How long can you concentrate? According to a research, an average human being can only hold the attention for up to 8 seconds in 2013, even shorter than a goldfish. With this kind of attention span, it’s very hard to get any creative work done. So that’s why we need a Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport to tell us how to do intensive, creative work in today’s distracted world. And he writes a whole book on it: Deep Work.

So, how to do deep work?

  1. Be focus, drown out the “shallow” activities like browsing facebook, mindlessly watching youtube videos. The reason is that the cost of task switching is high. If you jump from task to task, all these context switching will take a toll on your attention span– the previous task will still linger on your mind, AKA “attention residue”, and you won’t be able to get anything meaningful done.
  2. Commit to a schedule. You must set aside a time and a place to do your creative work. During this time, shut off your phone, allows no distraction. This is to prepare your mind for the battle ahead: “no more playing, time to focus!”
  3. Say “No” liberally. Reserve your “Yes” to the most important tasks only.
  4. Embrace boredom. Don’t try to fill your every single waking second with excitement or distraction or work. Your brain needs constant resting in order to come up with breakthrough ideas. Your brain needs downtime.

The last point deserves some elaboration. Brain is just like muscles, that needs constant exercise and equally important, nutrition and recharge. A lot of times when I was thinking hard about a task and I couldn’t break through the mental block, all I had to do at that point was to get up from my desk and took a walk, and then the solution usually just presented itself.

There were also times that when I was so fed up with a problem, that I vowed to never touch it again, and then the next day an idea just came and I was able to solve the problem instantly. A good night rest usually does the job well.

Your capacity for deep work for any given day is limited to only a few hours. For a lot of people, it is like only 4 hours. Which makes the whole 8 hour a workday a not sensible idea especially for creative workers like programmers.

In IT, total number of hours is no longer a good yardstick to measure the productivity of a creative worker. As a programmer myself I can attest to this fact. By any measure, the code that I churn out at the end of my day is not as good as the code I write when I am just starting: I write less code with more errors in it. It’s safe to say that beyond a certain number of hours, the work that you do no longer meaningfully add value, in fact, it might very well subtract values because of bugs introduced!

So why there are companies that take pride on 996 working system ( 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week)? Do they not realize that all the overtime work is not only harmful to the employee’s health and social well being, but also subtracting values from the companies in general? One possible explanation that I can think of is that although creative workers know it in their heart, the upper management, who themselves are usually not creative workers, don’t really know ( or willing to believe in) about it. Furthermore, the detriment of excessive working hours is hard to quantify– there is no way to setup two similar companies, varying only the number of working hours and holding everything else the same, and then track the productivity as a result. All the world see is that “company A is successful and has a brutal culture, therefore the brutal culture must be responsible for the success”. This is a classic case of confusing between causation and correlation, an alternative explanation is equally likely: company A is successful despite of the brutal culture. In either cases, the causality link is hard to established. But not too many people are thinking critically, probably because… er… their attention span is short and they are hooked on social media?

In the absence of better metric, all the management see is the number of hours committed as a proxy to productivity. So in the end, someone might get promoted not because they are good but because they are willing to sacrifice for the show.

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