Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Scattered thoughts and shallow work (2016 Term 3 Week 7)

I have a confession to make. I am having great difficulty focussing. The challenge is particularly acute as I face tasks that require deep sustained thought and reflection. Much of what I do as Principal can be done without this sort of thinking; opening car doors at kiss and drop, handing out birthday cards, responding to emails from various stakeholders, and even responding to the occasional crisis, are all possible in the normal flow of a day. However, there are other tasks which either require extended and focussed thought, or that are much better accomplished with deep thinking. Writing a regular blog for the school community is one such task. So too is drafting a speech for our upcoming graduation. The list could go on. I am struggling to focus on these tasks.

This challenge is not unique to me. At the start of term, a colleague recommended that I read Deep Work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world by Cal Newport. It is a book written in response to the observation that distraction is more and more the norm in our world.

Newport's thesis is simple. The capacity to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task is becoming increasingly rare. Our society is so filled with compelling distractions and we are so accustomed to (the illusion of) multi-tasking that we are losing the ability to do deep work, which by its nature is of a higher quality and is produced more efficiently.

He is not the first person to raise questions about the dark side of our hyper-connected patterns of life and work, but he presents a cogent and thoughtful plan to help us to ensure that we don't lose this capacity. 

I had thought to try to summarise the book for this blog, but the irony of simplifying a thoughtful and challenging read to a few bullet points for the sake of easy reading was not lost on me!

Instead, let me reiterate one of his themes; namely, the capacity for deep, focussed cognitively demanding work is developed, not innate. We can have patterns of life and work that feed our distractibility, or that build our ability to focus. If I find myself unable to focus, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my ability to concentrate, in the same way that if I find myself flabby, I need to make decisions and take actions to build my physical fitness.

It is not the case that the capacity to focus is the only cognitive capacity that we need. It is not the case that depth is always better than breadth. However, it is inarguable that the capacity for deep work is becoming rarer and, I suspect, more valuable.

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