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Home » 5th Season » Productivity, Neuroscience, and Deliberate Practice: Deep Work and School (Part 2)

Productivity, Neuroscience, and Deliberate Practice: Deep Work and School (Part 2)

By Dr. Colleen Worrell, Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning

Productivity, Neuroscience, and Deliberate Practice: Deep Work and School (Part 2)

With the school year off to a frenetic start, I am returning to the topic of deep work, which I wrote about in LEO last September. My article, “Make Deep Work Your Super Power,” was supposed to be the first in a series of posts that would connect Georgetown Professor Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World to school and learning. “Deep work” is the ability to focus deeply on a challenging task for a specific period of time, blocking out all distractions in order to get stuff done efficiently and well. The fact that I’m writing part 2 of the “series” one year later proves that I have yet to master this skill. Indeed, my failure to build deep work into my own practice is, in part, what motivates this post.

Yet the sense of urgency I have about deep work goes well beyond changing my own habits. As an educator and a mom, I see this as a vitally important skill that teenagers need to develop not only in order to be good students, but also to maintain the health and well-being of their developing brains. Like Newport, I believe that by deliberately cultivating our ability to focus and carving out time “for real intense focused work,” we can be more productive, increase our brain’s capacity to perform cognitively demanding work, and develop habits that will help us live a “deep life… rich with productivity and meaning” (Deep Work 263).  

To recap, here are some key reasons for making deep work one of your “superpowers” (Deep Work 14):

  • “Distraction-free concentration” (as in NO cell phone peeks, email checks, or social media breaks) enables you to use time more effectively and be more productive
  • Intense focus can yield higher quality work (in this recent NPR podcast Newport offers Mark Twain, J.K. Rowling, and Carl Jung as mode practitioners)
  • Constant distraction and “media multitasking” are bad for your brain (read this short post to learn more), whereas the intense focus of deep work helps to build neural networks (“Cal Newport on Deep Work”)
  • Distraction and multitasking can cause anxiety and dissatisfaction (Time 2016), while deep work and “deep living” is “about being happier due to the fact that you are doing more rewarding work” (You 2.0: The Value of “Deep Work” in an Age of Distraction).

To apply Professor Newport’s conception of “deep work” to school and our lives as teachers and learners, I’ve adapted his definition of the term slightly to fit into our context:

Deep Work: [Learning] activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit (Deep Work 3).

In this series, I will suggest ways that we can deliberately practice deep work at (and beyond) St. Mark’s. Here are some steps to help you get started:

  1. Take some time to understand what deep work is and why it matters. I encourage you to read the first post in this series and explore some of the resources I link to here to learn more.
  2. Block out 60-90 minutes of time where you can work on a complex task (e.g., writing a LEO article)
  3. During your deep work time, put away phones, turn on wifi, and focus only on your task — no “quick checks” of phones, email, etc. (you’ll know why if you completed step 1 above!).

In the next post, I will share ideas for scheduling, choosing spaces, and developing routines that enable you to focus and be productive.

Remember, the ability to focus and work deeply is not only a valuable skill for learning and getting work done, it’s also a way for us to care for and nourish our brains. More on that in (I hope)… a not too distant future post!

Dr. Colleen Worrell is the Director of The Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning. She earned a BA in American Studies from Colby College and an MA/PhD in American Studies from The College of William & Mary. Dr. Worrell teaches Social Justice. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband, 3 children, chickens, and a couple of hives of bees.


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