Long-time readers will be aware of my propensity to share liberally from Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter. If you’re not yet a subscriber, I recommend you becoming one. You rarely come away without something meaningful and thought-provoking.
His latest post explores the trend towards looking to pursue ‘deep work’ with our working lives and to minimise interruptions that pull us away from said deep work.
While agreeing with the theory, and actively trying to practice this, Burkeman points out a few challenges.
’Most of these methods of reducing or eliminating interruptions reliably seem to make the experience of being interrupted much worse,’ he writes.
He then adds, ‘living my life with a strong emphasis on eliminating interruptions makes interruptions feel more disruptive when they happen; and it causes more things to get defined as interruptions’.
The more we make life about eliminating interruptions, the more things we consider to be interruptions, and therefore the more interrupted we end up feeling.
As Burkeman puts it, ‘going through the world with the default assumption that it’s full of people and things that need holding at bay seems to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy: it makes more and more people and things seem as though they must indeed be held at bay, if you’re ever to get a moment to hear yourself think.’
What’s the solution to this? There’s no denying that there are clear benefits to the pursuit of deep work. But most of us live in the real world, where the elimination of interruptions is not fully in our control, or where, as discussed, we’re making ourselves feel more interrupted due to our no-interruptions mindset.
And it is our mindset that we’re putting onto these interruptions. ‘The very idea of things obstructing each other—or of one thing interrupting something else—is a mental overlay we bring to the situation, not a property of the external situation itself,’ Burkeman says.
Burkeman ends his piece by sharing a quote from the Christian writer C.S. Lewis:
The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.
This is so helpful! It’s not that we shouldn’t have boundaries. And it’s not that we shouldn’t pursue having parts of our day dedicated to deep work. It’s just that we mustn’t let the inevitable disruptions ruin our day. Better to be adaptable and embrace some of the interruptions that come our way—our mind will be in a better place if we’re less rigid.