On Deep Work

By Nancy Chick, Academic Director of the Taylor Institute
As I wound down for the break, I collected my stack of books to read—a bit like wrapping presents to put under my own tree.  My choices always include some Nordic noir, and at least one book to help me reflect on my work. 
First on my list was the newest English translation of Norwegian author Karin Fossum, but I also started Deep Work by Cal Newport. Although much of what he says so far isn’t new—the cognitive problems with multitasking, the importance of being present and in the present, the power of Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow,” the skills and qualities most valuable in the 21st-century economy, the effects of distractions, the “shallowness” of busyness, familiar productivity recommendations—I appreciate his framing within the language of “deep work.” 
Focus, concentration, immersion, flow, deep work, whatever you call it – dedicated time for thinking, reflecting, discovering, creating is something academics in particular crave. Actually, I think it’s more than a craving: we need it to do the work we’re here to do.
I also like the way he talks about “boredom” as something we should embrace. That’s where I am right now in the book. I’ve long been interested in mindfulness, so I think I’ve largely mastered the skill and joy of doing nothing. Newport goes further and talks about the idea of “productive meditation,” or focusing on “a single, well-defined professional problem” while doing something physically. My running club meets tonight, but I so enjoy concentrating on the actual run – how each foot feels when it hits the ground, the angle of my spine, my breathing. I’m not sure I want to sacrifice that to thinking about a professional problem, so fortunately Newport recommends driving or showering as other options.  My commute is short, but I’m curious to see what I can do in 15 minutes of deep, productive meditation.
What resonates most with me so far is his idea that deep work requires us to “be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.”  Working in the Taylor Institute where we have open work spaces and either glass or paper-thin walls, I’m fortunate that I’m ahead on this requirement. In fact, “distracting stimuli” might describe my ideal workplace. For instance, I wrote my entire dissertation in a coffee shop. When I write, I turn on Coffitivity.com to capture that level of auditory if not visible distraction. I’ve always told my officemates and closest colleagues not to hesitate to talk normally, to type naturally without worrying about the sound, and to hum or whistle or even play music as the need arises. It’s part of the humanity in environment we work in, and it complements the buzz and whirr of the HVACs, elevators, faucets, and other built sounds around us. In fact, some of my mindful practice is paying close attention to all of these sounds, and appreciating them for what they contribute. So yes, Cal Newport, I’m comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.
Well, except chocolate. I’m not comfortable resisting chocolate. That’s a skill to develop in this New Year.

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