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You Can’t Force Focus. You Need To Train It, Like a Muscle.

What I’ve learned from the book ‘Deep Work’, including a technique to deal with technology distractions.

Charlotte Grysolle
Charlotte Grysolle
8 min read
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

“Why do you need to learn how to focus? You just do it when you need to. No need to read a book about it.”

That was my mom’s reaction when I told her about the book I was reading — Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.

I admit, a book with the words ‘work’ and ‘rules’ in the title doesn’t sound very enticing.

So why was I reading a book about focus?

The truth is, I was getting frustrated with how hard I find it to concentrate on difficult work tasks, or how I’m incapable of waiting for anything for longer than 10 seconds without reaching for my phone.

‘Focus’ is often seen as something we can force ourselves to do when we need to. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, it’s not that simple anymore. Our primitive brains are no match for advanced technology and all the distractions around us. It has become a skill that we need to learn, and like any other skill, it takes effort.

As Cal puts it:

It’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit, like flossing — something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies that you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your “mental muscle”.

Of course, you won’t get far with just reading a book.

What I have found though, is that reading about it has helped me with awareness. I notice when I feel the urge to abandon the presentation I’m working on and open my emails. I catch myself when I’m reaching for my phone the moment I stand in a queue. It doesn’t mean I always succeed in fighting off the distraction, but I have become hyper-aware of the urges and that is a pretty good first step.

The next step is to implement routines and rituals in your life that will help train that mental muscle, so you can move beyond willpower and good intentions.

The book goes into great detail on the different strategies and techniques depending on your personal circumstances, so if you too are finding that lack of focus has become an issue in your life, I highly recommend reading it.

In this post, I’ll just talk about one technique in particular that stuck with me, focused on dealing with internet distractions.

But first, let’s start by defining deep work and why it matters.


Deep work is the superpower of the 21st century

Focus, undistracted attention, is the key ingredient for deep work. In the book, Cal describes this type of work as follows:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. The results are valuable and difficult to replicate.

Deep work can be hard to define, but we know it when we see it. It’s when we’re in a flow state — thinking through a client strategy, working on a proposal, analyzing data, learning a new skill. Cal describes it as professional activities but deep work can be personal as well. Writing. Reviewing your budget or investment plan. Basically, any task that requires undistracted attention and makes a valuable difference.

The opposite of deep work is shallow work. Responding to emails or Slack messages, designing slides, copying data from a spreadsheet. Tasks that require little concentration and cognitive effort. We feel good and productive as we’re doing it, jumping from one task to another, but at the end of the day, it’s not the kind of work that moves the needle.

So why is it important to prioritise deep work over shallow work?

We live in an information economy that is built on complex systems that change rapidly. As a result, the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable.

As entrepreneur and investor Naval Ravikant puts it, the old model of building a career is to go to school for four years, get your degree and work as a professional for thirty years. But things change fast now. Now, you have to come up to speed on a new profession within nine months, and it’s obsolete four years later. That is only possible if you have the ability to focus and quickly learn complicated things.

That’s an extreme representation, and it‘s not necessarily the case for all types of jobs. Still, it is undeniable that, regardless of the work you do, we can all benefit from training our ability to focus on one task deeply without constantly giving in to distractions.

Just imagine the hours you waste being distracted, jumping from task to task, and how you could use this time on a hobby, with friends or family, going outside.

This also got me thinking about the four-day working week model. I believe it is entirely possible for many of us to do our jobs in four days instead of five if we would use those four days as productively and focused as possible.

To me, those potential results are worth the effort of actively training this skill.

Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.

A variation of the following happens to me all the time:

I needed to review resumes for a role we’re recruiting for in our team. I click on one candidate’s Linkedin profile. Now that I’m on Linkedin, I quickly scroll through the feed. I see a friend’s status update, click through to see where she’s working now, leave a comment. Back in the feed, an article catches my eye so I click on it and start reading.

You get the point. I started with a very specific task but ended up doing something completely different. The worst part about it is that it often takes a while before I even notice it has happened.

My favourite technique from the book comes from the idea that that deepening your focus is only possible if you can train your mind on being less dependent on distractions.

An effective way to do this is by deciding in advance when you’ll use the internet and allow yourself only to use it during those times, no matter how tempting.

I’ve combined this with the habit of time-blocking, a popular productivity approach for managing your schedule. I’ve started taking time-blocking seriously, taking ten to fifteen minutes every evening to create my schedule for the next day. I divide each day up into blocks of time and decide in advance what I do in that time. Whatever time is not taken up by calls or meetings, gets assigned an activity — including lunch, commute, gym, call to a friend, etc.

This doesn’t need to be as extreme or obsessive as it sounds. You move things around during the day when you need to, but it is incredibly helpful with making sure you are working on the right things that day.

Back to the internet scheduling. After time-blocking, you divide your day into online and offline blocks.

By segregating internet use, you’re minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so, you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen.

You’re probably thinking what I was thinking as I was reading this the first time: “but I need my emails and the internet to do my job!”

That’s fine.

The total number or duration of your internet blocks does not matter as much. What’s most important is that you don’t break the integrity of your offline blocks. Once you’ve scheduled an offline block, you don’t abandon it, even if you desperately need a piece of information from the internet or your emails to proceed. If you make an exception, it doesn’t take much of these exceptions before your mind begins to treat the barrier between the internet and offline blocks as permeable.

The more you practice resisting distraction urges, the easier such resistance becomes.

If you need some extra help, you could use site and internet blocking apps like Self Control and Freedom. These tools can block the entire internet or selected websites.

Define your offline blocks in advance

Be realistic and start small. There’s no point in trying to make your entire day an offline block (besides it wouldn’t be much fun).

Here’s how I have been trying to incorporate this into my work and personal life.

One Big Task (OBT)

Every morning, I define my ‘OBT’ that requires deep focus and attention that day. I block time in my calendar in advance and automatically consider it an offline block. Depending on the task and on my schedule that day, that can be anywhere from 1–3 hours. If I need anything from my emails or the internet, I try to gather the info in advance.

If anything comes up during the task, I write it down and do it after the task is done.

Calls and meetings

Zoom calls can be incredibly challenging to stay focused.

By far the biggest distraction for me is email. Every time I see the notification pop up, I would leave whatever I am doing to read the email, even in the middle of meetings — a habit made much easier by remote working.

I am trying (with varying degrees of success) to consider each call or meeting as an offline block — even when I feel bored or I feel the topic is not relevant to me.

This is the one where I am struggling the most. Turning off email alerts has helped tremendously but I still feel worried about not checking my emails all the time, to make sure nothing urgent has come up.

Writing

I have found this to be an incredibly effective technique when it comes to writing. I would often get stuck, unsure of how to structure an article or feeling like I need to do more research. This would completely derail me and mean I get very little actual writing done.

My approach now is to block 1 hour of writing on my calendar. I have this set as a Series, so it appears automatically every single day. During that time, any form of technology is off-limits. I set a timer on my watch and start writing.

I still get stuck all the time but instead of distracting myself with my phone or the internet, I type the letters ‘TK’, which stands for To Come. It’s a trick used by journalists and editors to signify that additional material will be added later. TK is a letter combination that does not exist in any word, so it is easily searchable and thus hard to miss.

This helps you with staying in the flow. Just type TK and keep writing until the end of your offline block.

Commuting

Ah, my commute, that’s another big one. Texting as I’m crossing the street, barely looking up from my phone when I’m on the tube, googling random unimportant stuff when I’m waiting in line.

No more. Offline block.

Caveat: I still use my phone for things like listening to a podcast, calling a friend or sending audio messages, or looking for directions — I’m obsessive but not that obsessive!

This one is probably the most difficult for me but it’s also the one I find the most important.

In Cal’s words:

“It’s crucial in these situations if you’re in an offline block, to simply gird yourself for the temporary boredom and simply fight through it with the company of your thoughts. To simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of brain training, it’s incredible valuable.”
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