CN: Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make “quick checks” of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.
TH: You outline the four rules of deep work in your book, which I think is a great place to start for someone who’s just learning about these ideas. Let’s go through them. What is the first rule of deep work, and how do I apply it to my life?
CN: The first rule is to “work deeply.” The idea here is that if you want to successfully integrate more deep work into your professional life, you cannot just wait until you find yourself with lots of free time and in the mood to concentrate. You have to actively fight to incorporate this into your schedule. It helps, for example, to include deep work blocks on my calendar like meetings or appointments and then protect them as you would a meeting or appointment.
TH: And that has a lot to do with habit formation vs. willpower, too, right?
CN: Right. Deep work is demanding, and our brains, which are evolved to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure, therefore try to avoid it if possible. We’re simply not evolved to give concentration the same priority that we might give to evading a charging lion. Therefore, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You need all the help you can get to trick yourself into getting started with this activity.
TH: So, great, we’ve got a strategy to build habits around deep work and to actually do it. What’s rule two?
CN: The second rule is to “embrace boredom.” The broader point here is that the ability to concentrate is a skill that you have to train if you expect to do it well. A simple way to get started training this ability is to frequently expose yourself to boredom. If you instead always whip out your phone and bathe yourself in novel stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom, your brain will build a Pavlovian connection between boredom and stimuli, which means that when it comes time to think deeply about something (a boring task, at least in the sense that it lacks moment-to-moment novelty), your brain won’t tolerate it.
TH: Which is a perfect segue into your third rule of deep work.
CN: The third rule is to “quit social media.” The basic idea is that people need to be way more intentional and selective about what apps and services they allow into their digital lives. If you only focus on possible advantages, you’ll end up, like so many of us today, with a digital life that’s so cluttered with thrumming, shiny knots of distraction pulling at our attention and manipulating our moods that we end up a shell of our potential. In “Deep Work,” I introduced this idea mainly to help professionals protect their ability to focus, but it hit a nerve, and eventually evolved into the popular digital minimalism movement that I’ve been writing about more recently.