How do you find success in a distracted world?
How do you create your best work when your attention is pulled in so many directions and fragmented with social media?
In his book, Deep Work, professor Cal Newport presents a single skill that if mastered will allow you to achieve incredible results in your personal and professional life. That skill is your ability to do “deep work,” or as he describes it, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” This is the kind of work required to compose a song, write a book, or paint a new piece, and it’s this hard-to-replicate work that creates value rewarded by the economy.
However, most of our efforts are spent on what Newport calls “shallow work” or logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These are tasks such as checking email or mindlessly practicing the same scales and songs over and over again.
The four rules that follow are Newport’s specific regimen that has allowed him to more than double his productivity as a professor, measured by his yearly output of scholarly papers, while rarely working past 5pm.
Rule #1: Work Deeply
You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it, so you need to schedule in deep work to prevent that mental resource from being used up before you can do the important work for the day.
According to Newport, your block of time for deep work should be a minimum of 1.5 hrs to allow yourself time to focus your attention, and 4 hrs of deep work a day seems to be the limit for most people.
Ritualize the Process
Create a practice ritual by answering these questions:
- Where will you work and for how long? (Decide on a specific location and time frame. For me, I find my best practice time happens in the morning before the random tasks of the day deplete my willpower.)
- How will you work once you start to work? (Ex. turning your phone on airplane mode, have a practice plan)
- How will you support your work? (Do you need a cup of coffee? Can you prep materials ahead of time to streamline the process? What environmental factors can you change to minimize distractions?)
Rule #2: Embrace Boredom
You’re waiting for a friend to show up to lunch or waiting for your coffee to finish brewing, and you almost instantly feel the need to reach for your phone and fill up the time with a distraction.
DON’T DO THIS.
Newport argues that our “distraction dependence” is wreaking havoc on our ability to concentrate and do deep work — an argument that is backed up by studies such as this one which show that even the presence of a cell phone PERMANENTLY reduces our cognitive capacity, working memory, and makes it harder for us to keep our attention.
The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained, but can’t be unless you reduce your dependence on distraction.
If Rule #1 is about reaching the limit of your concentration ability through deep work, then Rule #2 is how to increase that limit.
Don’t Take Breaks From Distraction, Take Breaks From Focus
The idea is to schedule in when you will use the Internet and social media and don’t use it at all outside of that time.
The result being that your work will no longer be fragmented multiple times throughout the day by responding to “urgent” emails, getting tagged in another #JazzMeme, or simply getting lost in your FB feed.
At this point, you might be hearing some convincing excuses from yourself about how you need to stay connected and this idea is unrealistic and extreme.
These are the words of an addict who refuses to give up the drug of constant distraction, and it’s killing your ability to do really great work.
Rule #3: Quit Social Media
Newport argues that social media as a network tool and entertainment should be considered for its positive and negative impacts on your professional and personal life.
Because social media is a tool, it should be used if and only if the benefits substantially outweigh the costs.
His method for deciding whether social media is mainly a benefit or harm is called The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection and has the following three steps:
- Identify the main high-level goals in your professional and personal life.
- List the 2-3 specific activities that help you satisfy the goals.
- Consider the different network tools, a.k.a. Social media platforms.
Since my overview of Deep Work is aimed at musicians, let’s take a quick look at how you might apply this approach.
- High-level goal: Get gigs with the best players
- The 2-3 specific activities: Practice, meet and connect with musicians through gigs and jam sessions
- Consider network tools:
- Facebook: Allows you to socialize with other musicians and have them hear your music and ability, but not ever in a significant enough way that you would be hired off a social media post. The people hiring for the best gigs need to know way more about you than the fact that you shred on rhythm changes.
- Instagram: Mostly photo-based, and the videos you can share are shorter than on FB. Your connection to your followers is also less personal than FB and therefore unlikely to directly help with your main activities of practice and networking to lead to gigs.
- Twitter: Just delete your account already.
- High-level goal: Make/sell albums, increase fan base
- The 2-3 specific activities: Write songs, play shows locally and on tour
- Consider network tools:
- Facebook: Allows you to share your songs with friends and family and have them hear your music and ability, but most of them won’t click to listen or aren’t your audience for your genre of music anyways. Allows you to share events of where you’ll be playing on tour and can help draw fans that wouldn’t otherwise know you’re in town.
- Instagram: See above. As part of increasing fan base, Instagram could be used to directly connect with your audience and turn a casual listener into a more dedicated fan, but for the most part that is not how people actively use it.
- Twitter: See above. (Went to delete my twitter as I’m writing this and got distracted scrolling people’s posts…)
For a more thorough explanation of why you should quit social media check out Newport’s Ted Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E7hkPZ-HTk
Rule #4: Drain the Shallows
This last rule means that by reducing your shallow work substantially you can then allow yourself to do more deep work.
Schedule Every Minute of Your Day
Ask yourself these questions and then make an actual schedule:
- When are my blocks for deep work?
- When are my blocks for shallow work, like responding to emails, paying bills, and other tasks?
Here’s an example with my schedule for the day I wrote this article:
The most common criticism of scheduling every minute of your day is, “What about having spontaneity and allowing the space for insight?”
Newport’s response is, “Go with it. Scheduling is about thoughtfulness, not constraint.”
In other words, having a schedule that needs to be adjusted due to an unusual, spontaneous event is better than not planning your day at all.
This overview of Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work, should hopefully give you some new ideas to consider and improve your work as a musician.
To actually get the benefit though you need to take action and implement the ideas.
So, reflect on how much of your time is spent on shallow work vs. deep work, take the steps to reduce your dependence on distraction, quit the social media tools that aren’t truly beneficial to your personal and professional life, and make a schedule for your day to get rid of the excessive shallow work and allow for deep work.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend reading Deep Work, which you can check out at your local library or by clicking here.
What single change has helped you become a better musician?
Share in the comments below.
If you got this far, you probably will enjoy my article “Hack Your Practice”