Distraction is literally driving us insane. This book saved my sanity.

“A deep life is a good life.
– Cal Newport

I first read the sentence quoted above in December of 2016, the same year that Cal Newport published Deep Work. It is with these words that Newport concludes the book’s introduction.  

The sentiment expressed by this seven-word sentence is so self-evident, and the manner in which it is expressed so pedestrian, that you wouldn’t think it the sort of thing that would provoke epiphanies. But to the parched tongue, water tastes better than wine. And so it was with that sentence and me, in December of 2016.

Burnt Out

The company that I worked for at the time had a policy of giving the whole staff the week after Christmas off. I began that Christmas vacation mentally and spiritually burnt out. I was deeply dissatisfied with myself and my work, and certain that something had to change, even if I didn’t yet know what.

The nature of the industry I was in – journalism – is by definition fast-paced. And yet, the previous year had been frenetic even by the standards of journalism. There had, of course, been an extraordinarily pugnacious – occasionally downright vicious – U.S. presidential election. However, it seems obvious to me that it wasn’t just the objectively disorienting nature of the moment that left so many of us (and not just journalists) feeling run ragged, but the fact that the mania of the 24/7 news cycle had infiltrated every corner of our lives to a degree that was historically unprecedented.

When I began working as a journalist in 2008, the publication I wrote for didn’t even have a Facebook account. Though I had a personal account, I never used it. By 2016, however, I was managing several departments, including our marketing department, with its numerous social media accounts and hundreds of thousands of followers. Which meant that social media dominated my life, from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to sleep.

Not that this made me unique. By 2016, almost everyone was an amateur journalist and a marketer, with their own personal social media platform from which to express and disseminate their opinions. And with Facebook and Twitter now in our pockets, thanks to the smartphone, this meant that there no longer existed any space left that was sheltered from the high fever of urgent, anxiety-inducing, minute-by-minute political and social commentary and debate. Even our beds, that sanctum of rest, were no refuge, our sleep now bookended by our final and our first glances of the day at our phones.

Becoming Pavlov’s dog

As a philosophy major and a lover of literature, I had no doubt whatsoever about the value of slow, deep, creative, focused thinking. I also knew that the urgency of a great deal of our daily news cycle was only apparent, and that the currents of thought that shaped history were slower, and buried beneath the surface of events. And yet, with so many voices urgently clamouring for attention it seemed to me almost impossible to engage in the kind of thinking that I valued most.

Instead, I had turned into one of Pavlov’s dog, compulsively checking my e-mail, smartphone, and social media dozens and dozens of times a day, while spending my days fighting a seemingly unending series of organizational brushfires.

But what was even worse, it seemed to me that the Internet rewarded, and thus cultivated this kind of behavior. In-depth pieces that I had researched and crafted over the space of days would receive a few thousand views, whereas a blog post I had dashed off in the space of 45 minutes in a fit of rage would be read by millions.

The result is that the more difficult pieces that I wanted to write were left unfinished. Similarly, many of the more complex, long-term managerial projects that I believed would put our organization on a more solid footing were left untouched or incomplete. Instead I spent much of my day in a series of reactive responses to a flood of incoming stimuli.

In my heart of hearts, I knew this was all wrong. Just as I knew, in my cooler moments, that the latest “earth-shattering” development in the news would soon blow over and be forgotten when something else equally (and therefore, it would seem, not) earth-shattering replaced it, so I knew that painstakingly developing a plan to streamline complex procedures within our organization would have a far more positive long-term impact than, for instance, whether I chimed in immediately on the current controversy on our company chat.

What is more, I knew that doing so would feel far more satisfying. What was lacking was not conviction, then, but the means of putting conviction into action.

A shallow life is a lousy life

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Enter Deep Work.

I spent a great deal of time that Christmas vacation in my bathtub reading Deep Work, and thinking. By the end of the week, I had developed a clear and detailed plan for what needed to change, and how. This led, in the ensuing months, to one of the most productive periods of my professional career – a period of productivity that had tangible, measurable, and highly beneficial long-term consequences for the organization.

In some future post I will go in more detail into the advice given by Calport, and the practical changes that I made to my methods. But the thing I would like to focus on in this post is not the details, but rather on the overarching spirit and philosophical argument of the book, encapsulated in the sentence quoted above – “A deep life is a good life.”

The converse of this claim, naturally, is that a shallow life is a lousy life. And this, clearly, is why I felt so restless and dissatisfied in December of 2016.

On the surface, it looked as if many things were going well. I was doing my part in managing a rapidly growing organization, and many of the projects and initiatives I had launched had proved successful, with the data to back it up. And yet, at the same time, I knew that I was capable of a lot more, and that the thing that was preventing me from doing my best work was the ubiquity of distraction in my life.

Calport’s book is not a comprehensive philosophical defense of depth in general. That is to say, he doesn’t devote a great deal of attention to the question of precisely what constitutes depth, or why it matters at the existential or metaphysical level. In fact, Calport’s primary concern appears on the surface to be almost cynically self-interested: viz. to show how the capacity for depth, as a rare commodity, is economically valuable in an increasingly complex marketplace.

However, neither can he avoid the deeper philosophical questions, which form the twilight background against which his whole argument is made. In fact, one of the paradoxical effects of Newport’s emphasis on the pragmatic, was to make more concrete for me the truth of the more rarified philosophical positions that I already had about the importance of depth.

I was already convinced that meaning and happiness are ultimately to be found in slow, difficult, and deep activities – above all in craft, creativity, contemplation, and prayer. And I knew why this was the case: namely, that human beings simply are, in their essence, thinking animals. This is what distinguishes us from all the other animals. It is unsurprising, therefore, that we should find our greatest satisfaction in stretching this unique capacity to the limits.

This ideal is expressed powerfully by the French Dominican philosopher A.G. Sertillange in The Intellectual Life, in a passage quoted by Calport: “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.” Ultimately, the notion that humans find their greatest fulfillment in the act of total absorption in some transcendent truth reaches its apex in the Christian belief that heaven is constituted of the Beatific Vision – i.e. the eternal contemplation of God (who the theologians say is Truth) as He is.

However, one implication of Calport’s argument that depth also happens to be economically and professionally necessary, is that we are so thoroughly contemplative beings that our contemplative nature doesn’t (and can’t) simply disappear amidst the humdrum and quotidian details of our work, however metaphysically unimportant that work might seem. Quite the contrary: even as we sit in our cubicles, punching numbers into a spreadsheet, or writing code, our minds are craving to be exercised, even if the object of our attention be nothing more interesting or elevated than the details of our labour.

And the reason so many of us finish our work days so dissatisfied is precisely because we have not so exercised our minds – and this largely because everything in contemporary culture and the workplace is stacked so as to discourage the sort of concentrated effort that would bring satisfaction with it.

Fragmented

Consider the way so many white-collar knowledge workers now work: The task we are ostensibly working on is open in one program or browser tab, while another dozen or more programs and tabs are open – our e-mail client, various social media feeds, our company Slack, and any number of news articles that we have started and not finished, or are saving for our lunch break. Our phones, of course, are ever in our pockets, or on our desks, with their own flow of notifications – text messages, CNN breaking news alerts, stock updates, Whatsapp messages.

Every few minutes our e-mail client alerts us to the arrival of a new message (often part of a long, work-related group thread); or a Slack notification slides across our screen; or our phone buzzes with a Facebook notification, alerting us that some unremembered highschool friend has picked a fight with us over a political statement we posted on a whim earlier in the day; or we are summoned to yet another Zoom meeting, to which we give about a third of our attention, while we restlessly scan e-mails and social media in the background, soothing our consciences with the vague conviction that we’re “multi-tasking” (Meanwhile, the sensation of anxiety rising in our guts as we flip frenetically between tabs, and our inability to repeat what the person speaking on the call just said, occasionally make us wonder if we aren’t simply driving ourselves mad. The answer is yes, yes we are.).

The common denominator of all of this is fragmentation.

In this hothouse of competing stimuli, it is rare that our attention is ever wholly absorbed with one single task or problem. We try to justify this way of doing business with mumbo-jumbo about “multi-tasking”, heedless of the fact that study after study has exposed the truth that the efficient multi-tasker is a mythological being. Indeed, research is unambiguous: no matter how “good” someone is at multi-tasking, their productivity would be far better served by focusing all their attention on one task at a time. But more important still, is that this research all exposes how this fragmentation is cratering our capacity for happiness, and literally driving us insane.  

As the science writer Winifred Gallagher wrote in her own book, Rapt, about her quest for depth after a cancer diagnosis: “Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”

What this all suggests to me is that the shallow life is a lousy life precisely because ubiquitous distraction is dehumanizing. And it is dehumanizing precisely because – as I began to suggest above – it squanders that most precious and unique of all human things – our capacity to attend. The upshot of Newport’s argument, then, is that the practical need to eschew distraction and train our minds for deep work comes with a concomitant ethical obligation: i.e. the duty to train ourselves to ever become more fully human.

Reclaim your humanity: fight distraction

Though the advice in Newport’s book is addressed mostly to white-collar knowledge workers (the sort of people who tend to work in cubicles), in reality absolutely everybody could stand to benefit from putting into action his overarching, two-fold recommendation: a) to mercilessly expunge the shallow from our lives by strictly examining and limiting our use of information technologies and digital entertainment, and, b) to conscientiously and regularly schedule periods of depth, whether that be hard, creative labor, or simply uninterrupted time with loved ones, without the presence of our smartphones.

Newport writes in Deep Work that, “A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture our attention seem harmless or fun.” It is quite clear to me that a huge number of people are now live “draining and upsetting” lives, laboring under a pervasive sense of anxiety and mental haziness – and, not infrequently, severe depression – precisely because they have given themselves over to the siren call of distraction.

Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Massive unemployment, loneliness, and fear about the future have driven people to fill their time, seek human connection, and stay abreast of the news through constant connectivity. This has unleashed a secondary pandemic – that of digital addiction, made all the worse by the legitimately alarming nature of much of the content in which we are immersing ourselves. No human being has the strength to bear the weight of the world on his or her shoulders; and yet, thanks to social media, we are all playing at being Atlas now, carrying the burden of all the disfunction, chaos, and evil of the world, piped to our brains in real time, in HD video, in our social feeds. Now, more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of the truth that the deep life is the good life, and to arm ourselves with the weapons to fight the powerful forces that are luring us towards superficiality and a perpetual state of anxiety.

Over the past four years, I have read and re-read Newport’s book as many as seven or eight times. I’ve lost count. In reality, I’m always reading it, for the simple reason that the fight against distraction is never-ending. The passages I have highlighted in Deep Work are my mental anchor. Whenever I find my discipline slipping (which is most of the time), I crack the book open to remind myself of the things I already know I should be doing, but have forgotten in a temporary fit of insanity.

Above all, I have learned that I need to put in place strict, non-negotiable structures in relation to my use of technology: i.e. absolutely no Internet use before and after certain times of the day, checking e-mail only a set times of the day, Internet filters that block certain websites at certain hours, my daily work planned the night before, and morning hours devoted to my hardest, most-creative tasks (I am writing this during my uninterrupted, Internet-free “deep work” block from 9:00-12:30 in the morning).

My own experience leaves no room for doubt: When I am living these disciplines well, I am happier and more-fulfilled; less prone to anxiety; less likely to labour under the delusion that the fate of the world depends on my knowing the latest breaking news item and expressing the right opinion about it on social media; more prayerful; more present to my wife, children, friends and nature; and, as Newport promised, more productive in my daily work.

Three years ago, I quit my job, and decided to pursue my PhD in philosophy. In those three years, I have learned Latin, made considerable progress in learning French and German, won several prestigious scholarships, read thousands of pages of philosophy, written a couple hundred thousand words of academic prose, and stayed on schedule to finish my doctorate on time, all while working part-time and being a married man with children. Much of this has been made possible by putting into effect the excellent practical advice I got from Newport’s book.

So, Cal, thanks for changing my life for the better.

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