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Deep Work

Like many people living in the 21st Century I find I can become easily distracted by what Cal Newport calls 'shallow work'. This is the daily management of competing distractions: checking your email inbox, posting on social media, catch-up meetings and so on. Newport's argument isn't that there is anything fundamentally wrong with these things - or that in 2017 it is practical or desirable to live without them - but instead that we allow shallow work to dominate our attention at the expense of mastering and accomplishing truly great things.

In his book Deep Work (2016) Newport, a writer and academic with a background in computing, draws from examples from Carl Jung to Bill Gates to illustrate how the ability to concentrate, to focus deeply, is an essential skill we will all need if we are going to produce things of value in a increasingly complex and technologically obsessed world.

So what has this got to do with swimming? What struck me in almost every section of the book was how similar the solutions offered in Deep Work are to Total Immersion's method of teaching and mastering swimming. For example, to really master a TI stroke you will need to be able to focus on single elements or focal points without getting distracted.

Whilst Newport's targets are the distractions from social media - how Twitter and Facebook promote shallow work - in the pool we deal with different types of distractions that can disrupt our focus and development as swimmers. Common distractions might be; trying to think about all parts of the stroke all at once or what's going on around you or even what other swimmers might think of you!

So it is important in helping maintain focus / attention-building skills that in Total Immersion we break down the elements of a stroke into a logical series of drills and focal points which enable swimmers to fine-tune individual parts of the stroke before combining everything together in the full stroke. Without this level of focused, fine-detail attention that the drills provide it is unlikely that anyone would be able to achieve a truly accomplished TI stroke. There isn't a TI Coach anywhere that doesn't still regularly practice drills.

In Deep Work Newport writes about the importance of rigorously setting aside a special time and space to deeply concentrate - in other words to develop new habits. He uses the example of Carl Jung who for periods of time would write intensively in a tower he had built with no electricity or contact from the outside world. This is where Jung developed a practice of 'deep working', writing some of his most influential works here. So although a lot of Jung's professional work involved interacting with other people, like patients and colleagues, he was firm when it was time to focus. Without this space to focus he may not have been able to formulate his most groundbreaking ideas.

Likewise the development of new swimming habits sometimes requires the firm use of a restricted, privileged space to focus. This space might be the moments in between the steady "beep" of the tempo trainer, or the conscious repetition of particular focal point during a long swim. Like the process of entering a state of 'deep work' distractions melt away during this time and there we are able to accomplish true progress.

Terry Laughlin has written about Total Immersion that 'the rules for swimming well are the same as those for living well'. In other words - you might come to TI to take lessons in swimming but you'll probably also take away lessons that are useful for all parts of your life. For me personally I really like the "win-win" idea that I am improving my attention-building and focus through TI swimming and at the same time also improving my ability to focus (perform deep work) in other areas of my life.

I'd recommend reading Deep Work to anyone who feels like modern-day distractions are impacting on their ability to really achieve the things they want to do. And also to swimmers who are interested in how principles in Total Immersion practice (attention building / focus / good habit-forming) might complement their working life outside of the pool.

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