How to Focus Better and Work More Effectively

Cal Newport is a master concentrator. A computer science professor at Georgetown University, Newport can work on a single problem for up to seven hours; he works out complex theorems in his head. He’s so good at focusing that while working as an academic, he’s also written multiple books about focused living: the best-seller Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, $19) and the forthcoming Digital Minimalism (Penguin Random House, $29), to be published on Feb. 5. 

The average person operates in no way as Newport does. A 2018 survey by Udemy, an online learning platform, of more than 1,000 full-time workers in the U.S. found that 69 percent report being distracted at work by e-mail, chat, social media, their phones, and all the other shiny baubles that beg our attention throughout the workday. Half say that these workplace distractions result in worse performance and lower productivity.

Newport believes that learning to focus is like learning to run a marathon. With concerted effort, distracted workers can eschew bad habits and learn to stay on task. All it takes is a workout plan.

This week, on our new podcast Works for Me, co-host Rebecca Greenfield puts his advice to the test with a regimen that promises to take her from being a sad, distracted sack to someone who can focus on a single task for more than five minutes. Listen to learn about Newport’s focus exercise, or—if you’re too distracted right now—read on as Newport shares some of his wisdom below. 

REBECCA GREENFIELD: When did you become interested in our inability to focus?
CAL NEWPORT: I was looking for an answer to a pretty straightforward question: How do people do their jobs? I discovered, as knowledge work gets increasingly complicated, the ability to concentrate intensely is becoming more valuable. At the same time, people are getting worse at concentrating, so it’s an economic mismatch. There’s a skill that’s getting more valuable at exactly the same time that it's getting more rare.

What does that look like for the modern worker? How are we getting worse at concentration?
Right now, we’re not properly valuing concentration. It’s easy to say: “I’m busy, I’m communicating a lot, I’m on my phone, so I must be productive.” But I think, when you look a little bit closer, you realize it’s the undistracted, concentrated work that is more valuable to the bottom line in many different positions and many different fields.

That is the reality of my work life.
It’s a really convenient way to run an organization. If everyone has an email address, and I can talk to anyone and anyone can talk to me, we can have this unstructured conversation that unfolds all day long—it just also happens to be a terrible way to get a lot of value out of people.

I think it’s an economy-wide problem. One of the mysteries in U.S. economic data is why non-industrial productivity has stalled. One hypothesis I have is that one of the major contributing factors is the rise of more access to information and more connectivity, which has led us to paradoxically get a smaller return from our attention capital. So we’re not producing more output per worker because we’ve introduced technologies that make brains less effective at producing information. 

Are there any organizations not operating like this?
Some smaller organizations, typically in the tech sector, are experimenting with radical new workflows that are not built around unstructured communication. There’s no email, there’s no Slack, and it turns out that they’re doing really well. They use asynchronous scheduled, in-person, scrum-style meetings and custom-built project-management systems. 

As a single person working within the system, how can I do more focused work?
The ability to focus is a skill. A lot of people incorrectly think of the ability to focus as a habit, like flossing their teeth. It’s something they know how to do, it’s just a matter of doing it more often. That’s not actually the case. If you’re not actively training your mind to be good at sustaining concentration, you’re not going to get nearly as much value out of your concentration session.

What are some ways you’ve trained yourself to focus?
I spent a lot of time on a training method called “productive meditation.” You go for a walk and your goal is to make progress on a single professional problem only in your head while you're walking. And just like mindfulness meditation, if you notice your attention wandering off that problem to think about other things, you have to bring your attention back to the problem.

I did that during a two year period. By the end, I was really adept at holding variables in my head and doing pretty complicated thinking, writing book chapters, and proof solving. I think of productive meditation like pull-ups: It’s really hard at first, but it gives you really big results. 

Is it possible that you have a bigger capacity for concentrating than most people and that the average person, even with effort, can never learn to concentrate as well as you?
It’s definitely trainable. There’s obviously a natural threshold to how high you can go when you push concentration to your very peak—just like with various physical activities. But I don’t think most knowledge workers are anywhere near their natural peaks, because almost no one trains their ability to concentrate. I’m very optimistic: If you train, you will get big improvements.

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