Unitasking: only for smart people
Amidst the constant whirr of traffic (on the road, in your inbox, throughout your day), the façade of multitasking as the pinnacle of effectiveness has lost its lustre. This is reflected in rising popularity of formalised practices such as mindfulness, or less formal unitasking tools like adult colouring books.
Many influential thinkers and authors workers are known to cut themselves off from the busyness of daily life and business, even isolating themselves while engaging in their best work (think Barack Obama, JK Rowling or Carl Jung). Indeed, the concept of using isolation (sensory, social or physical) to further deeper thought (or, indeed, enlightenment), is ancient. However, while many understand the distractive nature of multi-tasking on one’s ability to stay focused — a Google search on the topic yields over 21 million results — the efforts to truly focus on only one task at a time, often still leave us feeling fragmented and dissatisfied with the depth of the work we can achieve. What most of us end up doing during our self-imposed single tasking is perform intermittent ‘quick checks’ of the inbox, to look up something, respond to the buzz of our mobile device or a report’s urgent question.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University has extensively studied the field of deep work and he warns that the distraction of constant reachability and distractedness is creating a real risk to companies: “We’ve built up a culture of convenience and simplicity in knowledge work, at the cost of effectiveness and true productivity”.
So what are the benefits of being able to engage in deep work?
Well, if your brain is how you make a living or you lead a team of people who do (think: any kind of specialist or knowledge worker, consultant or professional), you get paid to apply your skills. The quality of your output is often directly related to customer satisfaction, it can represent your team’s market value. The ability to engage in truly undistracted, deep work is known to produce higher quality output and higher productivity.
As a leader, it is important to note that there is intrinsic value in being able to perform deep work — people who have the opportunity to focus intensely on one skill or target report enjoying their job more than those who do not. From an organisational perspective, we strive to get the highest quality output at the lowest cost from our employees and the role of job satisfaction and a supportive work environment have been well reported, especially with regards to employee retention (happy employees stay) and productivity (happy employees work harder).
So what now? Most of us do not have the luxury of sending our employees to a remote location near Edinburgh castle (like JK Rowling), or hide away in the countryside while working on an important project — so what can we do to facilitate deep work into our work day practices?
- Set the expectation — discuss with your team members what percentage of their work should be deep work. For example, you may require different levels of intense focus from your data analysts, programmers and marketing professionals at various time throughout the year.
- Respect and protect– ensure that the mutually agreed time carved out for deep work is considered as important as meetings. Deep working while ‘keeping an eye on the Twitter feed’ is impossible.
- Create the habit — deep work is a state of deliberate practice, so the more you do it, the better the output. Starting and ending a deep work session the same way every time, can help get you into the right frame of mind.
If you are a leader who would like to get the most out of your team of knowledge workers (or others), or you are keen to learn more about what else you can do to optimise your team’s performance, contact our People Development department!