I used to be the kind of guy who would annoy people in school. Without little effort (homework, paying attention in class, attending class), I usually got an A, or a B, while others put in a lot more effort and did barely better than me, if at all. This continued into my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees where I could write essays and theses in just a few days or even just a few hours.
The reason for my ability to produce something good in little time with little effort was that I was really good at concentrating. I didn’t even realise it, because I took it for granted, but I used to be able to sit down and forget about everything else and do one thing for a few hours until it was done. What might seem like bragging is in fact the opposite; all of the above is in the past tense. For the past weeks I have noticed that I can barely sit down and focus on anything properly for more than a few minutes. My mind wanders and so do I, leaving my desk, talking to people, browsing the internet, thinking about other projects, checking my phone. But now, as a PhD student, I need focus more than ever. The question is: where did my ability to focus go? And most importantly, how do I get it back?
While asking myself this question, I remembered a book I read about a year ago: Deep Work by Cal Newport. The book is split into two sections: In the first, Newport shows how important it is to be able to concentrate fully, to work deeply; in the second section, he offers some practical tips for increasing one’s ability to work deeply. The entire book is worth reading and I recommend it to anyone who wants to do interesting work and achieve something, but in this essay I will focus on one chapter of the second half, titled ‘Embrace Boredom’.
The basic premise is that spending substantial time in a distracted state of shallow concentration (e.g., watching short videos on YouTube, scrolling through the Facebook news feed, or ‘infotainment’ websites, such as Buzzfeed1) can permanently reduce one’s ability to focus when necessary. Those who spend much time in a distracted state are less able to flip the switch to concentrated work when required to do so. To work deeply, we need to be fine without any external stimulation for long periods of time and these websites and apps actively reduce our ability to do just that. At the moment this is a problem for me, as I flit from one stimulating website or app to the next as soon as I encounter a problem at work. Whenever I run into a dead end in my work, I take my phone and check social media sites or apps or websites to see if anything new has happened, even though I don’t really care; it’s all about the brief kick from new external stimulation to dampen this slight discomfort.
Of course, I have used social media and such websites to some degree for most of my adult life, but until recently I always had three hobbies that would dramatically reduce the amount of time I could spend in such a state: sports, and music and photography. I always used to do lots of sports, almost daily for large stretches of my adult life, and I also often played the piano or took photos for up to several hours a day. These activities aid concentration in two crucial ways: first, they are activities that require complete concentration to do well and therefore actively train it; secondly, and more importantly in this context, they stop you from getting into states of shallow concentration.
The main reason I think for why I now spend more time on my phone or the internet is mainly that since moving to Berlin a few weeks ago I haven’t started exercising, doing music, or taking photos regularly yet. It’s not so much that these activities increase concentration greatly, but they block any activity that would reduce concentration. So it’s fairly easy for me to see now how substituting some of the time I spend doing music or sports with reading an online newspaper and checking apps has really damaged my ability to focus. It sounds so simple, and it is, but until I reread Deep Work, it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be a relationship between me not doing sports or music or photography, and me not being able to concentrate properly. Instead of doing something that increases my ability to focus, I now do something that actively decreases my ability to focus; no wonder I’m finding it hard to concentrate.
By reading Deep Work, I realised more explicitly than before that my ability to work deeply is my most important current skill, the one I need to cultivate the most if I want to do cool research. So for the next 102 days2 I will try to optimise my ability to work deeply; I will focus on focus.
In those 102 days, I will optimise two metrics: 1) time spent in deep work, and 2) intensity of deep work. Even most highly successful people can’t do much more than 4 hours of deep work per day, so my goal is to be able to do three fully focussed 1.5h sessions of deep work every day. Three daily 1.5h sessions of absolute deep work, that’s all I’m aiming for. If I can do that, my challenge will have been successful. In the end, I will write a follow-up post on this challenge to review whether focus on focus really is all that useful, and share the tips and strategies that worked best for me. If one’s ability to work deeply really is as crucial as Cal Newport makes it out to be, we should all do our utmost to increase it.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
1 The same applies to online newspapers with a comments section where comments can be recommended by users. My favourite way to waste time on the internet is to visit The Guardian, which provides some seemingly objective measure of how good a comment is (based on the number of recommendations a comment gets). I think this actively inhibits thinking. When I read articles on The Guardian, I now often read the article quickly and then spend more time with the comments. It’s almost as if the article is just background information for the comments. By now I barely notice what I think about the article, but anticipate what others will say and which positions will be popular. Additionally, you’re never without immediate external stimulation because there are always more comments and more articles to read.
2 Why 102 days? 100 days seems long enough for a long-term effect, but not so long as to be too distant. The 100th day after 01.01.2017 is the 10th of April; my birthday is the 12th of April and for simplicity, I’ll take that instead.