What does your work day really look like? How much time do you spend truly focused?
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to think more critically about that question. As the calendar turned to 2020, I found myself disappointed in how infrequently I read and wrote over the past year. Worse, I’ve come to realize that the kind of close reading and writing that was so central to my training as a historian has become more difficult than it used to be. I suspect I’m in good company in that regard, even in the cultural sector where many of us have backgrounds in the humanities.
But regardless of what field you work in, chances are modern technologies have made it harder for you to concentrate on major tasks.
Social media and smartphones have in some ways re-wired our brains. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve developed habits that hinder my ability to maintain focus. Notifications and texts, compulsive email checking, a regular rotation of apps and websites; there is always a reason to pick up my phone or open a web browser, whether I’m at work or at home.
These aren’t just personal shortcomings. When it comes to smartphones and apps, our attention is the commodity that’s being sold, and platforms are designed by experts to command as much of your attention as possible. For me, this feels particularly problematic at work, where technology use is essential.
Digital platforms are so good at commanding our attention that the way we work — mainly on computers, connected to the internet — has started to interfere with the work itself.
I’m good at my job, but recently I’ve been struck by the sense that I could be better at it if I re-oriented my relationship with technology. Not only that, I hoped such a shift could also help me feel more fulfilled and calm, less prone to stress and anxiety. Like most people, I wasn’t hired to my job because I’m really good at emailing, or very responsive to workplace pings. As a historian and cultural nonprofit professional, my unique value-added lies in the ability to solve complex problems, distill and interpret information from many sources, execute successful and organized projects, and communicate in writing and speech effectively.
Over the past few months, however, I recognized that technology was holding me back from doing those things the best that I could, when it should have been helping me do them better. So I sought out models to change it.
Two books by author and computer scientist Cal Newport — Deep Work and Digital Minimalism — resonated deeply with me and helped me conceive of ways to do better work and build a more intentional life. In both books, Newport challenges common assumptions about the supposed benefits of recent technological innovations in ways that offer a simple, if at times radical, model for breaking free from distraction.
In Deep Work, Newport argues that the constantly-connected modern workplace and its focus on “noncongnitively demanding, logistical-style tasks” undermines the ability of people working in the knowledge economy to produce their best work. With the rise of “productivity” platforms like Slack and Basecamp, open-plan offices, and growing expectations of a constant tether to email, people are spending less and less time on what Newport terms deep work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
In his follow-up book, Digital Minimalism, Newport applies these concepts beyond the professional realm. In the age of smartphones, people have become increasingly uneasy with their relationships with technology, but feel unable to break free. Newport eschews the “any-benefit” mindset with which so many of us approach technology — “I can get some kind of benefit from this app/service/website, so I’m going to use it.” Instead, Newport advocates working backwards from your deeply held values (after a month totally free from all optional technology), only engaging technologies and platforms that help you practice those values.
So what does this mean for the way we do our work? For me, it has meant thinking more critically about both when and how I engage with technology when I’m in the office.
That shift in mindset has recently helped me spend more time working deeply. Over the past few months I’ve made a couple of small changes:
Check email more intermittently
Does my email always need to be open? I’ve realized over the past few months that the messages I receive are rarely urgent, and the expectation for an immediate response is largely self-imposed. So rather than leaving my email open all day, ready to distract and cloud my focus with “attention residue,” I’ve started closing my email client and checking it at scheduled times. I’m still playing around with the frequency and schedule of my checks, but so far it has been helpful.
Schedule my days to support deep work.
I’ve also started to adhere to a more careful schedule of my day. I’ve found that scheduling every minute of the work day (including email checks and brain breaks) helps keep me focused. I also make sure to align that schedule with what I know about my own work habits. For example, I know I do my best deep work in the morning, so I try to schedule big writing, reading, analysis, or other projects that require a lot of concentration early in the day. I usually end up changing the schedule several times, but the process serves as a regular reminder of the things I want to accomplish.
End my day on a focused note.
This one is really small but has made a big difference for me. In the last thirty minutes of my day, I try to develop my schedule for the next day, then shut my computer down and do a little bit of reading related to my field. I’ll always think about work while I’m at home (I do mission-driven work because I’m passionate about it, after all), but I find ending my day in this way helps keep my focus on big questions and ideas, rather than meeting schedules and email.
More broadly, I’ve tried to take a more critical approach to my technology use both at work and at home in an effort to claw back a sense of control and focus. I’ve been happy with the changes in my mindset I’ve seen so far and will continue to tinker with my process moving forward.
Increasingly, I see the ability to work deeply — especially the ability to read widely and in-depth — as a superpower in the modern workplace. As attention spans get shorter and more people find deep concentration difficult to achieve, those who can work that way will set themselves apart.
What’s more, truly harnessing technology to advance your work, not hold it back, can transform your relationship to the work itself. It can help return a feeling of accomplishment, fulfillment, and intellectual challenge that often gets lost in a world of email, pings, and a constantly connected hive mind. At least it has for me.
Here’s to working deeply in 2020!