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In the 25 years that the internet has been around, the connected among us have had the superficial, disorganized part of our brain treated to a feast. Simultaneously, the remaining hard working, focused part of the brain wastes away.
When the New York Times asked Alessandro Acquisti, professor of IT at Carnegie Mellon, to design “an experiment to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted”, the results were “dismal”. Test takers who were distracted were 20% dumber. That’s enough to turn “a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent)”.
The body of evidence only grows. One study in the Journal of Digital Information even suggests that reading documents with hyperlinks leads to lower retention.
This constant distraction forces us to enter a shallow world of low concentration, little contemplation, and lower test scores. As Nicholas Carr wrote in his much-loved essay Is Google Making Us Stupid?:
My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
It’s easy to become stuck in this world of shallow work. Cal Newport, in his latest book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, defines this as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
Distraction as the Enemy of Progress
Shallow work isn’t de facto bad. Performing chores around the house, or filing mundane expense sheets are a necessary part of life. But as our days are filled with more distractions, our brains become wired to thrive on distraction. And the shallow work that accompanies it.
The perpetual access to network tools (email, Slack), social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter), and info-tainment sites (Reddit, Buzzfeed) feed this issue. These distractions have, according to Newport “fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers. A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail.”
With so much time spent on shallow work, the brain’s ability to work deeply becomes compromised. This leads to less great work, and less value-creation, in a world that sorely needs it.
Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Don’t Blame Technology
Like Kentaro Toyama says in his 2015 book Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From The Cult of Technology:
Technologies primary effect is to amplify human forces. Like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions.
The human mind wills us toward the easy, and away from the arduous. Toward entertainment, and away from difficult inquiry. Toward shallow work, and away from deep work.
Technology has only served to assist us in gorging on these natural impulses. Where in the past we would gossip on street corners, we now scroll through a Facebook feed.
But we can also use technology to help overcome these natural impulses. To help re-develop the capacity for deep work that technology has disintegrated over the years.
Discipline vs. Motivation
When it comes to work on something that matters or on something that’s difficult, the time to work deeply has arrived. In these situations, we tend to rely on one of two things: motivation or discipline.
There’s little denying that motivation can be a great way to usher people “into the zone”. The motivation from certain kinds of music can increase physical performance. We’ve even found that watching three motivational videos per day can change one’s life.
But there’s a faulty assumption that surrounds motivation. This is explained nicely in Zbyhnev’s essay, Screw motivation, what you need is discipline. The assumption is that “a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task … At its core, chasing motivation is insistence on the fantasy that we should only be doing things we feel like doing.”
And therein lies motivation’s unreliability problem. If you can’t force yourself into that required state of mind, the deep work doesn’t get touched.
When it comes to deep work, you need something more reliable.
Newport says, “If [Caro and Darwin] had instead waited for inspiration to strike before settling in to serious work, their accomplishments would likely have been greatly reduced”.
When your success relies on entering a deep work state routinely and on cue, you can’t put your trust solely in motivation. You have to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway who didn’t wait for that right feeling. Instead he had the discipline to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed”, time and time again.
By cultivating discipline and shunning our reliance on motivation, we can cultivate the habit of deep work. This enables us to dedicate significant chunks of time to difficult (but meaningful) tasks. All without needing to worry about having the motivation to get started. Once that habit becomes strong, our natural impulse will tend toward difficult but rewarding tasks, over shallow, less-rewarding tasks.
To allude back to Toyama’s work, we can then use technology to assist us in developing this discipline — and later in “amplifying” our ability to produce deep work, rather than amplifying our vices.
Developing Discipline to Get Things Done
I want to draw on (and add to) the essay Practical Discipline here. The idea of discipline to many people is scary. They believe they don’t have the willpower to see things through based on discipline alone. Maybe right now they don’t.
While developing discipline then, incorporating some motivational cues may help. I’ve mentioned some of these below. Once the habits start to set in, the need for motivation becomes less and discipline can take over.
Many people fail when it comes to discipline because they take on too much. Instead, discipline should be introduced gradually through micro-habits. For example, if you want to write a book, having the discipline to write for hours on end will be almost impossible. Instead, write for five minutes. The next day, seven minutes. The day after, nine minutes. Before you know it, you’ll have the discipline to write for two hours straight (more of a feat than it sounds).
Given time, your body and mind will become disciplined enough to carry out these habits without external motivation. You can also use the same approach to kill bad habits.
If you need some temporary motivation while these habits set in, use an app like coach.me. With this app, you’re able to note each time you complete a task that you want to turn into a habit. The notifications and visual cues will help. After a few weeks, the habit should be ingrained enough to stop using the app (or start building another micro-habit).
If you regularly have large tasks that you need to complete, but routinely fail to be motivated by them, like with micro-habits, you should break these down into micro-tasks.
List these out in a to-do list, and make clear which items you’ll be tackling next. There are a range of impressive to-do list apps out there that can help with all of this.
You may not have the discipline to tackle the task in its entirety (write presentation). But starting some of the smaller tasks will take much less discipline (spend 10 minutes researching presentation). Once you’ve overcome the resistance of getting started on one of the smaller tasks, the resistance tends to crumble for the other tasks. The motivation will come as an effect (not a cause) of completing those tasks. You’ll then have a snowball on your hands.
It can be of great help to have a dedicated place where you perform your deep work, with a set ritual (e.g. a cup of tea, Chopin in the background) that act as a cue to push your mind into the right gear.
When you’re trying to cultivate the discipline to work deeply, you need to remove as many distractions as possible. Any notification can turn into a time-suck that throws you off course for hours, potentially rendering your day bereft of any deep work at all. As you get used to concentrating for longer periods of deep work, the discipline to ignore distractions tends to come naturally.
We’ve written before about how you can turn your computer into a distraction-free machine.
That article will show you everything from how to disable notifications and remove clutter, to blocking distracting websites and automating shallow work.
If you feel you still need the added push to work deeply, consider introducing stakes. This could be something as simple letting people know your intentions on social media. The humiliation you’ll feel if you fail could be enough to force you to take action.
If you need something more serious, make a bet with a friend — i.e. if I don’t complete that presentation by tonight, I’ll send you $100.
Stikk is a great app that can help with this. Flight is a similar app that will send your financial stake to a charity or cause you hate if you fail to meet your goals.
Is Discipline the Tricky Secret?
After developing enough discipline to reliably enter a deep work mode, procrastination will fall away. You’ll be able to expand your professional and creative comfort zone, without external motivation, knowing that you’re less likely to fall victim to distractions.
To go back to Newport, “a commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement — it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done”. After all, “It’s a commitment to [deep work] that allowed Bill Gates to make the most of an unexpected opportunity to create a new industry.”
Do you feel like you need more discipline to help you get started on larger, more difficult tasks? Do you think the tips above will help you to enter a state of deep work?
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