A distracted mind is a condition of having a short attention span, an inability to focus mental effort, and an urge to multitask. Distraction is a state of mental incapacitation that impairs our ability to concentrate and communicate effectively with others.
The distracted masses generate visible busyness that mimics productivity but fails to create much value. The antidote to distraction lies in our ability to reclaim our mind. In “Deep Work,” Cal Newport makes a compelling argument that developing a greater depth of mind can become a transformative experience.
The Transition from Work to Deep Work
To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience.
– Cal Newport in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
One sense of the word “work” means the undertaking employment to earn an income. In a more vital sense, work is a concentrated activity we dedicate ourselves to that gives life meaning, value, and purpose.
In Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte says that “Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves.” Our life work is more than a way of making money; it is a way of being in the world.
More than just employment, deep work is presented as a foundation for living a good life.
What is Deep Work?
Deep work is more than a work ethic; it is a means to live a life worth living.
Newport approaches productivity as a meaning-making process. His ideas about productivity transcend work environments and invite consideration of human potential and wellbeing.
“Deep work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work is a release from shallow work, which is a mode of work often completed in a state of distraction that is easy to replicate and tends not to create much value in the world.
Shallow work is necessary but not vital. It includes practical tasks such as scheduling, attending meetings, or answering an email. Since it is easy to engage in, it becomes the path of least resistance. And because we are not required to push our mental abilities, shallow forms of work involve low risk and feels safe.
The problem with the requirements of work within an increasingly automated industrial growth society is the immersion into shallow forms of work, and the increasing rarity of profound work experiences in life.
Distraction as Mental Incapacitation
Productivity geeks seem to enjoy complicated systems of getting things done as an end unto themselves. However, productivity is hardly so complicated.
To be productive, we need to know what our most essential priorities are, dedicate a meaningful amount of time to them, and work on them with concentration and focus. The kind of productivity associated with deep work pushes our ability to learn and create.
Attention, focus, and concentration are finite resources. Newport notes that even if we are not aware of it, the brain responds to nearby distractions, which depletes mental resources. Continually shifting our focus gives rise to a phenomenon called “attention residue,” which is a deterioration in our capacity to attend.
Today’s culture of work mires people in a daily onslaught of shallow work. Mental incapacitation, it seems, is a basic requirement for survival within the Industrial Growth Society.
Deep Work as Contemplative Journey
Deep work borrows from the contemplative disciplines of meditation and mindfulness. Seeking depth demands a state of awareness in which the mind is entrained and conditioned to engage with demanding cognitive tasks.
Genuine creativity only begins to emerge when our cognitive abilities have already been pushed past their limit.
It is easier to maintain a reporting role in life; that is, instead of pursuing our inner depths of creativity, we follow the path of least resistance and observe it in the work of others. And we become strangers to ourselves.
Deep work is predicated on the development of the mind and expanding its capacity to focus, attend, and concentrate on something of value. It is exhausting work, and that is why it is fulfilling.
Newport notes that most people are unable to complete one-hour of uninterrupted, concentrated creative work without becoming distracted. And even the most skilled in deep work can only hope for 3-4 hours of focused attention per day. The mind must also rest.
Attention is a finite resource.
Developing the Capacity for Deep Work
Deep work is a skill that can be learned. The transition from a distracted state of mind to one grounded in the principles of deep work is, however, not an easy one.
It is essential to understand the nature of distraction and why behaviors such as multitasking act like a degenerative disease in mind.
A useful place to start is Nicolas Carr’s oft-cited article, Is Google Making Us Stupid?
Follow this up with an interesting article on social media by Cal Newport called, Are You Using Social Media, or Being Used By It? or his popular Ted Talk, “Quit Social Media.” (Ironically, it’s on YouTube, which is a form of social media.)
There are many books available that help to build various capacities of the mind. However, perhaps the best pathway is to regularly sit down and focus on something of great importance to you for at least one hour per day without interruption.
It is here, in this concentrated space, that deep work can become a transformative experience.