Gen Z on Deep Work

I asked students to read an excerpt of the first chapter of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work and comment in a discussion board. The prompt asked whether deep work goes on in college and what are the barriers to deep work. I think it’s important for society that some people engage in deep work on our problems. I’m interested in how 20-year-olds perceive Newport’s ideas on focus and what barriers they identify to deep work.

Replies ranged from “I do believe that deep work is happening at college, but I think that it is hard to find students using this strategy regularly.” to “I know multiple people who do not practice deep work….” They each have a different subjective view of “deep work” and their replies are anecdotal. It’s possible that some students are too hard on themselves, considering that I biased them to be negative with the discussion prompt. Some of them might have thought that “deep work” requires many consecutive hours of focus, which is not actually what I expect of undergraduates. Still, the discussion could be helpful to others who aspire to deep work.

The following barriers to deep work were identified:

“The barriers that we experience include social media, roommates, friends, significant others, going to classes, having to work, and any number of other things that cause our day to become disjointed …  We are the first generation that has spent the majority of our life utilizing social media… and in general, are used to taking in information from a large number of sources over a short period of time.

“Most students cannot spend a large amount of hours just focused on the one task at hand and that is required for deep work. For most college students it will be nearly impossible to practice deep work because of a job, outside social life, or a heavy class workload …

“I believe that deep work happens in college a lot.  Students often times must prepare/study for tests for a long time and that is when it happens the most.  When someone has to study for hours they are intensely focused if they put themselves in a good studying environment…

“This can be achieved when you are able to clear your mind of external things and place yourself in a non-distracting environment. As a college student, this can be difficult especially because we are constantly thinking about our to-do list, when will we hang out with friends, or what’s for dinner.

“I think students could come closer to completing true deep work. We do not need to automate an email response or completely lock ourselves away, instead we just need to turn off our phones for a few hours at the time and focus on a singular assignment.

That was my favorite answer. Deep work does not require a week-long retreat to a cabin with no internet.

Several students implied that they believed it will be easier to achieve deep work when they begin a professional career or start a graduate program. One undergraduate thinks it will happen when one is settled into a career and “only have to focus on one thing”. I can see why a 20-year-old believes that there will be less competing for their attention later in life. A 30-year-old would say that the problems remain the same or get worse.

Some defenders (myself included) of the value of education say college is where you “learn how to learn”. Most undergraduates don’t explicitly think of college as a time to practice the skill of working deeply. For example, they might say they did the bare minimum in a required philosophy class but put effort into their business major courses because they think they are learning material that will be useful in a career.

“I know that during big tests or projects I tend to bring a ton of focus to my studying sessions.

“I do think that “deep work” is happening… I will commonly find myself focused and working on an assignment then I get one text from a friend and will be wasting time, scrolling through my phone for hours on end.

“Personally, I have been aware of the concept of deep work for several years. I notice a large negative difference in productivity when I work in the conditions mentioned above. Thus, I have tried to only study in quiet, no disturbance locations, put my phone in another room and only have a few interspersed breaks.

“In order to increase the amount of deep work we perform, we must eliminate certain distractions like Netflix and Snapchat to truly perform to our capabilities

” I do not have social media, but I think that the temptation to constantly check various social media accounts is a huge barrier to deep work for a lot of my peers.

“It is easy to get distracted for hours because of one phone notification. Also turning on a tv show or movie in the background while studying can be a bigger barrier than people think.

Personally, I can’t work while a TV show is on. Maybe some people have adapted their brains better to tuning out TV shows. Here is Leopold on a Netflix temperance movement. Deep work is required to solve problems. The future it not yet written. History will not be made by people watching Netflix and scrolling social media.

Blogging is a way to engage in deep work. I consider it a commitment device for thinking and synthesizing what I learned throughout the week.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a barrier to deep work, for college students and for everyone. What if we were more afraid of missing out on deep work than we are afraid of turning off our phones?

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