Attention, Not Energy: Notes on Working Deeply as a Student

Sam H Franz
Aug 7, 2019 · 12 min read
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“If you can do it in five minutes, do it now!”

It seems like most students have heard the admonishment at one point or another: if you can do something, do it now. Get it done, out of the way, make sure your to-do list is clean! And this piece of advice makes a good deal of sense: perhaps, the longer one’s to-do list is, the less likely they will be to tackle those tasks. If something only takes five minutes, I, for one, am likely to put it off because, after all, it only takes five minutes, so, I’ll do it later. This inaugural post of the honors blog, however, will argue against this common piece of advice, and in doing so, I’ll center a different vision productivity that isn’t so much focused on time as it is attention and energy. This way of thinking has increased my productivity a great deal, so this post is aimed at encouraging those students high-powered students who wish to find more productivity in their seemingly shorter days to adopt a different way of thinking about work.

What I won’t do, however, is offer a set of specific steps to achieve *ultimate productivity,* or whatever. It’s easy enough to find yourself in a slew of blog posts, all claiming to offer the “keys to unlocking productivity,” and other false idols. I’ve found, from reading enough of these, that, basically, none of them work for everybody, especially not for students. Workloads and scholastic interests are diverse; people have different ways, times, and strategies for working. College students are smart, and so it seems awfully presumptuous that everybody is just missing the few keys to success that would make the pressure of constant assignments, problem sets, and papers melt away. And this isn’t only the case with blog posts: the books that I’ll be referring to in this essay have their own extreme bits of advice; either that, or they are obsessed with a couple of activities that worked for the authors, and so they must work for everyone else (one of my favorite books on productivity constantly returns to meditation as one of the keys to being unimaginably productive, and it very well might). Rather than telling everyone to delete their Instagram and Twitter, I’ll offer some big ideas and a couple of re-framing devices for increasing scholastic productivity that aren’t based on traditional and common maxims, like the one that began this essay.

Another tip that’s hard not to hear in college is that time-management is the most important thing. This is, like the above snippet, a useful piece of advice: it makes one on time to meetings and classes, it tells students when they can work, and when they can take a little bit of time off. I’m not repudiating any of that: using one’s calendar is important. What I’m aiming at is what people do during the time that they are studying, when they aren’t filled to the brim with meetings and other obligations which get in the way of getting things done.

So, one has a few hours to work. One of the key concepts that I’ve based my thoughts on is the idea of “deep work,” Cal Newport’s name for getting in the zone during the time that one has to work (I picked up this concept after Mika told all of the Honors Summer Fellows about how this book helped his own work habits). Newport has a lot of interesting things to say, but I’ll focus on only a few of them, starting with the idea of deep work. He defines it as:

“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” (3).

Against deep work, according to Newport, we have shallow work, which he defines as:

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate” (6).

Deep work is important, Newport argues, because, in an increasingly distraction-filled world, less and less people can perform deep work at the exact same time that deep work is becoming increasingly valuable. I’m not as sanguine about deep work making those who adopt it the new productivity gods, but it does point towards some useful insights for doing more in a time that makes it quite easy to do much less.

And Newport is persuasive: he uses examples of famous intellectuals — like Carl Jung, Woody Allen, J.K. Rowling, Bill Gates, and Newport himself, who maintains an extraordinary level of academic productivity despite the fact that he doesn’t work after five in the afternoon, nor does he work on Saturday — in order to give force to his argument. It’s hard to deny that deep work, as it’s defined, has a massive upside for students and others who want to do higher-quality thinking with their increasingly limited time.

Deep work requires, according to Newport, that one keeps distractions to a minimum, including internet use (and more pointedly for students today, social media use and messaging). This is obvious, but it’s worth noting in the deep work context: most know that humans are bad at multi-tasking, but distraction encompasses something else entirely. Distraction, I’ve found, involves constantly flipping between tasks during work — one might write a few sentences for a paper or do a portion of a physics problem, but then take five (or more) minutes to scroll through Instagram. A central insight of deep work is this: when one switches tasks often, they become concretely less productive when they re-engage in the task that they switched away from. Research in the behavioral sciences shows that this is the case, and what’s more, it shows that even finishing the task that one switches to (writing an email, for example) still negatively affects re-engagement and productivity on the next task.

So, cognitively, deep work reigns supreme: it’s not about finishing the previous task in order to engage fully with a new one, but it’s instead about never switching tasks in the first place. Deep work is exactly that: deeply working on one problem (or set of related problems) rather than moving between problems constantly. Deep work, from experience, often helps me produce higher quality work, and pushes me to consider ideas more thoroughly.

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It could be said that Newport goes a bit off the deep end with his recommendations for performing deep work, however. He urges his readers to quit social media, disengage from all work at a particular point in the day, and set aside large chunks of time (sometimes multiple days in a row) to perform deep work on a small set of tasks, and nothing else. I couldn’t imagine myself deleting my Instagram or Twitter, nor do I find a time to “power off” at the end of the day, usually because I enjoy reading, and I may pick up a book again later in the evening. (The latter strategy, for what it’s worth, may find success for some workloads, as another honors student studying computer science wrote.)

One recommendation of Newport’s that I found extremely useful, however, is honing one’s ability to be bored. At first, this seems odd: isn’t boredom the opposite of being productive? If one isn’t doing something and they are doing nothing, that means they aren’t doing deep work. But Newport’s argument is strong: if one, during the time that they aren’t performing deep work, is constantly allowing themselves to be distracted, say, by way of one’s Facebook feed, then doing deep work becomes harder, because one is trained to constantly be distracted. Being able to perform deep work effectively means changing one’s habits (read: addictions) not only during deep work, but in daily life. The ability to be bored is the ability to not be distracted, which means the ability to deeply focus on one task when it is presented. Little things, like limiting social media and email checks, or reducing the number of time one reviews and sends messages, can make deep work easier to engage in and benefit from.

Newport’s last recommendation, though, is where I strongly depart from the doctrine of deep work in principle. The book recommends that its readers find chunks of time to do work, whereas I find that reframing work in terms of attention and energy is much more successful.

Before I explain the above point thoroughly, I’d like to say a few things about time. For Newport, time is the metric by which we should plan deep work. And this recommendation certainly makes sense: students have meetings and commitments, and so keeping a schedule, managing one’s time, is a necessary feature of college (and work). This point is undebatable. But there are two arguments that I’d like to make: first, time is a unit of analysis, not a metric for planning one’s work. Cognitive work isn’t effectively measured by how many hours that one works (although it’s easy to tell everybody about how many hours one spends in the library). The demanding work of a student, learning, is about the content that one absorbs, and the tangible things that they produce (a completed problem set, for example, or a lab experiment or a paper). If one works a job, say, in a restaurant (which I know far too well), they are paid by the hour, and so time becomes an effective way of measuring one’s work. In an academic setting, however, time makes absolutely no sense for determining how much work one does — it only tells someone when they should start and stop working. I strongly agree that deep work requires stretches of time to truly become engaged and enthralled with an activity, but this shouldn’t be the primary mode of understanding deep work.

Second, it seems to me that using time as a method of work planning can sometimes be detrimental to one’s productivity. By moving the emphasis away from what one did towards how long one worked, the time that one spends working becomes less valuable. Similarly, if one has a meeting in, for example, thirty minutes, it’s quite easy to say (and I have done this a number of times) that thirty minutes isn’t enough time to get anything of substance finished, so it’s not worth performing what might be called deep work. Moving the emphasis away from time towards attention and energy solves this problem: it reframes work away from how long one can spend doing it, to how much attention one can devote to some task. Instead of, “I only have thirty minutes,” one could think, “I’m going to completely focus on this task until I’m required to do something else.” The latter method of thought, in combination with an alarm set on one’s phone or laptop, makes it quite easy to fall into some level of deep work. No longer is there any worry about how much time one has left, but instead work is about how attentive one is to the problems that they have in front of them.

And this is the importance of my second point: in another book that I found useful, The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey argues that one should change their work emphasis in precisely this way. Instead of tracking one’s time, and doing time management, one should pay attention to their attentiveness, and, by extension, their energy (which affects how focused and attentive one is). Focusing on attentiveness has a way of flattening time out — instead of considering how many hours one has to do something, they instead treat every second that they are attentive and focused as valuable, which means better engagement with tasks and higher quality outcomes.

Despite the giddiness that I feel when I read books about productivity, quitting social media and messaging for large stretches of the day is hard. As a life-long computer enthusiast (I now study the history of computing) with relatively hands-off parenting when it came to screen time, I’ve been trained my entire life to embrace distraction. Waiting for someone to come meet me? Great, I’ll check my phone and fire off a few messages. Not feeling like doing work? Awesome, I’ll throw out some likes on Instagram. Extending this logic to school begins to sound absurd: Lecture is a bit boring, and I just saw a notification pop up? Great, I’ll text my friend now so I don’t have to do it later. Although I’m not an absolute proponent of behaviorist psychology, it’s hard to deny the intuitive thought: if I’ve been doing the equivalent of checking my phone when I’m bored my entire life, what is going to make me stop now?

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Bailey recommends focusing on one’s values, and this is in indeed a useful piece of advice. Being constantly distracted probably leaves less time for one to reflect on what really matters them, so sometimes it’s hard to see the point. It’s often difficult to discern the aim of going on Instagram, too, but that often doesn’t stop people. However, Bailey argues, a fundamental component of being attentive — and this is actually a slight modification on his argument, mostly because I think “being more productive” sounds a bit self-help-y and monotonous — is taking time to recognize how one’s work is related to one’s values, what they really care about in the world, and why. This is one of the reasons that he recommends meditation and reflection, but I think the latter can often be accomplished without the former.

One device that I’ve used to curb by nefarious Instagram and Twitter habits is reframing: instead of thinking about deep work as time away from social media, I prefer to think about it as a kind of break from social media. This simple switch, I’ve found, has worked extremely well for me: just thinking about deep work differently makes it easier for me to engage in it. My attention, I’ve realized, is constantly frayed: I’m always stuck between an email, a text message, two articles that I want to read, and a reading assignment for a class that I’m not incredibly interested in. But the mental feeling of being between what seems like far too many things has the effect of making me feel exhausted, often resulting in my failure to get any of those things done. I’ve found it’s actually quite relaxing to push all of that extra, non-valuable (in the sense that it’s not connected to what I care about most) stuff aside and focus on one thing, without distraction. It’s easier for me to get excited about writing a paper or reading an interesting article or book if I stop thinking about all that other clutter and truly, deeply spend my attention doing the things that I care about.

And attention could be thought of as a resource: the more things on tries to focus on, the less they accomplish, and the more attention they spend trying to focus on everything all at once.

Now, against the above rail on “productivity tips” articles, I’ll offer three concrete pieces of advice, but they are squarely focused on attention. What’s more, I don’t think any of the following pieces of advice will be of much use unless they aren’t informed by the ideas laid out above.

Notifications? Get ’em out of here: Notifications are, obviously, one of the ways that attention easily becomes frayed. Something I’ve done (especially as a Mac user, where messages come to my computer as well as my phone) is disable those red bubbles that suggest I should open some app. I’ve also disabled most of my banner notifications, so messages I receive don’t come to me. I come to them, when I want to check them.

Shut down my distraction device: Shutting off my phone has been a large change I’ve made that has increased my attention a great deal. Putting it on do not disturb also may have this effect, because it aligns with the above idea of going to one’s notifications rather than notifications distracting one’s attentiveness. But shutting off my phone, I’ve found, introduces another barrier to checking my Instagram: I have to turn it on, and consequently, wait for it to turn on in order to scroll. Even this small change reduces the number of times I pick up my phone when I would rather be deeply working. This might strain a personal relationship or two, but I’ve found that informing friends that I probably won’t respond between nine in the morning and noon usually resolves this problem.

Write it down, forget about it: Another concept that I haven’t mentioned in this essay involves reducing cognitive load. A corollary of this idea is getting all of the things that one could be thinking about on paper, so they can’t function as distractions. I’ve found keeping a notebook with a collection of tasks and ideas that I can add to at any time makes it easier for me to get an incessant thought out of my head so I can direct my attention to what I’m working on.

All of the above might be summarized by saying: it’s not about how much one works, but it’s about how one works. This truism I will stand by, but deciding how one works is an awfully complex problem.

All photos provided by https://www.pexels.com/.

Honors Research

Showcasing the pains and pleasures, the whats and the hows…

Sam H Franz

Written by

Student of History of Science and German at the University of Michigan.

Honors Research

Showcasing the pains and pleasures, the whats and the hows of undergraduate research.

Sam H Franz

Written by

Student of History of Science and German at the University of Michigan.

Honors Research

Showcasing the pains and pleasures, the whats and the hows of undergraduate research.

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