Sometimes I fantasize about escaping to the mountains. Staying in some quaint little log cabin with no internet access. Just a warm fire, food and the solace of a cool evening breeze dancing across the pines and snow capped peaks.
I envision the mountain solitude as a perfect elixir for the overstimulation and hurly burly of modern day life. A break from the meetings, commitments, emails, texts and social media superficiality. A place where I can trudge out with my easel and paints, to capture whatever natural beauty inspires me.
I suspect a lot of folks dream about similar escapes. Or a time when things were a bit slower paced and more personally gratifying. As much as today's communication technology enables us to do more, it also imprisons us in an endless digital cycle. I wonder what Henry David Thoreau would say about the world we live in today?
I was up early today and swung by Starbucks before heading into work. Just about everyone there had their noses in smart phones. Often that includes me. Because I get sucked into repetitively checking my emails, Facebook and website activity. We've become so conditioned by the immediate access to information and messages that we forget how to shut all that down and be more in the moment.
This last weekend I read an excellent and thought provoking book by Cal Newport, who is an assistant professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University. Cal's new book is titled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. According to Cal's website, here's an overview about the book:
"Deep work is 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. 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. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep—spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way."
Cal's book taught me about shallow versus deep work. Shallow work is stuff like checking our email and returning messages. Deep work is that undisturbed zone where we are intensely focused and most productive. To accomplish deep work, we need to create routines and habits, as well as find places where we can work uninterrupted.
I learned about the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto principle) which states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. I discovered how low-brow activity (watching TV, playing video games and getting lost in social media) gets in the way of rigorous self improvement.
If you want to become a better artist and more productive in your life, you need to embrace deep work. That means training yourself to work intensely for longer gaps of time, without interruption. Creating a fixed schedule, learning to say no and not succumbing to the tyranny of email. Just think how one email can derail your work. Like a request for a meeting date, or thoughts on a project.
Time fragmentation happens when we succumb to all these little interruptions. And yet often, these interruptions are not high priority. Cal Newport asks you to consider if Twitter and Facebook are really helping you attain your goals, or just distracting you.
You get the point. Consider taking a break from social media, or regulating it more. Remember, your calendar and your checkbook say more about how you spend your time than anything. Busy is what happens to you, whereas prioritizing is what you plan to do.
Cultivating a deep work ethic will pay huge dividends on your personal and artistic growth. Imagine setting aside longer, uninterrupted blocks of time to paint, write or pursue your creative passion. Applying the same approach to your day job will make you more productive in less time.
Consider checking email only in the morning and end of the day. Yes, for some jobs this may not be realistic. But you shouldn't be held hostage to other people's expectation of immediate an immediate response.
Embrace deep work. Limit your social media addiction. Paint and write more, for longer periods of time. That's what many of the top artists and writers do to achieve more. While the rest of us are counting "likes" and watching cat videos, they're deeply immersed in their painting and writing and creative pursuits. If we do the same, our art and productivity will grow in leaps and bounds!