What I Learned Last Week

Distractions

(First in a series… I hope.)

Josh Spector of 10 Ideas Worth Sharing asked in his Facebook group “What question would you like to see everybody in this group answer?” – My response? “What did you learn last week?”

Now, of course, I feel like I have to have an answer. In fact, given my recent focus on learning every day, it seems like something I should consider answering every week, even if only for myself.

Last week I learned – or rather re-learned – that “focus time” works, and that email and social media are major distractions with impact on both habit and brain chemistry.

As I noted in my Top 5 Books for 2016 post, among other things I’m currently reading Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, as well as Deep Work. The former is all about the need for “deliberate, focused, practice” in order to improve a talent or skill. In part it’s what’s lead to this almost-daily writing exercise.

Deep Work, in particular, has reminded me how easily distracted I’ve become, and how my short-term memory suffers as a result. The book backs that reminder with explanations that reach right down into brain chemistry.

In a nutshell our always-on lives full of technology constantly calling for our attention lulls us into believing that we can multi-task effectively as we skitter between email here, a Facebook post there, all while simultaneously trying to “do work”. Without even realizing it we’re sucked into a vortex of quick-fix dopamine hits grabbing our attention and, indeed, training us to want those short, sweet interactions more and more.

What suffers, of course, is our ability to focus, our ability to retain information, and our ability to do truly deep work. (Hence the title of that book.)

After building a case for both the importance of deep work, as well as the detrimental impact of our attempts to multi-task in a life of constant interruptions, often self-imposed, it goes on to describe a few approaches that people have taken to re-training their brains and weaning themselves off of the need for constant stimulation.

The approach I’m attempting – again – is scheduling my daily email and social media time. Specifically, after a quick scan of my email subject lines first thing in the morning to make sure there have been no fires overnight (one of the perils of doing business online), I close email and social media completely. This is doubly difficult because it also means I have to ignore my phone – even though I might legitimately use it for things like my meditation timer during my “focus time”.

Email and social media are allowed again from noon to 1PM. (Or, perhaps more flexibly, my “lunch hour”, which might actually begin after noon depending on what I’m working on.) This typically results in a three hour stretch of “focus time”, after which I close them again and leave them all closed for another three hours, until sometime between 4 and 5. The result is two three hour stretches during which – in theory – I’ll focus on focusing better. If I come to a point where I’m between tasks and needing a break – rather than reaching for email or Facebook, I’ll reach for one of those many books I’m currently reading.

Note that I said I’m attempting this “again”, because this isn’t the first time. In fact “again?” was my wife’s comment when I mentioned all this to her.

That underscores just how easy it is to fall off this wagon.

And yet, particularly as I read Deep Work, I realize just how important it is to stay on.


T-258. Today I’m grateful for the friends that joined us for a lovely Christmas dinner last night. 🙂

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