Increase Your Speed, Increase Your Focus

I recently started listening to Deep Work by Cal Newport. So far, I feel like I can sum up the book with this statement:

Focused work provides more value. Focused work requires effort.

It’s full of tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your concentration. Many of them are things you’ve probably heard of before or at least intuitively know. Things like keeping track of how you spend your time. Ways to try to remove busy-work and replace it with focused work. One great quote (emphasis mine):

In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative — constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers

So great! I still have a few hours left on the audio book, but so far it’s going to make my list of highly recommended books from 2016.

The thing I want to focus on today, however, is the book’s recommendation of productive meditation. Newport’s explanation of productive meditation is:

… [taking] a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally — walking, jogging, driving, showering — and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.

He’s basically suggesting that you create an environment to force the creation of those “ah ha” moments where you’re in the shower or walking your dog and solve the problem you’ve been trying to work through. I love the idea of mentally loading up your brain, then kicking into something routine and letting it wander.

Over the years I’ve inadvertently used this method to prepare talk abstracts for conferences, solve bugs, and figure out user interaction designs that were causing me grief. In fact, the very first conference talk proposal I came up with involved a solo afternoon mountain bike ride where I started letting my mind wander to ideas and from ideas to outlines.

Assigning this process a name and outlining the structure gives me a way to recreate it on demand instead of hoping it occurs, as it has in the past. This is great, but I’ve had another revelation while going through this section of the book.

I’m practicing productive meditation while listening to the book. Rather than focus on a problem, I’m focusing on learning. Deep Work has been the majority of what I’ve been listening to, but it also work for podcasts and such. It’s not that I’m passively listening, however, it’s that I’m listening on 2x speed. The increased speed is key.

Rewind to a few years ago. I started co-hosting the ATX Web Show and started listening to more podcasts to get ideas on how they were structured. A few friends talked about how they listened only on 2x. I tried it and couldn’t follow along. Things moved too quickly, the words were jumbled together, background music felt like it was from the Chipmonks. I abandoned the idea all together.

This past fall I started thinking I could creep up the pace a bit. I now use Instacast which support 1.5x, 2x, and 3x. I decided to bump up the rate a bit. 1.5x felt a lot better. Could still follow along, but I did notice it took a little more effort to keep track of what was going on. The focus felt good, but it wasn’t tiring.

This past January I started listening to Deep Work. The pace at 1.5x still felt a little slow, so I decided to jump it up to 2x. This time I was able to follow along, but I had to focus to keep up. One stray thought meant rewind 30, 60, or even 90 seconds to go back and get back on track. To keep the pace, I had to focus on what was being said.

Looking back over my progression the past few months, I realize that I’ve been training myself to focus. Now I look forward to taking the dogs for a walk so I can have 10 - 15 minutes to breeze through 20 - 30 minutes of an audio book. Walking the dogs doesn’t require much mental energy so it’s the perfect style of productive meditation physical effort to engage my entire mind and body and really learn.

I wish someone had suggested I slowly ramp up my listening speed. I also wish someone would have told me doing so would enhance my focus. I always took the 2x podcast listeners as simply hectic super busy people trying to get thru as much as they could. That might still be true for some folks, but I think more of them are focusing more intently by speeding up the pace to something that’s a touch beyond natural.