Focus is a secret weapon


Cal Newport is a professor at Georgetown who earned his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He’s also the author of six books about how to be successful in high school, college, and a career. And in his recent blog post, he explains that while it’s common for computer programmers to write code that allows computers to perform multiple functions (he calls these “threads”) simultaneously, the human brain operates much differently.

From the “Our Brains Are Not Multi-Threaded:”

“Something I’ve noticed is that many modern knowledge workers approach their work like a multi-threaded computer program. They’ve agreed to many, many different projects, investigations, queries and small tasks, and attempt, each day, to keep advancing them all in parallel by turning their attention rapidly from one to another — replying to an email here, dashing off a quick message there, and so on — like a CPU dividing its cycles between different pieces of code…This is all to say that the closer I look at the evidence regarding how our brains function, the more I’m convinced that we’re designed to be single-threaded, working on things one at a time, waiting to reach a natural stopping point before moving on to what’s next.”

Lesson #7 of my final 31 posts: The best way to produce great work consistently is to eliminate distractions and focus intensely on the job at hand.

“Multi-tasking” has long enjoyed a positive connotation, as if someone who chooses to do multiple things at once is somehow smarter, harder working, more effective, etc.

But the truth is that you produce much better work—and more of it—when you focus intensely on the job at hand and do so without distractions. Newport’s own work and many other research studies have shown that our brains simply aren’t wired to handle multiple inputs at once. Yes, we have the ability to multi-task if we want to. Sometimes we have to do it (if my wife and I didn’t multi-task in the morning we would never get ourselves and our two young kids out the door on time). But when you’re studying, writing, researching, or doing any other work that requires real thinking, asking your brain to do more than one thing is like asking your body to juggle while you jog.

To get the real benefits, you can’t just turn your focus on—you’ve also got to turn your distractions off. Your phone, email, all the literal bells and whistles are like sirens luring your focus away from the work and towards distraction. If you don’t shut them down (even just temporarily so you can get 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted work time), they’ll inevitably interrupt you just when you’re getting into your flow.

If you’re looking to produce better work (or get better grades) in less time, intense focus is a secret weapon. And it’s available to anyone willing to use it.

Here’s a past post sharing Newport’s simple formula for producing high-quality work, another post from Newport on how to apply your focus to studying, and a final one from Eric Barker with four tips from research to help you stop checking your phone.