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This is part of a series on The Future of Learning and it’s a trend that I’ve noticed often. It’s the idea that some of the more “vintage” skills (philosophy, curating, deep work, making things from scratch) are actually the most relevant in an age of connectivity. 

Last Friday, I had a massive list of projects I needed to work on, so I took my computer upstairs and began working on the edits for a book on student engagement and flow theory. Okay, that was the intention. Instead, I stared at Facebook until I found an interesting click-bait listical that led me to looking up something on Wikipedia. So, I started working on one project, then opened up a new tab and worked on another. This lasted for an hour before I flipped on Netflix for a break. I kept the TV on in the background as I continued to pingpong back and forth between projects, often shifting back into Facebook or Twitter when I was bored.

I contrast that to Thursday, when I got up at five in the morning (with a little help from my coffee) and spent two hours zoned in on writing, before taking my son to school and meeting with my Dean. I spent another hour and a half focused on reflecting on my teaching, writing a blog post, and getting administrative work done as quickly as possible. I met a friend for lunch and then spent another two hours focused on creating a sketchy video. A few times, when I hit a wall creatively, I took a five minute walk over to the creek and back to my office.

So, here’s where it gets odd. Thursday felt like a relaxed day, because I had lunch with a friend and a leisurely meeting with my Dean. Friday felt like a hurried, jam-packed day with no real breaks (even though I had the TV on and I kept going on social media). However, I was far more productive on Thursday. I worked uninterrupted on single projects for two hour segments and hit a general state of flow. Both the quality and the quantity increased.

This is a concept that Cal Newport refers to as “deep work” in his landmark book by the same name (it’s a great read that I highly recommend). It’s what happens when you delve into meaningful, sustained work that requires full cognitive attention. Newport argues that the constant interruptions of email and social media reduce our attention while also increasing cognitive load. This ultimately reduces our ability to get into deep work.

When you engage in deep work, you are more likely to hit a state of flowwhere people hit a place where they are “in the zone.” You feel fully alive, fully connected, and fully focused. Time seems to fly by.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of constant distractions and instant media, where the constant pinging from our devices beckons us from one urgent task to the next. This sense of deep work has become both vital and challenging in a world of incessant distractions. If we want students to become deep thinkers, they need to engage in deep work. If we want them to become makers and philosophers and researchers, they need to have the mental endurance to stick with a task long-term.

Students Are Distracted

When I taught middle school, my students had a hard time staying focused at first. Although we had a few class discussions and the occasional direct instruction, our mix of project-based learning and design thinking meant that students spent the entire class period focused on one larger task and one major project. Many students lacked creative endurance. They struggled to hit a state of flow in their work, so they spent the first week going to YouTube or checking their Instagram feed.

It’s easy to blame the devices. Just take the computers away and you’ll be fine. However, within a few weeks of deeper work, students were editing videos, writing blog posts, and crafting code. They were engaged in deep work. It’s easy to blame social media. However, connectivity is often a great thing. It’s how my students shared their content and sometimes it was the way they engaged in research. It’s easy to blame YouTube. And yet, my students often shared stories of things they were learning because of YouTube. These videos had actually helped them as they engaged in deep work.

The issue isn’t the technology. It’s the way we passively consume it. It’s what happens when you scroll through a feed without choosing to be present. It’s what happens when you binge-watch Netflix as you work. It’s not just the passivity. It’s also the constant barrage of interruptions – the little red numbers that pop up on the phone and the always-open tab beckoning you to watch a cat video.


Seven Ways to Facilitate Deep Work

The following are some of the strategies that I’ve used in facilitating my own deep work.

  1. Do the dreaded work first. I’m not sure where I heard this productivity hack, but it’s turned out to work well for me. I find that one task that I’m dreading and I do it first. This way, it’s not looming in my mind the entire day.
  2. Delete social media from your phone. My friend Chris Wejr is amazingly present when you meet with him. I asked him about it and he said that he deleted Twitter and Facebook from his phone. A few months later, I did the same thing. Now, when I hit a wall at work, I go for a walk instead. Often, these are the moments when I have my best ideas. slack
  3. Choose the right background noise. The research on this is complicated, but ambient noise and white noise can increase productivity and help improve your mood. However, lyrical music and speech (think podcasts or tv shows) can get in the way of deep work. The goal is not always silence. A noisy coffee shop or the pattering of rain can actually promote deep work when the actual silence feels too cold and sterile.
  4. Focus on one project at a time. Multitasking is a myth and a deceptive one at that. What feels like hyper-productivity is actually interrupted productivity. Instead of doing multiple tasks at once, people are switch-tasking and this start-and-stop process prevents you from hitting a state of flow and engaging in deep work.
  5. Take better breaks. There’s some great research out there on how boredom can lead to divergent thinking. It’s no accident that some of your best ideas happen when you are taking a shower, going on a walk, or driving in your car. But too often, when people get bored or frustrated, they jump to social media and they miss out on this slower thinking boredom that they actually need.
  6. Create uninterrupted work time. This can be a challenge, but I’ve found success in having specific time when I work without distraction. My phone is on vibrate. My browser is in incognito mode (so I can’t access email or social media). I work in a quiet space or at a Starbucks, where the white noise works well for me.
  7. Understand the emotional elements of distraction. Often, when I am most distracted, it’s because of my mental state. I am overwhelmed by too many tasks so I don’t do any of them well. I am anxious about an event on the horizon. I am frustrated by hitting a creative wall in a particular project or I’m scared that what I am making will bomb when it reaches an audience. In other words, being afraid, anxious, or overwhelmed will ultimately kill my ability to do deep work.

Notice that many of these items I just mentioned are difficult to manage in a classroom. We have announcements and fire drills and bell schedules breaking up the learning. We can’t control what students have on their devices. However, we can shift from action-packed lessons to larger learning segments that push students to think deeply and engage in deep work. When we embrace  student choice and incorporate design thinking, students learn the art of deep work and ultimately grow as thinkers and makers.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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