The constant ping of messages that keep us plugged into work chatter might be doing more harm than good. We feel we must respond – it is about work, after all. But always being switched on means we never have the chance to think deeply. And that is a problem for companies that want to get the most out of their employees.
The next great revolution in the office will need to correct this, according to one man who wants to reset the way we work. He believes that the value someone can bring to a company will be judged not by their skill, but by their ability to focus. But how do we find the time to shut off distractions and do our best work?
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Our workplaces are set up for convenience, not to get the best out of our brains, says Cal Newport, bestselling author of books including Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and a Georgetown University professor. In knowledge sector jobs, where products are created using human intelligence rather than machines, we must be switched on at all times and prepared to multitask. These are two things that are not compatible with deep, creative, insightful thinking.
“In knowledge work, the main resource is the human brain and its ability to produce new information with value,” says Newport. “But we are not good at getting a good return.”
Some people swear by multitasking even when we intuitively know that our brains struggle to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Psychologists thought that busy multitaskers possessed abnormal control over their attention. But evidence suggests that multitaskers do not have a particular gift for being able to juggle multiple projects. In fact, in many cognitive tasks, heavy multitaskers underperform. Our brains have a limited capacity for what they can work on at any given moment. And using tricks to cram as much into our working day as possible might be doing more harm than good.
Being switched on at all times and expected to pick things up immediately makes us miserable, says Newport. “It mismatches with the social circuits in our brain. It makes us feel bad that someone is waiting for us to reply to them. It makes us anxious.”
Because it is so easy to dash off a quick reply on email, Slack or other messaging apps, we feel guilty for not doing so, and there is an expectation that we will do it. This, says Newport, has greatly increased the number of things on people’s plates. “The average knowledge worker is responsible for more things than they were before email. This makes us frenetic. We should be thinking about how to remove the things on their plate, not giving people more to do.”
A lesson in deep focus can be learned from software engineers, who never structure their workflow in an ad hoc manner (Credit: Getty Images)
Fighting for concentration
What might being wired for work at all times lead to? Inevitably, burnout. Newport describes this way of working as a “hyperactive hivemind”. Unstructured conversations on messaging apps and meetings dropped into diaries on the fly congest our day. His objective, to give people the space to do their best work without distraction, is the subject of his next book: The World Without Email.
Newport’s idea is to allow workers to do less work, but better. Cutting out unnecessary chatter is important but only if the organisation's culture allows for slower communication.
“Managers spend 85% of the day in meetings, on the phone or talking to people about work, not doing it,” says Newport. “It’s flexible and adaptive, but conflicts with the way that the human brain operates. Those context shifts are devastating and burn you out. People then try to cope with ‘hacks’ like no-email Fridays. But this doesn’t work because there is no workflow in place for not emailing each other.”
Managers spend 85% of the day in meetings, on the phone or talking to people about work, not doing it. It’s flexible and adaptive, but conflicts with the way that the human brain operates - Newport
Going cold turkey on email or Slack will only work if there is an alternative in place. Newport suggests, as many others now do, that physical communication is more effective. But the important thing is to encourage a culture where clear communication is the norm.
Newport is advocating for a more linear approach to workflows. People need to completely stop one task in order to fully transition their thought processes to the next one. However, this is hard when we are constantly seeing emails or being reminded about previous tasks. Some of our thoughts are still on the previous work – an effect called attention residue.
Annoyingly, the busier we are, the more we switch tasks. So feeling busy is not conducive to deep concentration. Estimates of how long it takes us to refocus after a distraction vary. But at the top end, one study found on average it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain deep focus after an interruption.
The flipside is that it is very convenient to have everyone in an ongoing conversation, Newport says. But convenience is never the goal in business, it is value. The assembly line revolutionised car production but it is not a convenient system – it is the system that produces the most cars quickly.
It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain deep focus after an interruption, according to Gallup (Credit: Getty Images)
Our workplaces should learn from production lines
According to Newport, the knowledge sectors that operate in the most focus-oriented way are areas like software engineering, where the goal is to produce a product. “Agile, scrum and sprint-based executions have been used in these sectors for a while,” says Newport. “They work on only one thing for three days and during that time the product is their whole focus. Software engineers never let things unfold in an ad hoc manner. This is more amenable to the way the brain operates.”
They work on only one thing for three days and during that time the product is their whole focus. Software engineers never let things unfold in an ad hoc manner - Newport
The analogy with industry is useful because of the length of time it took to find the best solution for manufacturing products efficiently. Historically, products were manufactured from start to finish by skilled workers. This is convenient, but not quick. It took until the 20th Century to arrive at the production line. By focusing on one thing that the worker is a specialist in for a short and intense amount of time before passing it onto the next worker, they can concentrate on what they are good at. There is no reason to think that we currently have the best working practices for knowledge workers after only a few decades.
Some sectors are better suited to production line models, like software engineering, as Newport says. But anything that you want to produce, like a pitch for a client or ideas for a new product, can be run in a sprint. Assembling only the most essential people together to work on a project from start until finish without distraction and with clear goals will keep the process efficient.
“We’re in the landed gentry phase of the knowledge sector,” says Newport. “We haven’t reached our industrial revolution yet. In the knowledge sector the primary capital investment is the human brain, not factory equipment, but otherwise we should be thinking along the same lines.”
Who does it well? Newport says he has found no major companies who operate according to his vision – yet. But that will change quickly. In the meantime, the companies that encourage their workers to remain wired into multiple tasks at once will find themselves falling behind those that value slower, deeper, quality thinking.
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