Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve worked incredibly hard all day, you know you didn’t stop, and you ended the day feeling frazzled, yet dissatisfied with what you achieved? In fact, you’re not sure what you achieved at all? If the answer to this is yes, you’re not alone.
In his book, ‘Deep Work’, Cal Newport cites evidence that ‘knowledge workers’ (i.e. those who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge creatively) spend around 60% of their working lives in shallow work, e.g. on email, messenger or browsing the internet. Half of this time is spent purely sending and responding to emails. Being able to refocus our work habits, so we shift this balance and aren’t dictated to by comms coming in on all fronts, can only be a good thing for our productivity – ultimately helping us to deliver value in our roles.
The average office worker typically only concentrates for an average of 3 minutes before they are interrupted. And most of us can relate to a lack of focus in our personal lives too. I drove my son’s friend home last week and he filled that journey home on his phone watching YouTube shorts. Aged 12, he’s already learned to fill a boring 5-minute trip with distraction.
It’s easy to be self-critical when we are not able to shut out the noise to produce valuable work. But it’s important to recognise that the structure of society and work has changed over the last 20 years, causing significant challenges to our productivity.
Johann Hari, in his book ‘Stolen Focus’, likens this to the obesity crisis in the US. In 1970, very few people were overweight, but societal factors (such as how US cities work, the food supply system and availability of processed food) are behind the levels of obesity we see today. Yet the individual aspect of how we respond to these issues is key to whether we personally become overweight.
There’s a wider structural change that is needed, as well as the personal aspect of how we ‘choose’ to respond to the demands on our attention. So, on a personal level, how do we resist being drawn towards distraction? At work, quite often this means resisting the pull away from challenging work of value, to easier, less cognitively demanding tasks that we can quite happily busy ourselves with.
5 tips for resisting distraction
- A good place to start is to plan your working day around the focus work you need to deliver and batch up smaller tasks. Schedule slots of time into your working day as ‘focus periods’ – while 1.5 hours is ideal, if this is too difficult, even 30 mins can be beneficial
- Turn off your messages (emails, notifications etc.) for this period to allow yourself the time to focus. Turn your phone onto silent. Be disciplined, and don’t allow your hand to creep towards your phone or your emails to quickly check in
- Avoid multi-tasking – it doesn’t work. It adds more time to any given task as you need to refocus between tasks (known as the ‘switch cost effect’). It isn’t possible to do two things at once, and there are multiple impacts of this - as you switch you make more mistakes, remember less, and become less creative in the long run. Often this is what leads to the feeling of being frazzled
- Say no sometimes – all the small things you say yes to (e.g. 15 mins here, 30 mins there) add up, eating into the focus time needed to produce work of value
- At the end of the day, look back at your ‘to do’ list to see what you ‘actually did’ – understanding where things deviated from the plan, and whether this was necessary, or if an alternative solution could be put into place – is crucial to improving things for next time
The UK startup ‘Flown’ was established during lockdown offering daily ‘deep work’ sessions, enabling members to work deeply while online with others. It offers tools to help us increase accountability and focus, telling us we can ‘get more done (and) feel good doing it’. And there are many companies offering similar services. The fact that large numbers of people are prepared to pay for a service that helps them to shut out distraction underlines just how much of an issue this is. The friend who recommended it told me ’I absolutely love it’. It works.
What works for you will be different to someone else. You know when you work best, and what your pain points are. Try it, see how it goes, and then adjust accordingly.
Why does this matter?
It seems obvious - if we can be productive at work and deliver high quality work efficiently - we are far more likely to be successful, while saving ourselves a lot of stress. Not to mention the sense of accomplishment that comes from delivering work you can feel proud of.
But there are some other - less obvious - consequences of our pull towards distraction.
One of these is the fact that it is irreversible. In his book, Newport mentioned this is not under debate - there’s plenty of evidence (and numerous books) examining how the internet impacts our brains and capacity to concentrate.
”To make matters worse for depth, there’s increasing evidence that this shift towards the shallow is not a choice that can be easily reversed. Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work”.
Hari also talks about the wider implications of our lack of attention, specifically focusing on the impact on society. He explains that individuals who can’t focus face significant personal challenges, but whole societies of people with this issue face huge problems in solving society’s collective issues. Solving complex issues requires sustained attention and the ability to listen. Without this, people get frustrated and tend to seek simplistic solutions - he sees our current crisis in democracy as intrinsically linked with our collective inability to concentrate.
Did you make it to the end of the article without being interrupted? If you are still reading, ask yourself, what have you got to lose? Take time to explore this further and find your own ways to wean yourself from distraction. It will lead you to be more productive, more successful and to gain ownership over your day. But who knows, perhaps it will lead to bigger changes than that.