“The world is getting smaller!” declared one of my undergraduate marketing professors during my Marketing 102 course. While the earth isn’t physically becoming more diminutive as time passes, my professor wasn’t spewing drivel in his class. Our world is becoming smaller due to the fact that it no longer takes weeks to obtain information or to meet people. Computers and mobile devices have transitioned from professional tools to personal extensions. Because laptops and cell phones are so easily at disposal, people are constantly locked into the grid. While some are perturbed by the fact that they are reachable at all times, many of these individuals have had to deal with this type of intimate connectivity for their jobs. In Chapter 2 of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, author Cal Newport explores this new “Culture of Connectivity” and how the workplace has changed to accommodate it.
Over the last couple of years, there have been many advancements in the workplace that strive to make jobs better and more efficient. New collaboration platforms like Slack, perks like free coffee, and modern takes on interior design have been implemented in the hopes that corporations might be able to extract more talent from their employees. These contemporary workplace quirks have evolved to be quite ridiculous, with some companies even going so far as to include the option to get massages in office.
“It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less.”
– Nathan W. Morris
While it is great that large businesses are turning an eye to their employees’ happiness and wellness, workers still sacrifice some of their attention and time in order to get the tasks on their plate done. Adding these additional (although really cool) distractions make it easier for people to become lost in a never-ending “to do” list. Newport writes that in this Culture of Connectivity, people are required to become responsive to other people’s needs and treat them as a priority. Taking time to immediately answer someone’s questions and participating in pointless meetings creates an environment where shallow work becomes rampant. Specialists are forced to live in their inboxes rather than create, and it takes so much longer to complete projects. As a designer who has intersecting responsibilities, I can confirm that I spend about a two-thirds of my day (if not more) responding to emails and sitting in powwows with stakeholders. This leaves only a few hours to actually produce content, which means the deliverables will take longer to reach their destination. Newport claims that on top of this, the quality of the work can become compromised. By fracturing your day, you will most likely suffer from attention residue that makes it hard to produce your best work. On top of emails and meetings Newport also identifies three modern workplace conditions that ruin deep work and concentration:
- Open Concept Offices: These trendy interior design spaces often lack privacy. Everyone can hear their neighbors and side conversations can easily distract those working on intense projects. Often in these spaces, individuals do not have their own designated workspace. It is easy to lose time when you have to deal with moveable furniture and carrying around your entire workload .
- Instant Messaging: Instant messaging is one of the most prominent distractions in today’s workplace. These little notifications pull you out of your work and force you to change gears constantly. One small question may take an hour to answer.
- Employee Presence on Social Media: Having employees back your company on social media is great, but many believe that forcing them to do so is a waste of time and compromises deep work. (This practice also creates poor performing social media content; if anything, I suggest recruiting a few choice employees to act as public-facing figures to ensure quality and appropriate posts.)
With all of these distractions buzzing around the office, it is common for us to use busyness as a proxy for productivity. The appearance of workers doing more has overshadowed workers actually doing more. This mindset has been around since the development of the industrial age and was dubbed as the Efficiency Movement. Founded by Frederick Taylor, he monitored workers with a stopwatch to determine how the tasks they accomplished could be sped up. As archaic as this mindset is, many companies and leaders still are under the impression that more things (assets, deliverables, etc.) equals good progress. Newport discounts this theory by citing experiments in which companies adjusted the working hours of one of their departments. These experiments concluded that although they had less work time and were unplugged from emails and IM, employees in the test group were happier and delivered a better product to the client. This way of working is typically rare within American businesses and Newport believes this is due to the principle of least resistance.
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.
This principle basically states that without actually knowing what will happen if change is implemented, most people will just do what is easiest and will continue to do what they know or what they think is required of them. Having and acting upon this mindset is not wrong, but rather, it is just safe. If you have the unique opportunity to play with your hours or how you work – take that chance and see how you could better allocate your time.
To wrap up this post, I would like to emphasize that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being productive at your job through the means of shallow work. Although answering IMs and emails may take up time in the moment, it helps a bunch of people move on with the tasks on their plate. I suggest that if you easily get distracted between small tasks and the objective of your role, that you learn how to make priority lists for yourself. Here, you can find a really great article that shows you how to create a quadrant list so you can figure out which assignments to tackle next. Try it out this week and see if this method helps increase your efficiency and productivity!