‘Deep Work’: A Manual for Better Thinking

There are few tasks more cognitively challenging than researching and writing a thesis. As researchers, we must think and generate new insights at the absolute forefront of human understanding. And as students, we must produce something of sufficient quality to pass rigorous examinations. Our job is intellectually challenging in the extreme.

This kind of work is very difficult to accomplish even under the best conditions. But in a modern workspace, with emails pinging and social media notifications dinging, it can feel almost impossible to reach the level of intense focus required to perform demanding tasks. Those who are able to break free of distractions and work intensively in a state of deep thought are likely to have a competitive edge in the business of thesis-writing.

Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) is the perfect manual for academics and researchers wanting to boost their productivity. The premise of Deep Work is simple: in order to get the best out of your brain, you need to enter a state of intense concentration (the titular ‘deep work’ state). The book draws together research from psychology and neuroscience, as well as case studies of people who are skilled at deep work, to show how ‘going deep’ can allow us to make the best use of our time and brainpower.

Unfortunately, the modern imperative to be infinitely contactable at all times encourages us to stay in ‘shallow work’ mode, frequently switching tasks and responding to interruptions.

Newport draws on a wide range of sources and theories to prove how detrimental this ‘shallow work’ mode can be for our mental focus. For example, business scholar Sophie Leroy’s research demonstrates that when you switch tasks (particularly if you leave one unfinished), a portion of your attention remains on the previous task. This limits the focus you can bring to your next task. She calls this phenomenon ‘attention residue.’ If you switch tasks multiple times in quick succession, your attention can be diffracted to such a point that you’re partially attentive to everything and effective at nothing.

This is bad news for those of us who switch from checking email to tinkering with EndNote to browsing our Twitter feeds, all while attempting to write our theses.

Newport cites several examples of thinkers and scholars who overcome distraction by cutting themselves off from the world: deleting their email and social media accounts, locking themselves away in an office for hours at a time, and even (in some cases) building special hideouts on their properties dedicated to deep work. But this ‘monastic’ approach to mental focus is not especially realistic for those of us who want or need to stay connected to some degree.

Fortunately, the book suggests several more achievable ways of integrating deep work into our lives:

  • The bimodal approach: in which you are sometimes monastic (perhaps several days a week, or several months a year) but remain connected at other times
  • The rhythmic approach: in which you set aside regular chunks of time each day (in the example Newport gives of one PhD student: 5:30 – 7:30am daily before starting his paid job) to work without distraction
  • The journalistic approach: in which you snatch little bits of time for deep work whenever possible (though Newport notes that this only works for those able to switch quickly into deep work mode)

Once you find the time to ‘go deep,’ and develop rituals to settle yourself into that state, you’re in a good position to maximize the insights your brain is able to produce. Newport gives a whole host of tips and techniques for how to get the most out of that deep work state and stave off distractions.

But perhaps my favourite piece of advice in the book is this: be bored. If you are accustomed to seeking distraction, then training yourself to be bored is a way to reduce your reliance on external stimuli and encourage mental calm. It’s also in these undisturbed moments that many people have their best ideas – hence why so many people swear by going for long walks or ruminating on complex problems in the shower. (Newport quotes Nietzsche: “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”)

So I’m going to take this as a reason to open my email less, go for more walks in Albert Park, and let my mind go to a place of insight as often as I can. After all: working distracted sometimes feels productive, but it’s deep work that makes a difference.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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