When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds. On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand. Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.
All of those times tended to have moments, even hours, of boredom. There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts. I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.
Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom. These days, escape from boredom is only a click away. We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat. We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly. When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited? Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction. In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.
The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation. While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem. Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it. If you do this two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.
In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.
When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way. The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom. Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too? If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.
6 thoughts on “Deep Work – Rule #2”
This all makes me want to spend more time lifting heavy, rather than doing light sets with more reps. Why? If I have to focus everything to lift the bar, I focus.
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Yes, I’ve always felt that way about Pilates. I can’t think of anything else if I want to do the exercises correctly. Prayer time is similar to the productive meditation. I start to pray, have to refocus my wandering thoughts again and again. Focus is hard!
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My morning walks are something like a meditation time. When I first starting walking regularly I would bring along an audio book or my French lessons and I found that I hated it — I couldn’t focus on the walk or the book. Instead I focus on the walk itself, and it’s much more pleasurable and relaxing that way.
First I focus on my feet, how I’m placing them. This will sound silly but it’s actually necessary for me. A couple of years ago the pain in my right foot became so bad that I finally went to a doctor and he put me in physical therapy for a few months. Turns out that the weeks I spent walking in a cast after breaking my foot when I was five years old caused me to develop bad habits, and the years of that gait caused damage to my foot, my ankle, my knees, hips, back, and neck! So the first thing I do is make sure that I’m planting that foot the way I should be and pushing off correctly.
Then I spend a bit of time noticing my hips and lower back, checking for correct posture and muscle usage. Then I move up to my upper back, neck, and shoulders, making sure they’re correct and relaxed, so that my chest is open and relaxed and I’m breathing properly. Then I cycle through again to make sure I haven’t lost anything along the way.
CS Lewis said, “When you put the feet right, everything else comes right.” 😀
This sounds time-consuming, and it was at first, but while I’m concentrating on my gait, posture, and breathing, I’m also taking in the look of the ground and noticing whether it shows signs of recent rain or wind. I’m smelling the air and feeling the temperatures. I’m listening to the birds and other animals and to the sound of the wind in the trees. I’m looking up at the sky and noticing the color and whether there are any clouds and what they’re like.
Nowadays focusing on my own body has become easy enough that it doesn’t take much attention or energy, so I have more of that for simply noticing the creation and letting my thoughts wander to whatever I want to think about.
[Sorry this comment is going on so long! There’s just a little bit more. I promise. 🙂 ]
There’s a specific technique that I had learned before all of this came up, and I think it’s why focusing on all those things came fairly easily for me. It’s counting your breaths. This sounds dumb, but it’s actually pretty hard.
Go sit or lie someplace quiet with no distractions. Then breathe in to a slow 3-count and out the same way. Count in your head, if possible, so you can keep your body as quiet and relaxed as possible. At the end of each cycle, count that as 1 breath (keeping count on my fingers works best for me). Try to get all the way to 10 without thinking of anything else. If any other thought intrudes itself, push it out and start over counting.
The goal is to be able to count to 100 (ten 10s) while maintaining that level of focus. It took me weeks and weeks to get there, but it’s worth it! Especially if you have an annoying dental procedure coming up and don’t like using the laughing gas. 😉
Wow. This comment is as long as a blog post. Since I’ve taken the time to write it I think I’ll copy it to my poor neglected blog. :-p
LOL. I’m trying to resurrect my poor neglected blog, too.
That sounds like a very similar technique to the one Cal Newport describes. I will have to try yours. I’m determined to build in focused study and writing time into my schedule and any thing that will help me with focus is worth cultivating.