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Deep Work ICM501

Surfing with Intention

Data Visualization showing how time was spent over the course of a the 5-day detox.

Media has, in one way or another, taken a hold of our lives. We use it to stay connected with friends, network, read the news, and/or find the latest entertainment. It’s become so habitual, that the act of going online is nearly invisible to our awareness. For me, I tend to fill pockets of downtime with surfing the web and social media aimlessly. My small breaks turn into chunks of wasted time that leave me feeling guilty and unproductive. Although I had originally defended these browsing breaks as a form of relaxation, chapter 3 of Cal Newport’s book Deep Work helped me realized the flaw in my thinking and my behavior. Referring to an experiment known as “Experience Sampling Method (ESM)” conducted by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson, their research revealed that “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.[1] The mental state described here is known as “flow” and is very similar to the concept of deep work.[2] This research paired with my own feelings made it clear that how I was spending my downtime wasn’t good for me or making me happy. 

With this new realization in mind, I decided to conduct a mini-experiment. 

The Challenge
Can I change my default downtime activity of mindlessly surfing the web to something more worthwhile or intentional? 

The Action Plan
Using pen and paper, track my activities for 5 days. Identify those pockets of downtime that I normally use to surf the web and record what I chose to do instead. 

The Goal
Understand if and how this change affects my well-being and sense of time well-spent. 

Key Moments
Day 01:
I work up very early today (5:30 am) today and automatically reached for my phone to kill some time surfing the web until it was time to get up. I recognized this automatic behavior immediately and was able to pivot. Instead, I made coffee and enjoyed a nice quiet morning reading a new book in bed for an hour. I loved everything about this morning and felt more relaxed and energized than I normally do getting on my phone first thing in the morning. 

Day 02:
I had a mini slip-up today and ended up taking a break from schoolwork and surfing the web for about 20 minutes. Upon this realization, I decided to chat with my mom instead. Again, I felt so much happier using my time to give someone I love my attention versus scrolling without intention. 

Day 03:
According to research conducted by psychologists Kristen Duke, Adrian Ward, Ayelet Gneezy, Maarten Bos,[3] the mere presence of our phones reduces our cognitive abilities, and that the closer our phones are to us, the more severe this cognitive impact becomes. So, I decided today to put more distance between me and my phone by leaving it in another room during dinner. Normally during dinners, I have my phone near me and find reasons to google things over the table. This time, my full attention was immersed in light-hearted conversation and laughs. 

Day 04:
Traveled today and had a 1hr 50min layover in Dallas. Instead of getting on my phone, I spent the time reading and writing. Just like when I read in bed that one morning, this felt so much more relaxing and energizing for me compared to how I usually feel in these circumstances when I am usually surfing the web. 

Day 05:
Didn’t reach for my phone once unless it was to call or text friends and family. Had it on the other side of the room while I read and wrote, and watched movies for the undistracted. It was a relaxing and rewarding day.  

Conclusions
I realized that I don’t have a strong attachment to my phone and that I enjoyed the benefits of disconnecting from it. My bad habits derived more from conditioning than necessity. Sometimes I did miss social media and reading the news, but the separation from those elements brought clarity about how I want to use the internet with intention moving forward. I hope I can continue to be mindful of how to better spend my time to enrich my life further. 

I also realized just how fragmented my schedule has been lately and how my current routine is not one that supports deep work. I was visiting family during this time so that of course is a major cause for so much distraction—but even so, tracking how I spent my time made it clear that I jump from task to task too much and tend to pace around frequently. I hope I can use this insight to restructure my routine and build discipline so that I can devote larger segments of time to the type of work that will reward me most. 


[1] Newport, C. (2016). Ch 3. In Deep Work. Grand Central Publishing.

[2] Newport, C. (2016). Ch 3. In Deep Work. Grand Central Publishing.

[3] Duke, K. Ward, A., Gneezy, A., & Bos. M. (2018, March 20). Having Your Smartphone Nearby Takes a Toll on Your Thinking. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2018/03/having-your-smartphone-nearby-takes-a-toll-on-your-thinking

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