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Home » Opinion » Book review

Deep work in a distracted world

In reviewing “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport, I was reminded of a training session I attended a couple of months ago.

In this so-called fengbi (isolated or cloistered) training, we are fully scheduled for the day, but in comparison with previous sessions, we enjoyed relatively more free time in the evening. As we had meals and classes in the hotel we stayed, at the beginning most trainees did not think much of an essay assignment expected to be submitted two weeks after the training began.

Most of us rarely realize how procrastination steals our time. I, for one, turned in my homework less than an hour before the deadline. Others were little better.

One fellow trainee observed that there should have been enough time at our disposal at the hotel. “But you touch something here, you toy with something there, and the time really flies so.”
Given the myriad distractions born of our times, real effort is needed to get work — any work — done at all. The constant flow of information imposed on our consciousness is seriously compromising our ability to engage in deep work.

There is little relief in sight. When enslavement is decked out with cutting edge technology, many victims take pride in their thralldom.

In his “Deep Work,” author and professor Newport presents a multipart argument for deep work, defined as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.”

He explains that work that demands your full focus is intrinsically valuable and rewarding, and how you handle deep work decides whether you can lead a fulfilling life in the information age.

The opposite of “deep work” is shallow work, work that is “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.” Since it does not ask much of your mind, it contributes little that is new and rewarding.

Apparently it is not just professional work that requires intense focus and concentration. If anything is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well. The most fulfilling parts of life inevitably entail high concentration. But today there is a powerful trend pushing you toward shallow work. There is this constant urge to update your moments, to post your two cents, or the obligation to like your friends’ posts. The need for multitasking can fill your days with shallow work.

I am also put in mind of the many books sitting idly on the shelves in my study, untouched since their arrival, some dating back to 30 years ago.

In the olden days, an important person would habitually apologize for being too busy. That acknowledgement reflected on your importance. Today everybody can be easily occupied 7/24. In our urge to keep track of what our acquaintances see, gourmandize, or philosophize, we have little time to experience the life at first hand, still less for introspection. We are uncomfortable with second-hand furniture, but we voraciously devour any anecdotal, enlightening and entertaining titbits thrown our way, by any and every body. Our attention used to be defined by our family, our neighbors, our colleagues, and our immediate work. Now cosmos is the limit.

Shallow work

As Newport observes, while it is effortlessly easy for people to be rapt in shallow work, increasing specialization in the information age suggests that you need to master “hard things” and to learn complex material quickly, so as to earn a job the information economy rewards most highly.

Information is pushing job markets towards a “winner-take-all” mode, in which “superstars” in a field can multiply their influences and rewards.

Deep work helps you reach better results, as how much elite work you produce equals the time you spend on your task multiplied by how intensely you focus. If you switch tasks often, you suffer “attention residue” — part of your attention clings to a previous, compromising your performance.

As people tend to do what is easiest at any given time, most aspects of the business and social environment today work against deep work. In today’s corporate world, staying connected and responding fast is often more valued than the quality of response. In the newsroom, the constant mandate to publish, to update, and to earn the most clicks is eroding the quality of journalism that is based on in-depth investigation guided by a sense of social responsibility.

There is a tendency to use “busyness as a proxy for productivity,” as it is easier to measure speed than depth or quality.

Socrates once observed that “the unexamined life is not worthy living.”

Given the social cult of the Internet, it is easy to understand why people have to show off their Internet connectivity in establishing their credentials as flying high with the tech-savvy youth, or keeping abreast of the times. They are not aware that deep work matters more than constant shifting of attention from one attraction to the next.

Winifred Gallagher, a science writer who spent years studying how attention shapes the quality of life, found that the way you manage your attention is incredibly important for leading a good life than your circumstances. Your brain creates your experience according to what you pay attention to; where you focus and how you approach experiences shapes your emotions and results, “down to the neurological level.”

Rules for focus

In deep work, you focus on topics that matter. That reshapes your reality positively. The challenges of deep work and its structured nature generates the psychological state known as “flow,” making deep work its own reward.

As the author observes, “To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”

In their 2011 book “All Things Shining” Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly make a philosophical argument for deep work by examining how meaning and sacredness have changed over time.

As to the demand that individuals must determine what is meaningful for themselves, Dreyfus and Kelly propose craftsmanship as one solution. As the book concludes, “Those who use their minds to create valuable things [are] rarely haphazard in their work habits.”

It’s not easy in the age of distractions.

“Without structure, it’s easy to allow your time to devolve into the shallow — emails, social media, web surfing,” the author enumerates. Newport prescribes four rules in embracing deep work: Work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows.

Work deeply involves development of a deep work routine to maintain focus.

Embrace boredom means that without distraction, you will suffer boredom. While tying to concentrate intensely, you will yearn for something to break the tedium. Once you stop fighting boredom and recognize it as proof of your focus, you can make focused concentration a habit.

Quit social media — social media have its benefits, but they far outweigh the negatives.

Identify your top two or three goals in the personal and professional arenas and use the Internet only for a substantive purpose, not entertainment. “Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your personal and professional life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweighs its negative impacts,” the book cautions.

Drain the shallows — shallow work crowds out more valuable deep work. Quantify the depth of your activity, make a schedule, and adhere.


 

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