This is your Brain on Work
Writers, developers, analysts, engineers, architects and project managers have one thing in common: they all fit into the category of knowledge worker, all essentially earning their living by solving complex problems or developing/ improving products or services in their fields of expertise.
Cal Newport, professor at Georgetown University and author of several books including Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and A World Without Email has spent a lot of time thinking about how knowledge workers such as these (and scores of others) use technology in the process of getting work done, and how we have largely defaulted to using tech in ways that impedes work from getting done. The research he cites on what gets in the way of productive creativity is both self-evident and startling.
For instance, when RescueTime, a company that helps people improve their time management, looked at the anonymized data of over 50,000 of their software users, they discovered the average knowledge worker ‘checks in’ with communication tools (e-mail, instant messaging, online collaboration tools such as Slack, etc.) every six minutes. Worse, with six minutes as the average; a more detailed look reveals over a third of workers check their email and instant messages every three minutes or less, while just shy of a fifth can go no more than 20 minutes without being pulled into virtual communication.
Newport calls this ‘hyperactive hive mind’ meaning we are all using largely improvisational and unstructured methods to organize knowledge work, and these haphazard practices are getting in the way of doing work that generates value. This has an impact on the brain, which in turn has a serious impact on productivity.
Here’s how it breaks down: our brains are not great at switching from one task to another. A few years back, Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irvine reported office workers are interrupted on average every 11 minutes, and further, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after being interrupted. This does not take into account being in an open concept environment that in itself, is markedly distracting.
So when you peek at your inbox, or respond to a ping from an incoming instant message as you focus on a task requiring full attention, you trigger multiple neural network shifts in your brain, which results in a loss of cognitive function. In a word, when you’re distracted you can’t think clearly (in my case, this is when I can’t remember where I put my keys). So fundamentally, there is a neuro-biological reality to endless interruptions, which ultimately renders us mediocre at doing our work.
Instead of seeing the issue as endemic to workplaces lacking in clear processes, saddled with an over-reliance on so-called collaboration tools — and a cultural expectation that you get back to your boss immediately when she makes a request — organizations leave it largely to individuals to manage their time. If they can’t seem to do this on their own, they are offered wellness programs to manage stress, or are sent off to time management training — or, worse, it escalates to a performance issue.
Returning to knowledge workers, evidence shows the burden and pressure of being all-out productive at work, and happily so, is contributing to the “great resignation.” Specifically, a typical eight-hour workday is not conducive to peak performance, as recent research shows that focusing for six hours or less is more accurate. As Rahaf Harfoush writes in her 2019 book, Hustle & Float: “After you spend six hours on a challenging mental task, your brain is basically done for the day. Staying later won’t accomplish anything for you, or your boss, but it will push you to your breaking point faster.”
Putting pressure on employees to ‘deliver’ when their brains have hit their maximum ability to do so, all the while putting people in environments where poor planning equals endless interruptions, makes it obvious that employers are ignoring the science on what our brains need to function creatively, productively and enthusiastically. One wonders if organizations that tout following best practices are guilty of applying proven processes and practices to some parts of their businesses, but not to the ones doing the work.
And it gets worse: one large corporation I worked in sent around postcards to all employees during a wellness campaign (with a catchy slogan I no longer recall) urging them to take a break twice a day. Here again the onus is on employees to figure how to stay focused and productive under unreasonable deadlines, incessant interruptions and a lack of resources. When organizations believe the solution to what ails the anxious and rapidly burning out employee is a break, and not downsizing their mentally-depleting workloads or endless intrusions on their non-work time, they are take themselves off the hook for implementing solutions that might cost them something (or take a nibble out of the shareholder dividends) and implement a blame-the-victim strategy that costs nothing.
There are better ways to work. We can change. Any system we’ve created can be dismantled, reconfigured and thoughtfully reassembled. This goes for our systems of work, and the artificial pressures we put on people to perform in ways our bodies and brains were not designed for. It is time to do better.