Deep work: the paradox of busyness and productivity
I have just finished reading, “Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport. In his book, Mr Newport explains that many of us are continually distracted by “shallow work” which he defines as being “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks”. As a result, we are prevented from undertaking work that matters, the “deep work” which Mr Newport contends pushes us to new “cognitive capabilities”.
The difficulty is that the “busyness” that such shallow works generates (e.g. the overwhelming number of emails sent and received per day and the obsession with meetings), leads to many of us spending our days doing the seemingly urgent but unimportant work, instead of work which creates value for our organisations as well as personal satisfaction. Not only is this demoralising for us as employees, I would argue that it is negatively impacting productivity in the workplace. According to the Office of National Statistics, productivity in UK workplaces has dipped. Given that we are all bracing for the turbulent transition post Brexit, a further dip in productivity is not something many employers in the UK will be able to bear going forward.
Further, the risk of being busy undertaking less challenging work is that it makes us more vulnerable to being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence. Therefore, focusing on deep work may enable people to specialise and stand out in what may become a much smaller job market.
So how can we combat this issue?
- Limit distractions: We do not have to accept the tyranny of emails. Depending on the nature of someone’s role, this could include limiting how often per day emails are reviewed and responded to. Personally, I like to block out time in my diary to undertake complex work, during which I will switch off emails and electronic devices to avoid being distracted.
- Streamline roles: Are we delegating effectively? Could some tasks be disbanded completely as they do not produce much value? We should scrutinise every task and meeting in order to determine if they are producing value and be ruthless in cutting out the expendable.
- Do away with working hours: A few of my frontier clients (i.e. those who like to push boundaries as to what they require and expect from staff) have started to question if working hours are required. If, for example, someone needs to produce code for an app – does it matter if they can do it in 2 hours or 20 hours? One could argue that working hours in fact encourages a lack of productivity, as the focus is on input as opposed to output. I consider it only a matter of time before the shift takes place, particularly as the use of artificial intelligence and automation increases.
- Encourage time away from the office: Given the cost of office space, I think it unlikely that the love affair with open plan offices will show any sign of abating in the near future. This is despite the fact they provide fertile ground for distraction (even if they do encourage a collegiate spirit). Consequently, to provide staff with a conducive environment to undertake “deep work”, encouraging them to work from home on occasion or having quiet work spaces could pay dividends. Some companies are even giving staff paid days out of the office to think of new ideas, which can provide their business with a boost.
The proposed solutions above will not be suitable for everyone and every job. However, if employers want to boost employee engagement, retain talented staff and increase their productivity they would do well to lessen the operational noise and enable staff to do work of value. One wonders if the French are on to something with implementing and enforcing their right to disconnect from their work phones and computers outside working hours. I wonder whether this will improve staff productivity to allow much needed head space. Only time will tell.