“I’d better check my emails before I get started.”
“Hang on, another message on Slack…”
“I’ve just got to jump on this Teams call…”
“Oooo breaking news…”
It wasn’t that long ago that the only interruptions during the course of a work day were phone calls and colleagues popping up at our desks. Today, there are myriad demands on our attention and a growing multitude of ways in which we can be distracted.
All these messages and meetings are part of our ‘work’ activity, arising from tools designed to offer seamless communication and maximise our productivity. But, while they doubtless have their advantages, there is a growing awareness of their costs and the threat they pose to our concentration and ability to accomplish meaningful work.
So, if the constant ping of alerts and reminders, and the ping-pong of communication with your colleagues, leaves you feeling like the ball bearing in a pinball machine, then it might be time to turn your attention to the concept of ‘Deep Work’.
The Deep Work Hypothesis
Cal Newport, a computer science professor and author, coined the term "Deep Work" to describe the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks. Characterised by periods of uninterrupted concentration, the deep work state enables us to achieve high-quality output, and so can be a driver for professional success and fulfilment.
It requires dedicated attention, sustained mental effort and the ability to resist the allure of constant connectivity. In fact, it’s pretty well the antithesis of the distraction-laden world of modern work.
Tech Tools and the Myth of Multitasking
Tech tools and apps seem to make it easier for us to ‘multitask’ – but research suggests that ‘multitasking’ is actually a total misnomer. Our brains just aren’t able to focus on multiple tasks at the same time.
Instead, what we end up doing is switching between tasks, with each shift having a cognitive cost known as "switching fatigue" or the ‘switch cost effect’. And the more you switch, the more you ‘pay’ in terms of reduced task performance and a loss of concentration.
The integration and total accessibility of social media, email, instant messaging and other communication tools in our working lives serves to fuel that cycle of distraction, fragmenting our attention and hindering deep, concentrated work.
Friction-Free Communication and the Shallow Work Trap
Friction-free communication tools, such as instant messaging platforms and video conferencing software, have undeniably improved collaboration and connectivity, and in some regards, productivity too. However, they have brought their own major challenge: the proliferation of shallow work.
Shallow work comprises low-value, often reactive tasks which require minimal cognitive effort. Things like responding to emails, attending meetings and engaging in continuous back-and-forth conversations can all be examples of shallow work, depending on the context.
While these activities may be necessary, or seem it, they can keep us away from the focused, more substantial and meaningful work that contributes to long-term success.
Notifications and the Attention Economy
Both in work and out, tech tools on our smartphones and computers, especially social media, are designed to capture and keep our attention. We are bombarded with constant notifications, interrupting our flow and leading to a phenomenon known as "attention residue". This is a term established by Sophie Leroy, a professor at the Bothell School of Business at the University of Washington, to describe the time it takes to shift your attention back from the interrupting task to what you were doing before.
Even a brief interruption can disrupt our concentration and consume valuable time as we recover focus, negatively impacting our subsequent task performance. So, if we are in a constant state of partial attention, our ability to produce our best work is doubtless compromised.
Reclaiming Deep Work
There are strategies we can adopt to wrestle our concentration back from the circus of distractions and engage in deep work:
Embrace time-blocking: Allocate dedicated blocks of time on your calendar for deep work – and then stick to them.
Establish boundaries: Make colleagues aware of your designated times to manage their expectations around how long it will take you to respond to their messages.
Manage notifications: Turn off non-essential notifications on your devices – only check your messages when it suits you, not just as they happen to pop up.
Create a conducive environment: Minimise clutter, turn off unnecessary devices, and limit access to distracting websites and apps.
Prioritise deep work tasks: Identify tasks that require deep focus and prioritise them. Consider batching shallow work tasks into specific time slots to maximise efficiency and safeguard your deep work time.
Tech tools and friction-free communication have revolutionised the way we work and connect, but in our rush to embrace their benefits, we run the risk of overlooking what is lost along the way.
So, if you find yourself too busy ‘working’ to get any real work done, remind yourself of the importance of intentional focus, and try out some of the strategies to mitigate the impact of constant distractions.
By embracing these ideas in your work routines, you might reclaim your ability to engage in deep work, enhance your productivity, and achieve higher levels of professional fulfilment.
What’s your view? Join our LinkedIn discussion here.
Cal Newport’s book is: ‘Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted word.’