How to Advance Your Deep Work in a Noisy World
Productive solitude provides the container to take action on big ideas.
Posted June 25, 2019
We live in an era of unprecedented information, immediacy, and access. In just the past few years, we have grown rapidly, compulsively reliant on digital devices not only for work but also for social validation. We crave the dopamine rush of “likes,” “hearts,” and comments on Facebook as much as we covet that morning cup of coffee. Together, we have an attention crisis on our hands (or rather, at our fingertips).
You are not entirely to blame. We live in a “distraction economy,” wherein companies design technology to increase your digital distractibility for profit. The result? Multiple studies have identified classic addiction symptoms in smartphone overuse, and in one study out of the University of London, subjects reported decreases in productivity and a negative impact on their leisure time as a result of the “technostress” our devices induce.
This research paints a worrisome picture for us creatives. If we can’t unplug to enjoy our lives, how can we do so to advance the complex projects that matter most?
When I survey the literature on thought leadership, marketing, branding, and entrepreneurship, I rarely come across guidance or insight on the topic of mental hygiene. We brush our teeth every day, so why not give our most invaluable tool, our brain, a daily scrubbing too?
The question then becomes how do we find quietude so that we can refresh and refocus our energies. In his foreword for Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude, business researcher Jim Collins summarizes this dilemma nicely: “If leadership begins not with what you do but who you are, then when and how do you escape the noise [of our times] to find your purpose and summon the strength to pursue it?”
The answer lies in self-reflection. By recognizing our thought patterns—the motives behind our distractibility and the type of thinking that leads to productivity—we can develop routines that lead us to that utterly digitally detached, immersive state of mind called “flow.”
Escape Hatches and Freedom Tunnels
A few years ago, I faced my fragmented mind head-on. After day two on a deep dive retreat, I could not concentrate for a prolonged time. My thoughts were fractured, scattered—whatever metaphor you want to use, let’s just say my thinking did not feel whole and seamless anymore. We knowledge workers, thought leaders, and creative professionals require solo time for deep work. But what happens when you make the time, and cannot concentrate?
Fear and self-doubt creep in. You get impatient, uncomfortable, and seek short-term gratification over long-term freedom. When you at last have blocked out time to advance your important project, you instead focus on the set of tasks you know you can complete. You answer emails instead of outlining a roadmap for your business. You edit the copy you’ve already written rather than write the next chapter. You find an Escape Hatch.
Escape Hatches have a purpose. They are meant to be quick solutions for dire situations; however, few of us in our businesses and brands are ever in dire situations. Too often, we use Escape Hatches to avoid the discomfort and fear of pursuing the projects that, over the long-term, could bring us the greatest fulfillment. These projects are our Freedom Tunnels.
A Freedom Tunnel can be the book you’ve always wanted to write, the conference you’re organizing, or the marketing strategy to advance your brand. The only defining factors are that it takes time, and that it is driven by the desire to provide real value to the people that it serves. Regardless of your pursuit, digging a Freedom Tunnel requires self-reflection, self-discipline, and clarity, something many of us struggle to find (or find time for) in our fast-paced lives. But if you persist in digging diligently and patiently until you realize your goal, the rewards far outweigh the superficial gratification of escape.
Even with passion and a clear vision, the allure of taking the easier route or giving up entirely often surfaces. Escape Hatches perpetuate and empower our distractibility to the point of undermining our long-term goals. Recognizing these temptations and envisioning your Freedom Tunnel is the first step toward persevering in your deep work. The second is finding your “flow.”
Finding Your Flow
In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined the word “flow” as a state of extended concentration on a voluntary endeavor that involves challenges which in turn call upon your best creative and cognitive faculties. Flow is the mindset where you do your best work. It can be inspired and seemingly effortless, or sometimes it can be a series of challenges faced head-on. Either way, being in this state can bring out your highest potential.
Like any muscle, the more you exercise “flow,” the stronger it becomes. It goes from being work to being challenging play. Flow gives you the fuel to chip away at your Freedom Tunnel. But one thing all “flow projects” have in common is a deep sense of purpose. It must be important to you, perhaps even make a difference in the world or in your community, require your high-bandwidth faculties (imagination, analysis, concentration, active empathy), and contain a series of steps and tasks to execute to completion. Framing your creativity and deep work around projects gives daily and weekly continuity to your thinking so you can pick up the pen, tablet, or paintbrush right where you left off.
So, what can you do to experience less fragmentation and more flow?
Choose (In)action Over Distraction
In this age of distraction, possibly the most important—yet uncomfortable—practice to kindle your creativity is to carve time alone with your own mental space and your ideas. Ideas are like orchids, “sensitive plants which can wilt if exposed to premature scrutiny.” Yet in our hyper-connected, share-hungry digital eco-sphere, each of us has likely tossed ideas into the ether before they could even take root in our own mind, let alone actually bloom.
By practicing productive solitude, we can create and hold space for the confusion and overwhelm that precedes new growth. So we tend to our garden: weed out pesky insecurities, prune our thoughts (i.e. fears) from our ideas, and examine our project row by row. For some, this can be meditation. After all, meditation isn’t about “not thinking.” It’s about cultivating awareness.
For others, breaking the project into doable chunks and blocking out time to focus on those chunks one by one can help them tap into their creative flow. In the case of the latter, there are a few tips that can set you up for success:
- Set the mood. Once you’ve defined your “flow project,” choose a distraction-free setting and a physical or environmental cue for what to pay attention to during your “flow session.” Use a journal dedicated exclusively to the project at hand, or a pen that you love, or a picture that motivates you. Ample evidence points to how such an analog cue outside of a computer or device can trigger you to pay attention to the project and act accordingly.
- Just do it. Starting the next piece of a project alleviates anxiety. Draft to discover. Craft to design. Pre-determine whether today’s focus is to explore and reflect, or to make/edit/refine—then stick to it. Your brain can get cluttered quickly when you try to focus on too much at once.
- Take breaks. Even within 45 minutes, you’re going to hit small walls, impasses, and emotional tensions. When you feel the flow start to ebb and you gravitate toward email, Facebook, or chocolate, take a break or (as we call it) an intentional wonder intervention.
- Stop and share. Finally, acknowledge what you’ve done in your session. Express gratitude. Prime your mind for the next flow session with a Start Here note in your project or a Post-It note-sized focus on your Mind Rooms board or iCal. Most importantly, share your progress in person. Talk to a loved one or someone in your creative pack to stand in the authority of your idea. We flourish with the right face-to-face connection and creative feedback.
Following this practice over the course of several days, then weeks, then years will restore your attention and capacity for prolonged concentration. You'll be that much more aware of how digital technology tries to kidnap your attention, and much more capable of resisting its allure. This process can give you an equanimity that you didn’t know you could possess.
Storr, Anthony. Solitude: A Return to the Self. New York: Free Press, 1988: pg. 147.