Before COVID-19 put an entirely new spin on things, I was reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer science professor. My interest in his work peaked with an interview on the podcast Hidden Brain. Simply put, Newport argues that distraction-free concentration – deep work– rewards us with new ideas and skills. Lowering the background hum of emails, texts, and social media gives life more meaning. I like the sound of that.
Deeply influential individuals, from Carl Jung to Bill Gates, employed these deep work practices achieving considerable success. Their professional breakthroughs hinged on time to focus, uninterrupted by shallow activities – looking at emails, surfing the net, that kind of thing. Undoubtedly Bill Gates continues to think deeply. I’m counting on his focus on global pandemics.
It should be obvious we need time to focus but we live in an increasingly distracted world surprisingly even when sheltering in place. Frenetic busyness is prevalent with our multi-tasking, attention switching from email to text back to whatever we were doing. Do we catch ourselves wondering what we were doing?
Our shift to the shallow, Newport argues, comes at a cost to productivity and quality interpersonal relationships. We need depth of focus to understand complicated things like a novel, life threatening coronavirus, or high-quality time with people we care about. Scientists searching for therapeutics and a vaccine to tackle the coronavirus exemplify this single-minded focus. Our political leadership can be a clashing contrast to deep work, too often peddling shallow fixes. on.
How can we avoid shallow thinking particularly during this time when we’re confined to home and don’t see a way forward?
Newport invites us to embrace a philosophy of digital minimalism. Use technology discretely and mindfully to support what you value. Let go of all the rest. Avoid defaulting to social media in a mind-numbing way.
While we may desire connection, a digital “like” is no substitute for a phone call or video chat in which we hear tone or see facial expressions. In Reclaiming Conversation, sociologist Sherry Turkle contends we’ve accepted connection – the digital nudges, text threads, and emails – as equivalent to face to face, nuanced conversation. And the more we engage in low value connection, the less we pursue high value conversation. Sometimes scrolling down Facebook can make you lonelier.
Put your smartphone down and go outdoors without it. Bust that habit (makes me nervous thinking about it). Former start-up founder Tristan Harris describes the smart phone as a “slot machine” with every ping diverting us to look and think “what did I get?” Listen to the sounds of nature, the sound of your breath. Pay attention to each step you take on a walk. Thoreau once said, “The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”