When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds. On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand. Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.
All of those times tended to have moments, even hours, of boredom. There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts. I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.
Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom. These days, escape from boredom is only a click away. We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat. We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly. When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited? Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction. In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.
The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation. While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem. Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it. If you do this two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.
In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration.
When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way. The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom. Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too? If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.