In today’s digital age, distractions are ever present, be it emails, social media or distracting thoughts. This becomes even more of an issue when the distractions are so attractive. Email taps into our primal impulse to seek out random rewards, resulting in addictive behaviour and social media is designed to captivate.
On average, employees who do the majority of their work on computers are distracted once every ten and a half minutes. Twenty three percent of those interruptions come from email, but the biggest source of interruptions by far come from the individuals themselves. Voluntarily switching from one task to the next without finishing the original task first accounted for a full 44% of work interruptions.
In a 2009 study called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, it was discovered that attention acts more like syrup 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 do not 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. People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task. The thicker the residue, the worse the performance.
According to Cal Newport two types of work exist:
- Shallow work: Non-cognitively intensive tasks which are low-value and easy to replicate, like responding to emails, scanning websites, and using social media.
- Deep work: Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.
Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the presence of so many distractions, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-perpetuating. The rituals of the modern workplace, such as meetings, emails, and reports, further lend themselves to people mostly performing shallow work. People who have fallen into the shallow work trap may not recognise the relationship between slow productivity and shallow work.
According to Newport, the new law of productivity is: High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus). Deep work is the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. Deep work has the potential to provide individuals and teams with a competitive advantage.
Deep work is valuable, rare and meaningful.
- It is valuable because it allows people to develop new skills faster and leverage their current skills.
- It is rare because as the world becomes full of distractions, fewer people are able to go deep.
- It is meaningful because people get more meaning and satisfaction out of being focused on their speciality.
The brain science behind deep work demonstrates its importance. When a person works on something cognitively intensive without distraction, neurons begin to wire together – the literal manifestation of “rewiring your brain”. These neuron bundles help us do our work faster, more effectively, and more skilfully. Every time a person is interrupted, the wiring ceases and does not start again until the person has fully regained focus.
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