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Want to achieve more by doing less? Here's how.

Cutting out the distractions and getting the job done

If you’ve ever felt frazzled by the pace of modern life, it may well be the fault of technology. What was supposed to set us free – work anywhere, any time from any device – seems to have slowly pulled us into a 24×7 routine that never lets up. 

So we check emails in bed, at the gym and over dinner. We reply to IMs and scan Instagram feeds in meetings, in the car and at the hairdresser.

No wonder we feel frazzled. So maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of Cal Newport’s book. 

Newport is astonishingly prolific: within 10 years of graduating, he published four books, got a PhD, regularly peer-reviewed white papers, and became a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

And in between, he taught classes – his real job.

He’s achieved all of this through deep focus and efficient use of his time. And that means not being constantly distracted by the demands of new technology.

So he’s never had a Facebook or Twitter account, or any other social media presence outside of a blog. He schedules every minute of the day, and has an email curfew in place, so he’s not disturbed in the evening or early morning. He also practices ‘productive meditation’, where he ponders problems on his walk to and from work.

Ditching the distractions

I’ve been reading all about Newport’s radical approach in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

He claims that focus is the new IQ in the knowledge economy. As he puts it: 

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Deep work means cutting out the distractions, because they have a hidden downside. 

It might seem pretty harmless to glance at your email every 10 minutes, but it’s the attention residue after switching tasks that causes problems. And if you can’t immediately react to what you’ve read, it’s worse, as it lingers unresolved in your mind, interfering with your primary task. 

There’s also a hidden cost associated with all this addictive checking: Newport mentions a company that was calculated to be spending over a million dollars on employees processing emails every year. 

He also talks of “busyness as a proxy for productivity”, which is very common in today’s knowledge economy. Since there aren’t any clear indicators for what productivity looks like, people simply do “lots of stuff in a visible manner”.

And let’s be honest: we’ve all been there. You haven’t stopped all day, and yet when you look back at what you’ve actually accomplished, it’s difficult to quantify it. You were just busy.

But busyness doesn’t equal business.

Depth not breadth

So much for the problem – what’s Newport’s solution?

Having made his case for homo sapiens deepensis in Part 1 of the book, he turns to the rules (and yes, there are rules) in Part 2:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

He breaks down each of these into manageable steps and gives real-world advice based on his personal experience. He says it’s important to decide where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start and how you’ll support your work (with food, coffee and exercise).

And one size doesn’t fit all. There are, he says, many different approaches for working deeply, and you should choose the one that’s best suited to you:

  • Monastic – you cut yourself off totally and devote yourself to the task.
  • Bimodal – you divide your time between your deep focus/work and other, shallower activities.
  • Journalistic – you fit deep work into your schedule wherever you can (like a journalist, you write your story up anywhere).

Although I’d like to be monastic, I know deep down I’m more bimodal. What about you? 

Deeper and deeper

Newport’s case is pretty convincing and his approach is practical and no‑nonsense.

Even if the book doesn’t inspire you to radically change how you work, you’ll definitely pick up some tips on how to get more out of your day.

My favourite is one is entitled Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work. It’ll help you avoid the endless email ping-pongs that cause so much of our daily distraction. 

Deep Work is a fascinating read, and at 260 pages doesn’t require that much deep reading. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’re too busy with all those emails and IMs, check out instead Newport’s TEDx talk called Quit social media

Because if you do that, you might just have time to read the book. And a lot more time besides.