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.

Start at zero

Students, if you’re constantly feeling frantic, overscheduled, and just plain too busy, try using zero-based budgeting to allocate your expenses of time.

Traditional budgeting presumes that whatever you spent money on last quarter or last year belongs in your new budget. If you spent $500 last year on your cell phone bill, you assume that you’ll once again spend that same money, maybe even a little more, this year.

But zero-based budgeting starts from scratch. It forces you to scrutinize every proposed expense, both new and old. Is there a cheaper cell phone plan? Could you take steps to decrease the monthly cost? Do you even need a cell phone at all? Zero-based budgeting asks those questions. And starting at zero often leads to new, more informed decisions.

If you analyzed all your time expenditures, would they pass the zero-based budgeting scrutiny?

That time you spend reading and replying to comments on your social media?

The test-prep you’re doing again in the hopes of raising your score just a bit more?

That recurring club meeting you attend every Tuesday?

The twice-a-week trigonometry tutoring to boost you from your B+ to an A-?

Sometimes just asking the question leads to more efficient spending.

Remember, zero-based budgeting doesn’t presume or recommend the criteria to evaluate your expenses. It only requires that you re-examine and decide again. You might decide that the 45 minutes a day you spend watching YouTube videos is worth the expense because you enjoy it, because there’s no measuring or stress associated, or because you’re guaranteed to laugh or learn or just flat-out have fun. If so, it’s earned a place in your budget. But you don’t spend it again just because you’ve spent it before. It has to pass the scrutiny of zero-based budgeting first.

There really are only 24 hours in a day, and many of them are already spoken for. Sleeping, eating, attending school, homework–plenty of line items will be in your budget simply because you cannot take them out without consequences you can’t afford. But you get to decide how to allocate those expenditures of time that you do control. If you’re finding yourself spending that time simply because you’ve always spent if before, take a new approach and start at zero.

Back-to-school tips for parents and students

Parents, as your kids head back to school, consider investing 50 minutes listening to this interview with Denise Pope (senior lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success) about how to raise well-balanced kids who are engaged in their learning. If you’d prefer the bullet-point version, here are Challenge Success’s “Top Ten Back-to-School Tips to Help Your Child Thrive.”

And here’s a past post of mine, “Back to school: greatest hits edition,” with links to advice for parents, high school students, and college students.

On intellectual humility

Some of the most desirable traits a student can demonstrate during high school aren’t measured by a grade or test score. And in fact, some might even seem confusingly at odds with boosting college admissions candidacy. Intellectual humility is a prime example.

Students receive the message early in their high school careers that intellectual strength, achievement, and even mastery are what set you apart. Get top grades. Earn academic honors or awards. Secure strong letters of recommendation. This is how you show colleges that you’ve got the intellectual rigor to handle the workload. It feels incongruous to suggest that students should also be open and honest about what they don’t know, and that their awareness of those subjects or topics they don’t have a firm (or any) grasp on actually shows strength of mind, not a shortcoming of it.

But students, remember that colleges are institutions of higher learning. You’re there to expand, challenge, and nourish your mind. And much like the person who walks up to a buffet eager to feed their appetite, the student who walks into college eager to feed their mind is a lot more likely to take advantage of the boundless intellectual spread in front of them.

So don’t be afraid to demonstrate that humility. Ask questions in class. Seek further understanding beyond just earning a grade. Demonstrate in your college applications that your intellectual abilities don’t outpace your willingness to admit what you don’t know.

You can’t possibly know everything, and colleges don’t expect that of you. But a healthy dose of humility shows that you’re eager to use all those abilities in pursuit of knowledge you don’t currently have.

Here are two past posts of mine, here and here, on intellectual humility. And if you’d like some help developing this trait, Dan Pink just shared a two-minute video that might help.

Rested is resilient

Positive psychologists Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielen share this snippet in their recent Harvard Business Review piece, “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure”:

“The misconception of resilience is often bred from an early age. Parents trying to teach their children resilience might celebrate a high school student staying up until 3AM to finish a science fair project. What a distortion of resilience! A resilient child is a well-rested one. When an exhausted student goes to school, he risks hurting everyone on the road with his impaired driving; he doesn’t have the cognitive resources to do well on his English test; he has lower self-control with his friends; and at home, he is moody with his parents. Overwork and exhaustion are the opposite of resilience. And the bad habits we learn when we’re young only magnify when we hit the workforce.”

And for any naysayers who dismiss that advice as leaving our kids unprepared for a competitive world, you might note that Achor and Gielen earned their graduate degrees from two of the most selective universities in the world, Harvard and UPenn respectively.

How to beat cell phone distraction

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of six books ranging from study skills tips for high school and college students to the role intense focus plays in producing great work, and most recently, the New York Times bestseller Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In this 2 ½ minute video interview with Dan Pink, Newport shares three tips to prevent our phones from becoming a distraction.

While I know very few adults my age or younger who would not benefit from these tips, the evidence is piling up that technological distractions—along with the accompanying social pressures—are having significantly detrimental effects on teens in the form of diminished attention spans, altered cognitive development, and increased rates of depression and anxiety.

I can imagine people of all ages dismissing some or all of the tips as being impractical or even impossible. But the truth is that constant connectivity is a comparatively new expectation. It wasn’t all that long ago that everyone somehow found a way to survive being unreachable unless they were near a landline. I won’t call for a return to those days as I think it’s safe to say the world has changed. But with the possible exception of those for whom being unreachable could carry serious or tragic implications, just about everyone in the developed world with the means to own a smartphone could probably benefit from allowing it to distract you a little less often.

Classroom comradery

This week, I had the opportunity to spend an entire day training the managers from one college’s admissions office. We’ve spent a lot of time at Collegewise developing our management philosophy, training and programming, and I was really excited about the opportunity to share it. But I also had some trepidation. Professional development sessions can be tricky. You don’t know the people, the dynamics, or the particular challenges they’re facing. In fact, you don’t even know if the audience actually wants to be there, as they’re often not given the choice.

But almost within the first five minutes, it was clear this group showed up happy to be there and eager to learn. They asked great questions. They were open and honest about the challenges they’re facing. They even asked if we could stay an extra hour to talk about how they could best start implementing what we’d just spent the day covering.

And that attitude, that eagerness, that willingness to lean in and do their part to extract value from the time they were spending created an important transformation: it made me a better presenter. Their energy refueled my energy throughout the nine hours we spent together. Both sides giving so much created a classroom comradery, a feeling that we were in this together and committed to making it count.

It’s tempting for students to evaluate their educational experiences based only on the teacher. But that’s only one side of the learning equation. What are you bringing and sharing when you show up? What are you doing to create that classroom comradery? How are you coaxing even more benefit?

Here are two past posts on how to do just that, one about things teachers notice about you, and another about the intangible elements of classroom performance. I hope they help you create more classroom comradery and benefit even more from the time you’re spending learning.

The choices are all yours

Height is decided for you. Whether you view yours as a gift, a curse, or an unremarkable trait, your DNA has already made its decision. You get no say.

But punctuality, reliability, empathy, honesty, flexibility, respect, effort, trust, curiosity, initiative, passion…

Those are choices we all get to make. Some of us may have more natural inclination in some areas. And some have had the good fortune to be exposed to positive examples who showed us what those elements look like in practice.

But these are not traits. They’re choices, and each of us gets to make them. Every day, with every project, with every interaction.

Instead of lamenting that you’re too short for the basketball team, or not a good standardized test taker, or not mathematical or artistic or musical enough, think more about the choices you still get to make and where you can best apply them.

Genes are decided for you. But the choices are all yours.

Legal (and free) performance enhancement

Justin Verlander, a pitcher for the Houston Astros, throws a fastball well over 90 miles an hour. He’s an eight-time All-Star, winner of the 2011 American League M.V.P. and Cy Young Awards, and he helped pitch his team to a Word Series title in 2017.

One of his self-professed secrets to his success? Sleep. Verlander regularly sleeps as many as 10 hours a night. And he so vocally champions others doing the same that he’s become his teammates’ unofficial sleep consultant, as profiled here. It certainly seems like he’s onto something–even beyond his personal performance. When the team’s third baseman took Verlander’s advice and started sleeping more, he went from struggling to get on base to hitting 30 home runs.

Sometimes Verlander sleeps more than 10 hours. Sometimes, less. He listens to his body and lets it tell him how much sleep he needs.

Neomi Shah, a sleep medicine doctor at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York who’s quoted in the article, says this about sleep:

“It’s a legal way to improve athletic performance. . .and it goes beyond it, too, in terms of better well-being and an ability to make decisions.”

If it has that effect on a professional athlete, what effect could it have on you?

Happier if you do

Dóra Guðmundsdóttir studies happiness and well-being at the population level. Her research uncovers how different groups within a country are faring and helps policymakers understand the needs of their citizens. And her work uncovered something interesting that might be a good lesson for both parents and students, as related in “What We Can Learn About Happiness from Iceland,” a recent piece in Greater Good Magazine:

“When we studied the effects of the banking system collapse in Iceland, we found that happiness among adolescents went up after the collapse, even though the happiness levels of adults went down. That’s because after the collapse, adults were working fewer hours, which meant parents had more time to spend with their adolescents. As it became easier for the adolescents to get emotional support from their parents, their happiness increased, even though working less may have resulted in a lower GDP [Gross Domestic Product] for the country.”

It’s worth mentioning that her research also found those who have trouble making ends meet have the lowest happiness score of all groups, so I don’t believe the intent of that insight is to encourage parents to ignore their jobs entirely to focus on their kids.

But what I found interesting was that there was no mention of parents having more time to manage homework, secure tutors, or drive other educational outcomes. They simply provided more “emotional support.” And while that support is undefined in this article, my guess would be that asking thoughtful questions, listening to the answers, and even just spending quality time together is a good start.

And teens, if your parents were to make themselves available to support you in ways that have nothing to do with preparing for the ACT, would you walk through that door? Will you give them more than the universal teen one-word answer? Will you actually tell them what’s on your mind, where you need advice, or what they could do to support you?

Research shows you’ll be happier if you do.