We are all busy, seemingly all the time, with a never-ending stream of e-mails to answer and meetings to attend. But are there better ways to do busy? Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work (Piatkus, 2016), says “yes”. Here’s what I’ve learnt from him.
Newport argues that, in the new world of work, the only thing we have to sell is our capacity to think rather than our capacity to do. But this ability to think does not come naturally or easily, and, unfortunately, the interconnected world that we live in throws big barriers in the way of big thinking.
Newport spends a lot of time exploring this point in Deep Work. But I suspect you need look no further than your swollen e-mail inbox or your back-to-back schedule to see that your precious time is being frittered away. And that is not counting social media, which has many ways to make us dumber: how many times have you lost a great idea, distracted by that little red Facebook notification?
Fortunately, Newport has a number of evidence-based ‘life hacks’ to combat this. Fundamentally, they come down to one thing: remove all distractions. You might think you are already doing this by turning off your phone occasionally. But you need to go further: don’t just turn off your phone; put it in a lead-lined box and bury it at the bottom of the ocean. Quit all social media. Isolate yourself from all modern life. Smash the Wi-Fi router. Move to a small island. Then, and only then, through a state of pure asceticism, might you get some work done.
However, this perfect state of deep thought might not necessarily be achievable if you want to keep your job, in which case some of the following suggestions might enable you to get the most out of your brain.
Shake the habit. E-mail is the worst attention thief. It has myriad means of misdirection, from the on-screen pop-up, to the envelope icon, to the alluring bold font in the unread e-mail folder. There is some ‘brain reward centre’ stuff happening with e-mail — it tells you that you are important and wanted, even if it is only an invite to write for a “presgitious new jorunal” [sic]. The easiest way to limit e-mail’s impact is to turn it off completely.
Burst transmission. That said, you still need to be in touch with the outside world. I try to limit myself to bursts. I can sustain focus for about 50 minutes, after which I reward myself with 5 minutes of e-mail, which inevitably turns into 10. No, this is not perfect and yes, resetting after 10 minutes is tricky, but it is much more effective than having the e-mail monkey on your back for the whole day.
Short and sweet. E-mail overload is universal and often exponential. ‘CC alls’, imprecise e-mails leading to immediate clarification and e-mail ‘tennis’ while trying to settle on a date all add to this burden. Making your e-mails concise and final means everyone wins. For example, instead of suggesting a time to meet, send a calendar invite directly. One question I don’t have the answer to is when to say ‘thank you’, balancing the need not to upset someone with not getting stuck in a further round of acknowledgment and counter-acknowledgement. Send better e-mail and ye shall receive better e-mail.
Do it later. E-mail is an insatiable beast; it feels like it needs immediate action: it doesn’t. Scan read, flag things for later and do it in batches.
Batching non-essential tasks can be applied to more than e-mail. I’ve found there is no way to stop the random thoughts coming, but it is possible to reduce their derailing impact. If a thought crops up, I scribble it onto a Post-it note and then batch busy work into times of the day when I am normally less productive.
Find a space
Your shared office maintained at slightly the wrong temperature, next door to a chatty neighbour with a penchant for pickled fish, might not be the ideal place to achieve the Zen of deep work. Try working elsewhere: libraries, cafes, at home. I get a surprising amount of writing done on the train to work — an added benefit of London commuters not talking to each other.
But it is not just about work. Making your brain better is more than 9 to 5. The Internet has invaded our lives to the extent that we cannot switch off. And you might argue that it is just downtime, but the habit of endlessly checking devices leads to a loop of inattention and a dilution of focus during working hours.
A lot of a scientist’s job relies on creativity, which in turn relies upon your subconscious doing some of the work. But it can’t do this when overloaded with cat videos, envious thoughts about your friends’ self-reported quality of life and pictures of someone else’s lunch. Stepping back from social and work media after certain times of day both help.
More radically, aspire to be bored. Put your phone away and if you have five spare seconds, keep them spare. Being click-baited to generate advertising income for unscrupulous publishers doesn’t do any good to you or the world.
At the beginning of the summer, I tried the full ‘academic monk’ thing and failed. There were some mitigating circumstances for my lack of focus, but then again I’m sure there will be next summer, and the summer after that.
Clearing your head has clear benefits: better productivity; being more present with friends and family; brilliant ideas. It is also slightly addictive in itself — achieving deep focus and really working through a problem is intensely satisfying. We’re all working hard enough. It’s time to work smarter.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experience and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.