To do your best work, focus

To tackle the biggest work challenges, it’s vital to reduce distractions.

In today’s Internet-connected world, it is easier than ever before to spend time without thinking deeply. Texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, web stories: they all serve to attract your attention and keep your mind flitting from one item to another.

For many people, mobile phones have become an addiction, checked at every opportunity. When life becomes just a little boring, out comes the phone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But if your job requires intellectual effort, then it’s vital to be able to focus on the most difficult challenges.

I coordinate a “high-output writing programme” based on research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how to become a productive researcher. The core of the programme is daily writing. I recommend 5 to 20 minutes writing “new words” and then additional time revising previously written text, reading, collecting data and all the other components of research work.

Quite a few participants tell the same story: “If I start work by reading emails and looking at the web, my day is gone. I need to write first, otherwise I get nothing important done.”

Facebook and email can be addictive: “I’ll just check to see if there’s anything important.” One link leads to another, and hours can go by. This undermines the commitment to writing.

Deep Work

In this context, I was attracted to a recent book titled Deep Work. The author, Cal Newport, is a US computer science professor, and a writer. For him, “deep work” refers to intellectual work focused on the most difficult parts of the job. His basic contention is that by devoting more time to deep work, you can dramatically improve your productivity.

Deep Work is aimed at white-collar workers in large US businesses, the workers who are supposed to be contributing to productivity through their ideas. Newport says “Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.” (p. 70) He gives several reasons for this, including that less taxing tasks are more enticing, that looking busy has become more important than achieving goals, and the assumption that everything to do with the Internet must be worthwhile.

You may think, “Well, this book isn’t for me, because I’m not a high-level brain worker in business.” This is a legitimate response, but there’s also a different approach. Rather than judge a book overall, either accepting or rejecting it, instead I often look for useful ideas. Sometimes an author’s work may be flawed, largely irrelevant or just plain annoying, but still there are some valuable things to learn from it.

There are two aspects to increasing the amount of deep work: devoting more time to it, and cutting back time on the more trivial activities, called “shallow work.” Newport tells of some leading figures who cut themselves off from interruptions entirely, for days, weeks or even months at a time. How do they do it? They have assistants who answer messages. This isn’t practical for most people. But it does provide a useful pointer: think of ways to protect yourself from distractions.

Newport points out that great thinkers often work to a routine rather than wait for inspiration. Not coincidentally, this is the basis for the writing programme. Newport quotes journalist Mason Currey, who studied the habits of prominent thinkers such as Charles Darwin:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration – that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where . . . but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. (pp. 118-119)

Newport addresses collaborative work, which has the advantage of sparking ideas. Nevertheless, he recommends separately undertaking individual deep work and, when interacting, for collaborators to push each other towards thinking deeply.

Newport, with young children at home, a demanding job and the self-imposed task of writing books, nevertheless finishes work at 5pm. He advocates working hard when you’re working and then finishing, and being sure to get plenty of rest. For intellectual work, good quality sleep is vital.

Doing deep work

In essence, deep work involves concentrating intensely on addressing an issue or task. It is thinking. Concentrating intensely doesn’t happen automatically. It requires practice to do well. And you can’t do it well, or even practise, if you’re being distracted. Constant distractions, such as reading online posts, make it harder to concentrate even when you have the opportunity. Deep work requires training.

What counts as deep work? If you’re writing a thesis, thinking about the structure and key arguments is deep work whereas attending to emails is not. This much is obvious, but what about other sorts of tasks? Newport provides a useful test: figure out how much training would be required for someone to do the task for you. To prepare someone else to undertake your thesis would probably require years of training, whereas to train someone to sort through your emails, deleting some and selecting others as high priority, might take only a few days or weeks. This criterion can be used when trying to decide whether something you’re doing is high or low priority in your deep-work time.

What about the problem that you have so many demands on your time that you can’t set aside much for thinking deeply? Newport creates more deep-work opportunities by undertaking focused thinking during daily tasks like walking the dog. One of my PhD students, who had a very busy life, used to think through her topic while doing the ironing. Other possible opportunities are while swimming or standing in a queue.

To make full use of such opportunities, it’s necessary to prepare by developing lists of topics to think about, preferably the most challenging ones. Few people do this. My guess is that very few of the people you see checking their phones are thinking deeply about anything.

Newport developed a method for reducing the number of Internet distractions. For any particular service, such as Facebook or Twitter, he says to stop using it for a month, and then to ask two questions.

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)

If answers to both questions are no, then you should quit permanently. Newport says social media are particularly damaging to possibilities for concentrated thinking.

In order to have more time for deep work, it’s important to schedule all your time so it is not frittered away.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. (p. 227)

To schedule every minute might seem constraining. But scheduling is compatible with doing things you find satisfying. When you’re in the moment doing something, you’re not thinking of whether or not it was scheduled.

One of Newport’s counterintuitive recommendations is to schedule your leisure time. Often, leisure opportunities are frittered away in doing what seems easiest at the time, and end up being unsatisfying.

Cal Newport


When you read about that’s required to engage in plenty of deep work and become highly productive, you might think “Is it really worth all that effort?” Newport has an answer: deep work is satisfying. Engaging in it can involve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” in which you are totally absorbed in exercising a skill at the limit of your ability. More generally, research shows that if you want to be happier, you need to put effort into practices known to improve happiness, such as physical activity, expressing gratitude and being mindful. This clashes with a common belief that happiness simply happens when you do pleasurable things. Having a purpose in life and working towards it brings satisfaction.

Newport comments that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.” (p. 263) It’s easier to engage in social media and other shallow activities and uncomfortable to try to achieve your very best, because you might not measure up to your expectations. But it can be satisfying in a deep way.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anne Melano and Holly Tootell for valuable comments.

Questioning a Trump-making system

The election of Donald Trump has triggered a huge level of opposition. But should the focus be on Trump or the system that enabled him to become president?

            In the US, there is a continual preoccupation with the presidency. News media regularly report on the president’s statements and activities and on speculation about the next election. When people oppose the president’s actions, they usually think of who else might be president. Trump’s election has accentuated angst over who holds the office.

What is remarkable is that there is so little consideration of alternatives to electing a president, an official national leader. Why should one person be granted so much power, indeed the most power of anyone in the world? The usual answer is that this is democracy. But it is a very limited, indeed distorted, conception of democracy.

            Winston Churchill famously referred to the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quote doesn’t specify the other forms of government, which might be taken to be fascism, state socialism and other dictatorial systems. Churchill didn’t mention participatory alternatives in which there would be no single individual with extraordinary powers.

            In many domains, there are tremendous efforts to innovate. Think of communications technology, in which radio, television, computers and smartphones have transformed the way people interact. Think of transportation, with trains, bicycles, cars, and aeroplanes. Think also of social relationships, with campaigns to overthrow slavery, provide safe working conditions and promote equality for women.

Why not consider innovation in political systems? There is a strange sort of complacency about politics. Like Churchill, most people assume that representative government is the best possible system. This is analogous to not bothering to look at alternatives to radio or to sexual discrimination.

Random selection

The word “democracy” means rule by the people, but it has been hijacked and applied to systems that are actually rule by elected officials. The pioneering democracy, ancient Athens, offers a different picture. There were meetings of the assembly, in which all citizens could participate. More importantly, for practical purposes the most significant mechanism for choosing public officials was random selection, using a device called the kleroterion.


            David van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections describes the role of random selection in politics beginning in ancient Greece and continuing in Italy and other parts of Europe. He notes that for centuries, selecting public officials randomly was considered democratic, whereas using elections was the aristocratic approach. Then, as pressures for popular participation increased, elections were rebadged as democracy, thus constraining the more authentic approach.

David van Reybrouck

            Critics of democracy in ancient Athens point to groups excluded from participation: women, slaves and aliens. True enough. But similarly, early voting systems excluded women, slaves and men without property. The point is that a system can evolve. However, nearly all the effort to innovate has been within one model, elections. Innovation in the use of random selection has been rare — at least until recent years.

There is one venue where randomly selected decision-makers have maintained a role: court juries. However, judges and governments have constrained the roles of juries and limited the expansion of jury-style decision-making.

In the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in experiments with policy juries: groups of people, randomly chosen to address a policy issue, who listen to evidence on all sides of the issue and then seek to reach an agreed recommendation. Studies show that policy juries, also called citizens’ juries, usually lead to sensible recommendations. Members take the process extremely seriously and most find it engrossing and empowering. The experience with policy juries shows they are a reliable means of harnessing people’s concerns for the collective good.

            Expansion of the role of policy juries is one possible alternative to representative government. Yet governments, the ones now holding all the power to make policy, are usually resistant to introducing, or even testing, this alternative. And policy juries are only one example. There are other participatory options, such as workers’ control and Gandhian-style village democracy, that could be tested.

Learning from mistakes

Testing and learning from experience are the keys to improvement. Scientific research is one of the most dynamic systems in the world today. It relies on experiments and open publication of results, allowing scrutiny and testing of claims. This is a competitive system in which ideas are championed but all can be challenged. Although there are many shortcomings in this system, for example the influence of vested interests on research priorities, the system of scientific investigation is a model for dynamic improvement.

Testing and learning from experience are also central to the production of consumer goods. Again, there are many shortcomings in the system, for example the manipulation of needs through advertising, but competition has enabled dynamism. There are also dynamic non-capitalist production systems, for example the system for production of free software and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Like science and consumer goods, they build on testing and learning from experience.

In contrast, political systems usually run as monopolies. Electing leaders is a great improvement on dictatorship, but it can hardly be claimed to be the best possible system when there is no testing of alternatives. It would be straightforward to set up a variety of political-system alternatives in local communities, letting them run long enough to see how they operate, and to study them to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This would be expensive, at least in the short term, but not compared to the potential benefits.

            So why aren’t political alternatives being tested? The obvious answer is that current power-holders don’t want things to change. They want to keep their power. Examining alternatives is a threat.

The lesson from the study of systems capable of dynamic improvement is that testing of alternatives and learning from both success and failure are crucial. Complaining about current politicians and their political decisions will remain important, but also needed is more effort to explore and test alternatives.

Brian Martin