Music has long been understood to have remarkable impact on mood and cognitive functioning – hence fun fads like expecting mom’s playing classical for their unborn children. And for me, moving from open office to open office, customizing my auditory environment has become an integral part of the focused work experience. Over the years I’ve tried playing all sorts of things, from white noise to movie sound tracks. Finally, I think I’ve found the ticket to getting on the right wavelength: brain.fm.
Listening in, I hear binaural beats overlaid on soft melodies, which induce a deep state of engagement. While I haven’t hooked myself up to an electroencephalogram to measure efficacy, I’m sure the pros behind it are testing this out.
The focus option does the trick to blur out all distraction and leave you to think deeply. The first few sessions are free, so give it a try – you’ll thank yourself for it later when you see how well you’re using your time!
I have uncovered a mythical place, a place rumored of and nearly forgotten by the throws of modern life. It is a somber house, full of reverent heads bowed with devout focus over their written works, towards which their hearts turn. I walked in, uncertain of whether to speak. “May I help you?” the lady behind the booth asked. Slanting the volume of my voice downward, I reply, “The three last issues of Wired magazine, please.”
Yes, it was the New York Public Library. The silence hits you like a wall when you enter an archive or a reading room. There is a shared agreement and understanding: all come to work, to thrive upon the focus in the air, which each new devotee adds to.
I can almost imagine benefactor Samuel Tilden standing upon the steps of the 5th Avenue entrance, declaring in the lantern light: “Give us your addled, your burdened, your distracted masses who yearn to focus freely!”
Does it ever feel like your brain is overheating from fragmenting attention between too many things, flitting back and forth between tasks, with sometimes little progress to show for it? Well you’re not alone, and Cal Newport is going to be our Dr. Phil of attention, helping us to improve our quality of work and quality of life. The following summary of Deep Work walks through his advice on how to build our ability to engage deeply with our activities.
Newport argues that in the modern economy there will be three types of winners: 1) those with access to capital, 2) those that are the best in their fields, and 3) those who work well with increasingly complex machines. The most viable route to economic success for must of us will be Path #3.
To work well with ever-evolving machines, you must be a great learner who can do deep work, i.e. focus intensely. Fun fact: intense focus triggers the same brain cells repeatedly and builds up myelin, which bulks up that neural pathway. Sort of like body building for your brain.
1) The measure of deep work is time spent x intensity of focus. That’s what you want to maximize!
2) Deep work can be done bimodally (days to months as a time); rhythmically (several blocks of time each day); or like a journalist (whenever you can squeeze time in on the go)
Note on Technique: for those with less control over your schedule and less recent practice with deep work, the Pomodoro Technique may work best for blocking off deep work sessions followed by shallow work sessions or breaks. For example, 40 minutes of deep work followed by 20 minutes of shallow work 6 times a day can still achieve the target of 4 total hours of deep work per day. These shallow work periods may end up as over-flow buffers initially as you train yourself up to longer, unbroken periods of time.
You need to have 10 consecutive unbroken deep periods of a given time increment, as short as 10 minutes, before you start building up to longer periods.
3) Set up a systematized ritual – create a time bound, distraction free environment with all the right materials and enough food/energy
4) Avoid frequent task switching, as this leaves “attention residue”, a state of semi-attention as you’re still thinking about the last task when you start a new one
5) Choose to work on “the wildly important”
6) Collaborate with others in a way where you still break off for independent deep work
Pitfalls and solutions
1) Switching to an easier thought task – avoid this by structuring the path forward
2) Looping, i.e. reviewing what you know already – avoid this by consolidating gains upon which to build
3) Shallow activities – cut these out without excessive apology
4) E-mail – lay out a ‘path to closure’ to open-ended e-mails by laying out all steps to completion in one fell swoop
Note on E-mail: we’ve all rattled off quick replies that we know will generate three or more back-and-forths. Nip this in the bud by laying out everything you know will be discussed, including your availability for meetings requested, or any further information you will need. Add “no reply expected” or “I will consider your reply a confirmation” to minimize future e-mail traffic.
The path forward laid out by Newport is a call to action, with the knowledge that this means dragging our brains kicking and screaming. Our brains are seekers of distraction yet, paradoxically, convey the most satisfaction to us when we hit the “flow state” associated with deep work. Like eating your greens or hitting the gym, your body and mind will thank you for the deep work exercise you put it through. So pull out that weekly schedule or that Pomodoro timer, block out that time or set that target daily hours tally. You can start sculpting that focused mind today. (I say this having written this post with only one coffee break and two 5 minute side chats in between. We’re all a work in progress 🙂
Index Card Book Summaries: because most practical books can be summarized on an index card
Tim Harford posed a provocative question as to whether orderliness always benefits us. He unearths the human psychology that causes us to seek order while also showing the pitfalls and missed opportunities from being too orderly and the benefits of strategic mess! While Tim does this in 300 pages, I’m happy to share the 3 bullet summary:
1. Messy processes can bread creative and higher quality solutions
2. Trying to force structure on naturally messy processes can result in negative unintended consequences
3. As people have become very automated in their own social interactions, they should look to self-disrupt to re-engage with one another
Point 1 is an obvious one for artists and the avant garde. But in relation to point 3, if we find ourselves in the well worn grooves of work and personal life patterns, how do we tap into the rest of our brains to enliven and draw on the other ideas and connections we can make? More on that in a minute.
Point 2 is particularly dangerous with the automation of legal decisions. I’ve heard of several friends being mistakenly placed on terrorist watch lists, interrupting medical degrees and personal lives. This isn’t to say that machine learning can’t be leveraged to accelerate pattern recognition, but we just need to be careful about the new robo cops on the block receiving too much autonomy.
Back to unpacking Point 3, the subtle call to self-disrupt. What this will mean in the macro and micro, personal and professional level is really up to you. The humble high achievers out there might be shivering at this business-bantery term and feel the impulse to artfully side step the charge, lest they become too much of a walking resume. But what this really is about is engaging your full self. It’s about snapping out of “shoulds” and survival mode, and tuning into the bigger you. Like the X-Men Apocalypse entourage, but for good.
If you’re curious for a longer read, here’s the book link!
Most avid readers of self improvement and business books will have noticed a common thread among all of them: they are overly padded. Watch the TED talk or listen to a podcast cameo by the author, and you’ll have absorbed 90% of the book content already. Naturally the anecdotes, statistics, and gritty details give more color and life to the author’s premises that support learning styles of every type. But for folks with limited time and considerable ground they’d like to cover in the practical learning department, I think an index card summary would suffice.
Why an Index Card?
Of course I am not the first to make the observation that authors add some cushion to their content in their endeavor to build a brand, substantiate a product, and look good on a shelf next to other books. Harold Pollack first made this now widely accepted observation about personal finance books in a now famed article. Of course his followers asked “Where’s the index card?” He replied with a photo of a handwritten index card summarizing all the key personal finance principles, which went viral. And, of course, his summary was soon padded out into a book: The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated.
In an effort to conveniently aggregate the latest wisdom and research for navigating our offices and lives, I am initiating a new series: the Index Card Book Summaries. As I continue to read these books that I think shouldn’t be books, I’ll share the pithy version of the key findings with you. Happy not reading!