Culture of Connectivity

White Paper. 2020.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In this fast-paced economy, deep work is being exiled in favor of more distracting and high-tech behaviors. The very tools that are put in place to help us in the workplace are actually disrupting productivity. In and out of the workplace, we have adopted a culture of connectivity and networking tools are distracting us from work that requires intense, focused concentration.

Productivity in a white-collar workplace can be difficult to measure so visible busyness serves as a proxy for productivity. In addition, people are generally unfocused while mindlessly multitasking. This level of interruption and overwhelm- ing information overall is affecting our deeper thinking. Unfortunately if a person spends enough time doing shallow work they will permanently reduce their capacity to perform deep work.

If you are looking for a way to become more effective and more productive, deep work is the mindset you need. This will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment.

THE PROBLEM

White-collar workers are being negatively effected by trendy business models and networking tools, the very things that have been put into place to help with productivity.

To understand the problems in the workplace, one must first define the kind of work they are disrupting. Work performed in a state of distraction-free concentration while pushing your cognitive abilities to their limit is the epitome of deep work. This kind of difficult work is crucial for anyone looking to move ahead in a competitive economy. In this fast-paced world, deep work is being exiled in favor of more distracting, high-tech behaviors.

Using networking tools, sending emails like a human router, and fragmented attention are the ingredients for a low-level worker. Cal Newport author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World coined a term for this low effort called shallow work. He defines it as, “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted”. The very tools that are put in place to help us in the workplace are actually disrupting productivity.

In and out of the workplace, we have adopted a culture of connectivity. This culture embraces being connected via technology and our smartphones. The problem with the culture of connectivity is not that we’re more connected than ever, it’s the expectation of being instantly and constantly connect- ed.

During the current business trends of open offices and instant messaging, it can be difficult to buckle down and get some work done. Open offices help workers stay connected and allow for more natural collaboration. Open spaces without barriers make it easy to stop by a co-worker’s desk and ask about the latest email thread. There is a downside to this environment, though. It can be difficult to perform the deep work needed for a job when concentration is being interrupted by office ambiance and peers. Work without walls invites open communication at all times, even if it is unwanted.

Networking tools are distracting us from work that requires focused concentration. The white-collar worker spends more than 60% of the workweek engaged in electronic communications and 30% dedicated to emails. That’s more than half of their time spent emailing, on Zoom calls, LinkedIn and other social sites.

A specific application used in offices to help with productivity is an instant messaging service. Instant messaging with co-workers or clients offers real-time and faster response rates. Usually, these applications are expected to stay open for an instant response. Though instant messages can be a great tool, they have become another thing workers have to “check”, like email or project management applications. The blinking light of the chat is distracting and disappears only when it’s opened.

Busyness as a Proxy For Productivity

Productivity in a white-collar workplace can be difficult to measure so vis- able busyness serves as a proxy for productivity. Workers want to prove they are productive members of their team, so they become busy. Sending and answering emails, going to meetings, brainstorming in an open office, these are things that make you seem busy.

In addition, people are generally unfocused while mindlessly multitasking. Humans naturally and “automatically pay attention to things that are habitually relevant to them, even when they are focused on a different task”. The typical person checks their phones every 15 minutes and usually have their phones next to them or in their pockets while they work. “The habit of frequently checking inboxes ensures that these issues remain on the forefront of their attention”. We check our phones, email and social platforms because it’s become a conditioned habit. When we try to juggle between tasks our brain can’t keep up and doesn’t fully transfer all of its attention to the new task, causing attention residue. As author Michael Harris puts it, “Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits”. This level of interruption and overwhelming information overall is affecting our deeper thinking.

Unfortunately if a person spends enough time doing shallow work they will permanently reduce their capacity to perform deep work. Deep work is not only becoming rare, but increasingly valuable. The few who can cultivate this skill will thrive in their working life. They will become the leaders of the industry, while low-level work slowly gets taken over by intelligent machines.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Rise of the Open Office and Instant Messaging

The first offices were recorded in London in 1854 by Sir Charles Trevelyan who stated, “for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted”. Centuries later, separate offices evolved into the open office floor plan. In the 1960s, the workplace started to change with the adoption of an open layout which encouraged human interaction and engagement. As technology developed, workers became more mobile and more flexible ways of working became increasingly popular. It became evident that they could work anywhere and were no longer tied to their desk.

Instant messaging began as early as the 1970’s at MIT and was an easy form of communication among friends. In the years following, many instant messaging platforms like AIM and Skype were created for messaging friends. It wasn’t until 2005 that Google released Google Talk which integrated messaging, voice chat and video conferences with your Google account. Apps evolved and changed the concept of messaging entirely. In 2009 WhatsApp was created and allowed users to send texts, photos and video for free, instead of paying for text messages on their phones. A year later, WeChat was launched as a clone of WhatsApp but is now a fully integrated mobile platform with shopping, payments and games.

Slack, founded in 2013, became the first workplace collaboration software and is described as “a cloud based team collaboration tool was destined to solve the problem of team communication by bringing the conversation to another platform”. A Times article claims that instant messaging improves customer response times and productivity gains. IBM boasts that they send over 2.5 million Instant messages a day.

Evolution of the Phone

Cell phones were first widely adopted in the 1990s. In 2005 the mobile phone was small enough to fit in your pocket and most people living in major cities at this time had one. The smartphone, which added instant access to the internet, was introduced with the first iPhone in 2007. Between 2005 and 2019, the Pew Research Center began tracking social media use and found “the proportion of Americans using social media to connect, keep up with the news, share information and be entertained went from 5 to 72 percent”. That means Americans using social media jumped from one in 20 adults to seven in 10. Smartphone versions of these social media services are much more adept at hijacking one’s attention than web browsers. These companies are “in a race to become our personal assistant. They intend for us to turn unthinkingly to them for information and entertainment while they take note of our intentions”. The companies behind these tools are gathering our information and selling them to advertisers.

These trends decrease one’s ability to perform deep work. Open offices may create more opportunities for collaboration, but they also cause massive distraction and disruption. Open floor plans and ambient workplace chatter can ruin what you are concentrating on. Instant messengers are meant to always be active, magnifying the impact and chance for interruption. Smart phones and its applications cause attention fragmentation in the workplace and is very detrimental to concentration.


PEW RESEARCH CENTER

SOLUTIONS

In order to implement deep work practices into your workday, it is essential to identify where one is spending their time. Once identified, adjustments to your habits can be made to address the specific distractions affecting you. Some of the largest obstacles of going deep are your distractions and desires.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals into your working life. It’s not enough to just say, ”I’m going to get that project done at some point”. The best thing you can do for yourself is to set goals, create a timeline and put rules in place in order to create healthy habits for deep work. There’s a plethora of ways that you can integrate deep work into your schedule, but its up to you to find the method or routine that makes sense for you. Creating a routine for your work removes the need for you to invest energy on deciding when you’ll get that project done. Rock-solid routines make sure that a little bit of hard, deep work gets done on a regular basis. The more often deep work is per- formed, the less friction you will have with transitioning to it. This will allow you to perform this kind of work easier and stay in this mindset for longer periods of time.

Create a Healthy Work Routine

1. Decide on where you’ll work and for how long
First, you’ll need to figure out a time a place for your work. For example, for graduate studies work you can reserve around 2 hours a day for 5 days a week. Choose a quiet space that will work best for you.

2. Create rules for maximum performance
Structure is key to creating a healthy work habits. You’ll need to create some rules or restrictions around how you can get your work done without distractions. No cell phone use or television, no loud noises and a well lit are recommended.

3. Figure out what will support you
Find things that will support your work and concentration. Some things that support deep work can be organizing your materials or a taking short walk. A glass of water while you work to stay hydrated and a snack can be helpful.

4. Identify your goals
You need to identify both short and long term goals for the work you’re performing. Ask yourself, ”what is the short term goal for the session of work I’m about to do? What would I like to accomplish?”. Long term goals are the end-game. What is the overall goal of your project or work?

5. Hold yourself accountable
Stick to the structure and rituals you’ve created and ask someone to hold you accountable. Tell a friend to ask you how your work is coming along.

Adopt Productive Meditation

In an effort to adopt these efforts into deep, meaningful work, Cal Newport, uses the term productive meditation. He says that the goal of productive meditation is to take a moment where you are occupied physically– walking, driving, showering– and focus your attention on a single professional problem. This helps to strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles and forces you to push your focus deeper while sharpening your concentration. Concentration is the key to every mindfulness practice. Concentration is the “capacity of your mind to sustain unwavering attention on one object of observation”. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life summarizes the connection between mindful- ness and concentration perfectly: “You can only look deeply into something if you can sustain your looking without being constantly thrown off by distractions or by the agitation of your own mind. The deeper your concentration, the deeper the potential for mindfulness”. Like all forms of meditation, this requires practice to perform well. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non judgmentally”. This kind of attention brings greater awareness and clarity to our reality. Meditation provides a simple route to allow us to regain control of our thoughts. Meditation is “learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us”. The effort to cultivate the ability to be in the present moment is called a practice.

» Be Wary of Distractions
As you begin a productive meditation session, your mind will often wonder to more interesting thoughts. When you notice your attention slipping away from the problem, gently remind yourself that you can return to that thought later on, and then redirect your attention back.

» Structure Your Deep Thinking
After you have focused your mind, start with a careful review of the variables for solving your problem. For example, if you’re writing an outline you could think about the main points you want to make. Once these are identified, define the next-step question that you need to answer. In the outline example, the next-step question could be, “what content will I begin this outline with?”. With these variables and questions in mind, you now have a specific target for your attention.

The more you practice, the more you will improve your ability to dive deep and ease into concentration. If you don’t walk to work, you might consider scheduling a walk during your workday specifically for practicing meditation. If this doesn’t work for you, try this during your daily commute or shower. A serious session isn’t needed every day, but at least two or three sessions a week can improve your productivity.

Use a Project Management Tool

If your job involves multitasking or juggling more than one project at a time with different timelines, it’s best to use a project management app or tool. There are plenty of free apps out there like Monday, Write, Trello, etc. In defining a good digital project management tool, focus on tools that facilitate the ‘doing’ aspect of a project. Here’s five key aspects of functionality that makes digital projects easier. Use them to get rid of your post-its, spread- sheets, and emails, and to run your project more efficiently.

Trello

Task lists – Projects are made up of sub-tasks, checklists and to-do’s. Being able to outline what needs to be done, by when and by who, is critical to completing a project.

Schedules – Timelines, calendars and charts help you know where tasks fit within the broader outline of a project. This is key to being able to deliver a project on time.

File sharing – No one likes having to waste timing trying to dig around for random files. The ability to organize and share key project files and assets is important to deliver a project efficiently.

Communication – Contextual project-specific communication to hash things out quickly and chat with your team and client is vital to keep tasks on track.

Reporting – It is essential to track and to use information in communication to know how a project’s tasks are progressing and if it will be completed on time.

WRAP UP

Open offices and networking apps can decrease one’s ability to perform deep work. Smart phones and its applications cause attention fragmentation in the workplace and is very detrimental to concentration. If a person spends enough time doing shallow work they will permanently reduce their capacity to perform deep work. Deep work is not only becoming rare, but increasingly valuable. The few who can cultivate this skill will thrive in their working life.

In order to implement deep work practices into your workday, it is essential to identify where you spending your time. Adjustments to your habits can be made to address the distractions affecting you. Setting goals, creating a timeline and putting rules in place in order to create healthy habits for deep work is crucial. Productive meditation helps focus your attention on a single professional problem and forces you to push your focus deeper while sharpening your concentration. If your job involves multitasking or juggling more than one project at a time with different timelines, it’s best to use a project management app or tool.

The more often deep work is performed, the less friction you will have with transitioning to it. This will allow you to perform this kind of work easier and stay in this mindset for longer periods of time. The more you practice, the more you will improve your ability to dive deep and ease into concentration.


RESOURCES:
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