above photo: Facebook’s headquarters where open-plan is king and ‘frictionless working’ is the aim (Washington Post 2015)
The buzzing of your phone, binging sound from your email, a blinking light from an instant message awaiting your response, co-workers talking around you. These are all things that take your attention away from your work. Companies like Apple and Facebook, among many others, have hopped on the bandwagon with trendy business models like having open offices and employing group chats like Slack. But constant interruptions, even if short, delays the time it takes to complete tasks1. These trends actively decrease one’s ability to perform deep, meaningful work. So why are these current trends so popular?
We have adopted this thing called the Culture of Connectivity2. This culture embraces being connected constantly via technology and your smartphone. Facebook’s mission statement is about building community and a world that feels closer together. It’s all about connectedness. The problem with the culture of connectivity is not that we’re more connected than ever, it’s about the expectation of being instantly and constantly connected.
Open offices are widespread (literally) these days. I’ve only had one job with my own office space. What’s the deal? Open offices help us stay connected to our co-workers and allow for more natural collaboration. They make it easy to pop by a co-worker and ask about the latest email thread. There is a downside to this environment, though. I have a very hard time concentrating in open offices. When I’m trying to focus on editing a video, I have to wear headphones and try to ignore the babbling of my office mates. It can be difficult to perform the deep work needed for my job when my concentration is being interrupted by the office ambiance.
Instant messaging with co-workers or clients offers real time and faster responses. I use a group chat with my officemates and love it. It makes life a lot easier to shoot them a quick message to ask a question or to connect. Usually these applications are expected to stay open for an instant response, otherwise, what’s the point? You can work and be notified with a blinking light from the chat when your attention is needed. Though group chats can be a great tool, it becomes another thing we have to “check”, like our email or project management tools. The blinking light of the chat is distracting and won’t go away until you “check” it. Our brain naturally responds to distractions and as I mentioned in my last blog, we can’t handle the change between tasks because of something called Attention Residue3. When we try to juggle between tasks our brain can’t keep up and it doesn’t fully transfer all of its attention to the new task.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport says the answer to these trends can be found in the reality of our workplace behavior. Newport calls this behavior, The Principle of Least Resistance. He says in a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment”4. We have open offices because it makes it easy to collaborate and pop by when you have that “quick question”. We use instant messaging because it’s easy to chat with instant responses than sending a formal email. If you get an answer quickly, this makes your life easy. Deep work is put on the back-burner in favor of more distracting and high-tech behavior5. Things like checking emails, instant messaging and chatting with co-workers are “busy work”. These trends all save us from deep concentration and planning.
So, what have we learned? Does it help your work to constantly stay connected? No. So why do we do these things? Because they’re EASY.
1“Deep Work Is Rare.” DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by CAL NEWPORT, GRAND CENTRAL PUB, 2016, p. 52. 2“Deep Work Is Rare.” DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by CAL NEWPORT, GRAND CENTRAL PUB, 2016, p. 56. 3“Deep Work is Valuable.” DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by CAL NEWPORT, GRAND CENTRAL PUBLISHING, 2016, pp. 41-42. 4“Deep Work Is Rare.” DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by CAL NEWPORT, GRAND CENTRAL PUB, 2016, p. 58. 4“Deep Work Is Rare.” DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by CAL NEWPORT, GRAND CENTRAL PUB, 2016, p. 69.