There are approximately 20 televisions in the open office where I work, which means that for the past nine months everything I have done has been watched over by 20 Donald J. Trumps, leering at me from all corners of the room. Your articles are a mess, they shout. Sad!
I share this space with approximately 20 coworkers, all young, all rambunctious, all driven mad, like me, by the orange billionaire insulting them from every angle. I keep Twitter open at all times, which connects me to a personalized list of 800 other journalists, writers, and experts offloading their content on the world. I keep Gmail open in another tab so I can listen attentively for a ping heralding the arrival of an article for me to edit.
I had long suspected that this work environment was not doing wonders for my productivity. My suspicion has been confirmed by Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, a book by Cal Newport that should be read by everyone who labors with his brain for a living.
Newport’s view of how most people use technology does not belong to the regressive, burn-it-all-down school of modern critique. He does not, to my knowledge, live on a farm or wear capes or pine for the days of trade guilds and craftsmanship and getting back to nature. To the contrary, he is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University whose work includes such riveting articles as “A Disruption-Resistant MAC Layer for Multichannel Wireless Networks” and “Making Wireless Algorithm Theory More Useful.” An ardent foe of technology he is not.
Newport contends that most people use network tools, particularly social media, to shirk the hard work of thinking and building that require feats of concentration he calls “deep work.” Deep work, Newport writes, is “performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.” To put it in layman’s terms, deep work is the ability to sit down and crank it, whether it is a tight piece of code or an 80,000 word novel of the kind Stephen King produced on coke benders in a matter of days (not that his methods, which after all produced Cujo, should be replicated).
The ability to work deeply is “becoming increasingly rare,” Newport writes, “at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable” in an economy fueled by knowledge work and the manipulation of symbols. As it turns out, the mind cannot flit between tasks, or between browser tabs, with ease. It has a finite store of attention that is slow to replenish once it is depleted, so the act of trawling Twitter or catching up on email diminishes our ability to perform at our highest level. This is not exactly mind-blowing stuff. Rather, it is a reality that many of us have felt but ignored because mental lethargy is comfortable and familiar, like a warm bath. If we want to set ourselves apart, we will have “to leave the distracted masses to join the focused few.” We will have to wade out from the shallows into the deep end.
How do we do this? After spending the first half of the book touting the benefits of deep work, Newport spends the second half telling us how to cultivate the ability. Newport stresses the importance of “ritual” and intentionality in scheduling our days to ensure that time is built in for deep activities. He outlines different philosophies for scheduling deep work, from the near-monastic seclusion practiced by some zealous disciples to the in-the-world-but-not-of-it strategy preferred by professionals, like journalists, who can’t retreat to a desert hideaway for months at a time. He advocates “grand gestures” to accompany grand projects, like the man who bought a roundtrip plane ticket to Tokyo in order to write a book on a tight deadline. (In a similar vein, a friend on Capitol Hill tells me that the speechwriter for a prominent politician writes all his copy on weekends while doing endless loops on the Metro—not exactly a grand gesture, but nevertheless a gesture that forces him to concentrate on the task at hand.)
Then there is social media. Newport holds very unhip views about social media. After reading his book, I think I hold very unhip views about social media. Applications like Twitter and Facebook “offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule,” Newport writes. The personalizable quality of social media makes it addictive, while the unpredictability of its notifications destroys our ability to work deeply. Moreover, social media rewards users for engaging in shallow work. Newport writes that social media short-circuits the connection “between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you.” Users are flattered by the pretense of z-list celebrity that social media affords when a tweet or post catches fire—and yet, we all seem to understand that this celebrity is ephemeral and unimportant, thus the qualifying word in the phrase “Twitter famous.”
When you step back from social media for a few days, returning to it again exposes the deleterious effects it has on our minds. Social media is a whirring world, a Six Flags Over the Internet of attractions, rides, and arcade games that award players with orange hearts and blue thumbs-up and green retweets in exchange for tiny tokens of effort.
This Candy Crush world is ultimately unsatisfying on a psychological level, because humans are at their happiest not when they are relaxing (a myth) but when they are engaged in the meaningful work of life: the cultivation of relationships with spouses and friends, the rearing of children, the completion of big projects in the professional sphere. At its best, social media facilitates that work, for example by putting us in touch with loved ones. At its worst—and it is often at its worst—social media distracts us from that work.
If that last paragraph seems too grand or moralizing, understand that it is my view and not necessarily Newport’s. He writes that “a commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement.” Perhaps this statement was included so it wouldn’t scare off readers, but it seems unconvincing after two hundred pages touting the benefits of deep work under such headers as “The Philosophical Argument for Depth,” with explicit reference made to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, which is a decidedly moral concept.
Indeed, as I read Deep Work I was reminded of a book that sits on my shelf called Devotional Classics, an anthology of great Christian writers. Many of the selections emphasize the difficulty of building a healthy spiritual life in the bustle of day-to-day existence. C.S. Lewis wrote that the day’s tasks “rush at you like wild animals … and the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back.” Henri Nouwen called for the cultivation of “spiritual discipline” to “prevent the world from filling our lives to such an extent that there is no place left to listen.”
As with God, so with work. The important things in life require our undivided attention.