We all know that we live in a hyper-connected world, and that it can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Perhaps what we’re not yet really understanding is how that hyper-connectivity is assaulting the conditions required for some of our deepest and best creative/thought work.
After reading Cal Newport’s excellent So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I knew I would eventually read his follow up, Deep Work. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport explains two huge concepts that blew me away:
- You don’t have to figure out “your passion,” if one isn’t evident — just find something you can do well, and get really great at it, and it will become your passion as you improve your skills. We’re wired to enjoy what we excel at (even if it doesn’t sound fancy or exciting).
- In order to get great at anything, you need to put in the “Deep Work” — dedicated time where you concentrate wholly on learning your skill, expressing your creativity, etc. (Also, seeking out prompt feedback and criticism can help you better focus your Deep Work time.)
While I was personally a bit more smitten by the experience of reading So Good They Can’t Ignore You, there were many interesting takeaways from this book, that furthered my understanding of how we become better at the things we do.
ISOLATE YOURSELF FROM DISTRACTIONS
The open office plan is truly the enemy of deep work. While we may think that we can switch easily between tasks, the processes occurring in our brains show otherwise.
To truly hone our skills and produce better work, we need blocks of uninterrupted time (no email checking, no chatting, no phone calls, no web surfing) to allow our minds the time needed to relax into the depth of focus required to produce great work.
These windows need not overtake your whole day, however. Newport says a novice at Deep Work may be able to comfortably and effectively put in an hour at a time, but even the experts hit a wall at around four hours. You can start small with your expectations for the duration of Deep Work, but be absolutely firm in your commitment to not interrupting that deep work time.
Even if you’re stuck with a wide-open floor plan in your office, see if you can schedule some private work time in a conference or meeting room. And if you work for yourself from home, try to create a safe space where you won’t be interrupted (or head out to a library or coffee shop for a few hours each day). Some creatives even build mini work/writing sheds in their own back yards, just to have that place where everything else can be left behind.
THERE IS A PROCESS TO EXCELLENCE
There’s a reason Deep Work is so effective:
“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits–effectively cementing the skill.
The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.
By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill (say, SQL database management) in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.” (P36)
That quote blew my mind. Let’s break it down:
- By focusing deeply on a specific skill, you trigger myelination in your brain.
- Myelination cements that skill’s neural circuit, making it more accessible — effectively clearing a better path for all future use.
- If, however, you engage your wandering brain in it’s distractions, too many circuits are firing, and your brain won’t know which path to cement. Effective myelination cannot occur.
- The more often you focus deeply on your skill, the more entrenched that circuit (path) will become. That skill will become easier for you to do — and do well.
Deep, undistracted focus on your skill is the ONLY way to create permanent pathways in the brain that allow you to become better at your skills.
RESIST THE URGE
By now, the idea of distraction-free periods of Deep Work should sound pretty attractive. But Newport takes it one step further.
He posits that we should try to get more comfortable with the moments of boredom in our everyday life (outside of Deep Work hours) — those when we find ourselves with a few minutes alone and are tempted to engage in distractions:
“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction, Nass discovered, it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate.
To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life–say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives–is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where…it’s not ready for deep work–even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.” (P158)
It seems that our addiction to distraction throughout the day is making it harder for our brains to focus, distraction-free, in moments of intentional concentration.
ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK… LESS SUCCESSFUL, ACTUALLY
Our brains need downtime, to allow our subconscious to needle through some of the more subtle, conflicting factors that weigh into our complex and nuanced decisions.
Newport cites a study where college students were asked to review all the information regarding a big purchase. Then the students were split into two groups — one group was asked to ponder the details and think about the best possible decision, the other group was distracted with fun and easy puzzles. When the students were asked to make their decisions, (you guessed it) the distracted, fun-having group made better choices than the group who spent their time strategizing their best decision!
Our subconscious is better than we are at analyzing the entirety of a decision, but it can’t do its work if we never give our brains a break from focusing on the issues. So, work hard (and deep!) when you work, but disconnect and allow yourself the pleasant distractions of life, with equal commitment.
Non Fiction Bingo 2018 Progress
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