This quote about the effect of constant distraction on our brains always stops me in my tracks:
“Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.” – Cal Newport, Deep Work
That idea always renews my desire to cut down on frenetic shallowness and avoid the superficial mental hopping from one distraction, one reel, or one micro-task to another. When I lecture about productivity and how to get more meaningful work done in a day, I often contrast frenetic shallowness with scheduled, intentional, focused, deep work. I lay out the idea of architecting your day with scheduled deep work, such as complex projects, planning, thinking, and writing. Then I suggest scheduling in time for the shallow work such as emails, logging hours, paperwork, and other relatively simple tasks so that we get it done and it doesn’t encroach on our deep work time.
However, deep work is not the only opposite of frenetic shallowness. This weekend I got to experience another opposite that was even more powerful for restoring my cognitive bandwidth, and that is focused stillness.
I had the blissful opportunity to get away to a quiet island on the NC shore with two friends. We talked, walked, drank hot cups of tea, and played card games. But we also just sat and watched the waves in silence and stillness.
For me, I go through several phases before getting to stillness. When trying to be still, I first experience a flurry of racing thoughts: I need to send that email, I need to order that thing, I need to reformat that spreadsheet, I need to finish that report, I need to make that phone call, I can’t possibly sit here, I have too much to do! I let those run through my mind and then let them run out. I don’t try to hold onto them in my head, because that causes continued cognitive activation and more racing thoughts. Instead, I let them settle out and stop running around.
Next, I’m faced with an empty stage. When all the racing thoughts settle, my brain looks around and thinks: What should I think about? I don’t answer. There is nothing it should think about. My mind can just be present and wander or figuratively stroll around where it likes.
Then, the next phase is enjoying the surroundings, feeling the breeze, listening to the waves, and being present without any judgment or appraisal.
Finally, as my brain continues to enjoy the moment, it starts to become more open. It starts to make new connections, develop new ideas, and notice things it had missed before. Metaphorically, my brain stands up, stretches, looks around, and starts to slowly wander through new ideas and possibilities.
Whenever a racing thought returns, I let it run across the stage of my mind. I don’t try to catch it or trap it or keep it front and center. I let it run on and then run off. If I want to, I’ll write it down to keep it from coming back on stage. I can then more easily return to focused stillness and creativity.
A weekend of quiet and stillness helped remind me, yet again, that the usual state of near-constant frenetic shallowness wears down our cognitive abilities. Our minds were made for a cadence of work and rest. Too often, our work consists of an eternal to-do list of never-ending frenetic shallowness, and our “rest,” or time away from work, is just more weariness and frenetic shallowness, just in a different physical location.
Instead, we need time to let our souls catch up with our bodies. Though not original to him, I first came across this concept in John Mark Comer’s book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. His central point is that:
“The solution to an over-busy life is not more time. It’s to slow down and simplify our lives around what really matters.” – John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
Intentional times of stillness and reflection allow us to remember what matters to us, what things keep us needlessly busy, and where our busyness, ambition, or desires cross over from adaptive to maladaptive.
This week, try making time for a real break from frenetic shallowness. Let your mind settle, breathe, and stretch. Find a better cadence of work and rest. Give yourself a break from the constant barrage of racing thoughts. Let your soul catch up with your body. You will probably find that in the focused stillness, you can reach greater depths of insight, clarity, restoration, and peace.