Information sickness, chronic distraction and the art of deep work

For quite some time, I’ve had this uneasy feeling. A lurking suspicion that my internet and tech habits have done something to my brain. Something I don’t like.

I am lucky enough to remember the days when “online” was something you were for short, precious moments after dinner. I recall sitting by the family’s colorful macbook, listening to the sound of the modem connecting. Eager with anticipation. 

When I, a few years later, got a computer of my own, and a connection to go with it, my love affair with the internet started for real. I couldn’t get enough. I spent almost every waking hour in front of the screen. Chatting, browsing and searching. 

Over the years, I’ve grown more and more digital. Switching out notebooks and calendars for apps and online services. “The more digital I can be, the better”, I’ve thought.

Today my brain is so used to its digital tools, I feel naked without them. 

I’ve become a master at taking in huge amounts of information and digesting it into actionable items. I can find any resource online. I can do eleven things simultaneously. And even though I take pride in my information worker prowess, I also wonder what I have lost in the process… 

I used to be a creative person...

louise stigell guitar

I used to be a creative person. My self image is still that of a creative. As a child and teenager, I would sit by my piano for hours and hours. Or paint or draw or make up stories.
I created things with my hands and mind. 

I don’t have the peace or the patience for these activities anymore. 

My digital piano is right behind where I sit, and I often long for playing it, yet I rarely touch it. 

I sometimes get the urge to draw something beautiful I’ve seen, but as soon as I take out my pad and pencil and start drawing, I lose interest. 

I can’t focus on one thing for more than ten minutes before my mind wanders off to check email, Facebook, Instagram, blog stats, the news, or even the weather. I am a distraction junkie. 

Heck, I can’t even watch a movie or even an hour long episode of a show without tossing and turning, reaching for my phone. 

I see this behavior not just in myself but in everyone around me. Everyone is overwhelmed. Everyone is chronically distracted. We don’t have time, we don’t get anything done, we are stressed out and exhausted. We don’t live up to our full potential.

The very reason I’m self-employed is that I am completely crippled by noisy, distracting environments. I can’t sit in an office, be constantly interrupted and torn in all directions, and at the same time do good work. I can barely do good work at home. 

I have now spent the last sixteen years or so priming my brain for never ending information intake and scattered attention, not for sitting still and producing my very best work. And now, more than ever, do I desperately need to produce my best work. So this is starting to really freak me out. 

The lost art of deep work

I recently read the book “Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World“, written by researcher and author Cal Newport.

That book was a life saver.

The point Cal is making is that we humans are now using technology and the internet in ways that destroy our capacity for focus and excellence. We are losing our ability to do “deep work”.

And by “deep work”, he means the sort of work where we’re in flow, we’re creative, we’re delving deep into a problem and pushing ourselves to our very limit. 

It is in this state of awareness that innovations are made and masterpieces are created.

But in today’s hyper connected, hyper distracted world, it’s becoming near impossible to do deep work. 

We are busy multi-tasking, running from meeting to meeting, browsing BuzzFeed articles and getting interrupted by a steady stream of emails, tweets and Facebook notifications.

“People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”

The thing about deep work is that it demands absolute focus, without distractions. And it demands mental stamina: a will to stay even when the task gets boring or difficult. And so many of us are losing both of these abilities at a rapid pace. 

So many of us can’t even handle a few minutes of boredom in line at the grocery story before fishing up our phone from our pocket to get som stimuli.

So many of us work long days and still get very little done.

So many of us harbor big dreams and aspirations, a feeling of hidden potential that we wish to unleash someday. If only we hade the time/inspiration/focus.

But we are bogged down by all the demands on our attention. We don’t have the strength to resist or to block it out.

It really feel like the ability to deep work is a lost art.

I still love our modern technology and all the freedom and possibility is has enabled. I still love my devices and my apps. But I believe it’s time to stop and reflect on how we use our tech, and how it really makes us feel.

It’s time we take charge of it, so that it serves us and not vice versa. And I believe we must hold on to our ability to disconnect, reflect and work deeply.

“To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”

Another one of my favorite quotes from the book. Turns out, deep work is not just more effective, it’s more pleasurable as well!

Scientists have shown that we are the most happy when working with focused attention on things important to us. Not when we’re on vacation. Not when we run around like rats in a maze of activities and impressions. 

However reluctant we might be towards retreating from the outside world to dive deep in a complex task, it appears that’s what our brains crave the most. 

So how then, can we reclaim our capacity for deep work? And how can we resist the quicksand of distraction that is everyday life for many of us?

My top 5 most valuable insights from Deep Work:

☛ Don’t take breaks from distraction to deep work, take breaks from deep work to be distracted. Make deep work the norm and manage everything else in-between those sessions.

☛ Rule over your time with an iron fist. Unapologetically schedule long blocks of undisturbed time and don’t allow anything to creep up and ruin your focus.

☛ Avoid click bait, cheap entertainment and mindless social media browsing like the plague. Because that’s what it is to a person struggling to get meaningful and substantial work done on a daily basis. You can’t see it all anyway, and you truly won’t be missing out on anything important.

☛ Turn of all phone and desktop notifications, shut down your fifty three browser tabs and work in full screen mode. 

☛ Don’t wait for the right time to do deep work. Decide what’s really important for your life and career and choose to spend most of your time on those things. If you missed any of the other stuff, so what? Better that then be constantly drowning in distractions preventing your from focusing on what’s important.