Think back to the last time you encountered a difficult challenge at work–one of those problems that requires hard, long thought and perhaps some focused drudgery to break through. What did you do?
If you work in the knowledge economy, chances are you interrupted yourself several times along the way –checked your email, went on Facebook, got up and chatted with a coworker.
On average, employees who do the majority of their work on computers are distracted once every 10 and a half minutes. Twenty-three percent of those interruptions come from email, but the biggest source of interruptions by far come from…ourselves. Voluntarily switching from one task to the next without finishing the original task first accounted for a full 44% of work interruptions.
In the bestselling book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that deep work – the kind of difficult tasks that draw upon all your mental reserves and require singular focus – is both increasingly important and increasingly rare in the modern workplace. As computers are able to automate more and more tasks, it’s the people who are able to learn new, complex skills quickly and perform consistently at a high level who will be the winners in the new economy.
But Newport’s book, like the vast majority of research and advice on the topic, focuses on the individual. Very little has been written about what companies can do to make focus an organization-wide habit.
Why Should Companies And Leaders Care?
In a 2009 study called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?,” Leroy discovered that attention acts more like molasses than water; you can redirect it, but a sticky “attention residue” stays behind, fixed to the last task you were working on. That residue is particularly thick when you don’t complete one task before moving on to the next one. But even when you do manage to finish the first task, your attention continues to stay fractured.
It’s not just productivity that takes a toll when workers are constantly interrupted. Researchers have found that people attempt to compensate for all those distractions by working faster and faster, leading to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort.”
This dynamic hints at the kinds of things today’s companies could be doing to create healthier and more productive workplaces. Yet the trend seems stubbornly headed in the opposite direction.
Focus: A Dwindling Resource In The Workplace
From large corporations to small startups –constant task switching has practically become a requirement of the job.
Open office floor plans that supposedly create moments of serendipitous collaboration are still common, particularly in the tech world, despite the evidence that increased noise and interruptions make it more difficult for teams to get work done.
Workers continue to spend an average of six hours on email in a day, according to one survey. Another study found that the average worker checks email 74 times a day. That’s nine times an hour in an eight-hour workday. Meetings, the corporate pastime that everyone loves to hate, still take up 15% of companies’ time, on average, with questionable tangible benefits.
Nimble startups scoff at the lumbering email and meeting cultures of their more traditional counterparts. But the much trendier alternative – real-time group chat–is arguably even worse.
Meetings consume a (theoretically) bounded amount of time. Email can (again, theoretically) be closed and only checked at certain times. Group chat, on the other hand, maintains a more or less constant presence throughout the workday (and often before and after the workday as well). One study of the most popular team chat app Slack found that people spent an average of 10 hours a day in the app (that’s 67% more than the average spent on email).
This new class of business apps mimics the instant messaging apps that people already use in their personal lives, further blurring the line between work and life. They’re more casual and fun than email. The chatty interfaces encourage one-line-at-a-time, real-time communication, with desktop and mobile notifications for each incoming message.
Each additional interruption, no matter how brief, comes at a price paid by companies and employees alike in lost productivity and increased stress. The pressures to be always available – in meetings and open offices, on email and group chat – create a harried culture of constant interruption rather than a sustainable culture of meaningful productivity.
What Companies Can (And Should) Do About It
Don’t get me wrong, collaboration and communication are important. So is building social connections in the workplace. But in most workplaces today, the balance between connectedness and focused productivity greatly favors the former at the expense of the latter.
So how do you start building a culture around deep work instead? Change is hard, but starting with just one concrete shift that rewards deep work over shallow work can cause a chain reaction in how a team approaches everything about their work. Here are some example deep work policies that companies are already implementing:
Set A Max Quota For Total Meeting Time Company-Wide
Start measuring and setting goals for lowering the total amount of time your team spends in meetings. It gives your team the opportunity to rethink which meetings are actually necessary and which could be moved to written communication or just nixed altogether.
Have Your Team Mark Off Time For Deep Work Time On Their Calendars
Elevate the status of deep work on your team by having everyone block out time on their calendars to focus on a single, important task. Hold that time sacred.
Have The Team List The Single Most Important Thing They Want To Complete Each Day
One of the challenges of focusing in the modern knowledge workplace is that work is often ill-defined. When everything seems important and urgent, it’s difficult to prioritize and focus on the things that have a real impact. Instead of having people list out every single thing they want to accomplish in a day or week, have them identify the one thing that they believe will have the biggest impact instead.
Limit Email/Group Chat Before A Certain Time In The Morning
Personal productivity experts have warned people against starting the day with email for years. Mornings tend to be the best time for focused, hard work when we’re fresh and haven’t hit decision fatigue yet. Why not make it a company-wide policy? Have your team experiment with waiting until 10 a.m. or even noon before checking their email.
Make Asynchronous Communication The Default
When immediate responses are the norm, your team’s attention will always be divided between the work at hand and the messages coming in. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Asynchronous communication – sending messages without the expectation of an immediate response – can free your team to disconnect fully to focus on their work and reconnect later to respond. Make clear to your team that delayed responses are not only acceptable, but the preferred way of communicating. Everyone on my own team at Doist knows that a response at any time within 24 hours is perfectly acceptable. Sure, communication happens a little more slowly, but a policy of asynchronous communication allows us get more work done overall. There’s never a doubt that deep work is the priority.
Yes, technology is awesome. It gives us the power to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. It makes fully distributed teams and flexible work-from-home policies possible. But when left unchecked, all the increased chatter can come at the expense of focused time for creativity, problem-solving, and learning. It’s time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.