How to focus in an age of digital distraction

‘Monk mornings’, work sprints and withdrawal from social media helped Benedict Probst become hugely more productive

October 29, 2019
deleting facebook app from mobile phone
Source: Getty (edited)

Four years ago, I was working on a master’s assignment in the library of the London School of Economics. This is a place that offers almost perfect conditions for studying: no one talks, and nothing happens outside the window, except the occasional bird flying by.

Yet I found it impossible to focus. The distraction was in my pocket. What if one of my WhatsApp messages needed urgent attention while I was wasting my time on a climate change assignment?

Many of my friends reported similar feelings. “Whenever it gets too hard,” one told me, “I just take a quick digital break.” But this constant switching between tasks comes at a cost to concentration, which researchers call “attention residue”. In one study, it took participants around 15 minutes to get back to their original task after a digital interruption.

My response was to develop an approach that I call “deep agility”. This combines two powerful approaches (deep working and agile working) to boost concentration while keeping the process fun and flexible. It helped me to graduate top of my class at the LSE and to produce seven papers during my PhD at the University of Cambridge while not working past 7pm during the week and never at weekends.

It all started during a winter break, when I stumbled upon Deep Work, a book by Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport proposes that the ability to work deeply – on hard problems over extended periods of time – is critical to success in academia and elsewhere, but is eroded by digital technologies. His bold remedy: quit social media.

After reading the book over a week in the mountains, I returned to 500 unread WhatsApp messages. So I deleted WhatsApp. I also scrapped my Facebook account, which had more than 2,000 “friends”. More recently, I left Twitter.

It took my brain some time to readjust from years of constant distraction. Whenever I hit a mental roadblock, I was accustomed to turning to my phone, or checking my emails. Yet these moments are critical for learning hard skills, such as advanced programming. So I tried to put Newport’s advice into action: “Do not take breaks from distraction. Take breaks from focus.”

I installed Focus, a Mac app that blocks access to email and other time-killers, such as YouTube and news sites. I deleted the email app from my phone and deactivated all notifications from the remaining apps. I also told friends that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response.

That allowed me to immerse myself in what I call “monk mornings”: four hours of uninterrupted focus between 8am and 12pm that set the tone for the rest of the day. A 10-minute meditation session before starting helped to further sharpen my mind.

Yet embracing deep work risks isolation. And labouring in solitude might not be compatible with a normal office environment, even for PhD students. This is where agile working comes in.

This emphasises flexible project management, work sprints and quick feedback cycles. Instead of trying to specifically plan when to finish research tasks, I continuously pool all of them in Trello, a free piece of organisational software. I put them into categories depending on urgency. I also keep a “done” list; also known as burn charts, these give you a good feeling as you survey everything you’ve already done.

As it is difficult to exactly plan how long it will take to complete a specific sub-task, I use work sprints to make as much progress as possible on them in a set period of uninterrupted time. I aim to have 10 30-minute sprints per day, which I track with the Be Focused timer. After each sprint, the timer automatically gives you five minutes to rest, and the sprints’ relatively short duration reduces the willpower needed to get started.

Time limits force you to work with utmost concentration and to focus on the things that really matter. For instance, at the LSE I went to the university library without a laptop charger, which gave me only around four hours before my battery died. Stopping all screen activity at 7pm and focusing on friends, sports and other enjoyable things helped me to refuel for the next day.

Quick iteration is another important element of agile work. In his excellent book The Lean PhD, Julian Kirchherr – an academic at Utrecht University – recommends focusing on “minimum viable products”, which in the context of academia are papers that contain the main analysis but are rough in all other aspects, such as literature review and conclusion. For instance, for one paper that is currently under review at Nature Energy, I wrote a, frankly, quite messy first draft in less than two weeks and got quick feedback on it from my supervisors. This not only sped up the process of finalising it for submission, but also allowed me to focus on the most important elements. Not all supervisors are happy to provide feedback so early in the process, but other colleagues or collaborators may be.

Deep agility might not be for everyone, but it has not only transformed my own practice: friends have also reported huge improvements in their productivity by employing these same ideas in their PhDs.

In her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, the journalist Winifred Gallagher says: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.” My own experience couldn’t bear that out more emphatically.

Benedict Probst is a PhD student at the Cambridge Centre for Environment, Energy and Natural Resource Governance at the University of Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (2)

Just the things I am saying to final year project students: find a block of time and dedicate that to your project work, when working on the project focus on that to the exclusion of all else... the image I always have is of a fellow I saw in Turkey a few years ago, standing all by himself in the courtyard of a mosque. He'd unrolled his prayer mat and taken his shoes off, and was standing gathering his thoughts and focussing in on what he was about to do: say his prayers. You could feel the concentration, how everything else was being set aside. That's the sort of focus students need to develop. Single-minded on the task at hand, but only for however long it takes to accomplish that task. Then switch that focus to the next thing that you want to do.
Is the app Focus still available - is 'Focus' the complete title? I can't find it.


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