One of the introvert’s core skills is the ability to think and work deeply. But what happens when you lose it?
I was sitting in my living room late in the evening with the lights down low, doing something that I had not done for a long time: listening to music with no other distractions. I took a sip of wine and looked across at my partner slumbering in her armchair. I smiled contentedly. My change in lifestyle was paying off. I had just had the most productive day in living memory. I had finished all my planned tasks by 5:30 p.m. and managed to spend some quality time with my family.
This was a dramatic change to the preceding months of working late into the night, day after day, on a never-ending quest to keep up with slipping deadlines. For some time now, I’d had the feeling that I was losing my professional touch. Despite many years of experience as a technical writer, I couldn’t seem to stick to a deadline anymore. The quality of my work was slipping, and I had stopped taking the initiative.
Something had gone wrong, but now my life was back on track, and it was due to just one thing — focus. I had rediscovered my one core skill, the ability to think and work deeply.
Introverts Excel at Deep Work
As introverts, many of us have the ability to think deeply about things. We hate the trivial and can dive deeply into a subject and understand its essence. Swiss researcher Corinne Stauffer and her associates reported as much in Psychology Today. They found introverts to be more sensitive to incoming information, and also able to expend more mental effort by analyzing that stimulation more deeply and carefully.
The introvert’s skill of deep analysis is valuable to an employer, but many companies do not recognize its worth. For example, Cathy Caprino writing in Forbes describes how as an ambivert manager, she had negative views about introverts in the workplace until she was forced to confront the difficulties faced by her introverted son at college. As further proof, just look at job postings: Many include the phrase “team player,” but I have yet to see an ad that required a “deep thinker.” The ability to do deep work is becoming a rare skill, something that, as deep thinkers, we should be able to use for our career advancement in the years to come.
As introverts, if we are to be successful and happy in our lives, we need to understand and value our strengths, even if our acquaintances do not see it. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Carl Newport explains it well, writing, “To build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”
In other words, the opportunity to perform deep work is not just about being productive on the job — it’s also about leading a satisfying life.
Deep Work Is Central to an Introvert’s Wellbeing
At first, working from home due to Covid-19 seemed like an introvert’s dream come true. But a few weeks in, and I had lost my ability to concentrate. If I was to get myself back on track, I needed to understand why. Like many introverts, because of heightened sensitivity to sensory input, I am easily distracted by noise and interruptions. But I was no longer working in a noisy open-plan office, so that didn’t explain why I had so dramatically lost the ability to focus.
Once again, it was Carl Newport who gave me the answer: “The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. That is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit.”
In other words, our ability to do deep work is constantly being undermined by the instant gratification provided by network tools and social media.
I now understood that the number one cause of my lack of concentration was the continuous availability of social media. Not only because it was a distraction during my working hours, but because my brain was being trained to seek instant gratification at every moment of effort. Rather than remaining with a problem, I could get immediate relief by scrolling through Facebook or looking at pictures on Instagram.
What Exactly Is Deep Work?
Let’s be clear about what we mean by deep work.
Deep work — Tasks that create great value. These are professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.
Shallow work — Tasks that create little value. These are logistical or minor duties performed in a state of distraction; work that requires little cognitive effort and is usually easy to replicate: replying to emails, looking at websites, using social media, filling out forms, and sitting passively in meetings.
Many of us spend our days in shallow work. It creates the feeling of being busy, but it is not highly productive. In my experience, two hours spent in deep, concentrated work achieves more than a full day in shallow work. My current target is to achieve five hours of deep work every day.
The loss of the ability to do deep work affects all personality types, but for many of us introverts, for whom it is central to our wellbeing, the loss can be disastrous. Here are six things I’ve done that will help you do the deep work that will make you feel better.
6 Steps to Regain Your Focus and Do Deep Work
1. Plan your day around periods of deep work or study.
Wherever you work — at home, in an office, or in the library — make sure you have periods in the day where you can work undisturbed. Ignore shallow work, such as checking emails or texting during the deep work session. If you need to think about a difficult problem, stick with it. Keep your thoughts focused on the job at hand and resist the temptation to alleviate the boredom with social media.
2. Develop deep work as a habit.
Don’t use social media as a palliative against moments of boredom. This will not only waste time and destroy your concentration for the job at hand, but it will also train your brain to seek easy outlets when faced with a challenge. Your ability to work deeply will be harmed.
3. Always use a to-do list.
Unfinished items and things you know you need to do take energy and focus. Develop a to-do list, and put these items on it and out of your head while you are doing your focused work. As David Allen describes in his book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: “There is usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.”
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4. Set aside periods for shallow work.
Get into the habit of ignoring your emails and text messages during periods of deep work. Set a time during the day to check emails. For example, you could check your email twice a day at midday and late afternoon. Educate your colleagues that if they need you urgently, they need to call you on the phone.
5. Reduce your time on social media or superficial websites.
Your brain must break its dependency on the social media quick fix. I have stopped using Twitter and Instagram, and check Facebook only in the evening after my work is finished. These restrictions were hard at first, but now my brain doesn’t want to jump to a distraction when I come up against a hard problem.
6. Hone your willpower.
Changing your working habits to develop a deep work style will require willpower to resist the constant temptations of social media, emails, and texts. According to the American Psychological Association, willpower is a limited resource. It can be compared to a muscle that grows tired with use. So start with short periods of deep work, and remove as many temptations as possible. For example, you could keep your cell phone in the next room to avoid wasting valuable willpower “muscle” on resisting the temptation to check your messages.
The ability to think and work deeply is a precious gift, one that is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in a world of superficial communication. This skill, common among introverts, must be protected and nurtured. Your employer, teachers, or clients may not appreciate or recognize this as a skill but they will value its outcome — quality work.
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- The 4 Most Stressful Work Situations for Introverts, Illustrated
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