My brand-new red pocket planner has arrived, and now it’s time to look back and to look forward. Like many people in this period, I used to plan my goals for the coming year to make it unforgettable. But not this time.
Among the lessons we all learnt the hard way in 2020, the greatest takeaway from the unprecedented past months is that uncertainty is the foundation of life, despite society’s presumption of being overconfident about the future. For this reason, in 2021, I decided to channel my energies on nurturing a mindset rather than specific projects or activities.
I came to this resolution through a book I stumbled into this autumn: Deep Work by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Alongside his teaching activity, he studies the implications of distraction on knowledge workers, and his book is a toolkit for the reader who wants to get back the focus lost.
The first part of the book explains the basic assumptions of Newport’s research. His theorization is simple yet powerful: deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. While this may sound intuitive, the real impact of the loss of focus on our lives is far from clear. Everyone knows that by improving some parts of the daily routine, adopting a specific technique, or implementing a new planning method is possible to achieve better results in studies or work. But orienting ourselves in a universe of possible solutions is not an easy task.
In order to give a tangible definition of what we ought to improve, Newport comes up with his own formula of deep work:
“High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)”
This principle states something very simple but often overlooked. Being busy in many corporations or academic environments equates to being productive, and this overshadows both the attention and the engagement that we dedicate to a task.
As the author states: “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner”.
The second part of the book is instead dedicated to the rules to follow in order to get back on track towards a more focused and intentional life. This section also includes several examples and techniques that Newport and some other successful knowledge workers have adopted. I would like to share and comment here on two (out of four) best practices listed in the book.
I know, this may sound pretty obvious. But just think about it for a second: how often you keep your focus on a single task for more than 1 hour without breaks? Even when we are reading the news or blog posts, we are all tempted to skim the article rather than read and analyze it. It is even more difficult to imagine someone re-reading a text, almost blasphemy!
Jokes aside, it seems that our minds are flooded by information but the ability to critically analyze them has dramatically melted away. This is perhaps the effect of the speed at which the world is spinning around nowadays, turning our minds to bulimics in need of updates. Think about the tons of gigabytes available at our fingertips 24/7, combined with the misconception that something new is constantly coming up or someone has a quick and smart solution to the very problem we are facing – hopefully in a ready-to-go format, like 5 simple steps to become fit/successful/billionaire/whatever-you-want.
In this scenario, the ability to tackle a task for a long time, putting effort without having an immediate result and gratification, looks like a waste of our precious time. Unfortunately, the control of our spare time is just an illusion, and it’s directly connected with the next advice from Newport that I present to you.
Quit Social Media
This is tough. In a world where even the convenience store around the corner is promoting the best deal of the week through its social media page, this hard-core approach has some limits. In the last few weeks, I monitored the added value I was getting from information read on social media and the time that I spent on these platforms. The results were striking. For way more than an hour a day cumulatively, my autopilot drove my attention to completely useless pieces of content that improved neither my work-related knowledge nor my mood, and that were totally unrelated to those passions of mine that bring me real satisfaction into my days. On top of that, the urge to check messages and pop-up notifications eroded other precious pieces of my attention, like digital crumbs of my attentiveness falling behind me all day long.
Rather than going totally offline as suggested in the book, starting a digital detox seems a more viable way to tackle this issue, where the use of social media is intentional. Paradoxically enough, when it comes to log-in into those platforms in the new year, I will follow the advice given by the visionary businessman that eventually trapped our attention in his company’s devices: “Focusing is about saying no” – Steve Jobs.
The counterintuitive approach and the actionable advice proposed in this book will make a difference in the long term, not only for knowledge workers. In our current society, in which noise and the appearance of busyness are the lifeblood of workplaces, finding fulfillment, satisfaction, and our own ikigai is more and more difficult.
Now, it’s time to look back to look forward, I know the purpose I will bring with me in 2021. Did you already choose yours?