Saturday, October 17, 2020

Off the Shelf: Deep Work


Think of yourself as celery. Now, think of yourself as celery, cut and placed in a glass half full of cool water. Now, see tiny blobs of deep blue food dye dripped into that clear water. Wait just a while, and see that same color echo its vibrancy in your own being as it infuses you with the same hue. That's what I think when I imagine the idea, Learning by Osmosis.

Turns out, my style of learning-by-soaking-up-everything has both a corollary and an antithesis. I've found it in a book—a book I stumbled upon while looking for something else. But let's save that thought for just a bit.

As background for that statement, let me explain. In learning style, I've found at least two variants. One I call the Outline Style. You know how this thinking goes: main points equal Roman numerals. Sub-points are subordinate to their corresponding Roman numeral and garner capital letters, while minor supporting facts merit Arabic numerals. Next main point: repeat. This is a learning discipline guaranteed to keep you on the path straight and narrow—but leaves much to be desired for those whose brains simply do not work under such organizational restraints.

The other learning style, one which seems more naturally designed for what our culture now calls "creatives," is what some have called the Mind Map style. Interestingly, when British author Tony Buzan first introduced the idea in his book and television program back in the 1970s, he used a diagram to organize information into key points—a diagram looking much like a tree. This may be a concept which will help genealogists feel quite at home.

The downside to that style of omni-directional thinking is that it can, alas, lead the undisciplined learner down rabbit trails.  Strangely, such digression is where my latest reading has brought me.

The book I'm concentrating on this month—and I do mean concentrating—is a four year old volume by a Georgetown University computer science professor. I found this book, true confessions, while I was looking for something else. Not that I'm anything close to a computer geek, but I find the call of this book's title resonating with me: Deep Work. It's a book about being able to "focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task."

And there's the rub, the reason why I think, within its pages, I'll find both the antithesis, as well as a corollary, to my style of learning. Author Cal Newport maintains that the distraction brought on by a newly hyper-connected world "has fragmented most knowledge workers' attention into slivers." What he advocates, in its place, is what he calls "Deep Work":

Professional activities preformed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push...cognitive capabilities to their limit.

I wouldn't be surprised if most people, thinking of such a deep level of concentration and given the choice of which thought-organizing style would best diagram such a state, would choose as representative the outline form of thought organization over the mind mapping version. Outlines, after all, are what our teachers trained us to do to keep our notes organized and, of course, get an A+ for their course. Mind mapping seems so undisciplined, so whimsical, so scatterbrained.

Yet so thorough, at least for the people whose brains capture wisps of thought missed by the otherwise organized outliners. Can it be possible for someone to concentrate so well as to fully absorb a topic and yet not rope it in by the linear, sequential thinking method of outlining?

When I think of getting so deep into a subject I am studying that all else is shut out to the exclusion of my learning goal, I think of one word: immersion. And yet, for those of us who have spent any time submerged in water, we find that experience to be one in an omni-directional world. That water surrounds us in every direction, not just Step I, Step II, Step III.

The hazard in that learning water, we realize, is to stay the course: to not allow ourselves to become distracted by any curiosity which happens to float by any sensors of our awareness. Is it possible to engage in an open learning style such as that typified by mind mapping—everything coming at us from every direction—and yet resolutely maintain the discipline necessary to prevent trespassing inappropriate barriers to "deep work"? 

I believe, in what I call Learning by Osmosis, in a strange marriage of concentration—think the dye in the celery's water cup—and the freedom to fully explore the diffusion of the "water" in which we live, we take on the essence of both elements. We adapt to the dye, we thrive on the water. We process both. We need the discipline of "Deep Work" to help hone our learning environment and protect us while we explore the freedom of the topic in which we are submerged.




  1. Well - you are speaking my language here, or at least putting a finger right on my problem. I've ordered the book - but really, some of your descriptive phrases are already at work in my brain. Thanks, Jacqi.

    1. Glad they are helpful, Lisa. To clarify, though, much of what I've written above comes from my own thinking over the years. I find the Deep Work topic to be a useful corollary to what I've already been thinking about how to think, and how to muster the concentration to work through research problems requiring the combination of multiple sources of information.


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