You’ll Need An Extra Piece of Paper

Deep work — the idea and book by Cal Newport — is that we all need periods of time to work uninterrupted. This gives us the opportunity to create meaningful ideas that really push the needle.

There’s a lot to unpack in the book and even in the sentence above, but once you set aside time for “deep work” — you’ll need an extra piece of paper.

Write down all of your distractions

When you start down the deep work path — avoiding all texts, emails, social media and the impulse to look up random stuff — one thing that helps put your mind at ease is if you write down all of your distracting thoughts and ideas.

For example, I just (re)watched the 90’s movie Quiz Show, starring Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro as quiz show participants that were fed the answers by the station. They faked looking smarter than they actually were. During my “deep work” session the next day, some random questions about the movie popped into my head. What were the Rotten Tomatoes review? Had Ralph Fiennes been in anything recently? Totally innocuous questions. But instead of opening up the browser and looking for the answers right then and there, I just wrote them down on an extra piece of paper, separate from my work. This allows me to…

Evaluate their importance later

If one of my distracting ideas are truly valuable, like an idea that relates to another project, I’ll come back to that idea. Or…in the case of my Quiz Show example, I never went back and looked for the answers to my questions. My interest in it had waned. They weren’t as important as I thought they were in that moment. By having an extra piece of paper to jot down these random thoughts, I was able to keep going on my work.

This limits attention residue

Newport talks about the idea of “attention residue”, how when we quickly change tasks or interrupt our work, something lingers from the previous task. This happens when we check email or Twitter or whatever. That stray thought and little 5 minute exploration affects how we think going forward. It takes some time to get that stuff out of our head and fully on the deep work task. But if you write down your distraction — instead of pursuing it even for five minutes — more of your focus is preserved.

Next time you sit down to focus, grab an extra piece of paper. It’ll save your attention.