Note: The following was originally written back in September, but for whatever reason, I never posted. After revisiting the other day, I thought it was especially relevant within the context of the current pandemic. It’s so tempting, to constantly refresh the headlines, which leads us into a never-ending vortex of doom and gloom. Not only is this detrimental to our mental health, but it destroys our ability to focus on what we can control. I have since finished Deep Work the book, and can’t recommend it enough – especially in times like these.
The Battle For Our Attention
Today, more than ever before, there is a constant battle for our attention. Distraction is perhaps the greatest threat to not only our productivity but to our mental health and fitness. We all know the addictive nature of social media as these platforms are engineered for maximum engagement, however, even many of the productivity tools such as email, Slack, Skype, etc… can have drastic effects on our ability to focus and engage in meaningful work.
Cal Newport, a Computer Scientist at Georgetown University, was recently on the podcast, Hidden Brain, discussing distraction and his book Deep Work with host Shankar Vedantam. Newport’s book, Deep Work has been sitting on my shelf for a few months but I have yet to have a chance to read it – however, after listening to the interview it is clear that I need to make the time.
As a remote worker, finding balance and setting boundaries between potentially disruptive behavior, such as checking message notifications and maintaining focus is a daily struggle. As Newport notes in the interview, even “micro-distractions” which occur innocently enough throughout the day, all take a toll on your ability to focus. A simple glance at your inbox or Skype notifications can break your concentration and send you down a rabbit hole.
Newport notes that like mindfulness and meditation, the ability to engage in “deep work” is a skill and takes practice. It’s often neither convenient or easy but offers significant rewards. In the past, I’ve set forth rules such as the following to maintain a distraction-free environment:
- Schedule my days in advance. In his interview, Newport says he often schedules tasks as much as four weeks in advance!
- Only check messages & notifications during scheduled times throughout the day. I find that constantly having my inbox or Skype open decreases my productivity and focus.
- Leave my phone on silent in another room or inconvenient places such as a bag or locker.
- Have a daily routine for beginning and ending the workday. Newport ends every day with a mantra, “Scheduled shutdown complete.”
- Track and budget all my time as I would my financial expenses.
I find that when I can follow these rules, I do better work, however, it’s not easy and many times I find myself engaging in old, bad habits.