In this third post looking at the book ‘Deep Work’, by Cal Newport, I’m going to take you through his second rule, entitled ‘Embrace Boredom‘. In a nutshell, this is about learning to live without distractions. It also includes tips and ideas for learning to concentrate better and focus your mind on challenging problems.
I was recently reminded of the rarity of just sitting alone by this recent post from Hustle Escape. With smartphones as our constant companions we very rarely just sit and do nothing. Waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout we spend the time looking at our phones. On the train home from work no one talks to each other, they’re all just looking at their phones. According to Cal you need to wean your mind from this type of behaviour. If you don’t you’ll struggle to achieve the level of concentration required for deep work.
Take Breaks from Focus, not from Distraction
Instead of constantly checking your email and what the authors of ‘Make Time’, John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp, call ‘infinity pools’, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, schedule times to do this. Outside of those times you need to avoid social media and other internet distractions altogether. Cal Newport suggests writing down on a piece of paper the next time you’re allowed to use the internet. He says that it’s not the service itself which reduces your brain’s ability to focus. It’s the constant switching from low stimuli/high value activities to high stimuli/low value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or when you’re trying to do an intellectually taxing task, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.
Three points to consider
If you have to spend a lot of time answering emails in your job, just schedule lots of blocks of time to do this, rather than switching back and fore between deep work tasks and email activity.
You must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use. Basically, close your emails down so they don’t pop up as you’re doing deep work and distract you. Put your phone on silent when you’re having focused time. I do this with my personal mobile. I need to learn to do the same with my work one, as nothing is ever that urgent that it can’t wait, but I’ve resisted this.
Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. It might be that what you do in the evenings and on weekends is undoing all that great training that you’re doing for your brain when you’re at work. Try the same techniques in your personal life. When you’re spending time with your family put your phone in another room and agree just to look at it when the kids have gone to bed.
Set a deadline
One tactic for getting yourself to focus on a task is to set yourself a tight deadline. It will mean that you have to concentrate intensely on finishing the project. You won’t have time for distractions. I must admit I have never been one to work this way as tight deadlines stress me, although I know many people who seem to leave tasks until the eleventh hour and are able to work all night to get them done.
We’ve all heard about sitting in a chair, or even cross-legged, quietly for a few minutes and the benefits that this can bring. I’ve even written a post about it, but Cal suggests a different type of meditation. This is where you are doing something physically e.g. walking or showering and during that time you focus your attention on a specific problem. When you are distracted you need to bring your mind back to the challenge that you’ve set yourself. I’ve not tried this in such an intentional way, although I do find that my mind will mull over problems when I’m driving (if I’m not listening to a podcast that is) or over the summer, gardening is a task that allows my mind to wander. According to Cal, as a rule you should try to do this two to three times a week.
So there we are, some really practical ideas for how to achieve the goal of deep work. For me it is something that I am still working on, but I do feel that I have improved my ability to concentrate, particularly in the afternoon, which I used to find really difficult during that ‘post lunch dip’ period. Have you tried any of Cal’s advice from my previous posts? I would love to know how you got on?