Two Responses to the Shallows: Deep Work and Cognitive Productivity

Seven years after Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows rang alarm bells that the Internet is ‘rewiring’ our brains, sources of distraction continue to proliferate. Yet there is still no consensus on how to respond. Pessimists believe that engaging with the Internet inevitably dooms us to a shallow, distracted life. Some optimists believe that using old systems that are neither based on science nor technology, such as the book Getting Things Done, is the key to modern productivity. Proactive realists believe that tremendous productivity is available mainly to those who strategically leverage technology and information in a manner that accords with cognitive science.

This article combines two recent proactive responses to The Shallows, Cal Newport’s Deep Work and my own Cognitive Productivity. First, I summarize the challenges and opportunities. Then, I present relevant ideas about the human mind. Finally, I provide suggestions for thriving in the Information Age.

Cognitive Productivity Opportunities and Challenges

The information cornucopia presents a historically unprecedented opportunity to engage in meaningful knowledge-based work. Those who are willing and able to do this productively can produce tremendous value for themselves and society.

Newport’s book focuses on the same challenge to our cognitive productivity as Carr’s: distractibility. There are two sources of distraction: push and pull. Our phones, email clients, chat and videotelephony software, and social media can push information into our minds. We can also actively poll sources of information (news sources, web pages, podcasts, PDF files, etc.), pulling ourselves from our tasks. Yet only an infinitesimally small percentage of information is sufficiently pertinent to someone at any given time to warrant considering.

Deep work, as Newport defines it, is mentally demanding work that requires full attention, normally for long stretches of time. Deep work includes solving important, difficult cognitive problems; delivering knowledge-intense services; building knowledge and other products; or engaging in deliberate learning. Deep work is how brains produce value with knowledge.

When we are distracted, however, we can only engage in shallow work. Here, our work is of relatively low value.

Deep Work, the book, is a very inspirational account of why and how we should engage in as much deep work as possible. Newport argues, on psychological, philosophical and neural grounds that deep work is a key to a meaningful and happy life.

Cognitive Productivity, the book, deals with a special type of deep work, which is knowledge-based learning. It explores the abilities, dispositions and strategies to engage in transformative deep work using information technology. They constitute one’s effectiveness at becoming more effective, namely, one’s meta-effectiveness.

The Distracted but Focusable and Improvable Brain

To understand how human minds are both distractible and potentially productive, consider the mind as having three separate sets of interacting components, as depicted below. (This is based on the work of Aaron Sloman, Ian Wright and myself and on Keith Stanovich’s).

Mental Architecture, interrupts,

  1. Reactive processes are coupled with the environment. They include most perception, which is value-laden (we see things as desirable or aversive, and generators of motivators (e.g., desires). If you perceive a text alert, for example, your brain may generate a desire to attend to it. Whether, and to what extent, such motivators disrupt executive processes depends on their insistence, their capacity to penetrate attentional filtering and switching mechanisms.
  2. Motive management processes evaluate, explore and decide motivators, enabling you to solve problems and control your actions. With them, you can, for instance, assess an incoming message as low priority and postpone reading it.
  3. Meta-management processes reflect on your thinking and control it. For instance, they can detect that you’ve been distracted by a tangential web page, and return you to your main task.

The brain can also create new reactive processes that continually monitor for, and respond associatively to, related internal events by generating insistent motivators to check a device for possible ‘urgent’ information. A fleeting thought about a work issue, for instance, can trigger a motivator to check e-mail for potential email about it. That is how ‘pull’ distraction often works.

In one of the most important books in cognitive neuroscience, A Mind So Rare, Merlin Donald argued that consciousness is not merely an epiphenomenon nor solely concerned with fleeting spans of experience. Consciousness produces three levels of awareness:

  1. selective binding of perception, where complex sensations are integrated into simple meaning objects,
  2. short-term control (including working memory), where one inhibits motivators and selectively attends to mental contents (more or less directly related to the world),
  3. intermediate- and long-term governance, including voluntary self-conscious awareness and control of executive processes and action over minutes, hours, days, and years. For example, you keep key information about a long conversation, or history of a relationship in mind as you interact with someone.

Most research on attention deals with the first two levels. Cognitive productivity does require short-term control, to ensure your attention is guided top-down by your motives. However, productivity is essentially a long-haul concept, which requires intermediate- and long-term governance to ensure that the right motives are in command of short-term consciousness. Thus, to deeply understand deep work, from the inside, we need to think about all three levels of awareness in terms of a suite of executive and lower-order processes, which are vaguely sketched in the figure above. Donald’s book and Aaron Sloman’s website specify these fascinating capabilities in more detail.

Being Cognitively Productive

Two major sets of recommendations follow from this analysis.

First, as Cal Newport argues, to lead a happy, cognitively productive life one must spend as much time as possible in deep work and deep play, while avoiding the shallows. Newport explains how to focus deeply. The SharpBrains web site, where I will likely publish another article on Deep Work also provides many tips on how to develop focus.

Second, as described in Cognitive Productivity, you regularly need to process, and practice with, high-caliber knowledge sources while trying to learn deeply from them.

When it comes to using technology, Newport mainly tells us what not to do. Part 3 of Cognitive Productivity and its upcoming sequel for MacOS® provide positive suggestions.

Newport suggests that we track our time with paper and pencil. Yesterday, I introduced a workbook-based self-quantification system dubbed mySelfQuantifier. You’ll notice in the log sheet a column for tracking deep work. The workbook also contains several spreadsheets that tabulate your deep work. In an upcoming post and screencast, I will explain more specifically how to use that spreadsheet to quantify and extend your deep work.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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