We all know how it is.
You sit down to study.
You have all your materials ready to devour several pages of your textbook. You start reading and everything is going well. Just a couple of minutes in and boom…there it is.
A wandering thought that grabs hold of your attention and sends you into a world where you are met with more wandering thoughts.
After two hours, you’re wondering how you ended up on Mashable reading the fifth article on whether there will be another ‘Parks and Rec’ Christmas reunion this year.
The ability to sit down, start studying, and stay focused from beginning to end is essential to the success of any student, but it is also one of the most difficult things to do.
In his famous book, Deep Work, Professor Cal Newport offers some strategies to help us develop our ability to go deep and focus on our work longer.
What is deep work?
Professor Newport defines deep work as times when you are completely focused, immersed, and engaged in your selected area of study or project. You must be in a distraction-free place. He believes this improves our cognitive abilities.
He also talks about shallow work. While not inherently bad, shallow work states are when we engage in activities that require little mental action and are often part of multitasking. Checking emails, getting distracted, then rechecking emails.
Given how connected our world has become, Professor Newport believes that getting into a deep work state is becoming more and more difficult, yet it’s extremely valuable once we can master it.
Figure out your study philosophy
One very important idea proposed by Professor Newport is figuring out your deep work philosophy. That is figuring out a system that determines the frequency and the amount of time you will spend in fully focused study sessions.
There are different philosophies offered in the book but the one that best fits the lifestyle of a student is the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling.
The rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling
This philosophy requires you to schedule a specific time every single day where you will engage in deep, undistracted stretches of study.
For instance, you could decide that every single day from 6:00 to 7:30 AM will be your time for deep study. As you do this every single day, creating a rhythmic effect that makes it very easy for you to go into a deep focus.
Adhering to regularly scheduled study sessions takes away the mental stress of trying to schedule a different study time every single day. One additional thing you can do is find a physical way to mark your progress after every session.
A good example provided in the book is Jerry Seinfeld’s chain method for writing jokes. After he finishes a writing session, Mr. Seinfeld marks a big X on his calendar. Seeing your progress after each day will motivate you to never break the chain.
Ritualize your study
You may have heard of some of the weird rituals that great scientists, athletes, and musicians create for themselves to get themselves into the zone. If it works for them, why not do the same for your study time?
Here are some things you should consider when creating your ritual.
Choose a study location:
It’s best if you can find a permanent place for study so that your brain associates that spot with deep focus. It could be your desk in your room or a particular spot in the library where there will be little distraction from other people.
How long you’ll study:
As we mentioned in the rhythmic philosophy, pick a duration for your study sessions and stick to it. You can channel a timing technique like the Pomodoro Technique and use a timer to help.
Create rules and structure your study:
This might be the most important part of creating a ritual. You need to have strict rules for your study session. This could mean blocking certain distracting websites, turning off notifications, leaving your phone or smartwatch elsewhere, or turning off the internet if that’s possible.
How to support your study:
One thing Cal Newport mentions is the importance of having everything you need before sitting down.
Make sure all your tools are with you so you don’t have to keep getting up to look for them. This breaks your focus and you have to spend more mental energy getting back into deep focus. If you need a glass of water or whatever you take to maintain your energy levels, get them before you sit down.
Deep work takes practice and patience
Don’t expect to hone your deep work skills immediately – it takes time and practice to train your brain to resist distraction.
Most of us multitask throughout the day without realizing the negative effects that switching between tasks can have on our brains. If you’re in the middle of something and get distracted or stop to scan Slack, your brain is having to switch gears between tasks and it takes a while to catch up.
The switching causes attention residue which is essentially the prior task’s mental load overlapping with the new task’s mental load. In a study by the University of Washington, Sophie LeRoy states:
“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another…results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”
It might take trial and error to find a ritual that works for you so keep an open mind and go easy on yourself. Cultivating a headspace for deep work is hard, but with practice it’s doable.