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Don’t Fight Distraction. Make It Irrelevant.

June 5th, 2014 · 32 comments

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The War on Attention

My friend Dale (whose Ancient Wisdom Project blog you really should read) recently pointed me toward an interesting David Brooks column. In it, Brooks addresses the difficulty of maintaining focus in a distracted age:

And, like everyone else, I’ve nodded along with the prohibition sermons imploring me to limit my information diet. Stop multitasking! Turn off the devices at least once a week! And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect.

What’s interesting about this column is Brooks’ solution, which articulates a point that I firmly believe:

The lesson…then, is that if you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

This rings true with my research on deep work. Those who are best at this skill are without exception obsessed with something that demands sustained attention, be it chess playing, writing, or theoretical physics. These deep workers rarely seem worried about distraction because it’s simply not an issue for them.

A New Focus on Focus

Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you cannot be ignored?

David Brooks would wager (and I would tend to agree) that once you can get to a positive answer to this question, you’ll find your worries about distraction rendered irrelevant.

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I took the picture above in the woods near Georgetown where I like to go to churn on particularly knotty problems. As an interesting case study in the patience required for deep thinking, I originally posted the image back in January, where I talked about starting to work through an interesting but hard problem. Five months of persistent thought later, I finally finished the result. The deep life, it seems, is not a good fit for those who like immediate gratification!

32 thoughts on “Don’t Fight Distraction. Make It Irrelevant.

  1. Ben Albert says:

    I’ve only just started reading Cal’s blog, so I may have missed some of the nuances to his theory, but doesn’t this post seem to stray from his central theory on work and passion? This post implies that there is a certain job (or “subject,” to build from Brooks’ quote) that has a unique power to captivate me and thereby neutralize distractions. Does anybody else see any inconsistencies here?

  2. Ben Albert says:

    I’ve only just started reading Cal’s blog, so I may have missed some of the nuances to his theory, but doesn’t this post seem to stray from his central argument on work and passion? This post implies that there is a certain job (or “subject,” to build from Brooks’ quote) that has a unique power to captivate me and thereby neutralize distractions. I would have expected Cal to say that once you’ve mastered a particular area, the distractions will naturally drop away. Does anybody else see any inconsistency here?

  3. Wesley Chan says:

    Dear Cal,

    What about “positive procrastination”? (e.g. rather than working on a research paper, which is urgent and important, I start sending e-mails to people for new opportunities in my field, which is important, but not urgent? If the research paper didn’t exist, chances are I wouldn’t be as motivated to send e-mails.)

    Is positive procrastination part of making distraction irrelevant, or is that just wishful thinking?

    1. Lu Wee says:

      If you’re sending emails just so you don’t have to get back to work on the hard stuff (diving deep into your research), you could be distracting yourself/procrastinating.
      The activities which we use to distract ourselves from the hard things are usually lower in the hierarchy of difficulty. They are also usually more easily justifiable.

      For e.g. if working out is at the top of mental strain and physical difficulty hierarchy for achieving fitness, I might start distracting myself by looking for ways to prepare healthier or lower calorie meals. I do this so I feel less guilty for not working out or working out less since eating healthily is part of a good fitness regime.

      I don’t think it’s necessarily bad but you do have to make sure you don’t spend too much time on it as much as to lose focus on the main task of completing the work. I mean, sure, if it’s planned emailing, fine. But you find yourself constantly entertaining thoughts to email then it could be a sign of something else. Have you become afraid of doing hard work?

  4. Study Hacks says:

    @Ben: I think Brooks is being a little hyperbolic in his word choice, but mainly because he’s referencing terms used in research on children that he cites earlier in the column. The big picture point he’s making, however, is much more pragmatic: if you keep engaging on difficult, deep, but important things, you won’t feel the urge to give into distraction. I think this is very much in line with my philosophy that a deep working life is a much surer strategy for satisfaction than chasing after mythical pre-existing passions.

    @Wesley: I think the type of procrastination you’re talking about is different than the distraction Brooks is talking about. Arguably, sending e-mails to colleagues is not giving into distraction, it’s just a necessary task of the many shallow tasks necessary to maintain a knowledge work career. Brooks is referencing, I think, the urge to surf the web or check social media during a time when you should probably be working on something more substantial.

  5. Cal, I agree with Brooks’ point. I wonder how companies can develop a culture that fosters the development of deep interests. The expectation of constant availability in many knowledge work companies is just one example of how a company culture can prevent employees from developing deep interests. Focus on immediate results rather than long term development is another that comes to mind. Does anyone know any companies that are fostering a culture of deep work?

    Blake

  6. Robert Kowalski says:

    Great post Cal as always, it is just difficult for me to fully resonate with it.

    Engaging in “deep work” which solves problem of distractions is sure perfect situation. Unfortunately during everyday life there are many task which can not be described as “deep and meaningful work” and they still have to be done, how to solve distraction problem in that case?

    I had very big problems with keeping focus on my present work/task, I solved it during few years by applying many techniques, mainly:
    – Getting Thins Done system by David Allen (if there is distraction/information it goes to orderly proper INBOX to be processed later, does not disrupt current workflow.)
    – Pomodoro technique – working in circa 30 minutes chunks focused work with 5 minutes breaks
    – Good work place hygiene – I have nothing on my desk which is not connected to current task, I maintain almost perfect order among my things.
    – Asking constantly: what am I doing now? What is the purpose? 🙂

    I have not read whole blog so there are probably similar tips to keep focus, “meaningful work” is just one way…

    Cal, I wholeheartedly agree that long walks in deep forest/nature are great for creativity and catching mental break, energy. In my life they are mandatory every few weeks.

    Thank you for great post and picture reminding how important nature is to catch balance.

    PS. “The deep life, it seems, is not a good fit for those who like immediate gratification!” I will disagree, I need and thrive on immediate gratification, I just have to divide long projects in smaller chunks, closing one part give me strength to approach another 😉

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think this is an important point. As I mentioned in my response to Wesley above I think there’s a difference between the shallow work that is necessary and distraction behaviors that are not. In knowledge work, you’ll always have some mix of deep and shallow work, but Brooks is saying that if the deep work is cultivated properly it will be accomplished without much distraction.

    2. rduncan354 says:

      Robert,
      I really appreciate your reply to Cal. I especially like what you said in your last paragraph

      [“PS. “The deep life, it seems, is not a good fit for those who like immediate gratification!” I will disagree, I need and thrive on immediate gratification, I just have to divide long projects in smaller chunks, closing one part give me strength to approach another”]

      I bet there are allot of people that thrive on immediate gratification and get frustrated because they can’t kick the immediate gratification habit. Your reply caused me to acknowledge that I still strongly desire immediate gratification. However, as an engineer, I am paid to work long term projects. If I continue to break up these long term projects into daily chunks and rewarding myself for the “chunks”, I realize that I don’t have to feel guilty for not putting aside the daily rewards and forcing myself to only focus on the final big gratification of completing a 6 month project.

  7. I’ve read about famous scientists, writers and people that produce meaningful work, that they are able to concentrate even in the most crowded market. They don’t get distracted at all. Should one strive to have the same ability, or don’t bother and search for the most hidden and silent place you can find?

  8. Ariana says:

    THIS. I was getting a bit tired of your latest blogging with all the negative focus on distractions. This is the center of the question. Distractions are not bad per se, and social media is not evil. Positive focus on your work and deep work is what matters.

  9. GB says:

    I agree that if you have a true passion for your work, then distracts won’t be an issue because you’ll love your work so much it outweighs the need to be distracted.
    Here’s the problem: what if your passion hasn’t blossomed because? I am in school right now so that I can enter my dream profession, but the coursework I have to endure now is so tedious and has little to do with my actual profession that I have difficult staying focused on studying. I don’t know where to find the motivation.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I would be very wary about using terms like “passion” in this context. I am, of course, completely against the idea of pre-existing passion as useful concept in career crafting. I think what Brooks is talking about here is way more pragmatic: when you’re working deeply on something you think is important, than the urge to distraction is minimized; therefore, if you think you spend too much time distracted, you should step back to consider what you’re trying to accomplish in your working life at the moment. I think this goal of finding something important and hard is way easier than trying to identifying a “true passion” or your “life’s calling,” etc.

      1. GB says:

        Cal, thank you for your reply. The problem is that I DON’T find my work remotely important or even interesting right now. The purpose of my work now is only to impress the faculty members who will be evaluating our performance and deciding if we meet their arbitrary and subjective standards. If we pass, we get to begin our research, which I look forward to and believe will bring out the best in me. But if we fail then we are rejected from the program.

        It’s a catch-22 though because in order to be given work with true value, first we have to impress someone. But the mere act impressing someone diminishes focus on true value. Education has become an ugly signaling game where the objective is not to learn or accrue human capital, but to merely score high grades on some arbitrary and irrelevant tests just to signal to others that you are smart. This signaling virus has corrupted the East Asian education system and is spreading to the United States as well.

        I have difficulty flourishing in such a counterproductive environment. It doesn’t matter if extrinsic rewards are attached the successful completion of the work. If my brain realizes the work is meaningless and only exists to impress someone else, it rejects its premise.

  10. Roman says:

    Thanks for the post, Cal.
    I totally understand what you mean. Unfortunately I have become more and more disengaged from my PhD (Mathematics). Somehow I don’t find the project interesting and I don’t see all my hard work bringing meaningful results. It’s very frustrating. Because of this I often find myself checking emails, facebook, news, etc.
    Do you have any suggestions how to turn this situation around?

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Count me among those, like Ben above, who feels the pull of this thesis but also finds it hard to square with the abiding concerns of this blog.

    Let me put it this way: I’m obsessed with my work. I’m utterly obsessed with my problems; I think about them all the time; the way I often explain it to people who can’t relate is that I have an addictive personality and I have cultivated an addiction to solving a certain kind of intellectual puzzle (for which I gain monetary and social reward) rather than competing addictions that would mess up my life instead of adding value to it.

    And yet. I often feel the pull of the internet when I should be working. (I’ve cancelled internet service at my house for this reason–and I can’t recommend this enough to people like me, especially if you often work from home). For me, the internet (and similar distractions) is a way of managing the anxiety that comes from the fact that what I have to do next in solving my intellectual puzzles is hard. It’s hard and it’s scary, because I don’t always know if it will work until it does: that’s what makes it addictive and also what makes me avoid it.

    Cultivating addiction to problems is an essential component of getting the kind of life I want, but it is not sufficient to overcome the pull of distraction. One reason I’ve always liked your blog, Cal, is that it has always been honest about how hard hard work is. It’s not just about flow; it’s about pushing yourself beyond the state where you can flow; but that does seem to me to be in some tension with what you’re emphasizing here. What am I missing?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I think with the right problems the urge to distraction can dissipate. The work is, of course, still really hard. But a desire to check the Internet — or whatever — is no longer part of what’s hard. For me, two things that seem to push work into that zone are: (1) there are high stakes, it’s not just a problem I devised and am working on for my own sake, but it’s something that either I have to do well [i.e., I’ve been paid a lot of money by a publisher to finish a book manuscript], or the work is potentially transformative [e.g., if I can get this result out it might have a big impact on a particular area of academic study]; (2) I know what I’m doing [e.g., it’s leveraging rare and valuable skills that I have developed over time and are unambiguously present].

      It’s possible, for example, that I could become obsessed with the idea of writing a novel. But because, for me, neither of the above two conditions applied, I wouldn’t be surprised if I struggled work on it consistently without distraction.

  12. Michael Weber says:

    Kind of like, when you’re on a diet, it’s better to think of all the healthy things you can eat rather than the unhealthy ones you have to give up. When you focus on “not being distracted” you are flowing more energy to the distraction itself.
    I agree that the key is to cultivate a meaningful purpose to the point of obsession.
    And, if what you are doing is not meaningful, then who cares if you are distracted from it?

  13. Sanjay Pingali says:

    Hi Cal,
    Thanks for the pointer to Dale’s blog. In that same spirit, could we please have more blog recommendations please?

  14. Sam says:

    I had a look at the paper. There’s a lot of words in a lot of places, and not all of them are necessary. That distracts the reader from seeing the “easy” in radio network lower bounds. I think you could make it even easier for your readers with some mechanical editing of the text. Here’s a recurring pattern in the text in the paper, example taken from the introduction:

    If multiple neighbors of a given node broadcast during the same round, however, the messages are lost due to collision.

    The important thing in the sentence is that messages are lost due to collision, and the reader has to wait until the last word to realize that. Same sentence reversed:

    Messages are lost due to collision if multiple neighbors of a given node broadcast during the same round.

    Maybe it was a stylistic choice to lose tempo in the introduction, but the paper loses too much tempo in Section 2. Text within parentheses is common, and most of them seem important. Promote the parenthesised text to a first class member of the text, or cut it.

    The paper uses references as nouns in places. Replace “as in [3]” with “as Newport shows [3]”. The single long list of references in the introduction should either be reduced to half or split into multiple smaller lists grouped by some theme along with a few words stating the common theme for each one of them.

    The short parenthesis in the first paragraph in section 9 should be promoted to real text: simplification is nothing to sneer on. The long parenthesis in the same paragraph is confusing, and manages to use reference 1 as a noun three times. What is the point of that parenthesis?

    Typo: The last paragraph before Acknowledgements has a “By” that doesn’t have a period before it.

  15. A.I. says:

    I wonder, if there isn’t something important that you are willing to accomplish, how can there even BE a distraction?

    If I have no (current) purpose, then any activity is as good as the other. Then by definition, they aren’t distractions because there is nothing these activities distract you from.

    Also, the theory of having a big “yes” to something will make it easy to say “no” to other things, is quite an old hat and does have some merit. However, this doesn’t mean that distractions will suddenly disappear.

    Most of the time, people around you will want something from you and demand your attention, and that IS distracting, even if you have a big “yes” inside.

  16. OIMT says:

    Being a educationalist I would like to say that your information is extremely interesting and useful. It’s a compliment you for the wisdom you share here. Thanks!

  17. Anna B says:

    Getting distracted at an age where you are most likely to be a student is probably the most redundant thing to happen. However, the facts mentioned in the blog are pretty to the point and will help students in getting hold of their distractions and concentrating better.

  18. Charoo Iyer says:

    Hi Cal,
    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now , though this is the first time I’m commenting.
    I was hoping you would answer the question asked in one of the comments above : Isn’t learning to work in a distracting environment an important skill to be developed ? I agree that for ‘knowledge workers’ , who , from what I understand, are people who create new things (like writing a novel) or crack unsolved puzzles, absolute focus is the key.
    But for medical students like myself, our task basically involves mastering predefined skills or memorizing facts. Add to this a hectic lecture and clinic schedule , and one realises that finding that unique secluded spot where no one disturbs us may not always be practical.
    So , what I would really like to know is : Do you think it’s possible to develop the required ability to focus on our task irrespective of our environment , or should we just strive to somehow get that exclusive spot and time period where it is impossible for anyone or anything to disturb us ?

    As a sidenote , considering your obsession with deep focus , have you read Daniel Goleman’s book titled Focus:Hidden driver of Excellence ?

  19. John says:

    Cal,

    Great Post!

    In February 2014, 60 minutes made a video about chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen. Magnus is only 23 and he is already became world chess champion.

    In this short 4-minute clip, Magnus talks about how his mind works in detail. Magnus also talks about how he practices and obsession with chess. This will be the best spent 4 minutes of your life.

    In my opinion, his obsession with chess is more extreme than Cal’s idea of passion. My definition of passion is something that you excel in that brings pleasure and makes you feel fulfilled. In the case of Magnus, he spends 90% of his waking hours thinking about chess. Maybe there has been some cross-wiring between the “sex” region of the brain and the “chess” region.

  20. Thomas George says:

    Hey Cal, I know this is unrelated, but I really would like if you could help me. I remember reading one of your blog posts I think and it had a link to a website that had philosophy and “smart people” articles. I have trawled through your posts trying to find it, but to no avail. The website had very plain formatting (times new roman text), and was on a solid red background. Any help would be amazing, thankyou!

  21. Alison says:

    Thank you Cal. This insight makes such sense to me in light of my experience today. For the past few years I have struggle with focus, finding myself procrastinating all the time. Last night the idea that has been quietly germinating at the back of my mind started shooting. I woke up this morning with energy and clarity and haven’t been distracted once. I have been able to focus and work without having to use sheer willpower to get things done, which of course has just led to exhaustion in the past.

    I am so with you and look forward to reading more about deep work. Love it!

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