A distraction-free digital life | Sunday Observer

A distraction-free digital life

13 February, 2022

No other period than the one we are passing now itself epitomised the worth of digitalisation. When a heavily bustling world had to retreat into a lockdown, it did mean serious business. Thankfully the digital phenomenon came to the rescue, and the world continued to operate – at least to a certain extent – on a digital platform. This newspaper, well including others, did not merely survive. It thrived thanks to its digital presence.

A few decades ago, humans foresaw a future run on digital technology. We predicted that digitalism will make everything easy. It will offer the solution to many daily problems. Simply put, we foresaw digitalism will make everything. But then, we now steer the conversation in a direction we never thought of before. We have passed several episodes in this long human history of nationalism, communism and liberalism. Digitalism has emerged as the new normal especially during the pandemic period.

Are we free?

Professor Yuval Noah Harari

Dr Cal Newport

Now that we are truly in a digital period where almost everything is just a click away, it is worth reconsidering our position. Are we free? Have we become more productive? Has technology enabled us to live a better life? Does it keep us better informed than our ancestors? Does it keep us connected and empowered? The simple answer on paper is a big yes. Yet not without the consequences.

With all this smoothly set in order, humans are headed down the path of addiction. This addiction results in other matters such as alienating one from oneself. We have now come to a point where we heavily depend on the digital phenomenon and can hardly be independent of the very trap. We hardly have time to be productive but blessed with leisure to spread conspiracy theories against vaccination, commenting on everything under the sun and much other whatnot.

Professor Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow compares this with the industrial revolution producing a working class. The digital revolution has produced what he terms ‘useless’ class.


Harari argues that technology will continue to be far more powerful than ever before. As digitalisation surrounds us all the time, we depend on it deceiving ourselves that it makes our life better. However, disillusionment and escaping the technology is easier said and done. We cannot escape the digital presence altogether.

Dr Cal Newport, who has authored several books on themes such as digital minimalism and deep work, reminds us that digitalism has made things much harder for us than before.

Digitalism has promised to make things easier. But Cal Newport is on a quest to uncover better ways for knowledge workers to collaborate. For that, he maintains that human needs digital independence as against the prevailing heavy dependence. With evidence and examples from the cutting edge of programming to the factory floors of a century ago, Newport makes a compelling argument that we can and will do much, much better than simply checking email, WhatsApp and other social media.

Although digitalism promises us to make our work easier, it hoodwinks us in a way. Newport mentions it thus:

Knowledge workers’ role dwindled

The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools. This is a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.

A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 per cent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 per cent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone.

That said, modern networked technology has dwindled the role of the knowledge workers whereas it must be otherwise. The knowledge workers continue to prefer hollow alternatives over deep work and absorb them in scrolling up and down social media. This is a result of the distraction produced by the digital environment. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality, Newport adds.

To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift toward the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed.


Digitalism, therefore, is redefining the world we are trapped with: distraction. We live amid distractions and suffer from scarce attention. If the ancient world suffers from scarcity, we in the modern world are far from it. In fact, we have the trouble of having to deal with too many things.

Thanks to digital distraction the human race has become busier rather than being productive. One of the viable solutions to redress this issue could be Newport’s concept of deep work. As Newport puts it “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Most Silicon Valley stalwarts do want their children to go tech-free. Most stalwarts themselves have retreated into tech-free zones. We cannot bestow that luxury upon ourselves. Then again, the computer scientists such as Cal Newport provide us insights to opt for a more productive lifestyle while acknowledging the digital presence. Newport divides deep work into four major types:

The first type, the Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling, is the most dedicated form of deep work and involves spending all of your working hours on a singular high-level focus. While this philosophy has the highest potential for reward and the lowest level of context switching, it’s unrealistic for most people who are required to perform various kinds of work in their roles.

It also blocks the potential for new opportunities as your default response to commitments that arise is, “no”.

The second type, the Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling allows for a high amount of deep work while enabling you to maintain other activities in your life that you find valuable. Successfully adopting this philosophy requires the flexibility to arrange your year, months, or weeks as you see fit into larger chunks of deep work.

The third, the Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling is ideal for individuals with a fairly static schedule. If you can anticipate what most of your days will look like, it’s feasible to block off several hours every day for deep work, thereby getting into a daily ‘rhythm’, and leaving the rest of your hours for shallow work.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling, the fourth, is an option for people who are constantly on the move with little to no regularity to their days. This method demands vigilance with your time and the keen ability to notice natural ebbs and flows in your day where you may be able to fit in 30 minutes or an hour or two of deep work. Unfortunately, this method is not for beginners and is likely to fail for people who are not experienced in deep work.

Practising intention with your time and considering when you’ll fit in periods of focus is an important part of succeeding with a deep work habit.


Make the following considerations when building a deep work ritual:

Location – choose a space that’s distraction-free and conducive to long periods of focus. In the absence of such a location, opt for noise-cancelling headphones that will shut out the world while you work and notify your brain that it’s time to focus. Try to be consistent with your environment; familiarity will allow you to get into deep work mode more quickly.

Duration – Before you start a deep work session, determine precisely how much time you’ll devote to the task ahead. Start small, with as little as 15 minutes, and work your way up to longer sessions. Your ability to focus will improve as you flex your deep work muscle.

Structure – Set structure for yourself and define what deep work mode looks like. For instance, will your phone be off or on? Will you let yourself check the internet? Can you walk to the kitchen to get a snack? How will you measure the success of a session (i.e. pages read, lines coded, words written)? Whatever your rules, make them explicit and follow them for the duration of your deep work session.

Requirements – After a few sessions of focused work, you’ll learn what you require to support your commitment to deep work. This may include a specific type of music, your favourite beverage, or access to specific software. Always have everything you need before diving in.

This may not be in line with the more popular option of digital detox, but more practical in terms of our daily commitments. We cannot escape the digitalism surrounding us, but at least there is a way to live more productively with fewer distractions.