Newport, who received his Ph.D. from MIT in computer science, also points out that most modern workplaces promote a busy, hyper-connected, and distracted working lifestyle.
Things like open-office floor plans, instant messaging, and workplace smartphones leave people in a virtual tornado of dings, vibrations, and flashes.
All of these things annihilate deep states of concentration.
And if your workplace texts or emails you after hours, you can’t even recover from this heightened state of arousal.
We have traded deep work for the ability to get a hold of each other immediately.
Most great human accomplishments have come from deep states of focus
Throughout the book, he lists examples of people who have had a profound impact on the world by practicing deep work. Bill Gates, Mark Twain, Carl Jung, and Nobel Prize winning physicists are just some examples.
And if you train yourself to do deep work, you will also appear to have some kind of super-power which allows you to get more done in less time because your focus is not completely fragmented.
Think about it this way, your overall impact for almost anything will be the result of time spent multiplied by quality of focus.
We have inadvertently trained our brains to prefer the pleasure hit of rapid shallow tasks, but we must work to reverse this tendency.
In the long run, deep work is far more fulfilling and produces exponentially better results.
Don’t be the typical hyper-distracted ADHD leader of our age, be different. Slow down, connect to people, and spend regular time in the zone of deep focus.
But if you want to build this skill, it’s going to require discipline and a strong commitment to changing your habits.
If you don’t believe me, try putting your smart phone in your trunk for 24 hours this weekend and notice the panic that sets in!
Turn information into action
Here are 5 simple recommendations to get you started:
- Admit you have a problem. Just like in Alcoholics Anonymous, admitting you have a problem is an essential first step. And technology addiction works on the same reward systems in the brain as drug addiction.
- Identify your Deep Work. It could be…
- Writing a book
- Preparing a presentation
- Working on a big project
- Planning your business strategy
- Or looking at where you want your life to be 5 years from now
- Schedule uninterrupted blocks of time: Start with 1 hour several days per week of completely uninterrupted time. Schedule blocks of time into your week in advance to do your deep work. Protect them at all costs.
- Eliminate distractions. During your blocks of time, put phones out of reach and cut off your access to the internet and email.
- Schedule time to recharge daily and weekly. You can find this concept everywhere. Your brain requires lots of breaks in order to function optimally. People who perform at a very high level over time have extremely disciplined rest and recovery routines.
Have a great weekend!
- Deep Work- Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport)
- The Shallows- What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Nicholas Carr)