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How to keep distractions at bay

Aruna Sankaranarayanan, Dec 27 2017, 20:19 IST
When it comes to deep work, it is important that you have well-defined goals.

When it comes to deep work, it is important that you have well-defined goals.

Walk into an average office today and you will see umpteen fingers tapping away on keyboards while screens flicker in front of tired eyes. In addition, people will glance at phones beeping with updates, and answer calls with an unmatched urgency. With chattering mouths and flying fingers, most offices are charged with energy. Yes, everyone is veritably busy but is anyone truly working?

Focused work

Not according to writer and Computer Science professor, Cal Newport, who has coined the term 'deep work' to describe "professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit." Students, who will be embarking on a career soon, and young and seasoned professionals, can all benefit from developing 'deep work' habits. By understanding how the tugs of daily workplace demands can actually hamper more significant aspects of productivity, they can make a conscientious effort to optimise their time so that they don't feel that they haven't accomplished much at the end of another busy day.

According to Newport, our current work habits, which for most of us involve periodically checking our inboxes and phones, are eroding our ability to work in a focused manner for extended durations thereby degrading the quality of our output. Furthermore, in today's fast-changing world, jobs are metamorphosing at increasingly rapid rates. To stay relevant in such an economy, we have to continually upgrade and learn new skills. And, as any experienced learner can attest, "to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction."

Foremost, Newport cautions us against equating busyness with productivity. How often have you felt that you were so caught up in the humdrum of everyday things that by the end of the day you felt you still hadn't accomplished much? It's not like you were goofing off by lying in a hammock. On the contrary, you may have been at your desk, responding to emails and messages, talking to colleagues and sorting out day-to-day problems.

But most people's jobs also demand that they produce something of value. It could be a lesson plan for a teacher or a market forecast for an executive. But very often, these responsibilities, which are core to our productivity, get sidelined as other activities compete for our limited attention. The reason we tend to postpone these jobs is that they demand more intense focus than attending meetings or answering emails. Newport thus cautions us against conflating 'busyness' with 'productivity.'

Furthermore, not only does working with focus make us more prolific or inventive, it also enhances our overall well-being. He quotes science writer, Winifred Gallagher, who learnt a profound truth about life satisfaction the hard way. Upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer, Gallagher boldly pledged that, "This disease wanted to monopolise my attention, but as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead." Indeed, at a most elemental level, the quality of our lives is determined by what we choose to attend to.

In fact, renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term 'flow' to describe the experience of intense focus where people lose sight of all else but what they are working on. And, surprisingly, people report feeling deeply satisfied when in this state.

Have a routine

So, how do we engage in deep work when innumerable demands tug at our attention right through the day? Newport sagely reminds us that we can't simply will ourselves to work deeply all of a sudden. Instead, we need to cultivate routines and rituals that promote our ability to work on meaningful tasks with razor-like focus. Depending on the type of job you have, you have to decide how you can carve out time for deep work. For example, a professor may decide to take on a heavy teaching load one semester so that she can work almost exclusively on research another semester.

Choose whatever works for you based on the demands of your current job. But once you decide on a routine, stick to it in a steadfast fashion. Try to work in the same location every time with a 'Do not disturb' sign outside your door. You also need to decide whether you will ban Internet connectivity altogether or limit it to sites that you will need for your work. Make sure your phone is away and you don't access other sites that will intrude on your focus.

Of course, engaging in deep work does not have to make you a monk. In fact, new ideas and inventions often spring from collaborations and serendipitous interactions. But for these ideas and inventions to take root, you also need time alone with your thoughts. Also, it's important that you have well-defined goals, when it comes to deep work. If you are running a start-up, your long-term goal may be to have an app running within six months with a client base of at least a few thousand people. Your short-term goal may involve developing various facets of the app and pilot testing them with a small number of people.

In order to motivate yourself, Newport urges you to keep a visible scoreboard where you can chart your progress. Keeping a tab of the hours you spend in deep work each week can goad you into optimising your potential. In addition, you may put a star when you achieve a particular milestone.

Finally, he also reminds us that we need to schedule downtime so that our brains can unwind and recharge. Here's wishing you a happy and hopefully more productive 2018.

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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