Deep work & concentration

Oct 19, 2016

I good article came up on HN yesterday on the subject of distraction and “deep work”. A choice re-quote:

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

– Alain de Botton

I’m always excited to read this type of article because I feel validated in that someone else has reached the same conclusions that I have independently. Whenever I start thinking about a problem in depth, I can feel my body and mind trying to wander off course by checking my phone or opening a new tab in Firefox. Worse yet, usually this destructive impulse wins, and I defer work on the hard problems that I was meant to solve.

I’ll often find myself stuck in “interruption cycles”, where I look at one work item, realize it’s quite involved and so unconsciously give up on it by moving to another one. Then I do the same with that one and the next until I’ve arrived back to the original task. From there the circle repeats. It takes directed effort to stop myself and push on just one of them in sequence until they’re done.

We hail tools like smartphones and Slack, but don’t talk about how they’re effectively distraction machines; communication becomes so quick and easy that everyone is interrupting each other all the time. The effect is particularly corrosive in a corporate environment: as an organization grows the number of possible combinations between any two nodes in that huge interpersonal graph increase factorially, and ever more productivity is lost into the aether of communication overhead.

So far my best answer has been to this problem has been to wake up earlier (5 AM or before if possible). My mental state at this time feels flexible and sharp and is especially amenable to focusing on single tasks for extended periods of time. There are also fewer other people around at those hours which is an inherent help to curbing incoming interrupts. Throughout the day I’ll accumulate mental baggage and it goes back to normal; that’s when I start the daily grind of moving through my inboxes.

Unfortunately I expect our tools and the world to trend toward more distracting and not less, so maybe the best thing we can do is recognize the problem and try to exercise self-restraint when we can.

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