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To boost productivity and cognition in the Knowledge Age, prioritize Deep work, avoid the Shallows, and Self-Quantify


In 2009, Winifred Gal­lagher pub­lished his excel­lent Rapt: Atten­tion and the Focused Life, per­sua­sive­ly argu­ing that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, enjoy­ment and human devel­op­ment require extend­ed peri­ods of focus­ing.

The next year, Nicholas Carr pub­lished his fas­ci­nat­ing The Shal­lows: What the Inter­net Is Doing to Our Brains in which he argued that the Inter­net is ‘rewiring’ our brains. While his claim was exag­ger­at­ed, infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy and the Inter­net cer­tain­ly pro­vide chal­lenges to our cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. For it is impos­si­ble to focus on a prob­lem while han­dling exter­nal inter­rupts from email, social media, or oth­er sources. Nor can we focus if we allow task-irrel­e­vant inter­nal events to dri­ve our behav­ior. A fleet­ing thought about an unre­lat­ed issue, for instance, can trig­ger a moti­va­tor to check e‑mail or a news site for poten­tial infor­ma­tion about it. It is con­cern­ing that knowl­edge work­ers now face more poten­tial dis­trac­tors than when Carr pub­lished his book.

There is still no con­sen­sus on how to respond to this sit­u­a­tion. Pes­simists believe that engag­ing with the world-wide web and infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy inevitably dooms us to a shal­low, dis­tract­ed life. Naive opti­mists believe that using “tried-and-true” pre-web era sys­tems is the key to pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. In Cog­ni­tive Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty: Using Knowl­edge to Become Pro­found­ly Effec­tive, I took a cau­tious­ly opti­mistic posi­tion: there are new, pro­duc­tive ways to use high-cal­iber infor­ma­tion and tech­nol­o­gy to boost our cog­ni­tion.

Here fol­low three core sug­ges­tions to do so.

Prioritize Deep work; Avoid the Shallows

Ear­li­er this year, Cal New­port pub­lished Deep Work: Rules for Focused Suc­cess in a Dis­tract­ed World, a book based on Rapt which is meant to facil­i­tate cog­ni­tive­ly pro­duc­tive liv­ing. Deep work is work that requires focused atten­tion for long stretch­es of time. This includes solv­ing impor­tant, dif­fi­cult cog­ni­tive prob­lems; deliv­er­ing knowl­edge-intense ser­vices; build­ing knowl­edge and oth­er prod­ucts; and engag­ing in delib­er­ate learn­ing.

Deep work is how brains pro­duce val­ue with knowl­edge. Thus, those who are bet­ter able to engage in deep work tend to gen­er­ate more val­ue. On aver­age, they will be bet­ter able to pro­tect their jobs, obtain pro­mo­tions, gen­er­ate sales, and make more mon­ey.

Newport’s main sug­ges­tion is to max­i­mize the time you spend work­ing deeply on wild­ly impor­tant goals. A gen­er­al prin­ci­ple of per­for­mance enhance­ment is that in order to increase any vari­able, you need to mea­sure it. Thus, New­port sug­gests that you record the amount of time you spend in deep work each day, and that you review this num­ber reg­u­lar­ly.

It is easy to acci­den­tal­ly engage in shal­low work, such as read­ing and writ­ing unpro­duc­tive email, brows­ing insuf­fi­cient­ly help­ful web pages, and engag­ing with social media. Sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mea­sur­ing deep work can help peo­ple rec­og­nize and avoid shal­low work. By clas­si­fy­ing time as deep or shal­low, you can learn to bet­ter under­stand the dis­tinc­tion between shal­low and deep work.

Newport’s book can also help peo­ple focus by virtue of its inspi­ra­tional argu­ment in favour of depth. It can help peo­ple want to do more deep work, and less shal­low work. Shal­low work drains men­tal ener­gy that could be spent deeply. By becom­ing acute­ly aware of the kind of work one is engaged in, one is more like­ly to detect dis­trac­tions, and shift one’s atten­tion back to the more reward­ing, deep vari­ety of work. This can help you become vis­cer­al­ly pro­tec­tive of your deep time.

New­port offers oth­er strate­gies for pro­tect­ing your time from the shal­lows. He sug­gests that you assess the pro­duc­tive val­ue of all your seem­ing­ly impor­tant activ­i­ties, and reject them if their con­tri­bu­tions are insuf­fi­cient. Giv­en that 20% of activ­i­ties typ­i­cal­ly yield 80% of the valu­able results, New­port feels that approx­i­mate­ly 80% of one’s tools should be reject­ed. To New­port, this means quit­ting social media, such as Face­book and Twit­ter. He feels that the main rea­son peo­ple use social media is that they implic­it­ly assume that if a tool offers some ben­e­fits, it should be adopt­ed. Yet suc­cess­ful crafts­peo­ple also con­sid­er the cost of their tools; they select only the vital few tools that con­tribute the lion’s share of val­ue and dis­card the remain­ing ones. More gen­er­al­ly, New­port sug­gests that you mea­sure, struc­ture and dras­ti­cal­ly lim­it time spent using the Inter­net at work and at home.

Self-Quantify to Manage and Refine your Focus

We have entered the era of self-quan­tifi­ca­tion. For instance, smart­watch­es pro­vide inte­grat­ed fit­ness track­ing. Many spe­cial-pur­pose com­mer­cial pro­grams are avail­able to track how you spend your time. How­ev­er, the sim­plest and most flex­i­ble way to log and analyse your time is to use spread­sheets. I’ve pub­lished a free work­book and sys­tem called mySelfQuan­ti­fi­er. You edit a new row in the log spread­sheet just about each time you begin a new activ­i­ty dur­ing work hours. There are columns for the date, start time, end time, dura­tion, project, activ­i­ty type, and for sev­er­al oth­er para­me­ters. There is even a col­umn to flag time spent in deep work. Using a text expan­sion util­i­ty makes enter­ing data fast.

mySelfQuan­ti­fi­er includes spread­sheets that cal­cu­late how much time you spend in deep work, in par­tic­u­lar projects and in giv­en activ­i­ties. This can help you dis­cov­er that you have been spend­ing too much time in a par­tic­u­lar project or activ­i­ty, and then adjust.

Some of this infor­ma­tion can be obtained from pro­grams that mon­i­tor your com­put­er usage. How­ev­er, not all of it can. For­tu­nate­ly, there are sig­nif­i­cant poten­tial cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits to man­u­al­ly log­ging when you shift your atten­tion from one activ­i­ty or project to anoth­er: it might help you learn to bet­ter detect when you go off track, and to return to your pri­or­i­ty.

Research has shown that peo­ple have much dif­fi­cul­ty remem­ber­ing pre­cise­ly what they were doing. They might sig­nif­i­cant­ly over­es­ti­mate how much time they worked. Log­ging your time as soon as you switch projects address­es this con­cern. Of course, if you are billing clients for your time, such log­ging is essen­tial.

More research is required to ascer­tain the cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits of mea­sur­ing one’s cog­ni­tive time. How­ev­er, based on well estab­lished prin­ci­ples of per­for­mance enhance­ment, effi­cient­ly quan­ti­fy­ing and review­ing how one spends one’s time — in terms of deep work, cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, activ­i­ties and projects — seems promis­ing indeed.

Luc_Beaudoin— Dr. Luc Beau­doin is an Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence  and Edu­ca­tion at Simon Fras­er Uni­ver­si­ty. A self-described pro­duc­tiv­i­ty geek, with a PhD in Cog­ni­tive Sci­ence from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bir­migham in Eng­land, he wrote Cog­ni­tive Pro­duc­tiv­i­ty to explain how to use soft­ware to process knowl­edge resources and prac­tice pro­duc­tive­ly.

Books dis­cussed in this arti­cle, by date of pub­li­ca­tion:

To learn more:

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Categories: Attention and ADD/ADHD, Education & Lifelong Learning, Peak Performance, Professional Development

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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