Phones Down + Focus Up

A couple of months ago, I attended Quinnipiac University. My weekly routine consisted of walking into the classroom (always 15 minutes early), sit down in my usual chair, and set my laptop on the table. As the students trickled in one by one, I read mindless new articles on my phone. When the professor was about to begin, he/she would demand the students to put their phones away and to start paying attention. Almost in unison, we would place our phones face down on the table. That would only last for five minutes.

Within my four years of undergrad, I probably heard my college professors say, “XYZ, please put your phone away,” at least a hundred times. Yet, no one would listen, not even me. I thought it was utterly harmless to have my phone out on my desk, face down of course, and periodically “check the time.” While sitting in class, I thought I was doing a great job at splitting my concentration between the professor and my phone. I was wrong. This week I read some articles, and a book, about focus and distractions. I found the reason why my professors always instructed to put our phones away. 

According to a Harvard Business Review article, having a cellphone on a desk divides a student’s concentration. The authors, Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten Bos, experimented the relationship between distractions, cellphones, and cognitive function. The participants with their cellphones locked away in another room performed better in cognitive puzzles than participants with their phones on the desk. The study concluded that having the cellphone within reach split the cognitive attention of the participant. I could relate to this study all too well. I always placed my phone within arms reach when I was studying, writing, or reading.

The second I received a notification I would glance at my phone to see what it was. While I switched between my phone and my work, I would find myself still thinking about my phone, eagerly anticipating another notification. 

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, also has a word for this effect. In chapter 1, he explains the concept of attention residue. The theory states that when we switch between two tasks, our brain cannot entirely switch activities. There is an attention residue. So if I go on my phone and watch a Youtube video, then I won’t be able to switch to the task of writing this post entirely. 

Usually, when I take a break from homework, I like to distract myself by reading online articles. I find them easier to read than my textbooks. Michael Harris’s article, I Have Forgotten How to Readexplains, we read two types of writing in today’s society. These two writing styles are online writing and literary writing. My academic textbooks and reading materials for my master’s classes all use scholarly literary writing styles. The ESPN, news, and pop culture articles are all written with an online audience in mind. Literary pieces entail a language that causes me to reflect and evaluate. The online articles are quick, easy, and use plain language. I can read those articles and quickly forget the details.

To read literary texts, I need to be an active reader. According to an anonymous Farnam Street article, How to Remember What You Readactive reading is learning with a determination to understand and evaluate what the author is trying to say. The same article states that to read the online articles, I am a passive reader since the material presented to me is superficial and easy to read. 

I do not want to be a passive reader anymore. Passive reading is shallow work, according to Cal Newport. Shallow work is completing simple tasks while allowing yourself to be distracted. I am not thinking too carefully into what I am trying to accomplish. An example would be when I am reading an academic article for a class as well as scrolling through Instagram. 

An active reader also practices the act of deep work. Cal Newport explains the details in the introduction of his book. He rattles off the names of prominent successful CEOs and top executives that use deep work to come up with brilliant and innovative ideas. I am not interested in coming up with the next iPhone or streaming service, but I am inspired to become the next J. K. Rowling. As an avid reader, I would love to write my own book series one day. 

Those aspirations will mean nothing if I can not complete deep work. To become more focused, I looked up some starter tips to stay concentrated. I arrived at an article by Stephanie Vozza called 8 Ways To Improve Your Focus. The author suggests to mentally prepare to do work, ditch the phone, grab some coffee, and get comfy. I found her last piece of advice to be a bit controversial. Vozza suggests to doodle when you get bored. I find doodling to be distractive and a waste of time. Although, this article did inspire me to make a list of things that I need to do to complete deep work. 

Deep Work Reminders

  • put my phone in the other room
  • be an active reader
  • evaluate what I am reading
  • ask questions to provide a more in-depth understanding
  • be a self-motivator

In conclusion, for years, I have heard college professors beg and plead their students to put their cellphones away. But this week I finally learned why. Since I am starting my master’s classes, I brushed up on some books and articles on concentration, focus, and distractions. Above are some of the things I learned, and hopefully, they can help you too. 

Deep Work In Real Life:

Remember when I was talking about attention residue? The video that initially distracted me relates to this post. I think it displays a real-world example of someone that uses deep work to come up with a unique and innovative idea. The video follows Joe DiGiovanna as he explains his plan for a 30-year-long photography project. He is shooting a time-lapse of the NYC skyline, and he is already four years into the project. DiGiovanna describes how he came up with the concept and how he used deep work (he does not use the term, but he still applied the theory). Be sure to check it out! (I would suggest starting the video at 1:20.)

(Video belongs to YouTube. I own nothing.)

Ending Notes:

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