While sitting at my desk, trying to read a paragraph for at least the third time, an email alert pops up!
The latest finance newsletter just dropped, better check out the latest stock quotes. Meanwhile my mobile phone buzzes and I feel the urge to check it immediately.
Oh, my wife send me a cute cat video!
Focusing back on the paragraph I read a few minutes ago, I realize I have to start all over again because my brain does not remember a thing!
This short scene is just one example of the vicious cycle of concentration and distraction, which repeats a dozen times throughout the day.
Sound familiar to you, too?
I may not exaggerate when I assert, that most of today’s knowledge workers’ day looks quite similar to what I just described!
Welcome to the everyday hustle to stay focused amid a stream of information flooding our cognitive systems.
At the same time, our ability to focus has diminished over the previous decades, making it hard to create meaningful and valuable work.
For my part, I’m fed up with this never-ending cycle and will do something about it!
You can too!
Today’s working environment is designed for collaboration and instant communication. Open office plans, as well as corporate instant massaging services like Teams or Slack, are meant to create a constant connection within the workforce. Additionally, the average worker sends 40 and receives 120 emails a day and spends a huge amount of time doing so. (The Guardian 2019)
To complete the struggle, we spend nearly the rest of our time available in video or conference calls. In the majority of cases, these activities don’t contribute value to our “core” work but they even have a detrimental effect on our ability to do so.
In a 2005 Study, the authors (Mark, Gonazels, and Harris) examined the degree of fragmentation of a typical workday. The subjects were a group of IT professionals employed at a big finance firm. Throughout their study, they found that the average worker of the sample only concentrated ~11 minutes on a single task until switching to the next one. As a reason for this rapid task switching, researchers identified external and internal factors. Interruptions by colleagues as well as changing priorities demanded by incoming tasks. were cited as the biggest contributors to fragmentation.
As a result, workers felt extremely uncomfortable with their fragmented work and their corresponding lack of productivity.
Since this seems to be a major theme in today’s working environment, let’s try to get a grasp of the reasons behind these developments and what we can do, to not only feel better about it but increase the value of our work.
In a world, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time, the ability to do so is becoming an asset you should have on your balance sheet.
To get to the core of a problem, you first have to define it’s key parameters as well as the desired outcome. Therefore, we need to capture the different states of work we experience throughout the workday and strive to minimize those which are detrimental to our success.
For our purpose, shallow work should be defined as work that is artificial and does not contribute value to our core tasks.
Shallow work oftentimes includes the following activities, which in general are administrative by nature:
Monitoring your inbox and responding to emails
Making administrative phone calls
Video calls without a clear agenda
Creating PowerPoint slides
Shallow work is insidious because a day filled with it makes you feel productive! You are exhausted by it and because of the high amount of emails sand and calls made, you even are perceived like it.
I don’t exaggerate when I state, that everone knows this particular feeling after a day full of back-to-back zoom calls and emails!
Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, this type of work doesn’t resemble the high-value work you should strive for during your day.
I admit, there is a baseload of shallow work anybody has to cope with, to be a good functioning part of the overall team. No one will perceive you as a team player if you are unable to reach or don’t fulfill your administrative day-to-day duties.
Nevertheless, a bit of planning will help you minimize the time you spend with shallow work and increase the time spent with the higher value deep work
In contrast to the shallow work I just defined, deep work is of high value to your core responsibilities and moves the needle for your business.
You have to immerse in hard thinking and spend a vast amount of mental capacity to get it done.
To get a grasp of the concept, I made a non-exhaustive list of examples of deep work:
Writing a sales proposal for a customer
Crafting an investment memo for your board
Doing research for a specific market you want to target
Writing code for an app you develop
Deep work always has some kind of strategic thinking embedded in its core, therefore we need long periods of uninterrupted time to succeed.
There is a ravaging war going on in our brains for the capacity to perform deep work.
Briefly summarized, our brains a wired to emphasize shallow work over deep work! It is more convenient for us to get a dopamine hit by answering emails, instead of solving cognitively challenging problems.
The feedback loops for shallow work are much shorter and rewards are more easily obtained. In addition, the modern workplace oftentimes isn’t designed for performing deep work. Open floor plans and instant messaging communication devices inhibit our ability to concentrate on one task at a time, which is crucial for creating valuable work.
The way we interact with our friends and family as well as our broader social life doesn’t help either.
Who is not familiar with the urge to check one’s smartphone a dozen times an hour? At least I am guilty of this type of behavior! I suggest you try to track your screen time and activity with a suitable app and you will be SHOCKED!
I’m honest with you, this is not a war you can win, but a constant struggle! Almost any app on the planet is competing for the limited amount of concentration you have.
Although the odds are against us, let’s try to tilt them at least a bit in our favor. This is all you need to get ahead!
I recognized the following methods to be helpful to me to develop a more focused attitude:
Make deep work your lifestyle
To have only the smallest kind of chance of making a difference, you have to not only try to incorporate small pieces of deep work into your day but make it the other way around. Embrace the concept of deep work and try to adhere to it in the tiniest parts of your life. For example, resist the urge to reach for your smartphone during any interruption. We have primed our brains to be distracted constantly, so during the slightest break, we crave distraction. Try to be present in the moment, and notice your surroundings!
The overreaching principle is, to lengthen the time periods without distractions for your brain! You will notice significant changes immediately.
Create routines to minimize the expense of mental energy
Throughout the day, you will lose a lot of cognitive energy and will be more susceptible to the old habits of distraction. If you create your personalized deep work routines, you will conserve more energy and willpower. For example, I try to not touch my smartphone until I have written my daily journal, which takes me maybe 15 minutes in the morning. The lack of interruptions helps me put down my thinking more precisely.
Create dedicated deep work slots
To increase the actual time spend doing deep work, try to schedule ahead dedicated deep work slots throughout your day or week. Otherwise, other people’s agendas will fill up your calendar and impact your efforts. You will also be less vulnerable to shallow work during these blocked periods of time. During the deep work slots, make yourself hard to reach, close your email tab and set your phone on flight mode. With a little bit of training, you should be able to resist the urge to constantly crave distraction.
Act on the lead metrics of deep work
I know that the actual workday can get messy sometimes and you won’t be always able to stick to your thoroughly crafted plans. Nevertheless, pick some lead metrics (e.g. total time spend doing deep work or total words written per day) and try to maximize them.
Do the work and the results will follow!
The continuity of this effort will pay off massively. I once utilized this during the preparation for my CFA exams, where I maximized total hours spend going without interruption. The results were amazing, you don’t need to plan for everything in advance, act on the lead metrics and the rest will take care of itself.
Prioritize and embrace downtime
This one is critical because oftentimes people confuse spending more time with being more successful. I’m a huge proponent of being effective and I assert, that I’m getting more things done in 6 hours than a lot of people in 10. There is a limit to your cognitive ability, once exhausted, results will deteriorate rapidly. Be aware of your mental capacity and build downtime into your life.
I recognized spending time in nature, reading, or meditating restores my brain capacity quickly.
Overall, in todays world, deep work is getting extremely rare! If you are able to cultivate this valuable skill, it will be an asset few possess. I admit, that this is an issue I have been battling with for a long time.
Every time I increase my efforts to perform deep work, I feel empowered more calm and overall more productive and happy.
I can only encourage you to experiment with deep work habits and judge the advantages for yourself.