Warning! This article contains many Wikipedia links to interesting concepts, and you may get lost down a wiki “rabbit hole” with many tabs open. If you’re the kind of person who is prone to this and are meant to be working, either set yourself a timer or read this later.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Deep Work – a concept and book of the same name by Cal Newport. In the book, Newport posits a hypothesis that:
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
He defines deep work as:
“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.”
Newport makes a strong case that in order to thrive in an increasingly knowledge-worker based economy, you need the abilities:
1. to quickly master hard things
2. to produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed
The second ability is common sense in a capitalistic society, and applies to virtually any occupation in which one ‘produces’ something. The first one, however, is more pertinent to knowledge-workers and is necessary in maintaining the second ability – especially in the fast evolving STEM fields.
It should go without saying that mastering a set of skills (in any profession) is not something that has a finish line – it is something that is continually learned and practiced. However, in order to ‘quickly master’ hard (and often entirely new) things, one must learn as effectively and efficiently as possible. Newport writes about how building layers of myelin around neurons cements a skill, and that working at a skill through deep work triggers this myelination most effectively. This doesn’t seem right to me (see criticism below), but regardless of the exact science, the point is – as anyone would likely agree – the best way to master any skill is through intense focus, practise, and without distraction – i.e. deep work.
Distractions and Interruptions
Attention residue is a fantastic term that Newport uses in the book. It relates to something called continuous partial attention. CPA is similar, but slightly different, to multitasking – which, it turns out, is not something we can do – consider distracted driving. Attention residue is the idea that every time we have a cognitive switch of context part of your brain will continue on processing the previous task for some time. This is where the importance of removing distractions and interruptions comes in. When you are interrupted, you make a cognitive switch of context to the the thing that interrupted you, and then have to switch back to the original task. You are now left with part of your brain thinking about the interruption – even if you had dealt with it immediately, then and there.
For example, say you trying to focus on some task, and you get an email popup notification. In the 2 seconds to see that notification, you’ve taken in: who it’s from, the subject, and maybe the first few lines of the body. That is more than enough information to get your mind thinking about how to address that problem – taking away valuable cognitive resources from your current task. Even if it was just a ‘ping’ with no popup, it’s enough to get you speculating about what you may have just received, or get you thinking about an email you’ve been meaning to send.
It gets worse. A recent study by Ward et al. (2017) found that the mere presence of one’s smartphone was enough to trigger what they called “brain drain” – a similar concept to attention residue and CPA.
All of this builds up to paint a rather clear picture: if you want to get the most out of your attention and cognitive abilities for both work and learning, you must remove any and all distractions.
In his book, Newport outlines knowledge-workers’ pressing need to perform deep work, the importance of focus/attention to a task, and the highly detrimental effect of distractions. The takeaway here is: if you want to “be the best you that you can be” and do the hard things, you need to aspire to perform deep work as often as possible. Not discussed here were the various methods he suggests in order to do more deep work and mitigate distractions – you’ll have to read his book for those. I’m sure you can also come up with some of your own, but here are some free ones:
- Make use of the Do Not Disturb features on your phone and computer
- Put your phone in another room entirely
- Keep instant messaging and email clients closed
- Instead of checking social media, use small breaks to:
– Go for a walk outside, take in some nature (reduces stress) and give your eyes a break from near work
Author’s Criticism of Newport’s Claims
I’m no neuroscientist, but it seems like Newport has told a half-truth in order to prey on a term that people might just be familiar enough with to accept at face value. I would have referenced Hebbian theory – “neurons that fire together, wire together” – or LTP. The science of how we learn is complicated and incomplete. If you look at the Wikipedia page on learning, you can see just how many different types and theories there are. When researching myelin, learning and memory recall were not things that came up. Something familiar that did come up, though, was multiple sclerosis – an autoimmune disease where the myelin sheaths are damaged. It is a horrible disease, and if you would like to donate to a local charity, you can find a list of organisations here.
Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain Drain: The Mere Presence ofOne’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.
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