September 22nd, 2020 · 27 comments
A reader recently pointed me toward an intriguing article published in 2017 in the Journal for the Association of Consumer Research. It was titled, “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”
The authors of the paper report the results of a straightforward experiment. Subjects are invited into a laboratory to participate in some assessment exercises. Before commencing, however, they’re asked to put their phones away. Some subjects are asked to place their phone on the desk next to the computer on which they’re working; some are told to put their phone in their bag; some are told to put their phone in the other room. (The experimenters had clever ways of manipulating these conditions without arousing suspicion.)
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September 16th, 2020 · 27 comments
Eric Posner is arguably one of the most influential and prolific law professors in the country at the moment. Which is why I paid attention when around the 39 minute mark of a recent interview, Posner was asked his thoughts on law professors using Twitter.
“I’ve thought about this a lot because it now seems like every law professor wants to have this public presence,” Posner replied. “And I increasingly think this is a serious mistake.”
As he elaborates, becoming a “good” academic who is “serious” about research is a hard job:
“It requires a huge amount of work, especially at the beginning, to absorb the literature, to absorb the norms…I think a lot of junior people who are on Twitter…should be educating themselves.”
As he then clarifies, most of what transpires on Twitter is people “ranting” and reading other peoples’ “rants.” Participating in that culture, he says, doesn’t contribute in a meaningful way to the public debate.
The interviewer then presents Posner with another standard argument for why academics should engage with social media: it’s a way to “establish prominence in a field or establish name recognition.”
Posner doesn’t buy it:
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September 11th, 2020 · 30 comments
One of the notable realities of my life, given the topics I write about, is the regularity with which people send me various articles about the work habits of the novelist Michael Connelly. Here’s a representative sample from an interview published in The Daily Beast:
“I get up to write while it’s still dark, 5 or 5:30. I start by editing and rewriting everything I did the day before, and that gives some momentum for the day. I get to new territory when the sun is coming up. I take a break to take my daughter to school…then I get back to it. If it’s early in a book, I’ll only write til lunch, because it can be hard for me to get that momentum going. If it’s late in a book and really flowing, I’ll just keep writing and writing until I’m either too tired or have been called to dinner.”
He later elaborates that he uses blackout shades to transform his writing office into a space beyond time. “You don’t know if it’s light or dark,” he explains. “I just try to put everything else out of focus and look only at the screen of my laptop.”
This routine is common among popular genre fiction writers (see, for example, John Grisham or Lee Child). To fulfill the economic necessity of publishing one book per year — which, as I can tell you from experience, is really hard — they strip down their work habits to support maximum cognitive output.
For the rest of us, drowning in our inboxes and Zoom invites, this should be more than a source of aspirational escape. It represents a reminder that getting the most out of the messy jumble of neurons known as the human brain requires sacrifices. To instead orient work around pleasing everyone who might need you in the moment is to ultimately please no one with the quality of what you produce.
August 31st, 2020 · 7 comments
The first session Life of Focus, the online course I created with Scott Young, is now open. The registration period will last until Friday, September 4th (midnight Pacific Time).
Click here to join.
As I elaborated last week, this course is designed to help you transform both your professional and personal lives so that you focus more on things that really matter, and spend less of your day mired in distractions that don’t. It will then help you train your brain to make the most of the time you put aside for these important pursuits.
Drawing on ideas first explored in our bestselling books, Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and Ultralearning, the course is divided into three months, each built around a concrete project that pushes you forward in your transformation into a life of focus. You’ll be guided in these efforts by video lessons, worksheets, and community support from your fellow students.
We’re proud of this course. We’ve been working on it for well over a year and have integrated into its construction the hard-won experience gained from serving over 5,000 students in our last online offering, Top Performer.
You can find out more details about the course and register here.
We’ll be closing registration on Friday. I hope to see you in the course!
(And if this is not of interest, worry not: this is the last blog post you’ll see about this session of the course. I will be sending some more information to my email list this week, but I’ve added a link to these emails that allows list subscribers to easily opt-out of receiving these course-related emails.)
August 29th, 2020 · 20 comments
In the first lesson of our Focus Week series, I suggested that you unplug to give your brain and emotions a breather in our current moment of constant, agitating distraction. In the second lesson, I suggested that you implement a daily deep reading habit to retrain your neural networks to sustain and find satisfaction in unbroken concentration. In this third and final lesson, I want to talk about how to leverage this newly reclaimed clarity to focus your life.
At the heart of my advice is a simple recommendation: take control of your time. To be more concrete, when thinking about your work day, I suggest that you give every minute a job.
I call this technique “time blocking,” and I’ve been talking about it here since at least 2013. I also popularized it in my book, Deep Work, discuss it often on my podcast, Deep Questions, and am even releasing a planner dedicated to the method in November. Which is all to say: I’m a fan of this strategy.
Here’s the basic idea…
- Most people tackle their work day using what I call the list/reactive method. This casual approach has you fill the time between scheduled meetings and calls reacting to emails and occasionally, when the mood hits you, trying to make progress on items plucked from an unwieldy task list.
- The time blocking method, by contrast, has you partition your days into blocks of time and assign specific work to these blocks. Maybe, for example, you’re working on a strategy memo from 9:00 to 10:00, then after a 10:00 to 10:30 meeting you put aside thirty minutes for checking email, followed by ninety-minutes, from 11:00 to 12:30, when you’ll try to complete a project report that’s due soon, and so on. Every minute gets a job. (What if you get knocked off your schedule by an unexpected crisis or task that takes longer than expected? Not a problem. You just build an updated time block schedule for the remainder of the day the next time you get a chance. The key is maintaining intention about your time, not perfection in your planning.)
There are two problems with the list/reactive method. First, because you’re letting other peoples’ needs drive your activities, the balance between the urgent and the important becomes skewed. You feel busy and exhausted, but you’re not really moving the needle on the things that matter.
Second, because you have no plan beyond just “trying to get things done,” it’s easy for your mind to keep deciding it needs ad hoc internet “breaks,” which have a way of transforming into time-devouring rabbit holes. This decreases the total amount of work you’re able to accomplish.
Time blocking, by contrast, gives you fine-grained control over the balance between the urgent and the important. In addition, because you know what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment, you’re much less likely to take unplanned breaks. Time blockers, in other words, don’t web surf.
This scheduling commitment also provides you hard evidence on how much time you really have available, and how long things really take. This reality check can be bracing at first, but ultimately it’s crucial. It leads to a more vigorous essentialism (e.g., as I recently discussed on Greg McKeown’s podcast), and more conservatism on how early you start projects.
A word of warning, however, is that this strategy is cognitively demanding. Part of the reason time blockers get so much more done is because their average intensity of focus is quite high compared to their semi-distracted peers. Such concentration, however, takes a toll. So you do not want to extend this blocking discipline to your time outside of work, as this excessive rigidity will eventually lead to burn out.
Escaping from the noise of a distracted world and becoming reacquainted with the pleasures of presence and concentration are crucial preconditions to a focused life. To achieve this state in full, however, ultimately requires that you take the final step of actually focusing your attention with intention and purpose.
Time block planning will move you in this direction. It’s important to note that it’s not enough by itself. A life of focus also needs, for example, regular time to reflect about what to focus on in your work, and a more serious commitment to directing your free time toward higher quality and more rewarding activities. Beyond these concerns, solitude is important, as is aggressive community engagement and cultivating high quality leisure.
But time blocking will set the needed tone; a signal to yourself that you take seriously how you direct your newly empowered attention.
If you’re looking to go beyond the advice offered in this Focus Week series, and take even more radical action toward reclaiming your life from the forces of distraction, then I invite you to stay tuned to find out more about Life of Focus, the new online course that I co-created with Scott Young.
The course takes students through a three-month, guided training. The first month is about gaining more focus in your work life, the second month is about increasing focus in your life outside of work, and the third month is about training your brain to focus at levels of intensity that enable astounding feats of cognitive accomplishment.
We’re opening the course for registration on Monday, August 31st. I’ll post a note on my blog and email newsletter on Monday pointing you to where you can learn more.
I hope to see you in the course. But regardless, hopefully this week has already injected a new appreciation of focus in your life. Stay deep!
August 27th, 2020 · 22 comments
When I was a young graduate student at MIT, I was impressed by Alan Lightman, a one-time physicist, who turned toward essay and novel writing and ended up accepting a humanities professorship and starting the school’s science journalism program.
What initially caught my attention about Lightman was the following line, which to this day remains defiantly perched at the top of his academic homepage:
“I do not use e-mail, but you can reach me at my MIT office: [mailing address]”
But what really captured my imagination was when I heard about Lightman’s island.
In his late 30’s, at a time when the was looking for a quiet place for him to write and his wife to paint, Lightman stumbled across a 30-acre island in Casco Bay, Maine, shared by six families. There are no bridges or ferries servicing the island; no electricity; no plumbing; no internet or phone. Lightman and his wife spend their summers at this isolated outpost decompressing and creating.
“The world is moving at much too fast a pace: everybody is plugged in 24/7, everything is rush rush rush,” he said in a recent interview. “The island in the summer is a place where we can unplug, slow down, listen to ourselves think.”
I was reminded of Lightman while recently reading about Mary Somerville, the 19th century polymath who was among the first women to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. As Somerville recalls in her autobiography, as a child, she would find ways to evade the chores and social activities that defined the lives of women of her social station to instead explore the nearby sea coast:
“When the tide was out I spent hours on the sands…I made collections of shells, such as were cast ashore, some so small that they appeared like white specks in patches of black sand. There was a small pier on the sands for shipping limestone brought from the coal mines inland. I was astonished to see the surface of these blocks of stone covered with beautiful impressions of what seemed to be leaves; how they got there I could not imagine, but I picked up the broken bits, and even large pieces, and brought them to my repository.”
Her collection, begun during those childhood expeditions, is now housed at the college named in her honor at the University of Oxford.
Lightman and Somerville’s lives were defined and elevated by regular exposure to depth: extended periods of undistracted time during which the mind can focus intensely on one thing, or purposefully on nothing at all. In both cases, this depth was hard-won. Lightman’s island was remote and offered primitive living conditions. He had never used a boat before committing to a house that required one to access. Somerville, for her part, had to battle the gender expectations of her era to carve out a deeper life. It never came easy.
But they invested the effort because, as I argue in Deep Work, we can find evidence from psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and theology that all supports the same conclusion: humans thrive on concentration and presence.
Which brings us to the last five months: a period in which such moments of depth were lost to the daily waves of anxiety and uncertainty.
In my previous Focus Week essay, I recommended unplugging to provide your brain some breathing room. Here I’m recommending that you put this breathing room to good use by reintroducing yourself to the pleasures of concentrating without distraction on something difficult but rewarding; to rediscover, in other words, the necessity of depth.
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August 25th, 2020 · 51 comments
I opened my book Digital Minimalism with an excerpt from an Andrew Sullivan essay, published in New York magazine in 2016. “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts,” Sullivan warned. “It broke me. It might break you, too.”
I noted that Sullivan’s experience as a burnt out professional blogger was extreme, but that a diminished echo of his distress was beginning to spread through a culture increasingly glued to its phones. Over the past five months, this diminished echo has exploded into full out replication. We no longer just feel hints of Sullivan’s distress; we’re living it completely.
The anxious uncertainty of the pandemic, combined with social and political unrest, combined with an information landscape dominated by a tribalized social media, is breaking us. Our days are fragmented by a fast drip of insistently panicked content that wrings anxiety, outrage, and fear from our autonomic nervous systems until we’re left exhausted and emotionally dry.
If you’ll excuse the understatement: this is not good.
It is with these observations in mind that I think a fitting place to start Focus Week is with an urgent plea to unplug — to allow the fragments of your attention to coalesce back into meaningful stretches of presence, and your emotions to re-stabilize. You cannot reclaim a life of focus until you reclaim your brain from the distractions that have ensnared it in recent months.
I have two concrete pieces of advice to offer. The first concerns news consumption. To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.
I suggest the following compromise: check in on the news for 45 minutes, once a day, preferably in the morning.
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August 23rd, 2020 · 18 comments
Last fall, Scott Young and his team flew down to Washington D.C., to join me in a Capitol Hill film studio to begin production on the long-awaited sequel to our popular Top Performer online course. Whereas that previous course helped people take action on the career advice from my book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this new course was motivated by the ideas explored in the trio of bestsellers on concentration and distraction that Scott and I have published in the years since: Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and Ultralearning.
We decided to call it: Life of Focus.
When production began, we had no way of predicting the upheaval the world was going face just a few months later due to the coronavirus pandemic. As we put the finishing touches on the course over the spring and into the summer, it became clear that the need to reclaim a life of focus had suddenly become perhaps more important than any time in recent memory.
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