Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Focus (page 1 of 2)

“The Future of Work in an Age of Distraction”

I’m off to Europe today for a 3-week research and speaking tour, but before I leave I wanted to flag this just-published interview I did with Andrew Curry of Kantar Consulting.

London Panorama

We were sitting on a patio in the Kantar building in London, overlooking the Thames. It was a pretty cool view, so if I sometimes sound distracted, that’s why!

This is not a crazy idea

Chris Bailey has a piece in the New York Times about focus, distraction, and quality of work:

When it comes to focusing at work, there is no shortage of scapegoats to blame for our wandering minds. Social media, the ever-churning news cycle, chats with colleagues — these distractions can lead to a working state of mind that is far from focused. But there’s one possible cause of frequent distraction we don’t often consider: Our work isn’t complex enough, and there isn’t enough of it.

This isn’t as nuts as it sounds at first glance. The companies I’m studying that shorten their working hours spent plenty of energy on this, sometimes unintentionally.

If you’re in software or advertising, trying to fit the same work into a shorter day isn’t an exercise in just doing the same repetitive task faster, like on an assembly line; rather, you tend find new ways of working more intensively.

Of course it’s easy to imagine it being weaponized by unscrupulous or exploitative managers.

“Bekerja Sebentar tapi Efektif, Kunci Sukses:” REST comes to Indonesia

Perhaps my favorite new example of REST going places on its own: a long article in Indonesian about rest and its importance. (It also name-checks Cal Newport, Anders Ericsson, and a couple other folks.)

It also includes this graphic:

My kids are still high school and college age, but I suspect that seeing them go off and have their own lives feels a little like this.

Music to work to

I listen to music almost constantly through the day, and when I was working on REST I did some reading about music and the brain, and the different kinds of music people work to. It helped me make some sense of the music I listen to through the day, and why certain kinds work and others don’t.

At the most general level, creative people listen to music to drown out other auditory distractions; or to improve their mood, focus, or some other emotion. (If you’re in a boring job, you might listen to music to pass the time, which is a different kind of situation.) The research says that for most people,

  • Instrumental music is less distracting than vocal music, because we have a hard time not paying attention to voices and lyrics (especially problematic if you’re writing).
  • Simpler music is good for when you mainly need to focus and aren’t trying to generate a sense of urgency, or feel upbeat.
  • After that, things get more complicated and idiosyncratic. We all have different musical histories; different kinds of music that we find energizing versus distracting; and different needs through the day.

For example, let me share what I listen to, illustrated by Spotify playlists. I often get up to write between 5 and 5:30, and the purpose of music in the morning is to help me stay in a calm, walking-up-but-not-quite-there state. For that, something like the Yundi Chopin nocturnes is just the thing.

I also like Gould’s recordings of the Bach Goldberg variations (or the Calefax Reed Quintet’s arrangement of the variations), or the Emerson String Quartet’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I also like the Budapest String Quartet’s late 1930s recordings of the Beethoven String Quartets: I find the old, slightly shaky sound to be very romantic in a black-and-white, Europe-before-the-storm kind of way.

During the day, I usually want something that has more spark to it. When I was writing REST, I listened to a lot of movie soundtracks. Here are two:


The thing I find great about movie music is that the good stuff is great, but it’s almost always the case that composers have written music that’s meant to stir and energize, but not distract, viewers: the music is meant to underline and accentuate a scene, not call attention to itself. When I’m writing, this is perfect: I want the emotional charge, and just enough of my attention diverted so my creative mind has more freedom to operate.

Then there are times when I need more of an energy boost. For that, I have another playlist that’s highly idiosyncratic.

What this highlights is that while there are some general rules about what makes for good music to focus to, your own musical history and the associations you have with particular songs also matter. “Regiment,” the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration, is from an album I discovered in college; I’v loved Pat Metheny’s work since high school; Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” are from the Matrix soundtrack; Moby’s “Extreme Ways” is used at the end of the Jason Bourne movies, which I love.

I might also listen to Led Zeppelin, again because it’s music that I know really well, and because generally Robert Plant is incomprehensible so the words aren’t so hard to tune out.

So don’t assume that there’s a perfect playlist that works for you, or music that will be guaranteed to put you in a super-productive frame of mind (requiring employees to dance to Pharrell William’s “Happy” will NOT make them more productive). Rather, you should think about what you want to get out of the music (focus, more energy, or whatever); think about what you like; and then experiment. Don’t copy my choices, or anyone else’s. Make your own.

Putting REST to use at the New York Times

James Pothen, a software engineer with the New York Times, has a great piece about “ How to Concentrate in a Collaborative Workplace:”

When I first started working in an office, I worked haphazardly. I would come in, check work email, maybe chat with a colleague, start on a task, and then check Facebook or YouTube. Working this way nearly got me fired after two years. So I took the opportunity to be more intentional about what I worked on and how I worked.

What follows is my adaptation of the principles laid out in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work.” I’ve also incorporated material from “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

I highly recommend it. It’s a nice example of how you can take the ideas from Rest and put them into practice. And everything he says makes lots of sense!

Focus, mind-wandering, and the brain

Psychiatrist and Neuro Business Group founder Srini Pillay has a short piece on the Harvard Business Review blog arguing that “Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus,” but that allowing your mind to unfocused can be a good thing:

For years, focus has been the venerated ability amongst all abilities. Since we spend 46.9% of our days with our minds wandering away from a task at hand, we crave the ability to keep it fixed and on task. Yet, if we built PCD [positive constructive daydreaming], 10- and 90- minute naps, and psychological halloweenism [ed: read the piece to see what this means] into our days, we would likely preserve focus for when we need it, and use it much more efficiently too. More importantly, unfocus will allow us to update information in the brain, giving us access to deeper parts of ourselves and enhancing our agility, creativity and decision-making too.

This tracks pretty closely with what I write in REST, which is no surprise. I think the big thing I see in the lives of really creative people is that for them, moving between focused and unfocused states has a lot more intentionality or strategy to it.

Darwin’s Sandwalk

In particular, the habit of doing things that give your mind time to wander soon after a period of focused work is designed to give the subconscious mind a chance to keep working on problems that have occupied, and often eluded, their conscious minds. In particular, Barbara McClintock’s and Charles Darwin’s walks show the hallmarks of being periods meant to exercise the body, clear the mind, but also give the creative time time to pick over problems– and maybe come up with solutions that they couldn’t find through concentrated effort.

Stanford University, where Barbara McClintock walked while thinking about Neurospora

So while Pillay is quite right, we can get even more out of unfocused periods my adding them at the right times, so as to pass ideas between the focused conscious mind, and the unfocused subconscious.

Stephen Wolfram on Richard Feyman’s avoidance of busyness

Brigid Schulte tweets a link to a Stephen Wolfram talk about “My Time with Richard Feynman.” Among other things, it has thing line about Feynman’s avoidance of busyness in favor of time to do serious thinking:

One thing about Feynman is that he went to some trouble to arrange his life so that he wasn’t particularly busy — and so he could just work on what he felt like. Usually he had a good supply of problems. Though sometimes his long-time assistant would say: “You should go and talk to him. Or he’s going to start working on trying to decode Mayan hieroglyphs again.” He always cultivated an air of irresponsibility. Though I would say more towards institutions than people.

And I was certainly very grateful that he spent considerable time trying to give me advice — even if I was not always great at taking it. One of the things he often said was that “peace of mind is the most important prerequisite for creative work.” And he thought one should do everything one could to achieve that. And he thought that meant, among other things, that one should always stay away from anything worldly, like management.

I talk a little about Feynman in REST, and this theme of organizing his life and reputation to have time for serious work is one I’ve seen in other writings on Feynman, and his own recollections:

To do high, real good physics work you do need absolutely solid lengths of time, so that when you’re putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember, it’s very much like building a house of cards and each of the cards is shaky, and if you forget one of them the whole thing collapses again. You don’t know how you got there and you have to build them up again, and if you’re interrupted and kind of forget half the idea of how the cards went together—your cards being different-type parts of the ideas, ideas of different kinds that have to go together to build up the idea—the main point is, you put the stuff together, it’s quite a tower and it’s easy [for it] to slip, it needs a lot of concentration—that is, solid time to think—and if you’ve got a job in administrating anything like that, then you don’t have the solid time. So I have invented another myth for myself—that I’m irresponsible.

Whether this particular strategy is one that anyone can use is debatable: I’ve had a couple women colleagues say that this is something guys can get away with, but they can’t, because of how such behavior is interpreted.

But the lesson that you need to do things to maintain time to let your mind do serious work– by which I mean time for serious conscious effort, and time for deliberate rest– is absolutely right on.

Concentration is contagious

You may find you work better in a coffee shop than in your bedroom, but perhaps not for the reasons you’ve been led to believe. Instead of the noise and bustle stimulating your imagination, your productivity could be because concentration is contagious.

It might be that it’s the other people working hard at their laptops in a coffee shop that are responsible for your improved performance. A recent study suggests that mental effort is contagious – simply being around people who are working hard is enough to make us work harder ourselves.

This discovery was made by sitting people who were doing different tasks next to each other. When one person’s task was more difficult, the person next to them worked harder too, even though they couldn’t see what was on their neighbour’s computer screen.

How this effect occurs isn’t clear, but it might be that we are influenced by subtle, unconscious cues such as a person’s body posture or breathing.

Source: Do you get your best work done in coffee shops? Here’s why | New Scientist

“Gaining attention has always involved a struggle of ideas and ideals”

University of Kent sociologist Frank Furedi writes about the “Focus Fracas” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (behind a firewall), riffing off Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation and the writings of other “kids today have no focus” critics. Furedi makes two big points. First, he notes that people have long worried about new technologies and media creating new forms of distraction.

We talk a lot about distraction, but the way we tend to talk about it suffers from historical amnesia. Since the invention of writing, people have warned about its supposedly harmful effects…. Every phase of technological innovation in printing and publishing has been paralleled by an outburst of anxiety about the public’s capacity for attention.

Second, he argues that “Instead of blaming our supposed Age of Distraction or turning the lecture hall into a digital playpen,” to suit the supposedly lowered attention spans of students, “we should think harder about how we can earn the attention of our students.”

Gaining attention has always involved a struggle of ideas and ideals. The Protestant Reformation launched a veritable literacy campaign as thousands of hitherto nonliterate believers sought to read the vernacular Bible. In the 19th century, barely educated socialist workers throughout Europe taught themselves how to read because they associated literacy with human emancipation. Captivating content always trumps distraction. In the end, what motivates students is not the availability of fancy gadgets but the quality of the content of their education.

The act of paying attention to a text, a lecture, or a speech is mediated through culture. Literacy comes into its own when people read what matters to them. Today, not even the sound of shots being fired on the battlefield in Northern Iraq can distract Kurdish Peshmergas fighters from attending night schools to learn how to read. For these fighters, reading is an integral dimension of their cause.

Unfortunately, in many universities reading is not seen as a cause worth fighting for. Academics who ought to know better have accepted the idea that students no longer possess the attention span required to read a book.

This prompts a couple thoughts.

First, there’s a long history of worries about new media, or technologies, or economic movements, creating new and unprecedented levels of distraction. But there’s also a counter-history of developing ways to refocus, to concentrate in an age of print, or movable type, or television. (There’s even an argument that meditation helped make us human.) This is the argument I made in my last book, The Distraction Addiction:

Contemplative practices [developed in ancient Greece, the Levant, India and Asia] were a response to the turbulence caused by imperial expansion, political upheaval, global-trading networks, mass migrations, and urbanization. At its worst, life in Warring States China, ancient Greece, or a Middle East contested by Greek, Roman, and Persian empire builders was violent, turbulent, and brutal. In good times, city life offered pleasant diversions and an ever-growing range of distractions. Axial Age philosophers and spiritual leaders advocated rationality and nonviolence as a response to these trials, but they did something more: they reoriented religion itself, turning it away from what John Hick called “cosmic maintenance” — rituals and sacrifices designed to assure good harvests, the smooth passing of the seasons, and so on — and toward personal improvement and enlightenment. One moved beyond a life that was nasty, brutish, and short and ultimately created a better world by cultivating what S. N. Eisenstadt called a “transcendental consciousness”: an ability to step away from the world (sometimes almost literally, as with monastic and hermetic traditions, but more often psychologically) and observe it without prejudice or precondition. In other words, to observe it mindfully. To contemplate it.

The Axial Age came to an end around 200 BCE, but the evolution of, on one hand, complex societies, global economies, and empires and, on the other hand, institutions and spaces devoted to cultivating memory and contemplation continued. In the West, the monastery, the cathedral, and the university all evolved into vast machines for supporting and amplifying concentration. These institutions offered an escape from the everyday world, but they also depended on it. Medieval universities in Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge raised barriers against the distractions of normal life while at the same time welcoming students, gifts, royal patronage, and high-tech supplies like paper, scientific instruments, and books.

Historians argue that the Internet is merely the latest in a series of irresistible technologies, going back to the invention of writing, that change human brains and the way people think. They’ve told only half of the story. There’s a parallel history of people responding to complexity and turbulence and technological change by creating contemplative practices that support concentration, encourage calm, and restore attention. Worldly distraction and contemplative practices are related: each shapes the other. It’s no surprise that ancient contemplative practices should find a resonance in today’s super-distracted world. They are tools made for worlds like this and for minds like ours.

Some professors advocate “embracing the culture of hyper attention and changing the educational environment to ‘fit the students’.” Because of the long history of the coevolution of distractions and contemplative practices, I’m skeptical that this is what teachers should do.*

Part of the point of any class, after all, is to change the way students think, and more generally to give them a greater degree of self-awareness about why they think in particular ways, or why they think this about that subject.

The challenge is teachers face is not to figure out how to teach in a post-attention age, or to teach down to students you assume are no longer as smart as you because Internet, but to figure out how to create practices that respond to this challenge.

* Maybe what these advocates really want is to change the starting-point for courses, so students find the course more approachable, and ultimately will be able to change the way they think. But I’m not sure.

Silence as performance art

It’s kind of amazing that this needs to be a thing, and can be seen as an avant-garde phenomenon: a distraction-free concert.

In classical circles, a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by a rising-star pianist like Igor Levit would be enough to compel attention…. Yet this week, at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory, Levit’s live performances will be surrounded by an additional artistic program that is meant to complement the presentation of Bach’s enduringly popular piano work. For these dates, Levit is collaborating with artist Marina Abramović on an installation environment, intended to deliver the audience into a collective state of purer listening.

Upon entering the Armory, ticket-holders will be presented with numbered keys, which will lead to individual lockers installed in the venue’s spacious foyer. Inside a specific locker, each audience member will find an initial round of instructions (to surrender their cellphones, watches, computers, and other trappings of the distracted self). Then, in the Armory’s massive Drill Hall space, attendees will be given noise-canceling headphones before choosing one of the reclining deck chair-style seats (arranged in the round).

At first, there will be nothing at all in the auditorium’s makeshift center. And for 30 minutes, listeners will be required to wait, in silence and near-darkness.

The performance will begin after that.

I love the idea of immersing listeners in 30 minutes of silence before the concert (even if some number of them nod off); and doing it before playing the Goldberg Variations will heighten the experience in a way that a half hour of slience before, say, a Mono concert might not.

But it’s also kind of amazing that this is a performance piece, and that we have to have something like this to remind us of the virtue of silence.

Actually, I also suspect that we’re also seeing silence turned into a luxury. Like water, which has gone from a basic human right to just another commodity (albeit one that you can’t live without), I suspect that we may be in the midst of a reconceptualization of silence– and its attendant stillness, a lack of competition for your attention, etc.– as something you need to pay for, like private security or a concierge. Or fresh food.

It would be sad if that happens, but not surprising.

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