As the expression paying attention suggests, when you focus, you’re spending limited cognitive currency that should be wisely invested, because the stakes are high. – Winifred Gallagher, Rapt
After nearly a decade of doing creative work for a living, I’ve found that activities requiring depth, focus, and attention produce a much higher ROI than those that require shallowness.
Attention is the currency of achievement.
Shallowness and Distraction vs. Focus and Depth
Everything you do has an opportunity cost. When you decide to stop doing something and check social media or email, the opportunity cost is a loss of depth, focus, and concentration. You get the temporary buzz from looking at your inbox or seeing who has responded to your latest status update.
With depth, we experience a different kind of joy, a kind that sustains carries, and inspires us to put pen to paper, brush to canvas, and commit to the expression of our soul’s calling whatever form that might take. In a state of depth we create great art, build billion dollar empires and make our dent in the universe. In a state of shallowness, we spectate instead of create; we’re on the sidelines instead of in the game.
The profound paradox of sources of distraction is that it takes depth to build them, but we’re able to use them in a state of frenetic revved up shallowness. We can spend our days in a state of fulfilling depth, or unfulfilling shallowness. The latter gives us the temporary illusion of satisfaction. But the nothing of great significance results from operating a frenetic state of shallowness.
Intensity of Focus is More Important Than Time Spent
Every day we have hundreds of things that compete for our attention: emails, text messages and social media are the tip of the iceberg. The internet can quickly become an infinite portal into more and more sources of distraction. In spite of this, we are achieving levels of human performance unlike any other time in history.
- Billion dollar companies are starting from garages and dorm rooms.
- Artists are pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible by doing crazy shit like building ladders into the sky with fireworks.
- Action sports athletes are achieving superhuman feats like riding 100-foot waves.
What’s causing all of this?
A few days ago, I had run out of new books to read. So, looked through the shelf to see which one of my books might be worth reading again. The book was Deep Work by Cal Newport. What sparked the idea for part of the post was an equation that he mentioned in the book.
High-Quality Work = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus
You could choose to either increase the time spent. Or increase the intensity of focus. Let’s look at this through the lens of some simple math.
1 (Time Spent) x 10 (Intensity of Focus) = 10 (Rating for the Quality of Work)
1 (Time Spent) x 5 (Intensity of Focus) = 5 (Rating for the Quality of Work)
Working in a state of depth is clearly more efficient and leads to better results. As the intensity of focus increases, you get exponential gains in output. Intensity of focus results in presence, and presence amplifies performance.
Building an Environment That Intensifies Focus
If you want to achieve any result in your life, you have to design an environment that is conducive to the person you want to become. If you try to use willpower, there’s a good chance you’ll fail. If you’ve ever sat down to work on something and found yourself scrolling through Facebook 10 minutes later, you’ve experienced the ineffectiveness of willpower. The environment will always win.
When I wake up in the morning, one of the first things I do is use the Calm app to mediate. So I have to use my phone. After that, I turn on my noise cancellation headphones, put a techno track on repeat, and put my phone in my closet.
I always read before I write often end up writing about the things I read. After turning on my computer, I use Rescuetime to block distractions for 90 minutes. Then I write until I hit my word count for the day.
Training Your Attention Span
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t require monk-like discipline. You can train it throughout the day.
Leave your Phone in your Car when you have to wait in line somewhere: Distraction is habitual. Checking our phones while we are waiting in line anywhere has become our default. When we do this, we keep training our brain to believe that we can’t go more than five minutes without checking our phones. Leaving your phone in your car is a forced mediation of sorts. You’re training your attention span to resist reaching for your phone every single time you feel bored.
In an age of constant assaults on your attention, sanity requires that you tune out of many of them, beginning with those from your own communications devices. However, it’s not easy to resist the enticing call of these machines to protect your experience and relationships from the businesslike expectations they impose. – Winifred Gallagher,
Turn Your Devices Off For a Set Amount of Time Each Day: Turning off your devices is the most effective way to create a truly distraction-free environment. Because everything is turned off, your attention can’t keep shifting from one stimulus to another. I try to turn my devices off between 7 and 9 pm. As a result, I sleep better, and my focus is much sharper the next morning.
Meditation: I’ve written extensively in previous articles about the benefits of meditation. But after a 17-day streak using the Calm App, I’m convinced of the profound impact that mediation has on attention span. Of course, this requires a bit more effort than the ideas above.
Rather than attempting lengthy periods of meditation, start small. Being with 2 minutes. After that attempt 5 minutes. Keep increasing it until you reach a point where you really start to feel the impact of it on your attention span. On the day I wrote this section that you’re reading, I’d reached 15 minutes. In about 90 minutes, I read over 100 pages and wrote more than 1500 words. That’s not a bad ROI for 15 minutes of sitting with your eyes closed.
These “micro interventions” quickly add up. The little things we do repeatedly lead to big changes in our lives.
A distraction-free environment opens us up to the benefits that emerge from what Cal Newport refers to as deep work.
Deep Work Rewires the Brain
Sometime last year I was on a snowboarding trip with a friend from college. He said that it seemed as if my attention span had improved over the last several years. As an interviewer, paying attention, and genuinely listening has been integral to my creative process. As a writer, I repeat a deep work ritual almost every day.
“When we go through some struggle to learn a new instrument, learn a new language, learn a new behavior, we then forge a new neural pathway. The more we work on that new behavior and move through discomfort, the myelination process occurs. Think about an electrical wire that has a coating on it. Myelin takes that new behavior and neural pathway and takes it from dial-up to broadband”- Christine Comaford
Given the above, it’s not surprising that my attention span has improved. Doing deep work literally rewires your brain.
Deep Work Improves Performance
As someone who graduated college with a 2.97 GPA and got fired from almost every job I ever had, I’m not exactly the kind of person anybody would label as focused, disciplined and persistent. But as an author, I had no choice but to develop these habits, traits, and mindsets.
Depth is the precursor to flow and flow is the precursor to becoming a master of your craft.
Deep Work Makes us Happier
This might be the most underrated and overlooked value that comes from spending our days in a state of depth. In a state of depth, we’re present. We’re not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. We’re not inundated by the noise of notifications, the sentences of status updates and erosion of our attention which gets scattered across the shallow and insignificant. The joy that comes from depth makes our work more meaningful and improves the quality of our lives, both personally and professionally. This kind of depth makes it easy to honor your commitments, show up consistently, and attempt to do the greatest work of your life.
1. We all have parts of the day when we’re at our best
This is something that is unique to each of us. I’m at my best right after I wake up in the morning. If I check email or social media first thing in the morning, it will completely derail my day.
Consider someone like Gretchen Rubin. It’s clear that depth is an integral part of her life. After all, she’s written four books. But she has to check her emails and social media before she does any writing.
Why does this work? For some people, open loops like emails that require a response, divert their attention. Closing open loops enables them to focus on the task at hand more easily. Sometimes unconventional wisdom on habits and happiness leads to our best work.
Just be careful that you don’t delude yourself into believing something is truly important when it’s just urgent.
Diminishing returns is a concept that comes from the world of economics. At a certain point, the same input doesn’t produce the same output. Not all hours of the day are created equal. This is why the first 3 hours of your day really can dictate how your life turns out.
What we know from Roy Baumeister’s work is that every decision we make depletes our willpower. If we spend that willpower on the shallow and meaningless, we won’t be able to preserve it for what’s deep and meaningful.
I read and write first thing in the morning because I know these two activities require the greatest level of depth and willpower.
As you’re building a schedule for how you’re going to work, rank your activities in order of their depth and willpower requirements.
The Currency of Attention
Our attention is something we have in limited supply. But we spend it as if our supply is infinite, letting it shift from one stimulus to another, clicking, scrolling, surfing and responding until we’ve depleted it. We wonder why we can’t get anything done when we’ve pissed away the very currency that makes our accomplishments possible. If we spent our money as frivolously as we spend our attention, it’s likely we’d end up homeless. The infinite supply of attention is an illusion designed to keep you updating your status, uploading pictures, and scrolling through your newsfeed.
Unlike other forms of currency, attention works in a paradox.
Let’s say that you have 10 units of attention at the beginning of each day. Your shallowest work costs you 10 units of attention. Your deepest work costs you 1 unit of attention. If you waste all of it on shallow work, you won’t have any left for deep work.
One last lens that we can look at this through is revenue. Just as not all hours of the day are created equal, not all tasks are created equal in terms of their dollar value. To drive home the point, let’s use absurd extremes.
Deep Work = $1000 per hour
Shallow Work = $1per hour
Two hours doing deep work will net you $2000.00. Eight hours of shallow work give you $8.00. If you’re interested in maximizing your earnings, it’s an obvious choice. This is what Cal Newport refers to as attention capital theory:
In modern knowledge work, the primary capital resource is human brains; or, more specifically, these brains’ ability to create new value through sustained attention.
The Multiple Costs of Distraction
The cost of shallowness is far higher than a loss in productivity and erosion of our attention span. It costs us our happiness and well being. Focused on the highlight reels of everyone else’s life it becomes impossible to appreciate our own because the attention required for such gratitude has already been spent.
Without the capacity for depth, we lose our ability to contemplate and reflect and overlook the fact that our boredom often contains the seeds for our brilliance.
It’s in our so-called boredom that we travel to those liminal spaces, unpaved roads, and uncharted waters, where everything is an unknown and anything is possible. This is the place where our most provocative, resonant and impactful work emerges. When we lose our capacity for depth, we lose our humanity.
In economics, supply and demand determine the price. If the supply of something is limited and the demand for it is high the price skyrockets. Our Attention is clearly worth A LOT considering it’s made the people who have built our biggest sources of distraction extremely wealthy.
If attention is our currency for achievement, we should be more mindful of how we spend it.
As you give up shallowness for depth, what mildly entertains you will lose its appeal and be replaced by something that deeply absorbs you. Something that makes the world around you disappear and time stand still and fly by simultaneously. You plant the seeds for a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that will carry you and be life sustaining. The work itself becomes your reward, and you’ll experience the joy that emerges from expressing your creativity, even if the only person who benefits from it is you, even if it’s for an audience of one.
When we cultivate our capacity for depth, we open up the gateway to a rich inner and outer life. We ignite pathways to our imagination and curiosity. Rather than traveling through the world around us at warp speed, we become more engaged with it, letting our conversations linger until we’re the only people left in a restaurant or it’s the last call at our favorite bar.
Looking back at my most profound and most meaningful conversations, hundreds of books I’ve read, and two that I’ve written, at the heart of it all is this precious currency of attention.
When I was studying abroad in Brazil in 2008, smartphones had not become ubiquitous. I’d sit with my friends at a long slow dinner, laughing and living, between beers and caipirinhas until four hours had passed.
While there was many a drunken night, on which we stumbled out of a bar at sunrise, it was in those long slow dinners that we cemented the bonds of our friendships.
Attention does more than enable us to achieve. It allows us to connect, engage with the world around and revel in those simple words from one of the iconic philosophers of our time, Ferriss Bueller:
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.
Gain an Unfair Creative Advantage
I’ve created a swipe file of my best creative strategies. Follow it and you’ll kill your endless distractions, do more of what matters to you, in higher quality and less time. Get the swipe file here.