Earlier in the summer I wrote a post on “Books for new faculty” wherein I detailed all the books that current profs recommended to me as I start my new faculty journey (including an editable google doc, so go add some books if you have some in mind!). Now that the semester is a few days away I thought it would be appropriate to throw in my two cents. Over the last year I have read two outstanding books that made me say “wow, I wish I read that earlier!” One book, on the importance of sleep, would have been super appropriate to read as a freshman in college. The other book, on maintaining bouts of deep concentration in this world of constant distraction, would have been very useful on the journey from late college through my postdoc.
Why we sleep
Back in college we would brag about how little we slept. The all-nighters we pulled in the Genesee Hall common rooms before the orgo exams. The late-night caffeine-fueled Milne library study sessions. The respect we would bestow upon one another after hearing about marathon weeks (“they only sleep 3 hours a night!”).
If only I had read Dr. Walker’s Why We Sleep beforehand—
“Sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions and choices. Benevolently servicing our psychological health, sleep recalibrates our emotional brain circuits, allowing us to navigate next-day social and psychological challenges with cool-headed composure.” –Dr. Walker in Why We Sleep
Enriches our ability to learn and memorize and recalibrate our emotional brain circuits allowing us to navigate social challenges? Sounds like sleep is exactly what the doctor ordered for a new college student!
Besides overviewing (with plenty of experiments and evidence to back it up—Dr. Walker is Director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab) everything that sleep enriches, the author also details plenty of aspects of our life that a lack of sleep alters.
Sleep loss inflicts such devastating effects on the brain, linking it to numerous neurological and psychiatric conditions (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, stroke, and chronic pain), and on every physiological system of the body, further contributing to countless disorders and disease (e.g., cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, infertility, weight gain, obesity, and immune deficiency). – Dr. Walker in Why We Sleep
One message from the book that has stuck with me is how we develop a sleep deficit, a debt of sleep we owe our bodies, with any prolonged period of reduced sleep. A few nights of 5–6 sleep hours a night instead of 7–8 hours builds up this deficit, and then we live our waking hours with reduced functionality (decreased cognitive abilities, reaction timing, immune system function, etc. etc. etc.). And, perhaps most worrisome, is that driving with a sleep deficit is just as bad as driving drunk, and it is much more prevalent.
In summary: get some sleep! Now, you may find yourself asking “how could I possible sleep 8 hours a night when I am taking 16 credit hours and working a part time job and figuring out what to do with my life?”
Well, perhaps Deep Work has some answers.
I think my social media usage is pretty cyclic. It typically follows the following pattern:
- Wow, I’m spending a lot of time on my phone mindlessly scrolling through Twitter. I should cut down. I’ll log off and only sign in for important reasons.
- Wow, I’m missing out on conference updates, new manuscripts, and amazing opportunities to share my research. I should check into Twitter more often.
- See (1).
In Deep Work Dr. Cal Newport chronicles our ever-increasing connectivity to one another (or, more appropriately, to our phones and the attention-grabbing algorithms therein) and how this is affecting our ability to concentrate intensely for long periods of time and do meaningful deep work. “Deep work”, he argues, is the bread-and-butter of our information economy. The author then prescribes several rules and ideas to help us recapture our attention span. Here are some that stuck with me:
- Structure your day. Make an hour-by-hour schedule for yourself, and defend your time blocks reserved for your meaningful work. Be aware that breaks for “shallow work” eat into your attention reservoirs and make getting back into deep work all the more difficult.
- Have a time of the day where you stop working, and I mean really stop working. After you finish your work for the day, have a shutdown sequence routine that signifies the end of the work day. Do not check email at home. Let your mind reset and it will be more efficient and ready to work deeply tomorrow.
- Quit social media. Dr. Newport suggests we view social media as a tool, and as any good farmer knows, you need to evaluate the necessity and economic benefit of any tool (not just blindly adopt the usage of a tool because everyone else is doing it!). Contrary to current popular opinion, just because something increases connectivity and has potential to be useful does not mean it will create more benefits than damage for everyone. (Note to students: He does recognize that social media may be very useful for new students that are looking to meet new friends).
I recommend this book to anyone who is finding themselves a little too connected with attention-grabbing algorithm-driven content streams and a not connected enough with work they find meaningful.
A common message
How do we find the time to do meaningful intellectual work in a world saturated in algorithms designed to grab and hold our attention? Well, if my recent reads have anything to say about it, the first thing we need to do is get enough sleep so that we have a healthy bedrock for our concentration to take hold. Next, we need to reserve blocks of time to a single meaningful task—and within this block do everything possible to keep our concentration on that single task. And by “we” I mean “me” because it is time to practice what I preach and get to work (the semester starts tomorrow!) Good luck everyone, remember to sleep!