Over the last ten years I’ve seen my attention span decline.
My first proper job was at a help desk role at a new startup called AbeBooks.com. I wrote technical instructions for early Internet users while I finished my creative writing degree. It was challenging work to explain FTP processes to 58-year-old booksellers in Brooklyn, but I loved getting it right. You had to be careful, simple and thorough.
Flip through to today and I have to force myself to read every word of an email. My brain wants to jump all over the sentences looking for key words so I can get the gist of it. I feel guilty writing this for you to read. I don’t read emails properly. This was my first warning sign.
The death knell for my attention span was when I caught myself skimming chapters in my novel. I got to the end of a page and realized I basically knew what was happening but I’d missed beautifully-crafted sentences. Being a creative writing graduate, I felt like I’d committed a serious sin. I know how much time writers spend on words. How dare I disrespect their work? I feel even more ashamed admitting this.
I am not alone in scanning to improve content consumption. Many researchers are focusing on how our collective brains are adapting to this new culture of skimming. UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, “the result (of skimming) is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”
Skimming feels like an effective way to get through a growing mountain of content and information… but it’s deadly.
Life After Skimming
As a co-founder I’m always thinking about ways I can support my team. How can they be more satisfied with their work? What can I do to help develop critical analysis and empathy? How can I support them better?
Last year, my husband and co-founder listened to a podcast interviewing Cal Newport about his book, “Deep Work.” I’m always interested in the challenges we face in an open office environment and how we can make work better. Cal Newport suggests that people who do deep work get more satisfaction out of their jobs and become more valuable. Well, hello deep work, I’d like to get to know you.
People who do deep work get more satisfaction out of their jobs and become more valuable.
Cal Newport describes deep work as, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
According to Newport, “Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy.“
When I started listening to Newport’s book on Audible, I did a very quick team survey on work habits. The results showed that my team knew focussed work is valuable, they just weren’t making time for it.
Starting My Deep Work Practice
Finishing Newport’s book, I put some of the core ideas into practice. I began blocking off an hour each day and creating my own method to get in the deep work flow:
- Set my Slack status to brain and turn Slack off
- Set my phone on silent and turn it over
- Clean my desk
- Close all my other apps
- Open a fresh Google Doc
- Turn on brain.fm and set it to focus
- Go into deep work mode
I found several things when I started doing this on a regular basis:
- Some tasks I thought were deep work were actually light work. Yes, copying and pasting items from a strategic plan into our project management tool was time consuming but it didn’t require me to really think.
- My deep work tasks help me feel more accomplished. I noticed I was putting off deep thinking tasks because I knew it was going to take a considerable amount of brain power. My lazy brain would much rather copy and paste all day. However, anytime I fight that urge and get into deep work I feel a huge sense of satisfaction. Hurrah, I say to myself. We did that. That wave of satisfaction is such a joy.
- I’m spending more time on large chunks of work that are moving my business forward. Any entrepreneur knows that you can answer emails all day, but that isn’t the work that builds your company.
- It’s getting easier. I’m building a new habit and each time I follow my routine and then delve into deep work my brain is finding it slightly easier. (Although after the Christmas break, I noticed it was almost back to square one!) My brain still tells me I should go get a drink and maybe just send a quick email about that thing I just remembered, but I’m learning to resist these impulses and just say no.
Excited by these changes to my work day, I decided to build these into our company culture. I wanted all of my team to feel this same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Including Deep Work In Our Team Culture
A Deep Work Workshop
I took my team through a presentation I created on Cal Newport’s work. I presented the three arguments for why deep work is important and clarified the definition of deep and light work. Then I broke the group up into teams of two and asked them to:
- Define a list of deep work and lite work for their roles,
- Estimate how much of their days they spend in deep work compared to lite work,
- Challenge each other on their tasks and how they classify them.
As a larger group, we spoke about our roles and where we see our deep and light work activities. Then I took them through the importance of creating a ritual and a routine around their deep work practice. Everyone on the team developed their own routine and ritual to encourage their habit building.
At the end of the session, everyone on the team eagerly agreed to commit to one hour of deep work per day.
Each team member meets with their leader in a weekly one-on-one session. We have a one-page document they update and share. We now include a section on deep work so each team member can share their progress and keep the habit on track.
Quarterly Performance Reviews
At our quarterly performance reviews I’ve also added a new section to our rubrick, affectionately known as a Stanley Kubrick.
By reinforcing this behaviour of deep work, I’m hopeful my team sees the value and feels a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction in their work. I’m getting early positive feedback from my team, so we’ll see what happens after six months.
How Deep Work Has Impacted My Short Attention Span
As for web content, I’m still a skimmer and I think I’ll always be one. After all, most blog content is designed for skimming so I’m going to stop feeling guilty about it. However, I do read one article a month on my phone from Longreads. The writing is brilliant and deserves my full attention.
My email reading is getting much easier. Plus I’ve set aside two blocks of time a day to check my emails. I’m not drip-feed reading them anymore. I don’t feel the pressure to check new messages as they come in. Even this small change has made my email reading time more precise.
The biggest brain difference I notice is in reading novels. My brain has relaxed. It doesn’t feel the urge to hurry up and read quite so quickly. I was proud of myself for not rushing through and finishing the last book of the Imperial Radch series with great speed. I paced myself because I didn’t want it to end. And savouring a good book, as I’ve remembered, is one of the best things in life.
As a founder I’m always looking for the best and healthiest practices to share with my team. Discovering deep work makes me hopeful that we can all savour our work a little more. As for me personally, taking time for deep work has felt like a welcome refuge for my brain.