- Cal Newport talking about deep work (YouTube)
- RescueTime (internet blocker)
- Forest (phone app)
- Shut Up and Write
- PhD Forum Online Study Room
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues the importance of completing immersing yourself in a single task and eliminating all distractions. It sounds simple, but try it for ten minutes and see what happens. Your laptop demands updates, there’s a Facebook notification requiring your attention, somebody stops by for a chat. It’s very unusual for us to enter a state of deep work.
It’s not just the distraction itself that causes a problem. Newport explains the concept of attention residue. When you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn’t immediately follow. Some of your brain cells are still working on that original task, such as mentally composing a response to an email you’ve just read or smarting over a provocative tweet. Although you’re now looking at your thesis again, it doesn’t have your full attention.
We need to find ways of achieving a state of deep work by improving focus and eliminating distractions.
It’s no exaggeration to claim that my PhD was utterly transformed by the Pomodoro Technique. I still use it most weeks and talk about it almost daily. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and it refers to those novelty tomato-shaped kitchen timers. Here’s what you do:
- Choose a task to be accomplished.
- Set your timer for 25 minutes (it doesn’t have to resemble a tomato).
- Work on your task without any interruptions — so, don’t check email, make a cup of tea, or talk to the cat. If anything unrelated pops into your head (which it will), quickly make a note of it and return to your task.
- When the buzzer or bell sounds, take a 5-minute break and record your progress.
- Repeat, taking a longer break for every 4 tomatoes completed.
The Pomodoro Technique was devised by Francesco Cirillo back in the 1980s. The science behind it is that most of us can focus for only 25 minutes before our mind starts to wander. That’s when we resort to faffing and no longer make any progress. A 5-minute break allows our brain to relax, but it’s not long enough for us to lose momentum or forget what we were working on.
You can use those breaks any way you please. Personally, I find it almost impossible to restrict myself to 5 minutes of internet browsing and nearly always overshoot. Also, my mind is then distracted by what I’ve just been reading, and my thoughts become disordered. I use those breaks to stretch or get a cup of tea.
If you’re struggling to fit everything in your schedule at the moment, just make a commitment to yourself to complete one tomato a day. Once you’ve squashed a tomato for five days in a row, see whether you can squeeze in two per day. The key is to not overstretch yourself by setting an unrealistic target. It’s much easier to take a short walk every day than it is to run a marathon once a week. Think small and consistent, not big and sporadic.
The internet is one giant conspiracy to stop us getting any work done. If you’re constantly distracted by social media, you can try using an internet blocker like RescueTime or Freedom. If your phone is the problem, then Forest can help, too.
Creating accountability can also make a difference. Some universities offer Shut up and Write sessions where students get together virtually to support each other. Another alternative is Focusmate (www.focusmate.com). This online tool matches you with a stranger so you can watch each other write. Yes, it does sound a bit creepy, but it’s incredibly effective. You’ve made a commitment to somebody else, not just yourself.
Making and honouring those commitments to yourself every day will keep you on track.