Our daily lives require us to navigate a swarm of distractions – push notifications, pop-ups, phone calls, emails. Whether you are a student or a professional, modern-day work invariably involves dealing with distractions that make it almost impossible to get anything done. What happens when you add summer break to the equation?
We may think summer means more time on our hands and therefore more mental energy for the things we care about, but the reality is that our lifestyles completely derail this high hope. Instead of focusing on what we know must be done, we find ourselves at one o’clock in the morning binge watching our fifth episode of 13 Reasons Why, or some other addictive series. We spend our morning scrolling through Facebook and Instagram looking at what friends are doing on vacation. We get lost down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos, wondering how we got from “The Daily Show” to “Snoop Dogg Narrates Animal Planet Otters” (which, to be honest, isn’t too bad for a quick laugh at the end of the day).
Excessive free time only reveals what we tend to ignore when we have a million things to do: we really don’t know how to focus.
According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, focus is the new IQ. With the number of well-educated, competent people always on the rise, what really sets you apart is your ability to take what you know and apply it in a meaningful way. In order to create real value in the work we do, we must be able to put in the time and mental energy required to achieve that we want to get out – we must do the “deep work”.
Deep work is the really valuable work – it’s not the emailing, messaging or meetings. It’s thinking work. It’s hard, and it requires practice. Most of us are far less competent at deep work than we think we are because we very rarely do it.
What better time than summer break to do some mental rewiring? With so much time on our hands, summer is the perfect time to do some of the deep work needed for success in college and the workplace.
- Eat a frog for breakfast
How do you shape your day and spend your time? What goals do you set, what boundaries do you create, what rules do you follow? Establishing a daily routine can do wonders for the quality of your day. Live by the “eat-a-frog principle” – choose one hard task to do each day and get it out of the way early. Stick with this habit throughout the summer and you’ll be amazed at what you’ve achieved by the end of it.
- Create boundaries
Social media. We all have to confront our dependence on it eventually. Research is mounting on how all those notifications and checks are damaging our attention spans. We’re becoming addicted to constant stimulation and losing the ability to focus on one thing alone.
It won’t kill you to take a hiatus for a week or a month. If you absolutely cannot go offline completely, allocate a single chunk of time per day for checking updates, preferably only after you’ve accomplished that one priority for the day. This simple habit will teach you how to prioritize and take away the guilt that usually accompanies endless scrolling.
- Be ambitious – set some goals!
Learn something new. Get a job and gain some experience. Volunteer somewhere. Whatever you do this summer, you must give yourself purpose. Goal-setting, and more importantly, goal-achieving, is what equips us for success. Too often we think vacation implies a mental holiday. While it is important to rest, we don’t need to neglect the basic cognitive training that we all need to stay mentally fit. The world today demands lifelong learners, and that is an attitude and habit that is cultivated while we’re young.
Summer break is a rare chance to pay attention to the things we’ve neglected for too long. For many of us, that may be mental stamina. Summer learning loss is real. One study found that on average, students’ achievement scores decline over summer vacation by one month’s worth of school-year learning. The extent of the loss is larger at higher grade levels. You might no longer be in high school, but the effects are the same. The only way we can avoid the “summer slide” is by training ourselves to be comfortable with regular mental effort.
You know very well you’ve heard this all before. You’ve heard it because it’s true. We live in a world that is slowly eroding our mental capacity and it’s going to take some effort to fight back. Challenge yourself to stay focused. It is the only way.