Pinging inboxes, chat platforms, and text notifications plague the lives of many professionals, both at work and at home. While they may seem harmless, constant interruptions like these prevent us from engaging in "deep work": Focusing on a cognitively demanding task for a long period of time, without distractions.
Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, explored this concept in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, published in 2016. "Not all work is made equal," Newport told TechRepublic. "Deep work, where you are really concentrating without distractions, is what produces the value and changes the world. Everything else is just logistics."
"The shallow work may be what keeps you from getting fired, but the deep work will get you promoted," he added.
Gaining the full benefits of deep work requires us to completely avoid our phones and inboxes—not even a glance, Newport said. This is difficult to do, as we currently have many screens and inboxes that are designed to catch our attention, he added.
Both personal and professional challenges can prevent people from engaging in deep work, Newport said. "On the personal side, it's easy to build an addiction to novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom," he said. "It's easy to train your mind that if you feel a little bored, you can get a quick hit of email, Facebook, or Twitter. It's especially powerful in the tech industry, that's actually creating a lot of these tools."
Once that addiction takes hold, it becomes harder to sustain concentration, Newport said. Professionally, work cultures are based on constant communication and accessibility, which makes deep work impossible.
"If your brain has been trained so it seeks distraction when bored, when it comes time that you want to concentrate and produce something valuable, you won't tolerate long, serious concentration," Newport said. "It prevents you from being able to produce cognitive products at your highest level."
Here are six quick tips to help you succeed in deep work on the job and at home.
1. Block time on your calendar
It's important to block off time on your calendar for deep work, the same way you would for an appointment or meeting, Newport said.
2. Plan your distractions
Write down times when you are going to allow yourself to use distracting, interrupting technology. "During the work day, write down on a piece of paper, 'Here is the next time I'm going to check my inbox,'" Newport said. "Until you get there, you don't do it."
3. Keep track of hours
Keep track of the time you successfully spend doing deep work. "A simple tally is fine—the key is, don't count the course of time if even one glance at an inbox or phone screen occurs," Newport said.
4. Talk to your employer or employees
"Have a conversation about deep work and non-deep work, and try to agree on what type of ratio of deep to shallow work you should be aiming for each week," Newport said. You can make a plan to measure this, and if your work falls short, to have another conversation about changing the ratio. "The conversation is key for changing work culture," he added.
5. Structure your distraction time
Add more structure and intent to any behavior in your life that involves you looking at something that makes money from your attention, Newport said. This includes social media. "Be intentional about which of these services you use, when you use them, and how you use them," Newport said.
6. Reorganize your phone
Take social media applications off of your phone, and only allow yourself to access them on the computer. "It doesn't take away any of the benefits you get from those services, but it does remove the temptation to feed yourself with distractions at all times," Newport said. "You can keep what you like while severely reducing the ability to train your brain to get distracted at boredom."
You can do the same thing in your personal life at home, Newport added. "Instead of having your tablet always on and there in the background, you can say 'I'm going to put aside a set amount of time for browsing,'" he said. "The idea is to flip the formula—instead of occasionally taking a break from exposing yourself to distraction, you now take a break from being focused to being distracted. It's much healthier for the brain."
Deep work may ultimately be what helps differentiate human workers from automated systems and artificial intelligence. "The ability to concentrate intensely will be a prized skill in the next 10 years because it helps you learn complicated things quickly and produce at a high level," Newport said. "We need it to stay ahead in the increasingly competitive economy."
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.