Doing deep work

After the mother of all interruptions, we quiz three productivity gurus on how to focus as we return to the work place

It’s 9am, you’re at your desk, laptop open, fingers stretched ready to start the working day – all set to get ahead with a good run on the project you know you need to focus on. Then the doorbell rings. The postman. Followed by your children. An email from a colleague asking if you’ve got two minutes to send something over. The woodpecker-knocking sound of a new Slack notification. Before you know it, the day is over and though you know you’ve been busy, you’re not entirely sure what exactly you’ve achieved.

Distractions have always been the bane of working life, but the last 12 months have highlighted more than ever how challenging it can be to have any sense of productivity when you’re constantly being interrupted.

Dr Sophie Leroy, associate professor of management in the University of Washington Bothell’s School of Business, researches the effects of interruptions on our ability to focus. She coined the term ‘attention residue’ to describe the intruding thoughts related to tasks (other than the one at hand) that have been interrupted, are pending, or which are on our to-do lists and waiting for our attention.

She explains: “We have a fixed pie of cognitive resources. If a piece of that pie is allocated toward unrelated tasks, fewer resources are left for the task at hand. When we operate with reduced cognitive resources, we’re not able to process information as deeply, we can’t engage in as complex thought processes and it may also make us slower in our work.”

Dr Sophie Leroy, associate professor of management at the University of Washington

Part of the challenge of working from home has been the difficulty of not being distracted by domestic tasks, as Professor Gloria Mark at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine, explains: “People who have poor boundary control (being able to separate work from home life) have a much harder time to focus. They’re not just distracted by other people in the household but also by the physical surroundings of the home which provide cues to pull them away from work. For example, that they should do some cleaning.”

It’s a kind of busyness, computer scientist and bestselling author Cal Newport describes as shallow work. Its opposite, unsurprisingly, is deep work: “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.

In contemplating a return to the office, many of us may long for the opportunity to be in a distraction-free, or at least a distraction-reduced, work space. Whether heading back full time or in some kind of hybrid mix of office and home, it’s an opportunity for businesses to reset and create an environment that allows this deep, productive, and satisfying work to take place.

But Dr Leroy’s research shows it’s not just the fact that there’s washing to hang up or the sound of your partner’s Zoom call causing our lack of focus. Last summer she conducted a study looking at the impact of lockdown and the pandemic on how we have been able to concentrate, one involving 1,000 people in a single professional setting and another with 250 people in a variety of professions. Though the papers on this research aren’t yet complete it’s clear we can’t just blame domestic distractions for our reduced productivity over the past 12 months.

“The story isn’t all about non-work (house chores and childcare) interruptions – although there is a significant increase in those. The shift to remote work due to the pandemic has been associated with an increase in the number of interruptions emanating from the work domain.” Cue the ping of an email, the request for a quick call, and all-pervasive message notifications.

With these new working norms established, it’s safe to say that it is unrealistic to expect a return to the work place to offer a panacea of deep work without distraction. “If companies keep valuing and rewarding quick response to emails or messages during the entire workday, people will stay connected all the time, keep multitasking, and interruptions will be frequent,” says Dr Leroy.

And while multitasking might seem productive, she’s found it hurts productivity and quality performance. “Protected time for deeper thinking needs to be a priority, not an afterthought,” she says. “If time for deeper thinking is the time left between interruptions, between meetings... it won’t happen. In part, because there won’t be much time left, but also because attention residue will make it difficult for people to transition and reach the desired state of high focus.”

In his book Deep Work, Newport recommends blocking out periods of time for checking social media, setting ‘false deadlines’ that force you to concentrate on one task and one task only, and keeping a scoreboard on how well you’re doing on focusing on a priority project. Dr Leroy recommends simplifying avenues of communication, and agreeing times when people can be focused and times which are for meetings.

Chris Westfall, business and leadership coach

It might sound onerously like self-discipline but Chris Westfall, business and leadership coach, and author of Leadership Language highlights that “discipline is simply remembering what it is that you really want. Being focused depends on our willingness to ask ourselves, what is most productive right now? And then being able to step into that with commitment and a discipline that keeps us on task and away from the distractions that interrupt our day.”

A helpful question to ask when you consider that one of Professor Mark’s studies on work place interruptions found people interrupted themselves about 44 percent of the time, by checking in on social media or responding to texts.

At an individual level, Dr Leroy echoes Westfall’s call to discipline. “Know that your brain will be tempted to multitask.” She recommends shutting messenger apps and logging out of emails in meetings, for example, so you can be present and focused.

Many of us, in wanting to keep up with work have already come up with strategies to find focus – in spite of having to work in very distraction-filled spaces, we’ve largely managed to maintain productivity. Westfall believes this is because we’ve each had to take ownership over how we work, rather than follow a model set for us by senior leadership. “This pandemic has required more entrepreneurship, even from people working within organisations, than ever before,” he says.

He’s not letting business leaders off the hook in setting culture, but advocates for a continuation of giving people ownership over how they work, mutually agreed and guided with the help of an outside perspective. “A consultant or coach can come in and say, not ‘do this because this is how I do it,’ but ‘do this because it is the best path forward for you.’ In other words, they can help create a bespoke environment that allows people to take ownership and co-create the process that is going to serve them best.”

Leroy agrees. “Actions have to be consistent with these priorities. When people are told it’s okay to be off email or chat, don’t then expect a quick response, otherwise those norms won’t change.”

Nevertheless, in spite of our best efforts, interruptions will happen. Her strategy for this is incredibly simple. She calls it the Ready to Resume Plan: “Quickly write down where you are on the task that is getting interrupted and what you will do next when you return to that task. This prevents attention residue from occurring and harming subsequent performance. It only takes a few seconds to implement and yet the impact on performance is very significant.” 

While there’s potential for a distraction revolution in the office on our return, it’s clear that wherever we find ourselves at work, productivity is within our own power to control.

Johanna Derry Hall is a journalist who writes for the Evening StandardThe Telegraph and Mr Porter, among others