Sunday, December 4, 2016

The book that bit me off

Never has reading a book ever caused me so much distress before. I picked up Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” on my Kindle. It wasn’t while reading it, but the realizations that happened later on when I tried to do what was contained in it. It’s a book that stresses the importance of deep work and how rare it has become in the recent years while giving readers some valuable advice on how to increase deep work in their day-to-day lives.  Reading it was fun, I should confess, as it often reminded me of my younger stronger self. I was reminded of how as a young student, I would stay on math problems or physics concepts trying hard to find a solution while most of my friends gave up.  In fact, I would concentrate so deep that I have missed meals and would stop hearing the ambient noise. The book describes Carl Jung building a stone house to focus intensely on his writing projects. I was reminded of my childhood room filled with books and papers with scribblings on it. So till I finished the book, it was mostly a good feeling of unwarranted nostalgia.

Since the book persuaded me too much, I decided to take half a day off on a Saturday to work on some project of mine with as much of laser sharp focus that I could generate. Sadly, I couldn’t go past the one hour mark. Even the one time that I physically sat down to work was interrupted with unprecedented shifts in attention. I realized three things today morning:

  1. I am a victim of a digitally connected world, and my attention span is virtually endangered. I should do something to save it and grow more of it.
  2. Cognitively demanding work is hard and the mind seeks ways to escape by cycling its attention through loops of shallow tasks.
  3. Deep inside, I lack motivation for what I am working on. I either need to motivate myself more or seriously consider evaluating what I do.

Bitten badly by the book, I sit traumatised. To save little of my self-esteem, I set out to write a 750-word long essay on what happened. (what you’re reading now). While you read this, I would have gained a little bit of self-esteem, a morsel of hope that all is not lost and the ability to concentrate and work on cognitively challenging work might have grown week but is not entirely dead.
It’s time that along with me you should start evaluating your potential to work undistracted in an ever shrinking world with always connected technology. It’s time to go back to the peace of lying still with a book in a hand and giving it your undivided concentration. It’s time to go back to composing compelling prose in communicating with the world than relying on click-bait titled listicles. It’s time to start paying attention to what we are paying attention to. Because, unlike what we fear, we do not lose ourselves by becoming a disconnected dot, but rather, we enrich our lives and bring more value to the world around us by consciously choosing to focus our attention on things that matter most.

Here’s my plan: I realize, it takes more effort to produce creative work than consume. However, consuming good literature (not the articles that we read on the internet) itself takes significant cognitive effort. So to start with, I shall choose 20 books that I will read with my entire focus, absorbing everything I can and strengthening my focus. While doing this, I plan to stop checking on Quora or other sites randomly. I shall also stop notifications for email and other apps. I shall schedule a particular time of the day for such activities. Second, I shall decide on the most important projects and start producing work of my own. It is going to be hard, but I hope I will be able to do this. It would take a good 3-6 months before I start powering up my attention muscles in my brain, I guess. It’s better to start now than to cry later.

I recommend that you read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” if you feel the pressing need to escape from every growing distractors and to focus your efforts on something significant. Other book recommendations are “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life” by Winifred Gallagher and “To Save Everything, Click here” by Evgeny Morozov which described the ill-effects of the internet on our self and society.

Cal Newport
Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a disgraced world