Maximizing effort and avoiding distractions in the networked world
Those of us born in the twentieth-century remember a time when it was considered cool to follow Carrot Top’s advice and call 1-800-ATT, and a Finnish company dominated the mobile phone landscape with phones approximately the size of cordless landline phones today.
A scant decade later mobile phones have become appendages to our hands. Adam Greenfield, the author of Radical Technologies, likens it to having a “network organ.” Greenfield explains, “…the smartphone is becoming a de facto necessity, it is at the same time impossible to use the devices as intended without, in turn, surrendering data to it and the network beyond.” (Greenfield, 2017).
This networked existence, with benefits like helping those of us with no sense of direction avoid getting lost and enabling us to pay for transportation and coffee without reaching for our wallets, means that distractions are just a vibration, beep or push notification away.
“Work invades our personal time, private leaks into public, the intimate is trivially shared, and the concerns of the wider world seep into what ought to be space for recuperation and recovery,” (Greenfield, 2017).
Ouch, it makes that thing glued to your right hand feel unsavory, doesn’t it? How is it possible to shake the smartphone and concentrate on work?
Those who concentrate make headway today while the rest are locked into Twitter feeds and cat videos.
How can I learn to concentrate in the networked world and stand out from my peers?
There’s no secret, make it routine.
There’s no app for this or secret ingredient you can download or ingest that will give you the ability to concentrate for hours without distraction. It takes planning and practice to condition yourself to concentrate completely and achieve a mental state where everything upstairs is working in concert, and you’re producing at your optimal level.
Cal Newport calls this rare mental state “Deep Work”, and planning for it can seem daunting.
“The Key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” (Newport, 2016, p. 100).
One of the most mentally and physically draining things we do each day is fight desires and distractions, and our willpower is finite. Newport uses the analogy of a muscle that tires.
The next step is to decide what type of mindset to embrace, Newport calls them “philosophies” and many involve eliminating every possible distraction for long stretches of time, which could include vacationing to a secluded cabin in nature, building a special distraction-free shed or jumping into uninterrupted stretches of work whenever and wherever you are.
Doesn’t sound conducive to the nine-to-five lifestyle, does it? Ultimately, the goal is to make deep work a habit, which will involve experimenting and refining your method until you find the perfect recipe for you.
Remember we want deep work to be part of our arsenal of healthy habits. If we can inject time blocks for uninterrupted work into our daily routines, we’ll be well on our way to maximizing our productivity.
The key considerations for deep concentration are location, duration, process, and fuel.
Simply where you’ll work: home office, unused conference room or cabin in the woods—you get the picture. For example, suppose I choose my cubical, so I make it my routine to get to work at 7 am and complete my deep work before my coworkers arrive.
How long you’ll focus. With my location selected, I settle on ninety minutes. I think that is an amount I can handle without sapping my energy reserve for the rest of the day.
How you choose to work. Two things to keep in mind are eliminating distractions and a mechanism for tracking production. Back to my example, I tackled distractions by turning my phone off and leaving it in my backpack and making sure my work email is closed. Tracking production can be as simple as the number of pages read or words typed. In my example, I decided on the number of pages read, highlighted and noted.
What you require to fuel your deep work. This could be food, coffee, a favorite playlist, lucky charm or a walk in the park to clear the mind. With my process set, I need to begin a deep work session with a large coffee and egg sandwich and end it with a walk in a nearby park to clear my mind and refocus on work.
Ways to combat distractions in the networked world
Email is the hobgoblin that trips most of us up and has a palpable effect on our mood. Or as Adam Gazzeley and Larry Rosen explain in Behavioral Scientist, “Because of its ubiquity, email has proven to be a special case in aggravating a Distracted Mind.”
Gazzaley and Rosen (2018) reference a study where participants either check their emails three times a day or continuously “Results indicated that when participants…checked only three times a day they reported less stress, which predicted better overall well-being on a range of psychological and physical dimensions.”
Turn off all smartphone notifications
Turn off all smartphone notifications and keep your phone out of sight so it won’t sap your attention.
This sounds counterintuitive but breaks help combat boredom and allow the mind to refocus. You can also use breaks as a carrot for deep work as you build your concentration capacity. For my example, I decide to take a walk in the nearby park and my carrot, or reward, is a cappuccino at the local café before I return to work.
Consider spending break time in nature (restorative benefit) or exercising, which facilities brain function and improves attention. (Gazzaley & Rosen, 2018)
Rid yourself of any notions that naps are only taken by the lazy and children. I became a believer in the cognitive benefits of naps as an undergraduate.
“The United States is fast becoming a nation of deprived sleepers, due primarily to a culture that often promotes a hectic lifestyle. Napping could be a solution, since sleeping for 20 -30 minutes during normal waking hours has been shown to result in remarkable improvements in mood alertness and performance.” (Jones, 2016)
Believe it or not, effective napping takes planning and strategy. Different length naps have different benefits. Here’s the rundown according to Sleep Disorders Sourcebook (Jones, 2016, p. 37):
- 6 minutes: provides improvement in memory functions.
- 10 -15 minutes: Improves focus and productivity.
- 20-30 minutes: Optimum nap time, which results in alertness, concentration, and sharp motor skills.
- 40-60 minutes: Boosts brain power, consolidates memory for facts, places and faces, and improves learning ability.
- 90 to 120 minutes: Improves creativity and emotional and procedural memory.
I use naps all the time. If I want to get in a session of deep work at night, I take a quick nap after I get home from work. If you’re skeptical, try a coffee nap—drink a cup of coffee and take a 30-minute nap, and don’t forget to set an alarm. See how it works for you.
Our networked lives needn’t be an excuse to prevent us from working deeply. With the right mindset, routine and plan, we can situate ourselves to work deeply and reap its considerable rewards—provided we can just turn off our phones and disable our email.
Gazzely, A., & Rosen, L. D. (2018, January 8). Remedies for the distracted mind. Behavioral Scientist, Retrieved from http://behavioralscientist.org/remedies-distracted-mind/
Greenfield, A. (2017, June 13). A sociology of the smartphone. Retrieved from https://longreads.com/2017/06/13/a-sociology-of-the-smartphone/
Jones, K. (2016). Napping: A healthy habit. Sleep disorders SB (4th ed., pp. 35-42) Omnigraphics Incorporated. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Newport, C. (2016). Work deeply. Deep work (1st ed., pp. 95-154). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.