I recently finished Deep Work, a book in which author Cal Newport contends that professional success in the future will be characterized by those individuals who can still accomplish deep work despite the world of distractions competing for their attention. According to Newport, deep work represents those arduous tasks that require working at our peak mental capacity (e.g., brainstorming, critical thinking). Shallow work, on the other hand, represents those activities that tend to fill up our days but rarely move us forward on our professional goals (e.g., email, meetings). A consistent theme throughout Newport’s book is his excoriating commentary on social media, which he also highlights in Quit Social Media, his third of four rules for working deeply.
In a blog post earlier this month, Joey Mattingly and I explored some of the advantages and disadvantages of social media for pharmacy professionals. Social media has democratized and accelerated the dissemination of health information, and has facilitated communication among patients and providers alike. Conversely, its widespread use has raised concerns regarding patient privacy, as well as the validity and reliability of health information shared online. Although we did not address the risks highlighted in Newport’s book, I agree that the tendency for social media to interrupt even the most cognitively demanding tasks has important implications for health care professionals, especially since distractions of only a few seconds can significantly increase the risk of errors. However, I dispute his assertion that social media has minimal benefit and that quitting it is the most optimal strategy for working deeply.
First, I think it is important to point out that we have a finite capacity for completing the difficult tasks that Newport characterizes as deep work, a fact he also acknowledges in his book. Individuals who are unaccustomed to the focus necessary for working deeply may only be able to do so for an hour whereas even experts are limited to a maximum of three to four hours per day. Either way, considerable time is left over for social media and other activities.
Second, as I discussed in a previous post, evidence also suggests that focused work is optimally done in much smaller increments, with periods of mental rest in between. Otherwise, diminishing returns should be expected. Although a strategy consisting of 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest has been posited as an optimal balance for productivity, a breakdown of 45-50 minutes of focused work followed by a 10-15 minute break is probably more practical to implement. Either way, breaks for social media and other activities can be utilized as a reward for productive work.
I put my mobile devices away when I need to focus on challenging work, but there are times when they must be kept nearby (e.g., when I am on service and someone may need to reach me about a patient-related issue). However, after realizing how frequently my workflow was also being interrupted by social media and other distractions, I recently made the decision to turn off all notifications (including push alerts and badge app icons) except for phone calls, text messages, and the applications we use at the medical center for secure text messaging. Doing so has filtered out all non-urgent communication and has helped restore my willpower for choosing when to engage in social media rather than avoiding it altogether, as Newport suggests.
Admittedly, the tactic outlined above is just a trial-and-error approach to improving focus, and there are probably more comprehensive strategies out there. For those of you who must get deep work done while also maintaining an active social media presence, what are some strategies you have found helpful? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.