When it comes to topics like distraction in the workplace, my philosophy is that instead of focusing too much on what’s bad about distractions, it’s important to step back and remember what’s so valuable about its opposite. Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.
“Shallow work” is my term for anything that doesn’t require uninterrupted concentration. This includes, for example, most administrative tasks like answering email or scheduling meetings. If you allow your schedule to become dominated by shallow work, you’ll never find time to do the deep efforts that really move the needle. It’s really important, therefore, that you work to aggressively minimize optional shallow work and then be very organized and productive about how you execute what remains. It’s not that shallow work is bad, but that its opposite, deep work, is so valuable that you have to do everything you can to make room for it.
The second rule is to “embrace boredom.” The broader point here is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well. A simple way to get started training this ability is to frequently expose yourself to boredom. If you instead always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.
Right. Deep work is demanding, and our brains, which are evolved to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure, therefore try to avoid it if possible. We’re simply not evolved to give concentration the same priority that we might give to evading a charging lion. Therefore, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You need all the help you can get to trick yourself into getting started with this activity.
The first rule is to “work deeply.” The idea here is that if you want to successfully integrate more deep work into your professional life, you cannot just wait until you find yourself with lots of free time and in the mood to concentrate. You have to actively fight to incorporate this into your schedule. It helps, for example, to include deep work blocks on my calendar like meetings or appointments and then protect them as you would a meeting or appointment.
Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.