In our work environments as software developers, we’re constantly confronted with different and constantly-evolving technologies that challenge our ability to learn. This really brings home the importance of being able to quickly acquire new knowledge and apply it to real-life problems. If there’s one thing that’s true about tech, it’s that if you can’t learn, you can’t thrive.
If only learning were as simple as plugging a data-transfer needle into the back of your head to allow direct access to your brain. But for the moment, we’ll have to settle for good old-fashioned learning, the ‘slow’ way.
The problem is, concentration seems to be a really scarce commodity these days, when it’s needed the most. With connectivity at an all-time high, we’ve become more distracted than ever. It’s virtually impossible to see people focusing on a single task. The norm? Multitasking on every conceivable device the moment a few notifications pop up.
Cal Newport’s Deep Work to the Rescue
A developer’s main job is to focus on difficult tasks, which requires uninterrupted periods of thinking. This is undermined by having to pay attention to different sources of information whilst having to work to solve complex issues and problems. Sadly, it’s impossible to maintain any real focus when our attention is so fragmented. If we’re going to keep juggling so many plates, we’re pretty much doomed to burn out.
That is Cal Newport’s premise in his book “Deep Work“. He maintains that it’s vital to block distractions and really focus on those tasks that provide the greatest benefits. To do that, we need to really be in control of our own minds and to be able to quickly learn complicated things. For Mr. Newport, this ability is so important that he calls it the “superpower of the 21st century”.
He goes further on to define two crucial abilities that we need to cultivate in order to thrive in our modern world, both of which depend on our capacity for staying focused:
- The ability to master complex tasks
- The ability to produce at a superior level, in terms of both quality and speed
If Deep Work Is So Valuable, Why Don’t We Have More of It In Our Daily Lives?
People fight desires all day long. That’s what psychologists Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister concluded after performing a study where people had to report what they were feeling at random intervals during the day. These desires are very diverse and they are constantly competing for our attention. One might think that simply knowing this empowers us to fight those desires and stay focused. Not true. Good intentions simply aren’t enough to keep us focused on the task at hand.
This is where routines and rituals come in. Routines and rituals are key if we want to avoid succumbing to the lure of daily distractions.
We often have desires to check our inbox, our cell phones, or social media channels, but each time we do so, we need to switch our brains from one task to another. That, in Cal Newport’s words, leaves a “cognitive residue”. We need to either process the new information we received or remember what it was that we were doing before the switch. That requires effort and energy that we could avoid expending by not switching tasks in the first place.
Newport’s Answer: Develop Habits and Build Routines
The definition of habit is “a learned behavioural response that has become associated with a particular situation, especially one frequently repeated. A mental disposition or attitude.” What we need in order to perform deep work to build that mental disposition or attitude towards whatever we need to do, such that we can command ourselves into this state of mind where we’re completely focused on the task at hand.
The Japanese have a saying: “Sooner than later, the discipline will beat the intelligence“. I’ve been testing this pearl of wisdom for a year, and I can attest to its validity. Granted, I haven’t been completely consistent all that time but those periods when I stayed on track have contrasted so much with the rest that I can clearly see the value in building discipline.
You may think it was hard and boring to have the same routine day after day but that wasn’t really the case. Once we get into building habits and we start seeing results, it’s impossible not to crave more.
Willpower is an Absolute Necessity- Trust Me
Not that it doesn’t get boring and frustrating while we’re building our habits. We need the willpower to modify our behaviors enough that it becomes second nature to do the things we need to do. In other words, if we want to work a certain habit into our lives, we’ll need to really apply ourselves.
In my personal opinion, the trick here is to build what I like to call “pillar habits”. These are the habits that will help support the habit-building work that we need to perform. They need to be habits that lead to a clear mind and a refreshed point of view that allows our brains to function at their top capacity. Build whatever habits you want, as long as they provide the benefits you need.
For me, the pillar habits are very clearly defined:
- Get enough sleep
- Build an exercise routine
- Practice daily meditation
Those are my pillars. What do they have in common? The brain. Don’t get enough sleep and you’ll barely be able to properly function if at all. Don’t get enough exercise and your mind will also pay the price eventually. Meditation gives us perspective, relieves stress, and improves our relationship with others. Without all three, I cannot even attempt complete focus and truly achieve deep work.
If we’re able to build habits like these, which enable us to sustain smaller habits, which in turn drive us into a deep working routine, then we’re on the path to success.
I Leave You With This Thought
As you can see, this has been much more than a book review. I’ve not only read the book but also adhered to the principles Cal Newport espouses and found them to be more than helpful in every way. ‘Deep Learning’ is not just a book about how to absorb information. It encroaches upon the realm of mind-body-spirit doctrine and truly captures what it means to be ‘in touch’ and deeply focused from within. I even imagine that Mr. Newport has read the works of the French philosopher Antonin Sertillanges, who had a lot to say about intellectual life. Therefore, I’ll leave you with his words for inspiration:
“Let your mind become a lens, thanks to the converging rays of attention; let your soul be all intent on whatever it is that is established in your mind as a dominant, wholly absorbing idea.”