Why can’t I get anything done?
Ian McKechnie, Consultant, Justaddwater
There’s an enemy inside the tent. More powerful than any competitor outside the tent. It pervades every home and every workplace in every city in the world. Threatening to slow you down, derailing your best efforts and stopping you from doing your best work. It makes you feel anxious, frustrated, powerless to resist. Is this description of the internet — and in particular the lure of social media — too 1950’s sci-fi for you? Why, you can almost hear the screams and the dramatic musical score in the background! But the picture we’re painting here is true for most people. At least according to Cal Newport, whose book ‘Deep Work’ landed on my desk a few weeks ago.
The reason we can’t get anything done is because our brains have been quietly rewired — when we weren’t looking — to crave the sugary high of clickbait, celebrity updates and all manner of news stories we believe we should know about. Twitter is ‘crack for media addicts’ according to Newport, who himself shuns social media to concentrate instead on what he calls ‘Deep Work’.
Deep Work requires lengthy periods of intense focus, where you’re not being side-tracked by online activity. The outcome of deep work could be anything from writing a song, to the theory of relativity — and everything in between — where you have to sit, think hard and create. It’s about producing your best work. By contrast, ‘Shallow Work’ is typified by multitasking and constantly dipping in and out of tasks. It’s perfect for avoiding the hard work of really thinking, or being even slightly bored. Also you get that quick ‘dopamine high’ from glancing at your phone. Surely we should all embrace Deep Work, so what’s involved here?
Let’s start with three basic ingredients: lengthy periods, intense focus, remain offline. Really, how hard can it be? It’s surprisingly hard. At least to begin with. I can tell you because I’ve tried it for two weeks. I’ve been closeting myself in a log cabin at the bottom of the garden, opening a blank lined book, filling my ink pen, and writing for 90 minutes. There is no internet connection down there, and no iphone or ipad is permitted to cross the threshold. So what happens?
Initially, there was a ten minute panicky period of agitation, confusion and boredom — those three dreaded mental postcodes that we frequent all too often, but easily escape from with a quick ‘news hit’, email scan, text to a friend, or Facebook trawl. This was followed by watching the thoughts coming into my head. One of them was quite interesting, and I wrote it down. Twenty minutes gone, but not unpleasant. Then I thought of something else linked to the initial idea and wrote that down.
There seemed to be space to think clearly. I felt calm replace the agitation and FOMO (fear of missing out). I was starting to create something new, possibly something good. Pause for more thought and reflection, nothing beeping at me, luring me away like a siren to the rocks! The absence of digital distraction became genuinely enjoyable, nostalgic even. I was beginning to see Cal Newport’s point. I was starting to ‘get something done’.
Having deleted Facebook, scheduled email trawls once every two hours and repeated the ‘cabin retreat’ every day for 2 weeks I feel I am starting to recover some of my faculties — such as memory, concentration and creative energy. I’m a lot quicker at getting into ‘the zone’, or what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as the feeling of ‘flow’. I talk to my wife and kids without surreptitiously checking my Whatsapp mid-conversation. A small part of me still frets that I’m ‘offline’ for suicidally lengthy periods when the world must be craving my input. But so far nothing bad has happened. As Cal Newport recommends, in order to live rather than merely exist:
‘Develop the habit of letting small bad things happen. If you don’t, you’ll never find time for the life-changing big things’.