I get some of my best ideas in the shower. Even after some of the roughest days, when my brain feels like it’s been put in a blender, somehow I emerge from the steam of that tiled cave with the best copy or the clearest approach to a project I’ve been fighting with for hours in my head.
I was originally inspired to use shower time as thinking time by one of my history professors in college. He told my class that after hours of studying for an exam, when we were exhausted but afraid to take a break, that we should go take a shower. Not only would it be useful for self-care, but if we were able to go over everything we’d been studying in our heads while we were in the shower, then that was a comforting sign we actually knew the content.
Cal Newport (2016) calls this use of time productive meditation. The idea behind this strategy is to use the time when you are occupied by a physical task to concentrate deeply on a singular mental task, usually a problem of academic or professional nature. Not only is this an efficient use of time for those of us with full schedules, but it’s also a great technique to help increase your concentration.
Whether while exercising or commuting or showering, the goal is to keep directing your mental attention on a singular problem. If your brain tries to avoid the difficulty of working through your chosen task by instead wondering about your grocery list or that email you need to respond to, you must consistently refocus it on the task at hand. By resisting the pull of distraction consistently in these chunks of time, you are training your brain to concentrate better and longer overall. Thus, when faced with the never-ending distractions of our digitally connected world, you will be stronger in your resistance to them, making deep work more possible in your life.
Do not, however, mistake this layered use of time for multitasking. Multitasking is loosely understood to mean doing 2 things at once. In this case, you would be doing 2 things at once, but it’s pretty simple, and in many cases necessary, for us to do a physical task at the same time as a mental one. There’s always the risk of distraction if we focus too deeply in our heads in a moment, but most of us are capable of having a conversation with someone while walking down the street or cooking dinner. Think about it, is there ever really a conscious time when we’re not using our minds? All productive meditation asks is that we focus them on a specific problem during the span of a physical task, rather than letting them wander wherever they please.
The other problem with considering productive meditation multitasking is that multitasking is a fallacy. We often use multitasking to describe doing 2 mental things at once, typically at work. Scientific research has proven, though, that our brains are structurally incapable of doing more than one cognitive operation at a time. “Even trying to parallel path a cognitive activity and a more automatic activity doesn’t really work. That’s why the National Transportation Safety Board reports that texting while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit” (Mautz, 2017, pp. 5).
Multitasking is more accurately called “task switching” because our brains can transition back and forth between multiple tasks at lighting speed (Mautz, 2017). However, unlike using shower time to help you with productivity and concentration, task switching works against you. Up to 40% of your productivity may be being lost if you consider yourself a multitasker. Not only are you shortening the amount of time your brain is conditioned to concentrate on a single subject, but you’re also wasting valuable time as your brain adjusts from one subject to the next (Mautz, 2017).
When engaged in task switching, we are most likely using an attention strategy Linda Stone termed continuous partial attention in which we focus on every task at a shallow level without producing much (Fallows, 2013). Stone emphasizes that this strategy is not inherently worse than any other strategy. “The important thing for us as humans is to have the capacity to tap the attention strategy that will best serve us in any given moment” (Fallows, 2013). However, if your aim is to do deep work this strategy will not assist you.
The sheer number of distractions that we face today is wearing down our concentration, and thus our ability to utilize more productive attention strategies when appropriate. For example, Clive Thompson (2017) believes social media’s biggest threat is not the widely discussed possibilities that it’s making us narcissistic or depressed, but that it makes our brains obsessed with the moment. We’re now conditioned to believe that we must know what the latest happenings are at all times, so we scroll through our feeds and stories at every opportunity: while traveling to and from work, working out and even, at sometimes deadly cost, while bathing.
I challenge you to fill these cognitively open times instead with concentration building tasks. Taking control of regularly training your brain’s capacity for concentration, whether through productive meditation or another approach, is more important than ever if you wish to truly be productive and do deep work.
Fallows, J. (2013, June). The art of staying focused in a distracting world. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/06/the-art-of-paying-attention/309312/
Mautz, S. (2017, May 11). Psychology and neuroscience blow-up the myth of effective multitasking. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/psychology-and-neuroscience-blow-up-the-myth-of-effective-multitasking.html
Molina, B. (2017, July 11). Texas girl electrocuted while using cellphone in bathtub. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/07/11/texas-girl-electrocuted-while-using-cellphone-bathtub/467225001/
Newport, C. (2016). Rule 2: embrace boredom. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 155-180). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Thompson, C. (2017, November 15). Social media is keeping us stuck in the moment. This. Retrieved from https://this.org/2017/11/15/social-media-is-keeping-us-stuck-in-the-moment/