What do you pay attention to?

What Do You Pay Attention To?

“Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. Newport builds on ideas by Winifred Gallagher in her book Rapt in which she discusses where her attention landed and how she tried to approach life and thinking after a difficult cancer diagnosis. What Gallagher found, and what Newport build’s on in the context of focused attention and work, is the importance of what we think about and pay attention to as we move through our lives. Newport includes the following quote from Gallagher in his book:

 

“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 [an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary] of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.” 

 

Newport explains that many of us make a mistake in thinking about what is important to us and what will bring us happiness. We assume that our context is everything, that we need a big house, a fancy title, a promotion, and a dream spouse to be happy. However, Gallagher’s book suggest that what we really need to feel happy is a shift in attention, away from the big things and desires, and toward the small positive things we enjoy in our life everyday, from a cup of coffee to a nightcap, and the small victories and enjoyable parts of each day. Appreciation and recognition of these small moments can mean more to us in the long run than the big fancy dream goals that we may one day reach.

 

We think it is the big context that matters, but as Newport writes, “Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to. Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow has a phrase for this, “What you see is all there is.” What you look at, what you think about, and what you encounter in your life is what your world will become. If you only look at your life and see the negative aspects of where you are, then your world will be awful. If, however, you can look at where you are and see good things around you, then your world will be better. This is what Gallagher learned while battling her cancer diagnosis, and this is what Newport incorporates into a life of focus. Dialing in on the important and positive aspects of life help us avoid feeling that we are not doing enough, are not good enough, and don’t have enough to live a happy and meaningful life.
work and craftsmanship

Think of Your Work as a Craft

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights the work of Ric Furrer, a modern day blacksmith creating historical themed swords, knives, and weapons in his own modern day forge. His work is important in Newport’s book because it is a true craft that demands focus. He can only do his work, and do it well, if he is constantly focused and aware of the small details of what he is doing. He can’t afford to be distracted, to take micro-breaks to check a tweet, or bounce between his metal-work and an email or two.

 

Craftsman working with their hands have an advantage over modern day knowledge workers. They create something tangible that they can hold and see. People working construction and landscaping have the same advantage, a tie back to our early ancestors and human evolutionary past – their work can be seen. Knowledge workers’ reports, emails, and reading can’t actually be seen. As a result, we make efforts to be very visible with our work, responding to every email, posting witty tweets, and Instagramming our pile of books.

 

What ends up happening, in way that Newport describes it, is that we forget to focus on what is important with our work, and allow ourselves to be distracted.  Our work starts to lack purpose and meaning, and we take on shallow tasks. We do visible yet unimportant work rather than the important but sometimes invisible work that is required for us to really be great at what we do.

 

Newport writes, “Craftsmen like Furrer tackle professional challenges that are simple to define but difficult to execute – a useful imbalance when seeking purpose. Knowledge work exchanges this clarity  for ambiguity. It can be hard to define exactly what a given knowledge worker does and how it differs from another: On our worst days, it can seem that all knowledge work boils down to the same exhausting roil of emails and PowerPoint.” 

 

The challenge for us is to understand what is truly important and focus on that work. We can’t worry about being seen as productive. Instead, we have to focus on ensuring our time is spent on the most important issues, even if we don’t have something tangible to tell everyone that we did at the end of the day.

 

I have found tracking my work to be helpful in this regard. At the end of the day, we can forget just how much time we spent on a given project, and we can have trouble seeing the progress we made. If we think more deeply about what we need to do to make progress on important goals, we can identify smaller targets, and document, for our own sake, what we have done to reach those targets. This gives us a sense of craft, even in a knowledge economy. The more we can tie what we do to a feeling of craftsmanship, the better we can be at recognizing how important it is that we bring our best focus to our work.
The Second Value of Deep work

The Second Value of Deep Work

“The second reason that deep work is valuable,” writes Cal Newport in Deep Work, “is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless – which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.”

 

If you only produce shallow work, your work will never have a home. People will skip over you as they search for something more interesting. Shallow work cannot compete against cat gifs, well produced reports, and interesting perspectives on important topics. Shallow work steals people’s time, and people will recognize that and learn to turn away from sources of shallow work.

 

Deep work on the other hand is truly considerate and well formulated. It requires focus, attention, and an ability to connect ideas and points that are not obviously related at first. It provides value to people and rewards them for investing their time with your media, content, or production.

 

Because we have so much access to so many people through digital media, we no longer need to pursue a shallow work approach to gaining an audience. Our deep work can resonate with those who are truly connected to what we do or the topic at hand. We can provide high quality work for a smaller group and have a more committed following. The listener data from 80,000 Hours, who regularly produce high quality 2 to 4 hour long podcast interviews is evidence in favor of Newport’s deep work claims.

 

If we invest in our minds, work on our thinking and focus, and produce high quality work, we can reach an audience that matters. If we don’t pursue this strategy, if we try instead to shovel meaningless content into the faces of everyone we can, we might get some clicks, but few people will appreciate, learn, and return to what we produce. The attention we receive will be fleeting as we are passed over for things that are more valuable and important.
Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

Shallow Work and the Permanent Cost of Distraction

My last two posts have been about deep work and shallow work, with one post looking at what deep work really entails, and one post considering when you should plan your shallow work relative to your deep work. Today’s post is more directly on the costs of shallow work. Yesterday’s post discussed the importance of doing deep work when we are most focused, and an unwritten but implied aspect to shallow work is that doing shallow work when we are most focus robs us of the time and mental energy that we could use to do our most important work. But that is not the only cost of shallow work – the downsides to shallowness extend beyond the opportunity costs of doing more important work instead of the shallow busy work.

 

Cal Newport in Deep Work writes, “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.”

 

Newport’s warning is very important and extends far beyond losing a few hours where we could be more productive. It extends beyond even our work schedule and the time we are in the office. The warning is this: the more time you spend distracting yourself in line at the grocery store with your phone, the more time you spend fluttering around twitter at work, and the more time you spend scrolling down Facebook before bed, the worse your brain will be when it needs to focus most. Our poor digital habits reduce our ability to focus.

 

Deep work requires that we keep our mind focused on one thing for a long period of time. It requires that we make connections by truly learning and understanding the material we are focused on. In the long run, it makes us better performers because it allows us to be more productive with our time. The future of our economy is bright for those who can excel at deep work, when others are distracted and unable to complete difficult projects in a unified and coherent manner.

 

However, if we spend our time doing lots of shallow work like answering every unimportant email as soon as a notification pops up on our computer, or if we spend lots of time distracting ourselves on social media, we won’t build the capacity to engage with deep work. We will actually diminish our ability to do deep work and teach our brain that it doesn’t need to focus for long stretches of time. Our brains get a hit of dopamine with each new social media post and each notification. Our brains can literally become overly reliant on these dopamine hits, to the point where our brains can’t focus because they can’t operate for long stretches without more cheap dopamine hits.

 

It is important that we be honest with ourselves about how we spend our time and how distracted we allow ourselves to be. Putting the phones down and blocking time for deep work is important, otherwise we will unintentionally fill our lives with shallow work, and in the process diminish our focus ability.
What is Shallow Work

What is Shallow Work

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, provides the following definition for shallow work – the opposite of what he encourages us to strive for in our daily lives and work:

 

“Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

 

Recently I wrote about Dan Pink’s book When which shares research on our mood throughout the day. Pink presents information from studies looking at our affect on social media which suggests that most people have a peak moment of the day about 6 hours after waking up, move through a trough, and then rebound later in the afternoon. Pink goes on to show that we should do our best focus and analytic work in the morning during our peak, should take it easy on the hard analytic tasks during our trough, and should return to important work that requires creativity in the afternoon during our rebound.

 

We can incorporate the ideas of Deep Work and Shallow Work from Newport’s book into the framework of When. The shallow work that Newport describes are all the small administrative tasks that we have to muddle through during the workday. We get a lot of emails that we need to respond to at some point, but that often are not that important. We have to schedule some meetings, we have to go through some paperwork and check some boxes, and we have to do some relatively mindless data entry into a spreadsheet or program. These tasks don’t add a lot of value, are not usually urgent, and don’t use much brain power. These are the kinds of things we should save for our trough, the period after our lunch break when our brain just wants to jam out to our favorite songs while chugging through some cognitively simple tasks.

 

Deep work, on the other hand, requires a lot of focus and mental energy. Distractions from your favorite songs or social media notifications will interrupt you and make it harder for you to complete the work. This type of work should be completed during our peak, when our mind is still fresh and ready to crush our to-do list. Using our peak time to do shallow work is waste, and trying to complete our deep work during our trough will make us frustrated and lead to poor quality work. Think about when you do each type of work, and how you can organize your day to maximize your mental capacity to do your best deep work at the point when your brain is at its peak. Don’t let shallow work steal that valuable time from you, and don’t fool yourself into thinking you have been productive and accomplished something meaningful if you have only handled a bunch of shallow work.

Arguing for Importance

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie shares a story about a tax consultant and an argument that the consultant had with a government auditor. The two were in a heated debate over a relatively small sum of money and whether it was assessed and taxed properly. A shouting match ensued with both parties being a bit arrogant and ego driven. In the end, the tax consultant realized that the debate was no longer about the facts of tax law or the money in question, the government auditor was arguing for his own importance.

 

The consultant, Mr. Parsons, decided that continuing the debate was not worthwhile and shifted the conversation, complimenting the auditor for the difficult work and decisions he had to make on a daily basis, often in the face of recalcitrant individuals defending questionable financial practices. He didn’t provide the tax inspector with empty flattery but acknowledged that his job was difficult, yet important in a democracy. Carnegie writes about what he learned from this story:

 

“This tax inspector was demonstrating the most common of human frailties. He wanted a feeling of importance; and as long as Mr. Parsons argued with him, he got his feeling of importance by loudly asserting his authority. But as soon as his importance was admitted and the argument stopped and he was permitted to expand his ego, he became a sympathetic and kindly human being.”

 

My wife is a human development specialist, and while she typically works with little ones from 0 to 3, her studies have provided her insights into childhood and adolescent development through early adulthood. She has talked to me about the ways that children and teenagers will seek negative attention, behaving badly and acting out, because even negative attention is a form of attention. Negative attention is still a recognition of the importance of another individual, and childish as it may be, even fully grown and professional adults may from time to time seek negative attention via conflict and arguments.

 

The tax collector in the story wanted to be recognized and wanted his authority respected. It may have been petty, he may have been on an ego and power trip, but nevertheless, becoming angry and indignant didn’t help to reduce his ego and make him a more reasonable person. What it took to get him to be more flexible and cooperative was kindness, not criticism. Positive attention may not have been 100% deserved, but honest praise (as opposed to empty flattery) provided him with a sense of importance and acknowledgement and allowed him to be comfortable with being more cooperative.

 

We should be aware of both sides of this story. We should try to recognize in ourselves how often we are making a power play, not adding much real value to the argument, discussion, market, or opinion that we are advocating for, but simply trying to be an important player. When we see that we are driven by ego and a desire to feel important, we should step back and ask if it is truly necessary, if we will really make things better for ourselves and others, or if we are just being a burden. At the same time, we should try to see this in others and avoid criticizing them for having a human desire that we share and often fall victim to ourselves. We don’t have to provide them with undue flattery, but we can adopt their perspective, recognize the positive aspects of their viewpoint, and try to provide them with recognition and acknowledgement so that we can start to cooperate and work together in a more reasoned and sensible manner.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.

 

Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,

 

“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”

 

Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.

 

Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.

 

Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.

Continual Effort

At the moment I am recovering from an ankle injury from a few weeks back. I was out for a run one morning and was not looking very closely at where I was going. There was a rock on the sidewalk that I did not see and I sprained my ankle when I stepped on it. This last weekend was the first time I had run in two weeks. I am slowly getting back to 100%, but it has required each day that I do a lot of small things that all build up to improve the physical fitness and strength of my ankle. I would like to only need ice one time and I would love if the one trip to a physical therapist’s office had solved all my problems, but as anyone who has had an injury knows, the body needs time to heal and continual effort, thought, and care are required to make sure injuries recover to be as strong as before.

 

It is a frustrating inconvenience to slowly recover from a physical injury, but we all know it will take time and understand that we won’t be back to full health overnight or with the snap of a finger. But for some reason, this understanding is hard to extend beyond physical recovery from an injury to other areas of our life. Somewhere deep down we recognize that becoming really great at something is going to require a lot of work over a long period of time, but we often don’t have the patience to put forth the effort to truly become great at something. We want an instant success, just like I want an instantly healed ankle.

 

Whether it is getting in shape, becoming a good chess player, becoming a good writer, or excelling in our career, there is only one answer: continual focused effort. Author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book The Ego is the Enemy, “to get where we want to go isn’t about brilliance, but continual effort.” It is not one shining moment that will bring us success, but rather a thousand small moments of effort and preparation that will bring about our one shining moment. The brilliance and the flash are ultimately less important and less valuable than the work and the habits we build that make the impressive moments possible.

 

This feels like a real drag and it feels terrible to be working hard at something and then see another person apparently achieve the success we want out of no-where, but if we can control our own ego we can control the way these moments make us feel. In his book, Holiday continues, “While that’s not a terribly sexy idea, it should be an encouraging one. Because it means it’s all within reach-for all of us, provided we have the constitution and humbleness to be patient and the fortitude to put in the work.” Winning a body building competition, having an exciting career opportunity, or cultivating a beautiful garden is something that is possible for all of us, but we must recognize it is not something we will achieve in just one day, one week, or even in one year. Through continual effort and focused application of our time and energy we can get to where we want to be, but we must recognize when we are hoping for a brilliant ego-boosting flash, and instead channel our attention back to the effort and habits we build that will sustain us for success in the long run. Just as I can’t push my ankle to suddenly be healthy (or I’ll fall in disastrous ruin), we can’t push our goals to suddenly be achieved. We must put forward the continual effort to prepare for the moment we seek.

Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street, and these reactions make us feel validated as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received which can be divorced from the actual value and positive impact we bring to the planet.

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day. Learning to turn the ego off can also help us think about what truly matters and is important in our lives and in the lives of others. When you limit the ego, a new car is less appealing (or at least an overly expensive and luxurious new car is less appealing) and the possible uses of the money that you would direct toward the car are expanded. Without ego we can use our time, attention, money, and other resources to make a greater impact than we would if we allowed the ego to pursue its own hedonistic goals.