How many times have you found yourself looking at your phone when you’re supposed to be doing something important? Five times, ten times? If you’re a typical working professional, this number easily skyrockets to at least 80 times a day. Now that’s significant! Scrolling your thumb on a phone’s smooth screen is satisfying, for people of any age – but is this seemingly innocent addiction harmful? The answer to that is yes. Studies show that the presence of a cell phone, even when it is turned off, affects our cognitive capacity; in other words, our ability to learn and perform tasks. The habitual compulsion to check our phones derives from it being a device that is constantly relevant – we can achieve nearly anything with this portable tech in a matter of seconds. While cell phones are great for boosting efficiency, people who are too attached to them may experience social impairment and health issues. Clearly, cell phones have evolved from commodity items to negative objects that slowly, and unapologetically, eat away our focus.

Cell phones are just one of the many modern technologies that have skewed our ability to concentrate. In his article, Michael Harris describes the effect online life has on our ability to read and retain. Digital media and technology have shortened our attention spans so that we become “cynical readers” who have a tendency to only zero in on useful pieces of information and need constant new stimuli. This type of cynical reading, in tandem with our technology addiction, also plays a part in our inability to retain information and perform. While it may appear as though people have just stopped wanting to learn, Harris believes we are not reading less, but rather we are reading worse; emphasizing the golden rule of quality over quantity. 

“The resonance of printed books – their lineal structure, the demands
they make on our attention – touches every corner of the world we’ve inherited.
But online life makes me into a different kind of reader – a cynical one.
I scrounge, now, for the useful fact; I zero in on the shareable link.
My attention – and thus my experience – fractures.”
– Michael Harris

It is clear that the rise of digital technologies has turned us into nebulous, anxious, and arguably, dumber, content consumers. How can we rewire our brain to retain information and focus like it used to? Cal Newport believes he has the answer in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Newport suggests that practicing “deep work” can help to reverse the effect technology has wreaked upon our cognitive capacity. Deep work is defined as professional activities performed using immense focus that push one’s cognitive capacity to the limit. Contrary to how the majority of people work today (shallow work), deep work requires distance from coworkers, digital notifications, and sometimes even society itself. Many successful and prolific thinkers, like Carl Jung and Mark Twain, were enthusiasts of deep work even before the digital world had a vice-grip on the way humans function. The ability to perform deep work is rare and extremely valuable, especially as the average person becomes increasingly more distracted – So why don’t more people do it?

Getting Started

As you reach this point in the post, you may be thinking about trying deep work for yourself. Upon reading Newport’s book, I began to experiment with how I might be able to incorporate some of the deep work practices into my daily life. For some perspective, I work a full-time schedule at a pharma company, commute 3 hours every day, attend graduate school at night, and am trying to maintain a social life. With a hectic and changing schedule, rewiring my brain to maximize the day seemed like an obvious choice. Here are some things that worked for me:

  • Put your cell phone away! As we discussed at the beginning of this post these devices are nothing but trouble. Keep your phone in a drawer far away from you so the urge to check it doesn’t distract you.
  • Read more physical books. This summer, I started avidly reading again. Before learning about the concept of deep work, I wasn’t enjoying or absorbing anything I read. By picking up old favorites, or a book that interested me, I was able to rekindle some of my passion and focus. Start by reading a chapter a day – the small steps really do work!
  • Find a place to work. In many cases, the environment in which you work has an effect on the quality of your work. I found that in order to keep up with the assignments of grad work on top of my job, I needed a place where I could focus. This place ended up being my basement (where I am currently writing this post). The basement allows for separation from family members and for the noises of the house and the outside to be muffled. Having a dedicated space helps to kick your brain over into “work mode” and makes focusing a lot less of an arduous task.
  • Try working without music. As a former musician and music lover, myself, this seemed like ludicrous at first, but try to hear me out! I found that, for me, certain types of work required different auditory stimulation in order to enhance my focus. When it came to reading or writing, having brown noise in the background (like the dehumidifier in the basement), heightened my ability to absorb what I was reading. On the contrary, when it came to designing images, such as the one above this post, I needed music in order to get into the creative process. Experiment with music to see if auditory stimulation works to amplify your focus!

Good luck!

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