SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:
Hi, there. It's Shankar. We're doing an experiment that we're calling Radio Replays. We'll be giving you a podcast version of select radio episodes. This week's Radio Replay includes a conversation I had with a computer scientist, Cal Newport, about something that he calls deep work.
There's also new reporting here that involves my own brain and an electric current. It's all in the name of social science research. OK, here's the show.
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VEDANTAM: For many people, this is what work sounds like nowadays.
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VEDANTAM: It's a constant thrum of notifications, tweets and messages. Every time we respond to an email or a text or Google a question that's just popped into our head, we pay a small price. In the moment, this price is imperceptible. But over time, it adds up. And we haven't quite come to terms with the cost of constant distraction.
CAL NEWPORT: We treat it, I think, in this more general sense of - oh, I should be less distracted. And I think it's more urgent than people realize.
VEDANTAM: Today we look at the challenge of cultivating deep attention and what we gain by immersing ourselves in meaningful work. I spoke to someone who might seem like an unlikely advocate for technological restraint, a computer scientist. Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. He's deliberately tried to break away from the distractions of modern technology. And he's trying to get the rest of us to follow his lead. Cal is the author of "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World."
Cal, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.
NEWPORT: Well, thanks for having me on.
VEDANTAM: You talk in your book about several highly influential thinkers - people like the psychiatrist Carl Jung or the writers Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling - and you say they all have a set of habits that are quite striking in terms of how they're able to get great work done.
NEWPORT: This was something I noticed was very common to influential thinkers, is that they all seem to have this drive to, on a regular basis, cut themselves off from their lives of busyness and communication and distraction - and isolate themselves to think deeply.
VEDANTAM: What do they do specifically?
NEWPORT: Well, what you'll notice is that they often will have a location - a separate location they go to when they want to think deeply - that's often cut off from the rest of their life.
So Carl Jung would go out to the Bollingen Tower, a stone house without electricity or running water he built by the lakeside outside of a small village in the countryside beyond Zurich. J.K. Rowling, when she was struggling to finish "The Deathly Hallows," rented out this big suite at the Belmore Hotel next to the big castle in downtown Edinburgh, where she'd go and just think "Harry Potter"-style thoughts. Mark Twain had a cabin, for a long period of his life, he would go to on the property of their house. It was so far from the house that his family had to blow a horn to try to catch his attention and let him know that dinner was ready.
They'd go somewhere physically isolated and different where they could, without distraction, think deeply.
VEDANTAM: What does work look like for the rest of us? When you look at the average American worker, for example, are most of us doing this kind of deep, sustained work?
NEWPORT: The type of deep work I talk about is almost nonexistent, as far as I can tell, in most knowledge-work positions. Even when people think that they're single-tasking - they say, I've learned a lesson that I'm not supposed to multitask. I'm not supposed to be on the phone and do email while I write. I'm just working on one thing at a time. What they're still doing is, every five or 10 minutes, a just-check - let me just do a just-check to my inbox. Let me just do a just-check to my phone real quick - and then back to my work.
And it feels like single-tasking. It feels like you're predominantly working on one thing. But even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It's the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch. So I actually think even very conscientious knowledge-workers, who think they're pretty good at focusing on one thing at a time, are actually still working far from the sort of high-performance deep work ideal.
VEDANTAM: What is the evidence that the switching causes harm to the quality of your thinking?
NEWPORT: Well we've seen this show up in different types of scientific studies and from different types of perspectives. I think one angle that makes it pretty clear is the work that professor Sophie Leroy has done on an effect called attention residue. This is actually something that's pretty easy to isolate in the laboratory. You essentially give a subject something cognitively demanding to do that you can measure, like trying to solve hard puzzles. And then at some point, you distract them briefly as the experimenter - have them look at something else, change their context very briefly.
When they then turn back to the original cognitively demanding task, you see the performance drops. And it drops for a while. It takes a while for this attention residue to clear out. And this is essentially what we're doing to ourselves when we do that quick glance at the inbox or to the phone.
VEDANTAM: I'm talking with Cal Newport. He's a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World."
Cal, I'm wondering, do you think most of us are aware of the costs of distraction in our lives?
NEWPORT: People, I think, intuit that they're too distracted and it's making them feel fragmented and exhausted and anxious. But we treat it, I think, in this more general sense of - oh, I probably should be less distracted. And I think it's more urgent than people realize - that if your brain is how you make a living, then you really have to worry about this cognitive fitness.
I mean, how are you getting performance out of your brain? Are you taking care to get good performance out of your brain or not? And people would probably be surprised, the more they think about it, you know, how much they are leaving on the table by the way they're currently working.
VEDANTAM: Does it matter that most of us are not trying to win a Nobel Prize or a - you know, a Pulitzer Prize - that we're not necessarily geniuses? Does it actually matter for most of us that we don't regularly put ourselves in a state of deep work?
NEWPORT: Well, this is a big shift that I think has happened in our economy because there's an increasing portion of our economy that are essentially making a living by using their brain to process information and produce new information.
And even if you're not trying to write great literature or solve a great theorem, if you're using your brain primarily to produce value - be it writing marketing copy or putting together a new plan for your business startup - these type of things matter. The human brain has become one of the main capital resources in our economy. It's what, in the knowledge economy, we spend most of our money on - is supporting human brains to process things and produce value.
So we should care. I think the ability to do deep work would be relevant to the professional success of almost everyone in the knowledge-work field, which is a huge part of our economy.
VEDANTAM: I'd like to run a little thought experiment. Imagine we're following a doctor as she's making the rounds of a hospital. And she's looking at many patients, and presumably the patients all present with different problems and complications and so forth. And I think what we would expect is for this doctor to very quickly flit from one subject, one topic, one patient to the next. That if we - if the doctor were to say, you know, I can only do my best work if I can focus on one patient, deeply understand that case, spend a lot of time with it - yes, that might be true - but it's going to come at a cost, which is all the other patients that the doctor is not going to see. What are the costs of deep work?
NEWPORT: Well, what I'd want to get with the doctor is just the ability, even if you're relatively briefly staying with each patient, to actually be able to stay just with that patient. So a case study I uncovered, actually after the book came out, was of two different groups at the same elite-level residency. One group had a culture of email. So hey, I need something. Here's a question. What about this patient? And they were expected, like, to constantly be available by email.
The other group consolidated that type of administrative or logistical conversations to set meetings. And what the doctor from that hospital told me is that they had a real hard time keeping people in that first group, where in the second group people were much happier.
So deep work doesn't certainly mean and I can sit, you know, half a day and just think about this one patient. But just the ability to walk into a room and just think about that patient and not have to see 16 emails as you walk into the next room and have that eating away at your attention - that can really make a big difference.
VEDANTAM: You said that the people who were engaged in deep work ended up being happier. So it's not just a question of being more productive, but you're making the case that deep work produces a kind of intrinsic reward that doesn't come from being distracted?
NEWPORT: It seems to. And in fact, this caught me off guard when I was researching my book. I ended up adding a chapter to the book that was not in the original proposal that was all about these findings I kept coming across and these stories I kept coming across about deep living also just being good living. People who spend a larger proportion of their professional time concentrating intensely on a single high-skill or high-craft target tend to enjoy their work a lot more.
And there's a lot different factors about why that might be true. But I, you know, ended by saying a deep life is a good life. And that's something I really believe in. It can take a knowledge-work career and make it much more satisfying than being in a persistent state of putting out fires and busy distraction.
VEDANTAM: Can you cite any professions where deep work is probably not called for and might even be a problem?
NEWPORT: Sure. There's plenty of examples, I think, where deep work is probably not that relevant. A couple of the common examples I give is actually, I think, being a CEO of a large company. You're probably going to better serve your company or your stockholders by being a decision engine for other people who are doing deep work - someone who people can come to, OK, what about this? What should we do here? - you can be a consistent source of the vision and push these decisions in a consistent way.
Another example is, let's say you're in what they would call here in D.C. government relations, where really most of what you do is contacts and connections and connecting the right people to the right other people and keeping up with what's going on in people's lives. That's another example of a place where long, solitary concentration is not going to make a difference.
I think there's plenty of jobs, in other words, in which deep work doesn't make a difference. But I've also found, in my experience, that the number of jobs for which this is true is smaller than people expect.
VEDANTAM: You make the argument in the book that there are lots of blue-collar jobs, jobs where you're working with your hands, where deep work actually produces much better work and also produces much better engagement with the work.
NEWPORT: Right. I think the connection between concentration and craft is actually clearer in a lot of these fields. If you talk to a craftsman, they will tell you immediately - well, obviously, you need to focus intensely. Otherwise, you're going to make a mistake. You're not going to produce the best quality work. You're going to get feedback immediately that you are less effective if you're more distracted.
And a big part of the argument I'm making is that there's nothing different enough about a world that takes place on screens for this no longer to be true. So if you talk to true craftsmen, they already know the power of deep work. And so in some sense, we're just taking this message and bringing it up to speed for the 21st century.
VEDANTAM: It seems to me there are connections here with ideas related to mindfulness or ideas related to flow that you should be in the moment, focused on what you're doing. It seems to me that those ideas are intimately connected with deep work.
NEWPORT: They are connected. So deep work can induce flow states, which is one of the reasons why people find a career pushed more towards deep work is more satisfying. It's not entirely synonymous with flow. We know there's other types of states that also count as deep work that would not fall under most definitions of flow.
So for example, being in a state of deliberate practice, where you're systematically pushing your skills past where you're comfortable so that you can improve - that's different than a flow state. It doesn't feel pleasurable. You don't lose yourself in the time. When you're practicing like that, you feel every single second because it's very difficult. But that also falls under the umbrella of deep work.
VEDANTAM: And what about mindfulness, the idea that we should just be immersed in what we are doing, paying attention to what's going on in the moment?
NEWPORT: There are deep connections to mindfulness. And one of the more important connections is that we know from the study and practice of mindfulness - such as mindfulness meditation - that getting better at that type of presence is something that requires practice and training. And we see this exactly happening with deep work in a professional setting. It's something that you train and get better at - just like you can get better at certain types of meditation; that it's something you have to work at systematically. It's a skill to be practiced, not a habit that you already know how to do and just try to take more time for.
VEDANTAM: Cal Newport is the author of the book "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World." When we come back, we'll talk about how you can retrain your mind to focus, to sit with a single idea for a long period of time. And we'll talk about whether creating a deep-work culture for some people means that others will inevitably have to pick up the slack. I'm Shankar Vedantam and you're listening to Hidden Brain. Stay with us. This is NPR.
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VEDANTAM: Welcome back to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. I'm speaking to Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor, who is the author of the book "Deep Work." It's about how we can cultivate the ability to focus on work, free of all distraction. Cal leads an enormously disciplined life with lots of rules and rituals. I asked him to explain how he structures his day to allow plenty of time for focused work.
NEWPORT: There's a few things I do. One is I've never had a social media account and that's on purpose. It's not that I think I'm better than social media, but, to quote George Packer's essay on this, it's "because I'm afraid I'll let my kids go hungry if I expose myself to that." So that's one thing I do. Two, I'm very organized with my time. I work during very set hours during the day and I plan out the day like a chess player moving the pieces around. This is what I'm going to work on when. I don't let my mood dictate how my day unfolds.
And then three, I've made myself very comfortable with annoying people. I'm bad at email. I have just set the expectations that I'm just not available a lot. I'm not someone that you can expect a quick answer from. And that also causes some trouble of course. But all of this adds up to allowing me to regularly have long portions of many of my days focused on deeper thinking.
VEDANTAM: I understand you actually keep a tally of how much deep work you've done, how many hours you spend being uninterrupted. And you actually have targets that you must meet at the end of the day or the end of the week.
NEWPORT: Yeah, that's right. This is something until recently I was doing. I was tallying, you know, how many deep-work hours. So I had to confront that. I had to confront the reality so if I was really avoiding deep work, I would see it. I've since added a new habit to my arsenal here where I now block out my deep work on my calendar up to four weeks in advance. So I have that time protected so far out in the future that I can be sure it'll stay protected. So now I have a record on my calendar of exactly what deep work I'm doing.
VEDANTAM: I understand you have a fairly structured approach to shutting down at the end of the day, of making sure that the tasks that remain unfinished don't bleed into your evening and your family life.
NEWPORT: I have an actual ritual I do at the end of each workday where it - pretty systematically, I'll look at my weekly plan, I'll look at my task list, I'll look at my calendar, make sure that nothing is left hanging. And then I'll do a little shutdown mantra - you know, say an actual phrase that means I'm now done work for the day.
VEDANTAM: What's the phrase that you tell yourself at the end of the day?
NEWPORT: I used to be embarrassed to admit. The phrase was schedule shutdown complete. But I now have this small but strong fan group that used that exact same phrase proudly. So now I'm willing to admit it's schedule shutdown complete.
VEDANTAM: Do you say this with others around?
NEWPORT: No (laughter). It doesn't really matter what the phrase is. You know, I invented that phrase when I was a graduate student working on my dissertation and was really having a hard time with coming home from the office and having all these concerns - hey, what if this proof never fixes? Or what is this proof breaks? What if my dissertation falls apart? And I needed something to allow me to definitively shut down. And so I was younger then. I came up with this phrase. But now, it became habit, so I stuck with it.
VEDANTAM: Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and he's talking about his book "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World." Cal, what would you say to people who say you're asking us to turn into computers, you're asking us to behave like robots?
NEWPORT: Well, see, I would argue that that's what people are doing right now. We've turned ourselves into sort of human network routers. We just sit here and process messages and sort through task lists and have this sense of busyness that treats our mind like a digital computer processor - something that you just feed instructions to and it executes one after another.
I think what I'm doing is actually way more human. This idea that our brain is not like a computer - it's not like any other machine we know. It's something that you have a personal connection to. And it's something that you really have to take care of, something that you have to coax high performance out of.
So to have a structured day, for example, to protect your mind from distraction I actually think makes you more human and less robotic than what most people do, which is to sit there like a human network router and just sort of process messages and tasks all day like a blind computer processor.
VEDANTAM: There seems to be a paradox here because I think what I'm hearing you say is that scheduling yourself or even overscheduling yourself is the way to actually gain control over your life, whereas people would sort of say, if you're actually scheduling every second and sort of deciding four weeks ahead of time when you're going to stop work on a certain Wednesday, you've actually turned yourself into a robot.
NEWPORT: It's a paradox that shows up a lot. It confuses people. But I think you're right to point it out, is that if you study, especially really creative people, professional creatives, they are surprisingly structured in how they approach their day. I took a quote at one point from David Brooks, the columnist, and I might be paraphrasing here, but basically he pointed out this observation that great, creative thinkers approach their time like accountants; that this is this great disconnect is that they're very structured and systematic about their time and produce the most unstructured, brilliant, creative insights. So it's a key paradox to point out because I really want to emphasize it. Adding structure and control to your time really can be the key to getting the biggest insights and most interesting work produced.
VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if part of the tension comes about because we actually think of inspiration as being the thing that strikes us unexpectedly. And I think the case that you're making is that inspiration actually can be scheduled to arrive on command.
NEWPORT: Well, as, you know, Chuck Close said - the artist - inspiration is for amateurs. I think we overfocus on the inspiration piece. If you're systematically pushing yourself and your knowledge and your craft, you will have inspiration. It will happen in the shower. It'll happen while you walk to work. What's important is, you know, setting yourself up to have that inspiration and then giving yourself the time and structure you need to act on it, to actually produce something of value out of it. So I downplay the importance of inspiration and I emphasize the importance of creating a life where inspiration as possible and you're well suited to act on it.
VEDANTAM: I want to ask you a couple of questions that push back against this idea from a practical standpoint. What if people are in workplaces where they have managers and bosses who aren't enlightened enough to say, yes, you should spend several hours engaged in deep work? People can't always choose for themselves what kind of work they pursue.
NEWPORT: Something that has seemed to be effective is in that type of situation, having a conversation with whoever your boss, is whoever supervises you, and say, I want to talk about deep work. Here's what deep work is. And I want to talk about, you know, non-deep work, or shallow work. And here's what that is. And both are important to my job. And I want to have a conversation to decide, what should my ratio be? That is, in a typical work week, what ratio of my hours should be deep work versus shallow work and actually nailing down a number, an aspirational target, that everyone agrees, yeah, this is - this is right for your position in our company. It's not saying, hey, boss, stop emailing me so much. You annoy me. It's instead saying, hey, let's try to optimize myself. So what should I be going for here? Let me get your feedback on this.
And people are reporting back to me, you know, tales of drastic changes to work cultures that they thought there's no way, there's no way I'm going to get away with this, that I'm supposed to be on Slack all the time or I'm supposed to be answering my emails all the time. They have this conversation and the next week they're spending 50 percent of their hours undistracted.
So I've been pushing that particular managerial hack as a good, positive way forward to trying fix some of these issues.
VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if some people might say your advice is really advice for people who are, in some ways, are at the top of their food chains. So if you have an author who basically is able to say, I'm going to disconnect from the world for 18 months, I'm just going to focus on writing this book. You know, someone else is probably picking up after this person in all kinds of different ways. If Cal Newport says, you know, I'm going to close the door in my office, I'm not going to answer my phone, I'm not going to check my email, but someone needs to get in touch with you in an emergency, that person is probably going to reach an assistant of yours.
And that assistant doesn't have the same luxury of deep work as you do because he or she needs to be available to hear what the emergency is or to hear what the request is. Does having a group of people who are engaged in deep work necessarily mean there must be essentially a second tier of workers who are engaged in shallow work to allow the deep thinkers to do their deep thinking?
NEWPORT: It doesn't require that, but it usually requires some type of reconfiguration of communication channels and expectations. So when I work, for example, with people maybe in a small consultancy that is client facing, where they're used to this idea that clients need to reach us, issues pop up, what's important there to enable more deep work, which in the end produces more value for everyone, is just to actually change the communication expectations. That maybe instead of having a client just have individual people's email addresses, the company sets up an email address for that client. And the company has set up some agreement on their end that there'll always be someone monitoring that and here's the expectation of when you can get a response.
Or maybe setting up - it's sometimes called the bat phone or emergency phone idea, where you say, OK, here's a - here's a number you can call me at if there's an emergency when I'm in one of these deep-work sessions. People set these up and say they get called maybe once a year. So I don't think you need actual extra people involved to make space for deep work. But I do think it almost always requires some effort, some sort of reconfiguration of people's expectations on how and when they can reach you.
VEDANTAM: So I'm going to ask you a question now that's part serious and part teasing. You and I were scheduled to talk last week, and you didn't get the appointment down on your calendar. And I was sitting here waiting for you. And of course this kind of thing happens all the time. But in your case, I couldn't help but wonder, did he miss this because he actually hadn't spent the time doing the shallow work to get this in his calendar?
And is it possible that when we engage in deep work, we are essentially, you know, getting the benefit of all of that deep work - we're getting the deep thinking, we're getting the accomplishments - but some of the cost is borne by other people and they might actually be the people who are getting mad at you when they can't reach you?
NEWPORT: Well, it's a good point. And I think that's actually was what happened. Because I spend a lot of time working away from my computer, these type of problems happen to me more often. In this case - and, you know, I'm embarrassed it happened - but my vague memory was I saw this communication on my phone because I had to be on there to send something to someone, but I was far away from a computer. And so I wasn't able to easily add it to a calendar.
And I was like, OK, I'll remember to do this when I get back to my office next. And I forgot. And it did cause problems and I - and so I'm embarrassed about it. And that type of thing does happen. And I think this hits on a big point, which is deep work - or a professional life focused on deep work - is less convenient for most people involved. But on the other hand, I want to put out there this notion that that might not be so bad, that it's possible that in this age of digital communication, we are focusing too much on convenience over effectiveness.
VEDANTAM: I think in some ways what you're saying is, alter the tension between the short term and the long term. If I don't respond to a colleague's request or a manager's, you know, instructions to do something right away, it's irritating for the person at the other end of the line. And so I think most of us actually conform to the social norm of saying, yes, I'm just going to be responsive. I'm going to be available. I'm going to answer the question as soon as it's asked.
The point that you're making, though, is that they might be long-term goals, deeper institutional goals, that are essentially - we're not thinking about. And of course, when those goals are not met because they're not articulated, no one notices their absence. So people will notice it if you don't show up at an interview. People are not going to notice it if you don't write that best-seller or the next great idea. And so there's really a cultural bias in favor of the trivial over protecting what actually is most important.
NEWPORT: I really agree with that point. And I would add to it that I think a big part of it is lack of metrics. So if we look at two parallel case studies, two different industries - let's look at the Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass industrial production. This was a world where the metrics for productivity were very clear. How many cars per hour is our factory producing? And what we saw in that world - where bottom-line value is very easy to measure - is that very quickly, the structure of work moved away from what was convenient for the workers and towards what produced more value.
It moved away from the old system in factories where you had people work in teams at one spot in the floor to assemble the car towards things like the assembly line, which are incredibly inconvenient. It's very hard to manage an assembly line. It's very hard to get it right. It causes lots of issues. It's annoying. But it produces a lot more value.
You move to digital knowledge work - we don't have those metrics. It's much harder to measure, OK, what's the cost to our bottom line if you're more distracted or less distracted? And so my conjecture is that without those metrics, we are going to fall back on these interpersonal or cultural biases. We're wired to be social. We don't want to upset someone. These type of biases take over because it's much harder to measure, in this new world, the impact of different behaviors.
VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if there's also a psychological explanation for the phenomenon you're describing. You know, I took a vacation a couple of weeks ago, and for the first time in a long time, I actually decided to unplug. So I didn't have internet access. I wasn't checking my email. I literally was cutoff from things going on at work. And when I got back, there were a number of things that had happened in my absence, some of which I wish I'd had the chance to weigh in on.
But when I looked at the aggregate, the overall conclusion I got was really that the world did just fine in my absence. Things went fine. I actually wasn't as indispensable as I thought I was. I'm wondering if that might be a psychological driver in people being unwilling to actually cut themselves off because not only might they discover that they are more productive, but they might also discover the world does just fine - thank you very much - without you.
NEWPORT: Yeah. I think that's one of three big psychological drivers that have led us to this world we're in now of the sort of constant-connectivity business. So that's certainly one, I think - this notion of, we get a sense of meaning and usefulness out of constantly being involved in interaction. I think the other two psychological drivers - one is just, we're wired to be tribal. And it's very difficult for us psychologically to know there's an email waiting that we're not answering. And even if we know for a fact that the person who sent that message does not need a fast response, it still feels like we're at the tribal fire, and there's a tribe member standing there tapping you on the shoulder, and you're ignoring them. We just have a very hard time with that.
And I think the third driver is, knowledge work is much less structured. And so how do you prove to your organization or to your boss that you're valuable? And busyness as a proxy for productivity is something that a lot of people have defaulted to. Well, at the very least, if you see I'm sending lots of messages, you know I'm working. And so I think those three different factors are all intertwining to get us to this place where we find ourselves just constantly sending messages as opposed to thinking hard thoughts or producing new things.
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VEDANTAM: Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. He's the author of "Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World." Cal, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.
NEWPORT: Well, thank you.
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VEDANTAM: After the break, we'll go to a psychology lab that's trying to help people bounce back from interruptions more easily. All it takes is a little electricity.
MELISSA SCHELDRUP: You should start to feel something pretty soon.
SCHELDRUP: ...If you're not already. OK.
VEDANTAM: I'm feeling a very, very mild tingling.
That's coming up in just a moment. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and you're listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. This is NPR.
This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Earlier in the show, I talked to the computer science professor Cal Newport about how important and rare it is these days to carve out time for uninterrupted work. He shared some ideas about how to develop deep attention. These ideas - no surprise - require real commitment and resolve. So I decided to explore a shortcut. A few months ago, I was driving to Virginia for an interview, and I was doing the opposite of deep work.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Virginia, 620 W. Braddock Rd.
ERIC BLUMBERG: Anodal stimulation, which is the...
VEDANTAM: I was watching the road, paying attention to GPS directions, and I was listening to an interview I'd conducted years ago with the researcher Eric Blumberg.
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BLUMBERG: ...Committed following interruption, and that was...
VEDANTAM: I was on my way to an interview with one of Eric's colleagues, and I needed to refamiliarize myself with the material.
So the irony here, of course, is that I'm heading to an interview...
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BLUMBERG: So this specific test...
VEDANTAM: ...About interruptions...
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In half a mile, exit right. Then stay to the left.
VEDANTAM: ...While being constantly interrupted.
The interview I was going to was about how to deal with interruptions and distractions. Now, there's no question, I'd love to do my deep thinking in the kinds of places Cal Newport described, places like Carl Jung's lakeside house in the Swiss countryside or J.K. Rowling's suite in Edinburgh. But since I've chosen a life in public radio, I need something a little more - I was going to say cheap, but why don't we say practical?
That's where Eric and his colleague Melissa Scheldrup come in. They're exploring a relatively simple solution to the problem of interruptions and overwork. Basically, you run a small electrical current through a part of the brain, and voila, it's easier to manage interruptions. It's now a year since this interview with Eric. A new researcher has taken over the project, and I'm heading to the lab along with my producer Rhaina Cohen. I've offered myself over as a guinea pig for the experiment, and I'm a little worried.
The squeals of pain coming from the host is what makes this worthwhile.
RHAINA COHEN, BYLINE: Well, it's...
VEDANTAM: Rhaina doesn't show much sympathy.
COHEN: ...Putting your money where your mouth is. You've been reaping the rewards of the many undergraduate students who have subjected themselves to social science research. And now you have to be part of it.
VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Fair is fair.
As fair as it might be, the idea of running an electrical current through my head is not exactly appealing. But the possibility that I could juggle the many demands on my time - that's irresistible.
There's something hugely seductive about this idea, that you can wear a helmet and instead of being able to do one thing at a time, you can now do four things at a time. Wait, which way am I going now?
I decide to turn off the interview with Eric and focus on the road.
All right, impeccable timing.
Once I make it to the campus of George Mason, I find my way to Melissa's lab. It turns out to be less sci-fi than grunge.
SCHELDRUP: They keep us grad students in the basement. So I apologize for the no windows, but...
VEDANTAM: This is Melissa Scheldrup, Eric's colleague and my guide for the experiment.
SCHELDRUP: I am a sixth-year graduate student in the Ph.D. program at George Mason University in the human factors and applied cognition program.
VEDANTAM: She takes me to her office. The room has white walls, fluorescent lights, no windows. Stacked cardboard boxes and stray electronics are strewn around.
SCHELDRUP: Old computers, new computers, a microwave, for some reason...
VEDANTAM: Melissa's work at the human factors and applied cognition research lab is inspired by a single insight. There's a reason some people bounce back from interruptions quickly and other people don't.
SCHELDRUP: One thought with interruptions is that they are highly dependent on a person's working memory capacity - so your natural ability to manipulate information in your brain. People who are generally good at that have less of a negative effect of interruptions. And people who are not so good at it seem to be affected more.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: Melissa and her colleagues want to know if there is a way to improve working memory. In other words, can you help people hold more information in their heads? If you can do this, interruptions might not be such a big problem. That brings us to the brain zapper. If you want to influence how people deal with interruptions, it makes sense to try and stimulate a part of the brain that handles working memory - the prefrontal cortex.
SCHELDRUP: Very simplistically, it's like a 9-volt battery that we have electrodes attached to. And depending on where you put the electrodes on the brain, you can either make it more difficult for neurons to fire or make it more easy for them to fire.
VEDANTAM: Scientists have long inserted electrodes into the brain to change the way the brain works. Doing this helps patients with serious disorders like Parkinson's disease. I've signed up for a much less invasive procedure - an electrode attached to the side of my head. Now, obviously, running a small current through the brain is a crude way to change how it works.
So this truly is a little bit like just slapping the side of the television set, isn't it?
SCHELDRUP: There's a lot of that, yep. There's a lot of wiggle room in how it works.
VEDANTAM: I'm often juggling multiple things at the same time. So what would be your hypothesis on what the effect is of this helmet on my behavior and performance?
SCHELDRUP: I would - if we're going to extend it out there to your entire life, it should, in theory, help you juggle all the multitasks you have going on. If you need a working memory boost, then it will allow you to focus on one thing, stop focusing on that, move to something else and then go back and pick up where you were without much of a degradation in performance, ideally. That's the goal.
VEDANTAM: And what is the potential downside?
SCHELDRUP: Well, if you were to invest in a system like this, there's no guarantee it's going to work. There's really no negative effects that have been associated with it. You know, there's always a possibility that we're hitting the wrong area in the brain. You know, we don't do brain scans before we do this on people because it is pretty diffuse. So we could be, you know, accidentally, while enhancing your working memory, we could also be hurting your verbal skills.
VEDANTAM: Oh, great.
SCHELDRUP: So yes. But it's all transitory. It's going to stop once the stimulation stops or shortly thereafter. So it's not permanent.
VEDANTAM: The electrical stimulation won't affect me permanently. But what about helping me deal with interruptions in the short term? To find out, Melissa has me play a computer game.
SCHELDRUP: So you're going to be playing a game called "Warship Commander."
VEDANTAM: It looks a lot like Battleship. It has a 1990s-video-game feel to it. There's a very dark blue background. And my ship is at the bottom of the screen, and planes of different kinds are coming in from the top. I have to shoot down enemy planes and let friendly ones get through. There are lots and lots of rules.
SCHELDRUP: If it is an enemy, you warn it here with the warn button, wait five seconds, and then fire on it.
VEDANTAM: Red planes are enemies. Blue planes are friends. But then there are yellow planes, which could be either friend or foe.
SCHELDRUP: Well, if it's yellow, what you'll need to do is click on it, find the highlighted number here on the side, click on that, and then it will tell you here in the communications window if it's a friend or a foe.
VEDANTAM: OK. Click this button to shoot down foes, make sure you don't shoot friends - and a complicated system to figure out who is who. I'm ready to go, but...
SCHELDRUP: There's more.
VEDANTAM: ...Those are all just the rules of the main task.
SCHELDRUP: While you're doing that, you're going to be hearing some information from the rest of your staff on the warship. And it's going to be things like your current water level is 355. Our current communications channel is Oscar (ph). And they're going to give you several updates while you're playing.
VEDANTAM: Are these updates relevant to the game? Or can I just ignore them?
SCHELDRUP: So then somebody's going to come on and ask you, all right, what's the current...
VEDANTAM: Ah, great.
SCHELDRUP: ...Communications. Yep, so that's the interrupting task. So then you need to answer the question. And then you can go back to what you're doing.
VEDANTAM: So there are lots of rules and lots of moving parts. Naturally, I do the mature thing and make up excuses even before the game starts.
Can I just say that your volunteers don't have to play the game with a microphone one inch in front of their mouths?
SCHELDRUP: If you would like to have that as a caveat and a handicap, then, yeah, you can put that on there.
I play a practice round.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
VEDANTAM: All right.
I'm still getting used to all the elements of the game.
Was I listening to what?
SCHELDRUP: The current course.
SCHELDRUP: OK, all right.
VEDANTAM: I have no idea what the current course is.
SCHELDRUP: Well, you have 10 seconds to answer. And then it goes away. So you'll get the next one.
VEDANTAM: Now that I know the rules, I start a new game. This time the results count. They're going to give me a baseline score that Melissa can later compare to how I do with the electrodes on.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)
VEDANTAM: I destroy some enemy planes.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
VEDANTAM: I get a few things right.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER NOTIFICATION)
Though I also lose my cool.
I warned him. And I'm trying to fire, and it's not firing.
SCHELDRUP: You have to wait five seconds. You have to give him a chance to get out of your airspace.
VEDANTAM: And I make some mistakes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As game character) What is our current course?
VEDANTAM: I think it's 030 - I think.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUZZER)
VEDANTAM: Oh, no, I guess not.
Once the game is over, Melissa gives me a performance evaluation. She thinks I did OK.
SCHELDRUP: You were very focused on the primary task and not so much the interruption task.
VEDANTAM: So what do we do next, and how do you improve my performance?
SCHELDRUP: All right. So now we put on the helmet.
VEDANTAM: Melissa puts some things on the table - a little black box with knobs, which is known as a transcranial direct current stimulation unit, some cords, electrodes, which look like squares that have rubber on the edges and thin sponges in the middle. Melissa prepares my head and arm before she attaches the electrodes.
SCHELDRUP: Don't be nervous. Like I said, don't be nervous. It's fine.
VEDANTAM: I'm not nervous - not nervous, not nervous, not nervous.
SCHELDRUP: It's all great.
VEDANTAM: All great. I will live.
SCHELDRUP: I'm an expert.
SCHELDRUP: Sort of.
She wipes a spot on my forehead then on my upper arm. She picks up a syringe to add saline to the electrodes. Before I came to the lab, I thought I was going to be wearing a helmet for this experiment. So I asked Melissa why she isn't giving me one. It turns out the helmet is still in the idea stage. A standard helmet won't work because everyone has a different head size. What I get instead are white bandages wrapped around my head and arm. There's no mirror. So the only two people in the room with me, Melissa and my producer, they tell me how I look.
SCHELDRUP: You kind of look like a World War I patient that got hit in the head and has a white band around your forehead.
COHEN: This is really like Richard Simmons sweatband plus, like, the cable that you put in the back of the TV...
VEDANTAM: Oh, great.
COHEN: ...To set up the audio - like, the little red plug.
COHEN: Yes, yeah, it looks a lot like that.
VEDANTAM: Then there's my arm. The electrode feels like a medical device.
SCHELDRUP: Which looks kind of like a blood pressure cuff.
VEDANTAM: Melissa asks me if I'm ready. And I say yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)
SCHELDRUP: You should start to feel something pretty soon...
SCHELDRUP: ...If you're not already.
VEDANTAM: I'm feeling a very, very mild tingling. It feels like - hard to describe it - but just like a slightly burning sensation. But it's fairly mild, and it's fairly focused and intense. And it's right over my right temple.
With electricity running through my skull, I start the game again.
All right, new and improved Shankar with super powers of concentration. I'm going to start the experiment now.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
VEDANTAM: This time I get 4 out of 6 questions right on the interruptions task. I improved. But that could be just a fluke. I play another game.
SCHELDRUP: You got them all right.
VEDANTAM: All right.
Melissa explains exactly what all the plane destroying and messages about freshwater levels actually reveal about my working memory. I have to remember the game's complicated rules. That takes up some of my working memory. I have to keep track of the constant verbal updates.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As game character) Communication channel is now on Oscar.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As game character) Now on course 090.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As game character) Communication channel is now alpha.
VEDANTAM: These interruptions mean I have to store all this information in my head even as I'm trying to keep enemy planes from blowing me up. The key thing that Melissa is measuring about the interruptions is...
SCHELDRUP: What happens after you respond to that task? Are you able to go back right away and pick up where you were?
VEDANTAM: How would you say I performed?
SCHELDRUP: You performed pretty well. For being your second game or third game, you did pretty well especially with the interrupting task. I was very impressed. Normally, we have to remind people that they need to focus on that and try it.
VEDANTAM: Do you think that the electrodes made a difference?
SCHELDRUP: As a scientist, I cannot say that with an n of one and two games. It's very rare you see something that's like you can identify visually that somebody is better from intervention right away like this. And so it's over time looking at data. So I could go looking for data and look at, during the practice games, what happened after you answered those questions. How long did it take you to make your next step? Did you make the correct next step? Did you go back? Did you skip things? And then compare them numerically to how you did with the electrodes on.
VEDANTAM: I asked Melissa if I should strap electrodes to my head when I'm dealing with interruptions at work.
SCHELDRUP: You could do that. This probably isn't the best real world technique. But there are - it informs other techniques. So if we know that modulating working memory performance or working memory ability affects these things, then we can say what techniques can maybe supplement your working memory.
VEDANTAM: When Melissa and her colleagues analyze the results, they take all kinds of factors into account. For example, it may be that people are better at multitasking after some time just because they've had more practice with the game. It might be that when they wear the electrodes, there is a placebo effect going on. They think they're going to do better, and so they actually do better.
But when Melissa and her colleagues take all of this and other factors into account, the electrodes still seem to make a difference. So I have a question that's not really a science question. It might be more of a philosophical question. I remember when we started using smartphones, and they seemed like enormous time-saving devices. They allowed you to do in five minutes what used to take you two hours.
And initially, the argument was you now are going to have an hour and 55 minutes to take a walk in the park and smell the roses. But, of course, that isn't what happened. We just filled the hour and 55 minutes with other stuff to do. And now you're just as busy, probably even more busy than you were before, except you're doing 20 tasks instead of one. And I'm wondering, as we come up with these techniques that might actually improve the efficiency with which our brains work, isn't it possible that we'll just simply use the balance of time to do even more stuff?
SCHELDRUP: I think that's exactly correct. You know, there's a debate going on sort of in this field, and in cybernetics in general, is should we really be doing these things? Is it really helpful to humanity or the person? And my feeling is that we've always made technological advances, and they've always been at the aim of making things easier for humans.
And I also think that you have a choice, right? You can choose to use these tools to make you more efficient and then go on a hike or a walk. Or you can choose to use these tools to make you more efficient and then you go do more work. That is a personal choice that I think everyone has to make.
VEDANTAM: We were just talking with Cal Newport. He's a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And he's the author of a new book that looks at deep work - the idea that we are doing too many things. And the way to actually be less busy and to be more focused is actually just to be less busy - to take on fewer things, to say no to many more things and to carve out time where we can actually stay and focus on things.
And I'm wondering what he would say to this kind of intervention. And I think he would say you're trying to find sort of a technical solution to what is really a human behavior problem. And the technical solution is, let's make the brain 5 percent better than it was before. But, of course, when you do that, you're just going to take on 10 percent more work.
SCHELDRUP: Yeah. I personally don't think that TDC should be used in somebody's everyday life. It should be used as a tool to look at the underlying physiological process. So I don't think that everybody should have a helmet that has this. It's like cheating. And so what really needs to be done is have people out on the forefront who understand these issues. And then they can present it to the general public in a way that makes sense.
So, yes, we have this ability to change the, you know, neural functioning of your brain within a few minutes. But here's how and why we should use that, and here's how we shouldn't use that. And really have a lot of thought put into it before introducing these things into the public.
VEDANTAM: Because, in some ways, I'm wondering the - you know, what we lack is not sort of our ability to multitask, but our ability to actually sit with things.
SCHELDRUP: Really, I think that is a more like cultural and societal issue that we have. So, you know, I know some people who are really good at saying, no, I just - I don't want to do that. And then I know the people who would never say no to an opportunity, even though it means more work. And as a graduate student, I can fully attest to that. And I - sure, I'll help you out. Sure, I'll do this. I don't need to sleep. It's fine. I haven't been to the gym in six months.
And so I think that's more of a cultural thing and needs to be something that's addressed and that, you know, people in technology sectors or in science, if we allowed them to go on a hike and a walk, that's been shown to sort of give you these aha moments and actually help your cognition.
And so if we change the way we thought about it that way, where, yes, we're going to make this more efficient but that rest of the time is yours, instead of we're going to make this more efficient and that time is still mine. That'd be my ultimate solution.
VEDANTAM: Each year, we learn a whole lot more about how the brain works. In the future, maybe we will have helmets that we can wear at work. And they'll allow us to be more focused or juggle multiple demands. There's nothing wrong with trying to get the most out of our brains any more than there's something wrong in trying to get the most out of our legs or our hands.
If there are machines that can help us lift heavier things than we ever thought possible, and machines that can help us move faster than we ever imagined, there are certainly going to be machines one day to help us think faster or more clearly. In fact, you could argue this is exactly what an education does. You spend years in school or hours reading books or listening to a radio show like this one to improve how your brain works.
But in the end, technology is just a tool. We need wisdom to know how to use it. A helmet or a phone can't tell you if it's a good idea to push your brain to work twice as fast or if working too hard might make you unhappy. For those answers, you need that lakeside retreat or at least a quiet walk in the woods.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
VEDANTAM: This episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Maggie Penman, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. NPR's vice president for programming and audience development is Anya Grundmann.
If you like the show, check out our weekly podcast. Search for a HIDDEN BRAIN on NPR One, iTunes or wherever you find your podcast. You can also follow the show on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen to my stories on Morning Edition. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week. System shutdown complete.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR POWERING OFF)
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