The New York Times recently published an article that caught my eye: “How to Actually, Truly Focus on What You’re Doing.” Needless to say, I read it while also answering emails. On the subway.
The article features a conversation with Cal Newport, the author of a 2016 book called Deep Work, whose title is also a term he’s coined for “the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Newport argues, rather convincingly, that there’s a cost to switching continuously between tasks -- even if it’s just to quickly switch between browser tabs to check your email. This cost is a psychologically recognized phenomenon called attention residue, and it can significantly reduce your productivity.
Newport goes on to describe four rules for deep work; the one I found most fascinating was to “embrace boredom.” He notes that if you immediately reach for your phone and start scrolling every time a task begins to bore you, you’re effectively telling your brain it will never have to tolerate tasks that aren’t immediately interesting.
But as we might know from test-taking, homework, and the like, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to work through a tough task. And Newport’s research shows that doubling down on the task at hand by working deeply will bear much more fruit than trying to multitask or shifting to a new task halfway through. Fortunately, learning to work deeply is something we can train and work at improving, much like a muscle. So, I’m starting now. As soon as I’m off the subway.