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When tech writer and former Apple executive Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention” in 1998, social media was nonexistent. Connecting to the internet meant dial-up, and Google was just a fledgling search engine concocted by a couple of grad students at Stanford.
But even then, Stone recognized the blight of continuous partial attention on our ability to focus. Unlike multitasking, which is motivated by a desire to be efficient, Stone describes continuous partial attention as “an effort not to miss anything:”
“It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always on high alert when we pay continuous partial attention.”
Given that this was already the case in 1998, you can imagine how much worse off we are today, when a minute rarely goes by without a device buzzing to alert us to a new notification or message.
If continuous partial attention is defined by an “always-on” perpetual crisis response, then deep work is its antidote. Described by author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport as “a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit,” it’s this mindset in which we get our most important thinking done.
So how to achieve deep work in a culture where continuous partial attention reigns?
Know your personal scheduling philosophy
In order to integrate deep work into your life, you first need to pick the scheduling philosophy that best aligns with your habits. Newport identifies four different philosophies:
Monastic: The Monastic philosophy has one basic principle: Eliminate all shallow work, i.e., mindless tasks, and focus exclusively on deep work. This means no distractions outside of your main project — no emails, no social media, no paperwork. Is this possible? Yes. Is it practical? Not exactly.
One successful practitioner of the Monastic philosophy is Donal Knuth, an award-winning computer scientist and professor emeritus at Stanford University. Knuth deleted his email account in 1990, so if you want to reach him, it has to be by mail, which he opens roughly once every three months. The flip side is that Knuth’s days are almost entirely consumed by deep work, which has made him incredibly successful in his field.
Bimodal: With the bimodal philosophy, you split your schedule between deep work and shallow work, dedicating a clearly defined amount of time — be it a handful of hours, or a full week — to the former. It’s a great system for those who can’t commit to the isolation that the Monastic philosophy demands, but still value periods of intense concentration.
Rhythmic: With the rhythmic philosophy, deep work is part of your daily schedule. Maybe this means deep work happens in the first three hours of your day, leaving the afternoons open for less mentally stimulating tasks. Whatever schedule you choose, the most important part of the rhythmic philosophy is that it becomes a habit.
Journalistic: The journalistic philosophy is the opportunistic approach to deep work — in other words, you fit it in when you can. Canceled meeting? Long commute? Both great opportunities to sneak some deep work into your day. One difficulty with this approach, however, is that it requires context switching, which itself causes an average 40 percent loss of productivity.
Shallow vs. deep tasks
Doing deep work first entails knowing how to identify shallow work, in order to better avoid it. Deleting old emails, updating spreadsheets, catching up on administrative tasks — all of these things, while very satisfying to knock off your to-do list, qualify as “shallow work.”
According to Newport, a good way to determine whether a task is shallow or deep is to approximate how many months it would take to train a smart college grad to complete it. Doing this helps clarify what work might be important, but not necessarily deep.
It’s not that you have to forego shallow work altogether — for most people, this would be impossible anyway. Instead, it’s a matter of containing shallow work to a specific timeframe, so it poses less risk of bleeding into your deep work.
As with all new habits, the key to integrating deep work time into your life is to start small. Any practitioner of meditation can tell you that it’s not easy to break free of the hold that continuous partial attention has over us. Begin with 30 minutes, and work up from there. Research suggests that most people max out at around four hours of deep work per day, so make that your target. You’ll find that your ability to settle into deep work increases with practice.
Don’t fear boredom
Boredom isn’t compatible with continuous partial attention. After all, how can you ever be bored when you’re scrolling through your newsfeed, checking Instagram and answering emails all at the same time?
Unfortunately for those of us who compulsively pull out our phones at the faintest whiff of downtime, boredom is the cornerstone of deep work. “Your brain loses its tolerance for boredom and lack of stimuli which means when it comes time to do deep work it’s going to have a hard time staying focused,” Newport cautions.
Beyond that, boredom can also help foster creativity. On more than one occasion, I’ve come up with ideas for my company, JotForm, while resisting the urge to look at my phone and letting my mind wander instead.
Stop when you say you will
No matter how much you may want to, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to push yourself beyond your personal capacity for deep work in a given day. That’s why it’s important to set a clearly defined stopping point — and actually stick to it. Giving yourself a deadline also means you’ll have less time to spend on other distractions, which is the whole point of deep work in the first place.
Newport says that he actually speaks the words “closure phase” out loud at the conclusion of each session. Whether you do this or not, make sure you’re at a comfortable ending place, so you’re happy with where you leave off and can easily resume when it’s time for the next session.
Continuous partial attention might be the way of the world, but it doesn’t have to dominate your life. With a little effort, you can build a deep work habit that will boost your productivity and free up mental space for bigger, more important ideas.