Managing Distraction to Better Work – and Life

Book Review: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, By Cal Newport, 2016

photo Dustin Lee, Unspash

Recently reading Cal Newport’s recent book, Digital Minimalism, I followed up by reading his previous book, Deep Work. How much time do you spend at work? I not only spend a large percentage of the week working, I also spend a lot of time thinking about how to maximize work and business. This book is a great guide for how to make the most of your work life and your ability to focus.

Cal Newport is a Computer Science assistant professor at Georgetown University. He began his blog Study Hacks in 2007 in support of students mastering study habits and success. He has been prolifically productive. He’s authored six books, and published over 60 articles in his field that have been cited over 3500 times. Methinks he knows what he is talking about in terms of “focused success”.

His skill for deep work and focus is not an accident or lucky attribute, but something he has studied most of his student and working life. He did have the good fortune to work near several giants of focus, and paid attention to their habits. He also has the ability let’s guess, to think outside the box. That’s what can happen when you master focusing enough to think deeply, on a regular basis.

One of those boxes today, i.e., unquestioned frameworks, is that all authors need to have social media accounts, and be accessible by email, and that all college professors have to work 70 hours a week, answering emails and work demands at night and on the weekends. Yet his models don’t do this, and they still meet all requirements and excel in their field. These giants, and his own experience and research, give clear guidance on how to develop the mental muscles to work deeply. By doing this, you not only contribute your best skills through your work life, but you also have time for the other rewarding areas of life.

Another box that Mr. Newport’s deep thinking and focusing allowed him to question is the idea of following your passion. If you want to end up loving work, this is bad advice, he finds. His 2012 book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work you Love, is another foundation in his body of work. Yep, that’s on the list now.

The author thinks that today, as the ability to have the strong focus to pull off deep work gets harder and harder due to the level of distraction in the world, this skill is becoming more valued. There is no shortage of work that requires deep cognitive and translation abilities. Yes, this is about productivity, that’s part of it. But much of his work points to how to axe the lost time and lost quality of life that distraction breeds, in order to live a life that deeply connects to your skills and most important values.

In my own life, though I’m a low user of digital media, I feel quite distracted and check it too often. Newport’s body of work is powerful and needed for helping turn this mess around. His next book will focus on email. Check out this recent blog of Cal Newport’s that outlines some of the benefits of following his Digital Minimalism advice for resetting your focus.

Other important points to consider from the book:

How many truly productive hours do you have in your work day – without interruption? In today’s work environment, it’s lucky if you have two productive hours in a row.¬† This is due to both our reaching for email/checking messages, and corporate “visibility” policies. There may need to be some up front discussion / negotiation here about your work day, and / or the step of rising earlier to work deeply.

How much time do you have that is unscheduled after work? This open time is needed by our minds and beings, for processing, for resetting. Often this is when boredom will initially arise because you’re used to reaching for the phone.

How clean of an ending do you have at the end of the day? Newport uses a ritual to review tasks lists, plan for the next day (this is at most 30 minutes), and then he’ll declare out loud, something to the effect of “shutdown complete”. This is important for the above point of having time away from digital work, projects, and workplace comrades. Both productivity and creativity benefit from having that open processing time to be able to destress and attend to other areas of life you enjoy.

I was struck by work with a client last week in this area. He manages a team, and deals with incredible demands, from his manager to be visible and reporting in frequently, from his subordinates who he’s supposed to delegate to, and then of course he’s expected to be completely present at home and with loved ones. Who wouldn’t be thinking of work and whether any details had been forgotten, etc. when usual workloads are more imposing than previous decades? He noted that the ability to work deeply, and then leave it at end of day, is not a luxury, it’s survival!! (His work with the symbol of the mother Silverback Gorilla cemented this realization for him… She knows what’s important and acts on it!)

I’ll continue to explore this rabbit hole of intelligent thinking. What about your level of distraction reader, does it concern you? Let me know if you’d be interested in joining a group that would follow his 30 day plan to drop all but the mandatory media as you reorganize your digital appetite to feed on what you most value. Share¬† your ideas below.

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