How Cal Newport’s Deep Work helped me become calmer and more productive

Sometimes we find a book that tells us exactly what we need to hear. For me last year it was Cal Newport’s Deep Work.

I seemed to be working more but getting less done, and I was feeling increasingly tense and scattered. Newport explains that this is common in our age of constant connectivity because we are interrupted all the time and have to switch our attention between tasks. And we don’t handle that well. Whenever we switch tasks, our attention lingers on the previous one (“attention residue”), and we perform worse.

After reading Deep Work, I spent a week paying close attention to my own behavior and discovered that my work days were filled with interruptions. I also realized that most of the time, I wasn’t interrupted by anybody else. I was creating the interruption myself.

The largest interrupter by far was my work email. I often took a five-minute break from a demanding task and absentmindedly opening my email. Then I skimmed the emails and encountered the usual mix of information, requests, and complaints. When I returned to my original task, I was having trouble focusing because part of my mind was composing responses to several different emails. And I would soon drift again into another quick email check.

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This sort of behavior is counterproductive, tiring, and stress-inducing. To get away from it, Newport proposes the following:

1. Break the mindless habit. Schedule blocks of time at specific times during the day for email (as well as for other social media). During the rest of the time, keep the program closed and all its notifications turned off. Commit to the schedule in writing to make it more real. I settled on two email blocks a day, midmorning and late afternoon.

2. Take short breaks from difficult tasks, but make sure that the breaks are restorative. For me, a walk or a superficial conversation work great; checking the news or having an intense conversation leave distracting residue.

3. During your email time, finish dealing with one email at the time. If a response is needed, send one. If that’s not possible, make a plan for what you need to do next (for instance, ask somebody for input). Making a concrete plan avoids the attention residue of unfinished business almost as effectively as actually completing the task.

Breaking a mindless habit requires noticing the habit and replacing it with a better one, and Newport’s book helped me do just that. It is not easy and backsliding happens. I still find myself absentmindedly opening my email on occasion, but I do it less frequently– and I usually catch myself. And it has worked. I feel better– and I get more done in less time.

Note: Newport borrows the concept of attention residue from Sophie Leroy’s “Why is it so hard to do my work?” Organizational behavior and human decision processes 109: (2009), 168 -181.

Cal Newport, Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. New York: Grand Central publishing, 2016.

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