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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.

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