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.”