We've all been there. You sit down at your computer eager to begin working on the task at hand, but within a few short minutes, you're overwhelmed with distractions. Facebook messages, emails, news feeds, applications, push notifications; the list goes on and on.
Unfortunately, true concentration is getting harder and harder to achieve. Distractions these days are everywhere, especially if you work in an open-concept space or a freelancer who regularly makes the local coffee shop their office.
According to experts, the average person looks at the phone every 12 minutes during the day. This means that, on average, we stop what we're doing 80 times a day to mindlessly check our phone.
Having a short attention span can become a serious issue, especially when trying to concentrate on fixing a problem that requires added focus. On average, it takes a person up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to fully regain concentration after looking at their phone. It's no surprise that many experts consider concentration one of the most valued skills of the 21st century.
"There are two key skills for success in the new economy: a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and a skill to produce better results in less time," wrote Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In his book, Newport outlines a concept, which he describes as deep work; a skill of concentrated focus which is quite rare in today's world.
Newport explains deep work as a state of undisturbed concentration that forces a person to use their cognitive abilities to their maximum potential.
On the other hand, there's shallow work. Unlike deep work, these tasks are cognitively undemanding and can be performed without the need for deep concentration. Although tasks that fall into the shallow work framework are easily achieved (think of them as busywork), they rarely bring added dimensions of value to more complicated tasks.
In his book, Newport states. "The ability to do deep work is becoming more and more rare, while it is increasingly sought after in our economy. As a result, the few people who will be able to master it and then make it the foundation of their working life will be exceptionally successful."
The bottom line of deep work is: work smarter not harder. It stems from the idea that only high-quality work = (spent time) x (intensity of concentration) for desired results.
Newport described the four basic rules of deep work as:
Rule 1: Work deeply
In the beginning, create clever routines and rituals to aid you in your working life. Newport describes (again) four strategies that will help you put these concepts into practice:
When testing these methods, you'll learn which suits your particular work style best. A good rule-of-thumb is to reserve some time in your calendar solely dedicated to deep work. This will help you build a strong work ethic over time.
Rule 2: Get bored
Although boredom may seem antithetical to high productivity, the truth is rest and boredom have profound effects on influencing our thoughts and concentration in positive ways.
Newport lists several reasons:
The important thing to remember: you're taking a break from concentration, not from distraction.
As Newport explains, "Rather than planning a break from distractions from time to time in order to be able to concentrate, you should plan a break from concentration so you can confine yourself to distractions."
Fortunately, this strategy works even if you need to use the internet or quickly respond to some emails. Newport recommends planning your time spent on the internet wisely, never using it outside of your predetermined schedule (not only at work but also at home). This exercise is incredibly helpful for establishing your concentration training as part of your daily ritual.
Rule 3: Leave social media
According to Newport, being aware of the problems social media creates for concentration is something everyone should be concerned about. "Using a networking tool is justified if you can find some potential benefits of using it or if there is anything you could miss while not using it."
Our brains tell us all sorts of stories about why we shouldn't leave social media. To learn for yourself if these stories are true, perhaps try stopping the use of social media for 30 days (not necessarily all at once). After these 30 days, try answering the following questions:
If the answer to both questions is yes, you should consider stopping the use of social media permanently. If you answered no, perhaps it's time to return. If your answers were more ambiguous, it is up to you to decide what's best. However, Newport suggests opting to leave social media if you're intended goal is to maximize your concentration potential.
Rule 4: Get rid of shallowness
The last, and perhaps the most vital rule: get rid of shallowness. As Newport puts it, "You should approach shallow work with distrust because the damage it can do is often underestimated and its importance is greatly overestimated. This type of work is necessary, but you must not let it undermine your deep activities, which are the ones that will ultimately determine your success."
Lessening the time spent on shallow work helps improve daily efficiency. For example, if you schedule small amounts of time a day for shallow work (similar to time spent on the internet) you will learn to complete these tasks quicker (instead of allowing something that should have taken just a few minutes, take an hour).
Keep in mind, there's no need to follow this schedule religiously. Your goal should simply be to observe the schedule, using it to help progress your projects further. Based on your own experience, you'll learn which organizational method works best for you.
Newport concludes, "Deep work, of course, is not for everyone. It takes focus and a radical change in your habits. While many enjoy being "busy," exchanging emails or showing off on social media, we must get rid of many of these activities in order to achieve a deeper life. Trying to do your best always leads to a bit of anxiety because you have to face the possibility that your best might just not be enough yet."
"If you are willing to put aside comfort and anxiety and make full use of your mental capacity to create something that makes sense, you will see, like others before you, that deep work leads to a life full of productivity and fulfillment.