The quiet casualty of our hyper-connectivity, the unending psychic drain by the mystical internet, is our ability to focus. The fact is, the less you focus and concentrate in your life, the more your ability to do so wears away.
I recognize this each time I sit down to work on the next act of a play or the new verse of a song. I feel my attention swing and dip, waiver and jump, and then rudder into its well-trodden desire for techno-distraction. Every month an important project slips past unfinished, I notice my fading attention and my atrophying concentration.
But the more I want to create, the more I recognize the need for consistent and sustained periods of focus. Whether it’s writing a play, composing a new harmony, or developing a proposal, attention that sticks to the task at hand, is the essential creative skill.
The ability to do deeply focused work is “becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy” writes Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. (14)
As we place more of our attention on shallow activities like social media posting, email responding, and web surfing, we erode meaningful uses of our energy and our ability to do deep work. Over time, we might encounter an increased resistance to focusing, a discomfort with going deep, and a lackluster energy to do the work that means the most to us. Yet, there are strategies that can bring us back to life.
1. Create a distraction-free environment
Deep work requires, at a minimum, uninterrupted concentration in a distraction-free environment. The reason is relatively simple. Newport writes:
“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire again and again, in isolation.” (36)
Multitasking in effect is doing the opposite. It forces the brain to engage in a range of tasks without assigning priority inhibiting the isolation and growth of targeted neural circuitry. If you want to learn a new skill like playing the piano or write a screenplay, you’re shooting yourself in the foot by working in open workspaces or coffee shops that create the perfect environment to impedes deep work states. Neuroscientists running experiments for the British TV special, The Secret Life of Office Buildings tell us:
“If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the background, it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware of it at the time, the brain responds to distractions.” (51)
Given how many of us find it challenging to create time to work on our most important projects, we’d do better to put a premium on distraction-free environments that allow us to go deeper.
2. Inhibit Interruptions
Unfortunately, our brain is not very good at moving back and forth between concentration and distraction. A text or slack message, a phone call, even a friendly greeting are just a few of the ways our attention is interrupted. These small interruptions then add up, fragmenting our attention and diminishing the total energy we have to give to our task.
Even more, interruptions exponentially increase the amount of time needed to complete a project. For those of us with limited time to focus on our most important projects, this idea alone should be enough to get us to do all we can to block out interruptions for the duration of our work sessions.
The how is obvious (go to the library, wear headphones, turn off all phones and alerts, tell co-workers your offline for the next two hours, find an isolated corner, close your door), it’s the will to do so that is often left unengaged.
3. Build focus like a muscle
Focused attention is a skill that increases with practice. Like a new workout, the first few weeks are tiring and hard. We want to give up and do something easier. In the same way, as we increase the length of time in which we stick with increasing loads of cognitive intensity, we may want to stop, grab something to eat, check our phones, get another cup of coffee, etc.
But like exercise, the fluttering of attention away from what we are doing is part of the workout. We just keep bringing our attention back. And some interesting neurological benefits are garnered by those who do so.
In addition to producing more meaningful work, rapt concentration creates a mental environment where there is no attention left to worry, perseverate, or fall into despair.
4. Create routines and rituals
Routines and rituals move us beyond good intentions and help “minimize the amount of . . . limited willpower necessary to transition into a state of unbroken concentration.” (100)
The more specific and simple you can make your routines and rituals, the more likely they will support you when things get tough. When I am experimenting with a new ritual to increase my deep work states, I run through it a few times like an actor reviews their movements on stage. I get it in my body as much as possible so that when I’m tired or wanting to do something else, I give over to the ritual and let it guide me into my work (this is also a basic principle of most spiritual disciplines).
The type of ritual or routine is only limited by your imagination.
Here are a few examples:
- Creating a starting and ending ritual for your deep work sessions.
Doing your session in the same place or at the same time each day.
- Using the same pen or lighting a candle before you begin.
Reviewing your grandest vision of your project before you start.
Booking one weekend a month to work exclusively on a meaningful project.
- Putting a sign on your door letting everyone know you are not to be disturbed.
- Designating a target number of words or pages to write, measures to compose, or length of time to work.
5. Move email to the periphery of your work day
For most of us, email does not create new value nor engage us in meaningful work. It’s by and large reactive, depressing, and endless. When responding to email is left unscheduled, it eats away at our downtime, fragmenting our attention, and diminishing our rest.
Email is one of the key examples illustrating Newport’s principle of least resistance, wherein the absence of clear focus, “we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.” (58) Rather than taking charge of our attention and making the tough decision of what to work on when, we may drag our heels letting our inbox decide our daily fate.
6. Experiment with the forms of deep work
Newport identifies four basic approaches to deep work, the monastic (long uninterrupted periods of working, i.e. a week, a month), the bimodal (multi-day depth binges, say from Friday-Sunday), the rhythmic (habit-based approach that creates daily routines — see chain method, daily schedule.), and the journalistic (finding short depth periods during a fluctuating schedule — best for those already confident in their abilities).
All three philosophies have advantages and disadvantages. For example, a bimodal person who focuses for a three-day weekend may achieve a level of cognitive intensity unavailable to a person following the rhythmic or journalistic philosophy. On the other hand, the rhythmic person may be doing more deep work in total over a month period and can fit their deep work sessions into their daily work schedule.
I’m inspired by the fact that, for most people, all four philosophies can be tried during a year and tested to see which produces the greatest results and the deepest creativity for you.
7. Do the unexpected
There is a reason that train rides, hiking, wandering, and traveling has long been a fascination of artists. These activities place the artist in unexpected terrain, encourage new perspectives, and pull them from the routine of their daily lives.
To inspire deep work or push through a challenging dip in a project, try doing something unexpected. Newport mentions a few inspiring examples including J.K. Rowling’s move to a luxurious hotel to finish the last of the Harry Potter books, Bill Gates’ Think Weeks in which he goes to a remote location with a stack of papers and books to read and think about, and entrepreneur Peter Shankman’s legendary 30-hour round-trip flight to Tokyo on which he completed an entire book manuscript.
These, of course, are rare examples fit for a small segment of the population, but they point to something we can all do: find ways to encourage openness and curiosity while keeping deep work in mind. Some examples could include going camping, house-sitting, asking to use a friend’s summer house during the off-season or your parent’s house when they travel, renting a cabin, taking a cross-country train ride, taking a solitary hike or a long drive while thinking through a problem, or exploring a new library in your area.
8. Reclaim your downtime
The paradox is that idleness and rest are necessary to get deep work done. The outpour of energy needed to achieve focused intensity requires their opposite: relaxed, open attention, and rest. But the busy, frenetic mind remains obsessed with creating reasons why boredom, idleness, and rest could not possibly increase our creative output, how we’ll get behind, how we’re not dedicated enough.
To counteract this tendency, Newport gives us reasons why downtime is essential. The most obvious is that rest is required to restore the energy needed for cognitive intensity. Particularly useful is getting adequate sleep and walking in nature (walking in cities seems to deplete energy).
More interestingly, he tells us that downtime aids insights. Citing a 2006 paper in Science that questions whether the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision-making are justified, the Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis concludes that they are not. Following this thought Newport writes:
“The authors of this study . . . set out to prove that some decisions are better left to your unconscious mind to untangle. In other words, to actively try to work through these decisions will lead to a worse outcome than loading up the relevant information and then moving on to something else while letting the subconscious layers of your mind mull things over.” (145)
The final reason given for building rest and restorative activities to balance your deep work sessions is that the work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important. The mind can easily turn on anxiety and stress and encourage us to start working again after dinner. But Newport cautions us against this habit. The activities you do in the evening are of lower energy and quality and will most likely not advance your important goals. In most cases, they can be easily deferred.
9. Take breaks from focus, not distraction
The most common way, we are presented, to deal with our increasing screen time usage and fragmented attention is summarized like this: take short breaks from your generalized state of distraction. Internet Sabbaths or digital detoxes, in which a person takes one day a week or a few days every quarter to refrain from digital toys, are the most common.
If your goal is to increase your ability to focus and reduce the background noise of the mind, these methods don’t work. They do not provide enough time and attention to work at the level of brain wiring and habit formation. In fact, they help to keep you unfocused most of the time
Newport proposes an alternative: take breaks from focus, not from distraction. Instead of scheduling time away from distracting technology, schedule your usage of them. To do this, consider all your internet surfing, email responding, social media posting, and even texting as distracted activities. Then schedule their usage during the day and don’t use them at any other time. To be clear, it’s not about not using your devices, but deciding consciously when to use them. Every time you decide to use your phone and do your email, rather than an alert or an open tab on your computer conditioning you to do it, you improve your ability to focus.
By scheduling your distracted time and maintaining the rest of your life in focus, you’ll reclaim (some) of your ability to be attentive and present and improve your deep work sessions.
10. Embrace the challenge of deep work.
Cognitive intensity is hard. You’re pushing your abilities, building new skills, creating new ideas. There’s no way around this challenge. But our smartphones and internetting keep rattling off a singsong of freedom that reads like this: “No matter where you are, we’re here for you, just a click away. You can always remove yourself from whatever you don’t like (a conversation, a party, waiting in line at the market) and jump right into a land of endless fascination.”
But this freedom is fool’s gold. Embracing it reduces your ability to keep going when the work becomes uncomfortable. And it will. If it doesn’t, you haven’t seen what you can really do. This is the gift of deep work. You create the conditions to call upon the greatest expression of your own resources, resources you were almost sure you didn’t have. It sounds almost heroic because it is.
*I am grateful to Cal Newport and his excellent book Deep Work from which these ideas have been gathered.