Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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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