W@TW: Deep Thinking

When I was little my grandmother made a comment that has stuck, "My, you are a deep thinker."  At the time I cannot remember what was the discussion and I am sure that it was not that philosophical.  Probably had more verbiage than content.  I think it was her polite way to say that I was talky.

I don't know if I am truly a deep thinker but I am a ruminator. I'll go over things in my head, trying to consider all facets of a problem or discussion.  So, I listened with interest to a report on the radio about a study of deep thinking;  the "challenge of cultivating deep attention and what we gain by immersing ourselves in meaningful work. "  The reporter interviewed Cal Newport a professor of computer science at Georgetown University who has written a book, "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World."

This is more than just looking at one page of writing at a time.  It is a thought process of intentionally not engaging in multiple things at once.  To be intentional requires a solitude and removal of oneself from the distractions of this world. The author of the studies give Mark Twain, JK Rowling, Carl Jung as examples of people who removed themselves from society for set periods of time in order to concentrate on things that needed concentration.  I think of Virginia Wolff's advice of a room of one's own, EB White and his spartan cabin furnished with just a chair, table and typewriter, or Thoreau and his Walden Pond. 

Profession Newport describes how we try to trick ourselves into thinking we are single-tasking yet we find ourselves pulled back into multi tasking through the way we plan our days.  As he states, we fool ourselves by saying: 

"{They say} I'm just working on one thing at a time. What they're still doing is every five or 10 minutes, a just-check. Let me just do a just-check to my inbox. Let me just do a just-check to my phone real quick and then back to my work. And it feels like single-tasking. It feels like you're predominantly working on one thing. But even those very brief checks, that switch your context even briefly, can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It's the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch. So I actually think even very conscientious knowledge workers, who think they're pretty good at focusing on one thing at a time, are actually still working far from the sort of high-performance, deep work ideal.

It calls into question not so much time wasted, but what type of productivity have I lost. It does make me wonder how much could've I achieved if I were a little more singleminded-ness in purpose.  It is tricky.  Part of my work and I suspect is also true for many of you who read this, is spent online reading and doing research.  In doing so, it is very easy to get distracted, to go down the rabbit holes all with the justification of "looking things up."  Or if you have a job that is responding to customers, via emails or phone calls, these are not distractions but the work itself. 

The researcher has these ways to think deeper by cordoning off his life:

  • He doesn't have a social media account. He knows that once he gets started with this type of distraction he will never stop.
  • He is very organized with his time. He works set hours of the day and plans his day like a chess player moving the pieces around. He doesn't let his mood dictate how his day unfolds. 
  • He is okay with disappointing people and at times annoying them.  He doesn't answer emails very quickly or at all sometimes. 

I don't know if I am quite ready to embrace that type of lifestyle but I think I can do better in the less distracted, intentional periods of work in my life.  I like his attitude of not letting his mood dictate how his day unfolds.  He follows his set schedule regardless of how he feels.  I also like that he has changed the expectation of what others expect of him.  I feel ready to do that. 

What about you?  Are you in a position of doing deep work?  Do you want to?  What would that look like for you?  Do you feel that you are multi-tasking?  Are you accomplishing much?  How do you handle your emails and the blips and dings from smart phones and computers?   Are you a deep thinker? 

Click here to read an interesting article.