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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

How to Focus Like a Border Collie


Luna-Moose a border collie standing on top of a fallen tree. She is in front of trees and a mountain with snow

I'm a typical "Millennial/Gen Z" (born in 1996, right on the edge of both generations), my smartphone is always with me and I take it out when I feel an instance of boredom: in line at the grocery store or in-between sets at the gym. I seem to have any excuse to mindless scroll on my phone. And have developed a scattered sense of focus, like many of us who have grown up in the digital age.

The other day I took my dog, Luna, out to play fetch with her. Luna is the exact opposite of me. She has tremendous focus. If the ball is out, nothing else exists. Luna is a border collie, a breed traditionally used to herd sheep. Farmers bred the border collie to have this intense focus, they call it "the stare" when border collies are herding and intimating sheep. They needed a dog who could concentrate on a single task for hours. Thus the border collie was created. If you've ever seen them work with sheep (view a video here), you know how incredible these dogs are.


When Luna is retrieving the ball it is her only job, the only task in her mind. This wasn't a skill I taught her, she was born with it, and bred over many generations to be able to hone in this focus. Me on the other hand, I'm the opposite, I get distracted easily and look at anything with a remote level of stimuli. I'm the opposite of a border collie. And while I don't have the innate level of focus my dog does, I wanted to try to learn how to do it.


Below is a table of contents and short explanation of each section. If you would like to skip to a particular section please clink the links below.


Table of Contents:

The Why

The answer to why I wanted to enhance my focus is explained in last weeks post, Finding my Niche. In the article, I want to become someone who is not only known for their wide range of knowledge in topics (e.g. writing, creativity, and business) but also having depth in data analysis/science and using knowledge from other fields to explain data science concepts. In order to accomplish this, I needed to focus my attention to both: learn deeply about data science and other skills like technical writing; and produce data science projects and blog posts. I would need to be able to work deeply, I needed the focus of a border collie.


I've previously tried other techniques to hone my focus: Pomodoro technique or putting my phone in Do Not Disturb Mode but nothing seemed to stick and I would become distracted again. The problem was I was merely scratching the surface of the issue, I thought if I eliminated all distractions I would suddenly develop the skill to work deeply. I was wrong. While these techniques did indeed help me focus during a "deep work" session it didn't tackle the root of the problem: I lost the ability to concentrate on my own without external tools, my attention was fragmented. I needed to view the ability to focus not as a one-off skill I could whip out at a moments notice but as a true lifestyle shift, I needed to become a "disciple of depth in a shallow world".

The Idea of Deep Work

I discovered Cal Newport's book Deep Work, by reading his other book So Good They Can't Ignore You. Deep Work is about the practice of deep work or "the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task". It is a "skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time". You can also view my book notes on Deep Work here.


Newport ultimately defines deep work as "professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate". Because it is difficult and hard to replicate deep work is rare and therefor valuable.

The period we're in right now is a period of unprecedented growth because of the impact of technology which is creating a massive reconstructing of our economy. The most valuable types of workers in this new modern age are: high-skilled workers, superstars and owners. High-skilled workers are those with the ability to work and creatively with increasingly complex machines; superstars are those with talent and rare skills; and lastly owners are those who have the capital to invest in the new technologies.


For the average worker the last type, owners, is not easy to become, you need capital to invest. But the first two: high-skilled workers and superstars is attainable for the average knowledge worker. These two types thrive because they are able to:

  1. learn hard things quickly; and

  2. produce at an elite level quickly.

For both of these abilities you need the act of deep work: (1) in order to learn complex skills you need to utilize deliberate practice, focus intensely on improving that area you're trying to master aka deep work; and (2) to produce quickly you need to maximize your intensity for extended periods of time while you work so you can maximize your results aka you also need deep work.

While deep work is rare and valuable because it produces an extreme amount of value and is difficult to replicate, many businesses focus on "shallow work", what he defines as "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks". These tasks are often performed while distracted. Examples include: replying to email, chatting with co-workers or attending weekly meetings. These efforts are tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate. Shallow work is much more common than deep work because it's In other words, deep work, is rare.

How to do Deep Work

But how do you actually do deep work? Is it as easy as deciding you're going to practice the skill and then "just doing it"? Not necessarily. As James Clear said in his book Atomic Habits, "winners and losers have the same goals... if you want better results... focus on your systems instead. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems". It's not enough to have a goal to work deeply, you need systems to be able to accomplish this.

Newport agrees with this idea. The key to developing a deep work habit is by adding routines and rituals, in other words, systematize your practice of deep work, to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary. Below are Newport's four rules for how to do deep work.

Four Rules for How to Do Deep Work:

  1. Work Deeply. First is to decide how to integrate deep work into your professional life and creating routines and rituals to do so

  2. Embrace Boredom. Then to help improve your concentration ability you must work on overcoming your desire for distraction

  3. Quit Social Media. Thirdly, quit most if not all "network tools" (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and only keep those whose positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative impacts.

  4. Drain the Shallows. Finally, work on eliminating shallow work (e.g. email) as much as possible so you can replace it with deep work.

My Definition of Deep Work

Before going into the techniques and how I've begun implementing deep work in my life. I must first define what is deep work in my life. As stated above the advantage successful knowledge workers have are: learning new skills and producing at an elite level quickly. I broke down those two areas:

  1. Learning - any time spent learning new skills related to data science or learning another subject to broaden my knowledge.

  2. Produce - any time spent on these two areas

    1. Writing - drafting or editing a blog post.

    2. Data Science - working on a data analytics project using skills I've learned like SQL, R or Tableau.

My Implementation

I decided to implement one suggestion from each of the rules. Below I'll go into which strategy I've begun working on with: (1) the explanation of the rule; (2) how I'm implementing it into my life.


All of these techniques are meta-habit, or habits that help you form habits. The ultimate habit or "goal" is to be able to work deeply, you need habits that allow you to do this. These meta-habits are about creating habits that enable you to accomplish this task of deep work, then once you adopt those habits you can adopt the practice of working deeply.

Techniques Implemented:

  1. Rule #1 Work Deeply - Under Execute Like a Business, Keeping a Compelling Scoreboard

  2. Rule #2 Embrace Boredom - Productive Meditation

  3. Rule #3 Quit Social Media - Law of the Vital Few to Social Media Habits

  4. Rule #4 Drain the Shallows - Fixed-scheduled Productivity

#1 Keeping a Compelling Scoreboard:

Explanation:

A physical artifact in the workspace that displays the individual's current deep work hour count


Implementation:

Similar to my article, Reestablishing My Learning Habit, I now set a dedicated timer on my phone, I use Forest, an app designed to help you stay focused. When you want to enter a period of focus you "plant a tree" and then watch it grow while you work, if you leave the app before your tree has grown it dies. The app has a stopwatch and timer: I use the stopwatch if I don't know the time it will take or the timer for when I have a fixed amount of time or am struggling to start. You can use any method here, I use Forest because it gamifies my Deep Work habit. Once I'm done I add that time into my Deep Work Log, formerly called my Learning Log, and track the amount of time I spend each day/week on Deep Work. I created my own dashboard to view the total time spent in certain areas (e.g. Data Science, Web Development, or Writing), popular days, and the total for the month.

#2 Productive Meditation:

Explanation:

Take a period in which you're occupied physically but not mentally (i.e. walking, jogging, driving) and focus your attention on a single well-defined problem. He gives a structure for this: (1) careful review of the relevant variables for solving the problem then storing these values in your working memory; (2) define the specific next-step question you need to answer using these variables; (3) consolidate your gains by reviewing clearly the answer you identified; (4) repeat the process to reach the next level of depth.


Implementation:

I exercise my dog twice a day, in the morning and evening. About two to three times I week I spend that time focusing my attention on either a problem I've faced in my data science work or with a blog article. For example I went through this process writing this blog article by going through the steps Newport suggested above:

  1. I review the variables, what I've already written which was the summary of deep work, and the methods I've used and how that supports the central theme/lesson = being able to focus intensely;

  2. Then I define the next-step question needed to answer using the variables, I thought over what would make this article better like how could I better integrate Cal's Rules with my own implementation or make the article easier to read;

  3. Consolidated my gains by reviewing the answer I gave previously, I reviewed Cal's Rules and what I'd written so far;

  4. And repeated that until I finally came to the conclusion that to keep my article flowing I should explain Cal's 4 Rules briefly, then take a method from each rule to implement and explain.


#3 Law of Vital Few to Social Media Habits:

Explanation:

The process to identify the vital few social media sites to keep is: (1) identify the main high-level goals in both your professional and personal life; (2) list for each two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal, be specific yet general; (3) consider the network tools you use and for each go through the key activities you defined and ask whether the use of the tool has substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on your regular and successful participation in the activity; (4) if the tool has a substantially positive impact then you can keep it

Implementation:

I took a social media break from all of my social media sites, excluding LinkedIn, and then I wrote down goals for my professional and personal life. For example in my professional life the high level goal for me is to switch careers and become a data analyst. The three most important activities for this are:

  1. Network with other data analysts and data scientists to gain insights on the field of data science, and meet others who have successfully transitioned;

  2. Work on projects related to data analysis using common tools by data analysts like SQL and Tableau;

  3. Learn new skills/knowledge in data analysis (e.g. SQL and Tableau) and non-technical (e.g. business practices, communication, writing) by taking courses, reading books, finding articles, or watching informative Youtube videos.

Looking at the tools I use in my professional life:

  • LinkedIn - It satisfies the activities #1 network, and #3 expanding my knowledge. With LinkedIn I can connect with other data analyst but also content writers, and data scientists as well. It also benefits my job search since referrals are one of the top ways to get a job. Also I learn more about data science by reading posts from my connections, and finding suggestions for other resources as well (you can view my own suggestions for learning data science here).

  • Twitter - Satisfies activity #1, networking with other data scientists in an easy way. It also has other personal benefits like keeping up with my local news station, and connecting with other content creators.

For both of the network tools I use above after reviewing them I determined they have a significantly positive impact in my professional life so I kept both tools. I have limited the social media use for my personal life and I only use Instagram and FB messenger now. I did not delete any of my accounts in case my goals change but I have uninstalled the other social media apps like Facebook and Snapchat.

#4 Fixed-scheduled Productivity:

Explanation:

Create a firm goal of not working past a certain time, then work backward to find productivity strategies that allow you to satisfy this declaration. This isn't necessarily a habit but more of a goal and a mindset shift, you want to create habits/routines/rules that allow you to reach your goal of not working past a certain time. You adopt a scarcity mind-set and realize your time is valuable; you adopt specific rules/habits to maximize your time in deep work . This is in addition to the techniques listed above and are ones I have personally developed myself.

Implementation:

My job ends at 17:00 but when I get home I tend to work on personal projects or a course for about an hour. For me, my goal is nothing "productive" past 19:00. In order to do this I've begun to create my own habits/strategies/rules to maximize my time and focus, and also reduce shallow obligations:

  1. No mobile games. I used to spend a large amount of time playing mobile games, I enjoy video games but with mobile games most are "pay to win" or "tap to win". It was addictive and mindless but not as fun as playing dedicated video games on my Xbox. I decided to eliminate all mobile games, I won't become distracted by it, and be focused on watching adds or logging in to get bonus rewards. If I want to play games I use my dedicated Xbox which is at home in my room, and much more enjoyable for me.

  2. Check email only 3 times a day. I only check my email in the morning, afternoon and right before leaving work. Emails can be a time sucker, when you go in to check one email you get lost in other emails. This allows me to still remain in contact with others but limits my ability to become sucked into shallow work.

  3. Limit my projects/obligations. I only take on obligations that align with what I'm working on deeply (e.g. data analysis or writing) and can commit my full attention to. If an answer to an obligation isn't a "hell yes" in my mind and if I have to reduce the time spent on my other hobbies/projects then I say no. It allows me to not only remain focused on my deepest tasks (learning, writing and data science projects) but also have time for other obligations like working out, spending time with my friends, and of course playing fetch with Luna.

I am constantly working on developing new habits/routines to enable me ability to work deeply. These are the ones I have adopted recently/

Conclusion

I've only recently begun in my deep work journey and lifestyle change. I have not implemented all of these techniques at once, I adopted the "slow and steady" approach. I worked on implementing on technique/strategy at a time. As I suggest you do. Find one rule/habit to implement and focus on that for a period of time, then move onto the next one. It may seem like you're barely making any progress if you work on improving yourself a little everyday the compound interest of those improvements will be enormous (similar to the idea of Chapter 1 in the book Atomic Habits).

While I won't be herding sheep anytime soon I have obtained a little bit of deep focus that my dog has.

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