Distractions, monk productivity, and the importance of “between-time”

Sometimes the internet seems to think about the same things at the same time. Last week we were all in on meetings (see here, here, here, and here), and this week we’re all talking about distractions. Here are three excellent articles about this topic that all came across my feeds this week.

First, there is a new interview with the father of deep work, Cal Newport (NYT gift article link). He talks about context switching and “slow productivity”—and it’s really good:

I’m trying to develop this notion of productivity that’s based on, at the large time scales, the production of things you’re proud of and that have high impact, but on the small time scale, there’s periods where you’re doing very little. […] So how do you actually work with your mind and create things of value? What I’ve identified is three principles: doing fewer things, working at a natural pace, but obsessing over quality. That trio of properties better hits the sweet spot of how we’re actually wired and produces valuable meaningful work, but it’s sustainable.

Matt Reynolds has a catchy title in Wired: Easily Distracted? You Need to Think Like a Medieval Monk. It’s a fun exploration of how medieval monks were, as he calls them, “the original LinkedIn power users” who kept trying to one-up each other with how distraction-free they were living:

These kinds of stories reminded monks just how hard it was to stay focused. They weren’t expected to be concentration machines. They too would come up short every now and then. “Acknowledging that upfront is a kind of compassion,” says Kreiner. “Monks are really good at being compassionate to each other, and to how hard it was to really follow through on stuff.” Freeing ourselves from distraction is really difficult. We don’t have to feel awful about not always matching up to our lofty goals.

And finally, in a short read Mandy Brown talks about the importance of Between-time:

We live in a world full of distractions but short on breaks. The time between activities is consumed by other activities—the scrolling, swiping, tapping of managing a never-ending stream of notifications, of things coming at us that need doing. All that stuff means moments of absolutely nothing—of a gap, of an interval, of a beautiful absence—are themselves absent, missing, abolished.

If I had to find a thread through all these pieces, it would be this:

  • Not every moment needs to be filled with work that produces output. Cal Newport calls this working at a natural pace: “one with more variability in intensity than the always-on pace to which we’ve become accustomed.”
  • Everyone gets distracted. Have some grace for yourself, and others. And try to distinguish between “distractions” (filling time with stuff) and “between-time”—those real breaks that we all need but get so little of.