The constant ping of messages that keep us plugged into work chatter might be doing more harm than good. We feel we must respond – it is about work, after all. But always being switched on means we never have the chance to think deeply.
“Managers spend 85% of the day in meetings, on the phone or talking to people about work, not doing it,” says Cal Newport. “It’s flexible and adaptive, but conflicts with the way that the human brain operates. Those context shifts are devastating and burn you out. People then try to cope with ‘hacks’ like no-email Fridays. But this doesn’t work because there is no workflow in place for not emailing each other.”
One study found on average it takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain deep focus after an interruption.
The flip-side is that it is very convenient to have everyone in an ongoing conversation, Newport says. But convenience is never the goal in business, it is value.
Our workplaces should learn from production lines
According to Newport, the knowledge sectors that operate in the most focus-oriented way are areas like software engineering, where the goal is to produce a product. “Agile, scrum and sprint-based executions have been used in these sectors for a while,” says Newport. “They work on only one thing for three days and during that time the product is their whole focus. Software engineers never let things unfold in an ad hoc manner. This is more amenable to the way the brain operates.”
Newport says he has found no major companies who operate according to his vision – yet. But that will change quickly. In the meantime, the companies that encourage their workers to remain wired into multiple tasks at once will find themselves falling behind those that value slower, deeper, quality thinking.