How many of your work hours are wasted on distractions? Probably more than you think. Financial management service Think Money researched the question, and their findings are eye-opening.
According to their 2015 report, distractions annually eat up 759 hours per worker. That’s just one hour shy of twenty complete 40-hour workweeks every year!
Now flip the question around. How much time do you spend on deep, focused work? I’m talking time where you’re not interrupted and where you’re working on your top, most important priorities. The answer people constantly tell me is “not nearly enough.”
A Work Wake-up Call
To get insight on how to fix this, I recently spoke to Georgetown computer scientist Cal Newport, author of the book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World.
Newport is not what many people would expect in a computer scientist. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or other social media, and he doesn’t want to be. “Stay away from your inbox,” he advises people taking workday breaks. “Stay away from social media. Stay away from a computer if you can.”
He’s also “very worried about artificial intelligence,” due to its potential effects on jobs. Why? Newport warns that because of the tremendous amount of time wasted on the job by most of us, not even workers in the knowledge sector will be safe from automation.
What matters is not how your job is classified but how you spend your days. Machines are good and getting better at taking over small, shallow, repetitive tasks, such as sorting information or sending emails–and they do it without distraction.
If that sounds like your job, then Newport has some important advice: Go deeper.
The Power of Deep Work
“Focusing intensely without distraction for a long period of time on a cognitively demanding task” is how Newport defines deep work, and he doesn’t think its benefits can be undersold in today’s economy.
“Focus is now the lifeblood of this economy,” he says. Successful people “use their brain to create new value” making intense concentration “relevant in a way that it hasn’t been before.”
“It’s almost like a superpower,” he says of the power of concentration to produce great results. An intense focus on just one important task for a long stretch of time has at least two direct benefits:
- That focus “helps you to learn complicated things more quickly.”
- It allows you to have a “higher level of quality output” at a time when the economy is putting a premium on quality.
Solving a theorem, writing a chapter in a book, writing complex code, and doing jobs involving detailed craftsmanship are all things that Newport calls deep work.
As you can see from the craftsman example, deep work isn’t just for knowledge workers. It’s simply work that requires intense focus. But we live in a world that is shot full of distractions.
3 Ways to Banish Distraction
Newport says the “addiction to distraction” is so widespread that breaking it was one of his aims in writing his book.
In fact, even when we think we are focusing, we usually aren’t. When we work intensely on one problem but do quick “check backs” on email, social media, and the like during breaks, we run into the problem of “attention residue.” Those things come back with us when we return to our core work and make it harder to focus on our most important tasks.
With these distraction hurdles in mind, he has three strategies to move out of the shallows and get to deep work.
1. Practice Concentration
Because of email, smartphones, social media, and more, most of us have lost our ability to go deep. When we try, the initial results are not good, but Newport wants us to be encouraged. “You can get better at this,” he says.
Many people try it and quit too soon, telling themselves, “I’m just not a focused person.” But if you recognize this as a skill that you have to train into your brain and body, like playing the guitar, you’ll be able to improve with practice.
2. Protect Your Time
Newport blocks out weeks and even months in advance to work on problems. Your approach might not be that detailed, but if you are going to focus on the most important things, you’ll need a plan to protect that time. Otherwise, distractions will be more than happy to eat it up.
Every person’s distraction defense system will be different, but turning off notifications on your phone and letting your team know you’ll be offline are good places to start. You might even consider a tool like the Freedom app. It’s basically a virtual set of training wheels, helping you learn to focus.
3. Leave Work at Work
In looking at the lives of many great thinkers and innovators, Newport made a wonderful discovery: “Their schedules look downright relaxed.”
Innovators understand that the human mind can only focus deeply for a limited amount of time every day. So they devote their best time to their most critical thinking, then use the remainder of their time to recharge.
In fact, one benefit of deep work that Newport touts is that it can help you better enjoy life outside of work. This is true, not just in the sense that you have more time off, but that you make better use of that time because you’ve harnessed the skills to be fully present.
If you manage to banish most distraction from your work life, it will certainly make you more productive. Plus the habits you learn might help to root out unwanted interruptions from your personal life as well.