Deliberate Practice: A Mindful & Methodical Way to Master Any Skill

Each and every day we eat, we sleep, we read, we brush our teeth. So why haven't we all become world-class masters of eating, sleeping, reading, and teeth-brushing? Most of us, if we're honest with ourselves, plateaued on those particular skills decades ago, despite never having missed our daily practice sessions. This should tell us something important about the difference between practicing an action and simply doing it a lot, a distinction at the heart of the concept of "deliberate practice." As the Sprouts video above explains it, deliberate practice "is a mindful and highly structured form of learning by doing," a "process of continued experimentation to first achieve mastery and eventually full automaticity of a specific skill."

Psychologist Anders Ericsson, the single figure most closely associated with deliberate practice, draws a distinction with what he calls naive practice: "Naive practice is people who just play games," and in so doing "just accumulate more experience." But in deliberate practice, "you actually pinpoint something you want to change. And once you have that specific goal of changing it, you will now engage in a practice activity that has a purpose of changing that."




As a post on deliberate practice at Farnam Street puts it, "great performers deconstruct elements of what they do into chunks they can practice. They get better at that aspect and move on to the next," often under the guidance of a teacher who can more clearly see their strengths and weaknesses in action.

"Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone," says the Farnam Street post. "This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily" — just as easily, perhaps, as we eat, sleep, read, and brush our teeth. But we also fail to improve when we operate at the other end of the spectrum, in the "panic zone" that "leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach." As in every other area of life, what challenges us too much frustrates us and what challenges us too little bores us; only at just the right balance do we benefit.

But striking that balance presents challenges of its own, challenges that have ensured a readership for writings on the subject of how best to engage in deliberate practice by Ericsson as well as many others (such as writer-entrepreneur James Clear, whose beginner's guide to deliberate practice you can read online here). The video above on Ericsson's book Peak: How to Master Almost Anything explains his view of the goal of deliberate practice as to develop the kind of library of "mental representations" that masters of every discipline — golfers, doctors, guitarists, comedians, novelists — use to approach every situation that might arise. Developing those mental representations requires specific goals, intense periods of practice, immediate feedback during that practice, and above all, frequent discomfort. Everyone enjoys mastery once they attain it, but if you find yourself having too much fun on the way, consider the possibility that you're not practicing deliberately enough.

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How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators: Octavia Butler, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel & More

Certain kinds of content have flowered on the internet that we can't seem to get enough of, and if you frequent Open Culture, you may well have a weakness for one kind in particular: the daily schedules of notable creators. When we know and respect someone's work, we can't help but wonder how they spend their finite time on this Earth in such a way that allows them to create that work in the first place. Mason Currey, creator of the blog Daily Rituals, knows this well: not only did all his posting about "how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days" lead to a book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, it just last month produced a sequel, Daily Rituals: Women at Work.

"In the first Daily Rituals, I featured far more men than women," writes Currey. "In this second volume, I correct the imbalance with profiles of the day-to-day working lives of 143 women writers, artists, and performers," including Octavia Butler, "who wrote every day no matter what," Isak Dinesen, "who subsisted on oysters and champagne but also amphetamines, which gave her the overdrive she required, Martha Graham, "who eschewed socializing in favor of long hours alone in her studio," and Lillian Hellman, "who chain-smoked three packs of cigarettes and drank twenty cups of coffee a day (after milking the cow and cleaning the barn on her Hardscrabble Farm)."




You can read a few excerpts of the book at the publisher's web site. Coco Chanel, we learn, usually arrived late to the office but "stayed until late in the evening, compelling her employees to hang around with her even after work had ceased, pouring wine and talking nonstop, avoiding for as long as possible the return to her room at the Ritz and to the boredom and loneliness that awaited her there." Edith Wharton, by contrast, "always worked in the morning, and houseguests who stayed at the Mount — the 113-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Wharton penned several novels, including The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome — were expected to entertain themselves until 11:00 a.m. or noon, when their hostess would emerge from her private quarters, ready to go for a walk or work in the garden."

The other subjects of Daily Rituals: Women at Work, a full list of which you can read here, include everyone from Maya Angelou to Diane Arbus, Joan Didion to Marlene Dietrich, Dorothy Parker to Emily Post, and Agnès Varda to Alice Walker. Not only do no two of these creators have the same routines, their strategies for how best to use their time often conflict. "Screw inspiration," said Octavia Butler, but her colleague in writing Zadie Smith takes quite a different tack: "I think you need to feel an urgency about the acts,” Currey quotes her as saying in an interview, "otherwise when you read it, you feel no urgency either. So, I don’t write unless I really feel I need to." For all tips as you might pick up from these 143 women, as well as from the creators of both sexes in the previous book, the most important one might be a meta-tip: develop the set of daily rituals that suits your personality and no one else's.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Practice Effectively: Lessons from Neuroscience Can Help Us Master Skills in Music, Sports & Beyond

Practice makes perfect, so the cliché says, although like many clichés, it has also spawned corrective variants. "Practice makes permanent," a common one of them goes, and what it lacks in catchiness it may well make up for in neuroscientific truth. We've all recognized that, when we do things a certain way, we tend to keep doing them in that certain way; in fact, the more we've done them that way before, the more likely we'll do them that way next time. What holds true for simple habits, formed over long periods of time and often inadvertently, also holds true for deliberately perfected — or anyway, permanent-ified — tasks. But what happens in our brains to cause it?

"Practice is the repetition of an action with the goal of improvement, and it helps us perform with more ease, speed, and confidence," says the narrator of "How to Practice Effectively... for Just About Anything," educators Annie Bosler and Don Greene's TED Ed video above. It then goes on to explain our two kinds of neural tissue, grey matter and white matter. The former "processes information in the brain, directing signals and sensory stimuli to nerve cells," and the latter "is mostly made up of fatty tissue and nerve fibers." When we move, "information needs to travel from the brain's grey matter, down the spinal cord, through a chain of nerve fibers called axons to our muscles," and those axons in the white matter "are wrapped with a fatty substance called myelin."




Myelin, and the sheath it forms, is key: "similar to insulation on electrical cables," it "prevents energy loss from electrical signals that the brain uses, moving them more efficiently along neural pathways." (You've probably read about the weakening of myelin sheaths as a factor in ALS and other movement-related neurological disorders.) Recent studies performed on mice suggest that repeating a motion builds up the layers of those axon-insulating myelin sheaths, "and the more layers, the greater the insulation around the axon chains; forming a sort of superhighway for information connecting your brain to your muscles." This, though it has no direct effect on our muscles, may be what we're building when we say we're building "muscle memory."

All interesting facts, to be sure, but how can they help us in or own practice sessions, whatever those sessions may find us practicing? Bosler and Greene provide a series of tips, each quite simple but all in alignment with current neuroscientific knowledge. They include:

  • Focus on the task at hand. "Minimize potential distractions by turning off the computer or TV and putting your cell phone on airplane mode."
  • Go slow. "Coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. If you gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions, you have a better chance of doing them correctly."
  • Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks. "Studies have shown that many top athletes, musicians, and dancers spend 50-60 hours per week on activities related to their craft. Many divide their time used for effective practice into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration."
  • Practice in your imagination. "In one study, 144 basketball players were divided into two groups. Group A physically practiced one-handed free throws while Group B only mentally practiced them. When they were tested at the end of the two week experiment, the intermediate and experienced players in both groups had improved by nearly the same amount."

If you'd like more suggestions on how to practice effectively, have a look at the list of twelve tips from Wynton Marsalis we featured here on Open Culture last year. He takes a more expansive approach, encouraging those who practice — not just music but sports, art, or anything else besides — to adopt strategies like writing out a schedule, avoiding showing off, and staying optimistic. We must also stay realistic: optimism, even optimism backed by science, can't make our skills perfect. None of our skills are perfect — not even Wynton Marsalis' — but with the right techniques, we can at least give them some degree of permanence.

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Wynton Marsalis Gives 12 Tips on How to Practice: For Musicians, Athletes, or Anyone Who Wants to Learn Something New

What Are the Most Effective Strategies for Learning a Foreign Language?: Six TED Talks Provide the Answers

How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Procrastination & How Can We Solve It? An Introduction by One of the World’s Leading Procrastination Experts

I don’t know about you, but my tendency to procrastinate feels like a character flaw. And yet, no amount of moralizing with myself makes any difference. Feeling bad, in fact, only makes things worse. Perhaps that’s because—as Tim Pychyl, Associate Professor in Psychology at Carleton University argues—procrastination is not a moral failing so much as a coping mechanism for painful feelings, a psychological avoidance of tasks we fear for some reason: because we fear rejection or failure, or even the burdens of success.

Pychyl should know. He's made studying procrastination the basis of his career and runs the 20-year-old Procrastination Research Group. Procrastination is a “puzzle,” he theorizes (the title of one of his books is Solving the Procrastination PuzzleA Concise Guide to Strategies for Change). Solving it involves understanding how its pieces work, including our beliefs about how it operates. Pychyl's lecture above addresses graduate students charged with helping undergraduates who procrastinate, but its lessons apply to all of us. In his first slide, Pychyl outlines four typical beliefs about procrastination:

It’s me

It’s the task

It’s the way I think

It’s my lack of willpower

Pychyl wants to debunk these notions, but he also argues that procrastination is “something we seem to understand very well” in popular parlance. One of his slides shows a typical “successories”-type poster that reads, “Procrastination: hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.” While Pychyl doesn’t use judgmental language like “laziness,” he does acknowledge that procrastination results from ideas about short- versus long-term gain. We want to feel good, right now, a drive common to everyone.

The next poster reads “if the job’s worth doing, it will still be worth doing tomorrow.” The notion of the “future self” plays a role—the you of tomorrow who still has to face the work your present self puts off. “What are we doing to 'future self?'” Pychyl asks. “If we can just bring future self into clearer vision, lots of times the procrastination may go away.” This has been demonstrated in research studies, Ana Swanson notes at The Washington Post, in which people made better decisions after viewing digitally-aged photographs of themselves. But in general, we tend not to have much consideration for "future self."

A final successories slide reads, “Procrastination: by not doing what you should be doing, you could be having this much fun.” This is one of the most pervasive forms of self-delusion. We may convince ourselves that putting difficult things off for tomorrow means more fun today. But the amount of guilt we feel ensures a different experience. “Guilt is a paralyzing emotion,” Pychyl says. When we put off an important task, we feel terrible. And often, instead of enjoying life, we create more work for ourselves that makes us feel purposeful, like cooking or cleaning. This “task management” game temporarily relieves guilt, but it does not address the central problem. We simply “manage our emotions by managing our tasks.”

The word procrastination comes directly from classical Latin and translates to “put forward” that which “belongs to tomorrow.” This sounds benign, given that many a task does indeed belong to tomorrow. But prudent planning is one thing, procrastination is another. When we put off what we can or should accomplish today, we invoke tomorrow as “a mystical land where 98% of all human productivity, motivation, and achievement are stored.” The distinction between planning or unavoidable delay and procrastination is important. When delays are either intentional or the consequence of unpredictable life events, we need not consider them a problem. “All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.”

So, to sum up Pychyl’s research on our attitudes about procrastination: “we think we’re having more fun, but we’re not”; “we think we’re not affecting future self, but we are”; and “it’s all about giving in to feel good,” which—see point number one—doesn’t actually work that well.

While we might minimize procrastination as a minor issue, its personal costs tell us otherwise, including severe impacts to “performance, well-being, health, relationships, regrets & bereavement.” Procrastinators get sick more often, report higher rates of depression, and suffer the somatic and psychological effects of elevated stress. Procrastination doesn’t only affect our personal well-being and integrity, but it has an ethical dimension, affecting those around us who suffer “second-hand," either because of the time we take away from them when we rush off to finish things last-minute, or because the stress we put ourselves under negatively affects the health of our relationships.

But procrastination begins first and foremost with our relationship to ourselves. Again, we put things off not because we are morally deficient, or “lazy,” but because our emotional brains are trying to cope. We feel some significant degree of fear or anxiety about the task at hand. The guilt and shame that comes with not accomplishing the task compounds the problem, and leads to further procrastination. “The behavior,” writes Swanson, turns into “a vicious, self-defeating cycle.”

How do we get out of the self-made loop of procrastination? Just as in the failure of the “Just say No” campaign, simply shaking ourselves by the metaphorical shoulders and telling ourselves to get to work isn’t enough. We have to deal with the emotions that set things in motion, and in this case, that means going easy on ourselves. “Research suggests that one of the most effective things that procrastinators can do is to forgive themselves for procrastinating,” Swanson reports.

Once we reduce the guilt, we can weaken the proclivity to procrastinate. Then, paradoxically, we need to ignore our emotions. “Most of us seem to tacitly believe,” Pychyl says, “that our emotional state has to match the task at hand.” For writers and artists, this belief has a lofty pedigree in romantic ideas about inspiration and muses. Irrelevant, the procrastination expert says. When approaching something difficult, “I have to recognize that I’m rarely going to feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t feel like it.” Feelings of motivation and creative inspiration often strike us in the midst of a task, not before. Breaking down daunting activities into smaller tasks, and approaching these one at a time, gives us a practical roadmap for conquering procrastination. For more insights and research findings, watch Pychyl’s full lecture, and listen to him discuss his research on the Healthy Family podcast just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

The phone gives us a lot but it takes away three key elements of discovery: loneliness, uncertainty and boredom. Those have always been where creative ideas come from. - Lynda Barry

In the spring of 2016, the great cartoonist and educator, Lynda Barry, did the unthinkable, prior to giving a lecture and writing class at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

She demanded that all participating staff members surrender their phones and other such personal devices.

Her victims were as jangled by this prospect as your average iPhone-addicted teen, but surrendered, agreeing to write by hand, another antiquated notion Barry subscribes to:

The delete button makes it so that anything you’re unsure of you can get rid of, so nothing new has a chance. Writing by hand is a revelation for people. Maybe that’s why they asked me to NASA – I still know how to use my hands… there is a different way of thinking that goes along with them.

Barry—who told the Onion’s AV Club that she crafted her book What It Is with an eye toward bored readers stuck in a Jiffy Lube oil-change waiting room—is also a big proponent of doodling, which she views as a creative neurological response to boredom:

Boring meeting, you have a pen, the usual clowns are yakking. Most people will draw something, even people who can’t draw. I say “If you’re bored, what do you draw?” And everybody has something they draw. Like “Oh yeah, my little guy, I draw him.” Or “I draw eyeballs, or palm trees.” … So I asked them “Why do you think you do that? Why do you think you doodle during those meetings?” I believe that it’s because it makes having to endure that particular situation more bearable, by changing our experience of time. It’s so slight. I always say it’s the difference between, if you’re not doodling, the minutes feel like a cheese grater on your face. But if you are doodling, it’s more like Brillo.  It’s not much better, but there is a difference. You could handle Brillo a little longer than the cheese grater.

Meetings and classrooms are among the few remaining venues in which screen-addicted moths are expected to force themselves away from the phone’s inviting flame. Other settings—like the Jiffy Lube waiting room—require more initiative on the user's part.




Once, we were keener students of minor changes to familiar environments, the books strangers were reading in the subway, and those strangers themselves. Our subsequent observations were known to spark conversation and sometimes ideas that led to creative projects.

Now, many of us let those opportunities slide by, as we fill up on such fleeting confections as Candy Crush, funny videos, and all-you-can-eat servings of social media.

It’s also tempting to use our phones as defacto shields any time social anxiety looms. This dodge may provide short term comfort, especially to younger people, but remember, Barry and many of her cartoonist peers, including Daniel Clowes, Simon Hanselmann, and Ariel Schrag, toughed it out by making art. That's what got them through the loneliness, uncertainty, and boredom of their middle and high school years.

The book you hold in your hands would not exist had high school been a pleasant experience for me… It was on those quiet weekend nights when even my parents were out having fun that I began making serious attempts to make stories in comics form.

Adrian Tomine, introduction to 32 Stories

Barry is far from alone in encouraging adults to peel themselves away from their phone dependency for their creative good.

Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s Removed imagines a series of everyday situations in which phones and other personal devices have been rendered invisible. (It’s worth noting that he removed the offending articles from the models’ hands, rather that Photoshopping them out later.)

Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport’s recent book, Deep Work, posits that all that shallow phone time is creating stress, anxiety, and lost creative opportunities, while also doing a number on our personal and professional lives.

Author Manoush Zomorodi’s recent TED Talk on how boredom can lead to brilliant ideas, below, details a weeklong experiment in battling smartphone habits, with lots of scientific evidence to back up her findings.

But what if you wipe the slate of digital distractions only to find that your brain’s just… empty? A once occupied room, now devoid of anything but dimly recalled memes, and generalized dread over the state of the world?

The aforementioned 2010 AV Club interview with Barry offers both encouragement and some useful suggestions that will get the temporarily paralyzed moving again:

I don’t know what the strip’s going to be about when I start. I never know. I oftentimes have—I call it the word-bag. Just a bag of words. I’ll just reach in there, and I’ll pull out a word, and it’ll say “ping-pong.” I’ll just have that in my head, and I’ll start drawing the pictures as if I can… I hear a sentence, I just hear it. As soon as I hear even the beginning of the first sentence, then I just… I write really slow. So I’ll be writing that, and I’ll know what’s going to go at the top of the panel. Then, when it gets to the end, usually I’ll know what the next one is. By three sentences or four in that first panel, I stop, and then I say “Now it’s time for the drawing.” Then I’ll draw. But then I’ll hear the next one over on another page! Or when I’m drawing Marlys and Arna, I might hear her say something, but then I’ll hear Marlys say something back. So once that first sentence is there, I have all kinds of choices as to where I put my brush. But if nothing is happening, then I just go over to what I call my decoy page. It’s like decoy ducks. I go over there and just start messing around.

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Lynda Barry, Cartoonist Turned Professor, Gives Her Old Fashioned Take on the Future of Education

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Case for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valuable “Deep Work” Instead, According to Computer Scientist Cal Newport

A familiar ding comes from your pocket, you look up from what you’re doing and reach for the smartphone. Before you can think, "it can wait," you’ve disappeared into the screen like little Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist. Taken by a ghostly presence with designs upon your soul—your time, emotional well-being, creativity—Facebook. Someone has requested my friendship! You like my video? I like you! Why, I’ve got an opinion about that, and that, and that, and that…. All the little performative gestures, imprinted in the fingers and the thumbs.

Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, WhatsApp, VKontact, Sina Weibo…. Just maybe, social media addiction is a global epidemic, a collection of emotionally, socially, and politically, toxic behaviors. As Suren Ramasubbu reports, “social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain” that make us think intensely about our self-image and public perception, create new neural pathways, and release dopamine and oxytocin, which keep us coming back for more little red hearts, tiny thumbs-ups, and diminutive gold stars (good job!).




While the nature of addiction is a controversial topic, it will arouse little disagreement to say that we live—as Georgetown University Computer Science Professor Calvin Newport writes in the subtitle of his book Deep Work—in a “distracted world.” (The full title is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.) Newport’s prescription will go down less easily. Quit, drop out, tune out, opt out, get out of the Matrix, Newport argues, more or less, in his book and his TEDx talk above. He acknowledges the oddity of being a “millennial computer scientist book author, standing on a TED stage” who never had a social media account and urges others to give up theirs.

Any one of his overlapping demographics is likely to have a significant web presence. Put all of them together and we expect Newport to be pitching a startup network to an audience of venture capitalists. Even the story about why he first abstained could have made him a minor character in The Social Network. But feelings of professional jealousy soon turned to wariness and alarm. “This seems dangerous,” he says, then lets us know—because we surely wondered—that he’s okay. “I still have friends. I still know what’s going on in the world.” Whether you’re convinced he’s happier than the rest of us poor saps is up to you.

As for the claim that we should join him in the wilderness of the real—his argument is persuasive. Social media, says Newport, is not a “fundamental technology.” It is akin to the slot machine, an “entertainment machine,” with an insidious added dimension—the soul stealing. Paraphrasing tech guru and iconoclast Jaron Lanier, Newport says, “these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bytes of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.” But like the slot machine, the social media network is a “somewhat unsavory source of entertainment” given the express intent of its engineers to make their product “as addictive as possible,” comparable to what dietitians now call “ultra-processed foods”—all sugar and fat, no nutrients.

Newport names another objection to quitting—the necessity of social media as an essential business tool—then pivots to his book and his commitment to what he calls “deep work.” What is this? You can read the book to find out, or get a Cliff’s Notes version in Brian Johnson’s video above. Johnson begins by contrasting deep work with “shallow work,” where we spend most of our time, “constantly responding to the latest and loudest email and push notification for social media, or text messages or phone ringing, whatever.”

While we may get little endorphin boosts from all of this heavily mediated social activity, we pay a high price in stress, anxiety, and lost time in our personal, professional, and creative lives. The research on overwork and distraction supports Newport's conclusions. The real rewards come from deep work, he argues, that which we do when we have total focus and emotional investment in a project. Without getting too specific, such work, Newport says, is not only personally fulfilling, but valuable “in a 21st century economy” for its rarity.

Social media, on the other hand, he claims, contributes little to our work lives. And as you (or maybe it’s me) scan the open social media tabs in your overloaded browser, and tune in to the cluttered state of your mind, you might find yourself agreeing with his heretical proposition. You might even share his talk on social media. Or decide to follow us on Facebook and/or Twitter.

To delve further into Newport's thinking, see his books: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Both books are also available in audio format on Audible.com. Sign up for a free trial here.

Related Content:

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

New Animation Explains Sherry Turkle’s Theories on Why Social Media Makes Us Lonely

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Flickr Commons photo by J Stimp

Everyone used to read Samuel Johnson. Now it seems hardly anyone does. That’s a shame. Johnson understood the human mind, its sadly amusing frailties and its double-blind alleys. He understood the nature of that mysterious act we casually refer to as “creativity." It is not the kind of thing one lucks into or masters after a seminar or lecture series. It requires discipline and a mind free of distraction. “My dear friend,” said Johnson in 1783, according to his biographer and secretary Boswell, “clear your mind of cant.”

There’s no missing apostrophe in his advice. Inspiring as it may sound, Johnson did not mean to say “you can do it!” He meant “cant,” an old word for cheap deception, bias, hypocrisy, insincere expression. “It is a mode of talking in Society,” he conceded, “but don’t think foolishly.” Johnson’s injunction resonated through a couple centuries, became garbled into a banal affirmation, and was lost in a graveyard of image macros. Let us endeavor to retrieve it, and ruminate on its wisdom.




We may even do so with our favorite modern brief in hand, the scientific study. There are many we could turn to. For example, notes Derek Beres, in a 2014 book neuroscientist Daniel Levitin brought his research to bear in arguing that “information overload keeps us mired in noise.... This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but creativity as well.” "We sure think we're accomplishing a lot," Levitin told Susan Page on The Diane Rehm Show in 2015, "but that's an illusion... as a neuroscientist, I can tell you one thing the brain is very good at is self-delusion."

Johnson’s age had its own version of information overload, as did that of another curmudgeonly voice from the past, T.S. Eliot, who wondered, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The question leaves Eliot’s readers asking whether what we take for knowledge or information really are such? Maybe they’re just as often forms of needless busyness, distraction, and overthinking. Stanford researcher Emma Seppälä suggests as much in her work on “the science of happiness.” At Quartz, she writes,

We need to find ways to give our brains a break.... At work, we’re intensely analyzing problems, organizing data, writing—all activities that require focus. During downtime, we immerse ourselves in our phones while standing in line at the store or lose ourselves in Netflix after hours.

Seppälä exhorts us to relax and let go of the constant need for stimulation, to take longs walks without the phone, get out of our comfort zones, make time for fun and games, and generally build in time for leisure. How does this work? Let's look at some additional research. Bar-Ilan University’s Moshe Bar and Shira Baror undertook a study to measure the effects of distraction, or what they call “mental load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obsessive ruminations” that clutter the mind with information and loose ends. Our “capacity for original and creative thinking,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is markedly stymied” by a busy mind. "The cluttered mind," writes Jessica Stillman, "is a creativity killer."

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Bar and Baror describe how “conditions of high load” foster unoriginal thinking. Participants in their experiment were asked to remember strings of arbitrary numbers, then to play word association games. “Participants with seven digits to recall resorted to the most statistically common responses(e.g., white/black)," writes Bar, "whereas participants with two digits gave less typical, more varied pairings (e.g. white/cloud).” Our brains have limited resources. When constrained and overwhelmed with thoughts, they pursue well-trod paths of least resistance, trying to efficiently bring order to chaos.

“Imagination," on the other hand, wrote Dr. Johnson elsewhere, “a licentious and vagrant faculty, unsusceptible of limitations and impatient of restraint, has always endeavored to baffle the logician, to perplex the confines of distinction, and burst the enclosures of regularity.” Bar describes the contrast between the imaginative mind and the information processing mind as “a tension in our brains between exploration and exploitation.” Gorging on information makes our brains “’exploit’ what we already know," or think we know, "leaning on our expectation, trusting the comfort of a predictable environment.” When our minds are “unloaded,” on the other hand, such as can occur during a hike or a long, relaxing shower, we can shed fixed patterns of thinking, and explore creative insights that might otherwise get buried or discarded.

As Drake Baer succinctly puts in at New York Magazine’s Science of Us, “When you have nothing to think about, you can do your best thinking.” Getting to that state in a climate of perpetual, unsleeping distraction, opinion, and alarm, requires another kind of discipline: the discipline to unplug, wander off, and clear your mind.

For another angle on this, you might want to check out Cal Newport's 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Related Content:

The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It

Why You Do Your Best Thinking In The Shower: Creativity & the “Incubation Period”

How Walking Fosters Creativity: Stanford Researchers Confirm What Philosophers and Writers Have Always Known

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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