I recently read a book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World. The dust jacket defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”–such as writing.

Newport makes the case that in a culture marked by ever-increasing distractibility and distraction (largely from electronic devices), the ability to do deep work becomes a sort of superpower. Remember that scene in The Matrixin which Neo and Trinity are getting shot at, but the bad guys (as well as their bullets) move in slow motion? Neo and Trinity, meanwhile, are moving at normal speed and so are able to dodge the bullets and escape the bad guys, doing trench-coat-twirling acrobatics all the while. If you can focus on cognitively demanding tasks, Newport seems to suggest, you can be like Neo and Trinity, producing prodigiously, coattails flying, while everybody else is staring stupidly at a smartphone.

I have to say, I find Newport’s arguments compelling, and his solutions seem to be very practical. I say seem because I’m just now starting to put his solutions into practice, and they aren’t exactly geared toward overnight success. I suppose time will tell how practical they turn out to be. But I commend the book to you, and I suspect that this won’t be the only issue of The Habit devoted to the habits that Deep Work espouses.

Today I want to focus on just one recommendation from Deep Work. In a chapter called “Embrace Boredom,” Newport offers this tip: “Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.” 

In an earlier issue of The Habit, I passed along some productivity advice that included shutting off the Internet and sitting at your desk until you get so bored that you finally decide to write. I have often recommended a program called Self Control that shuts down the Internet on your computer for a set amount of time; unless you have a degree in computer science, you can’t get the Internet back until the timer goes off. You may have implemented a digital Sabbath or something similar, whereby you stay off your devices for a set amount of time.

Those sorts of solutions are good as far as they go, says Newport. But they don’t go far enough because they still treat utter distraction as the normative case. Freedom from distraction, an atmosphere conducive to focus and productivity, is treated as the exception. Have you ever considered what a strange view of the world and work that is?

Newport suggests that we treat DISconnectedness as the normative case and schedule periods of connectedness. 

Newport’s advice is to figure out how much Internet time you need  and schedule that time in blocks. Maybe your work requires that you need to check your email every hour (it probably doesn’t, but I don’t want to give anybody withdrawals). Ok. Give yourself a ten-minute block of Internet time every hour. The primary goal here isn’t to shorten the amount of time you spend on the Internet (though that is certainly one of the goals).The more important goal is for you stop giving yourself permission to flip back and forth between “deep work” and “shallow work” (or mere distraction). 

I have been coming to terms with just how readily I abandon the work of writing for irrelevancies. At the moment, for instance, I’m wondering whether it’s going to be raining at 7:30 this evening. I’m meeting my kids at Baja Burrito, and I want to sit on the patio. It would take me ten seconds to type “weather.com” in my browser. Or I could pull out my phone and tap on the weather app. It would be so easy. My palms are starting to sweat. My right eye is starting to twitch. But the truth is, I really don’t need to know right now what the weather is going to be at 7:30. I can easily wait for my next scheduled Internet time. For that matter, I can easily wait until 7:30 this evening and see for myself whether or not it’s raining.

These truths may seem self-evident to you. They seem self-evident to me. Now. But somehow I had forgotten that I don’t have to satisfy every curiosity that flits across my mind just because I happen to have a supercomputer in my pocket.

Citing a researcher named Clifford Nass, Newport writes,

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…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.

This is no longer just a matter of willpower, of simply hunkering down when it’s time to get serious about a cognitively demanding problem. It’s a matter of brain re-wiring.

Newport makes another exceedingly important report that for some reason we tend to ignore: we have a limited amount of willpower, and it gets exhausted as the day goes on. That’s not just defeatism. The finitude of willpower is a fact of human psychology noted by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (and, no doubt, earlier writers than that). 

I don’t care what area of life we’re talking about: you need to arrange your habits and your thinking in such a way that doing the best thing doesn’t require large expenditures of willpower. Ultimately, I believe, these remedies are theological. Augustine spoke of ordered and disordered loves. At the risk of over-simplifying or trivializing, I love puppy videos more than I love hard work, so it can take considerable willpower to keep plugging away at an issue of The Habit when YouTube, that Shangri-La of puppy videos, is just a click or two away. But in truth, I love connecting with readers and giving voice to significant ideas even more than I love puppy videos. When I hold tight to what I love more and keep a looser grip on what I love less, it doesn’t require nearly so much willpower to do the work and leave the puppies to their own devices.

Sorry to go even further down the rabbit hole, but I do want to offer this even cheerier word of hope from Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of virtue consists more in the Good than in the Difficult.” So, yes, your willpower is limited. But choosing the best (including choosing the most productive way to spend your time) isn’t so much a matter of gutting it out through sheer willpower as aligning yourself with the Good and the True and so aligning yourself with the grooves of how the universe actually runs.

And one good step in that direction is to stop thinking of the constant distractions of the online world as normal, and pockets of concentration and focus as somehow exceptions to the rule. That’s an upside-down and defeated view of your working life. 

Photo by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres on Unsplash

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