Chasing success in a chronically distracted world
Attention is key to creating value. Like any other resource such as time and finance, attention is a critical element for growth and innovation, especially for startups.
My favourite analogy to explaining the difference between work and deep work is by comparing man with superman. Deep work is like a superpower, it’s the ability to focus wholly on a single cognitive task and to engage completely in producing focused work.
But aren’t we all seeking success in a distracted world?
We live in the age of information economy, where high tech and smart machines perform complex tasks alongside humans; where most of us are often glued to multiple devices every day; where the average office worker receives more than 120 emails a day. Tech doesn’t mean just disruption, but also distraction: especially when we are seduced by entertainment and prefer to hang out with technology instead of our peers! Advanced technology can create productivity and efficiency, but it can also create a fragmented and cluttered work environment.
We are at risk of becoming chronically distracted and having our attention hopelessly scattered. Don’t believe me? Think about this: logging into and pulling data from multiple systems, managing your inbox in real-time, checking tens of notifications from across different social channels, feeling pressured to be ‘always on’. This all seems reasonably normal for the majority of office workers.
We know that uninterrupted connectivity comes at a cost, which is impacting everything we do – our focus, our work and its outcomes.
One study shows that after each unrelated interruption or distraction, it takes an average of 20 minutes to re-focus and get back on track. Multiply that by the number of daily interruptions that you get and you can begin to see how big a problem this can be.
Deep work and its magic
As defined by Cal Newport, Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.
One shouldn’t think that deep work is only for writers and entrepreneurs who are looking to create and innovate. Most jobs nowadays require deep work in order to get the job done to a high standard – think designers, developers, marketers, content producers, and the list goes on.
The reality is that most of us have to perform shallow work most of the time. Shallow work (passive labour) consists of the menial tasks: managing your inbox, booking appointments, attending meetings and so forth. The intention of this post is not to marginalise and stigmatise the shallow work. We need to perform shallow work in order to get our jobs done, but we also need the ability to perform deep work, the work that relates to our big, forward-thinking tasks.
Incorporating deep work into your business
Having the right conditions to encourage deep work is an essential element for startups. The shift toward more open office environments designed to enhance spontaneous collaboration and increase the chances of accidentally bumping into each other, may actually decrease the efforts of achieving deep work.
Startups are well aware that they need to achieve peak productivity, so usually they are more inclined to look for ways of facilitating deep work. Here are top 3 things that you as a business leader could do to encourage deep work for your team:
- Ask your team for feedback about office design and technology used.
- Ensure employees are given the quiet time, spaces and tools required to conduct deep work from anywhere.
- Task focused behaviour is crucial, but should not come at the expense of the ‘bigger picture’. Hence, encourage everyone in your team to achieve a better work-life balance, to have a shut-down ritual and to disconnect after work hours.
Hacking your way into deep work as an employee
The truth is that you’ll probably need to rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting to distracting stimuli. Below are top 3 things you could start working on in order to build your focus zone:
- Schedule offline vs. internet blocks. Know when you are meant to relax and entertain yourself and when you are working and pro-actively resisting distractions.
- Identify a task that will require deep work – clear your mind of distractions (think inner feng shui). Motivate yourself by setting a countdown on your work. Work with great intensity – attack the task with all the energy. Try reaching incremental growth – aim at reaching next levels of focus and intensity every day.
- Run your own experiments to uncover the power of your attention: turn off all notifications and avoid all social media for a day/week/month,etc. Ask yourself: have you achieved more? Are you feeling like you’ve been more productive? (My hack: in 2016, I’ve tried not to be logged into a social platform during the working day. I do check LinkedIn and Twitter when I get on the train, on my way back home. This way I still keep myself updated on the latest news on these channels, but I also limit the usage of these social platforms to restricted hours). If you have flexible working schedule, another experiment you could run, is to arrive 2 – 3 hours before everyone in the office and benefit from a 2 hour work free of interruptions.
If you’ve read this far, you should already be well aware of the benefits that deep work can have on you and your happiness. Is not just that deep work reduces anxiety, but it’s been suggested that it can provide employees with the sense of true fulfilment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, employee productivity and happiness have a direct impact on the organisation’s financial success. And startups need any possible advantage in order to succeed.
Can’t stop wondering whether deep work could have an effect on the bottom line? Make deep work a priority for 2017, armed with it, you and your startup can take over the world!
PS: Read more on Deep work.