Do you ever wonder what happens to your brain when it’s constantly pelted with digital information?
Dr. Cal Newport does. He’s a professor and researcher at Georgetown University who studies this.
Nah. Too long.
But since I knew it was about us humans losing our ability to focus and concentrate, I challenged myself to listen to the whole thing. All 84 minutes. I settled into a comfy chair and listened in two long stretches, with a break for dinner.
What I heard blew my mind so bad, I had to buy the book. First the Kindle, then the hardcover so I could mark it up and keep it handy on my bookshelf.
Newport says your brain gets trained to look for the quick hit of dopamine from constantly checking such network tools as email, texting, social networks, and web surfing. Our days are increasingly filled with shallow work: flitting from one task to another, always tethered to internet tools. Shallow work (jumping from task to task or doing more than one thing at a time) is bad because:
- we’re less productive than ever (as you know, multitasking is a myth.)
- that hyper-connectivity leads to a constant low hum of anxiety
- and a sense that our work is never finished (wow, bull’s-eye for me)
- it can affect your brain chronically, wrecking your ability to focus, long-term,
- and the scariest downside for younger folks:
Shallow work can be done by robots.
That’s right, high-tech multitaskers: if you forget how to focus, and it becomes chronic, you’ll be giving up a competitive edge in the workplace.
The irreplaceable (by robots) work of the future will be the deep thinking of the human mind, a task that will become more valuable to employers as more people lose the ability.
So what do you do about it?
Newport advocates the following concentration-training strategies:
1. If you are working on something deep, and need to focus, you can’t even glance at certain things (like email), because your subconscious will latch on. Even if you think you’re concentrating, a part of your brain is fretting about the emails. SO DON’T LOOK! Consider this:
If you get distracted, it takes 20 minutes for the attention residue (basically, chemical impulses) to leave your brain.
2. To train your brain to focus, concentrate for 60-90 minutes on something challenging (for me, that’s writing). Then stop and take a break that is completely unrelated to your work.
3. Schedule deep work periods as you would an appointment with your doctor. They’re that important.
4. To strengthen your resistance to distraction, practice depriving yourself of the dopamine hit you get from social media, email, news, etc. For me, this means I don’t check my phone every time I pass it, just to see if there’s a news alert or text! And conversely, establish break periods for those distractions. You don’t want to eliminate them. Just corral them.
5. What you focus on, you get better at. We’ve all heard of The Wolf You Feed, but there’s brain science to support it: If you do something repetitively and deeply, your neural circuits change in a way that supports that activity. And so:
“By contrast, if you’re trying to learn a complex new skill…in a state of low concentration (perhaps you also have your Facebook feed open), you’re firing too many circuits simultaneously and haphazardly to isolate the group of neurons you actually want to strengthen.”
One benefit of having deep work periods is greater productivity. So you work better and get more done. Who wouldn’t want that?
Also, as older peeps, improving your concentration will offset that age-related tendency to get distracted as we’re trying to listen, speak, or concentrate. Have you noticed? It’s a natural part of brain aging, but you can do something about it. See #2 – 4, above.
For younger people, who tend to study while also checking social media, listening to music, etc., listen up: While it’s true that you CAN concentrate better than older folks, it is NOT TRUE that you can learn something big and important while having those other things going on. The brain does need a certain amount of your attention span for each of those other things. See #5.
This book has great tips and wisdom for young and old. Please do yourself and your kids/grandkids a favor and read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. But if you only have 84 minutes, listen to the interview.