It’s hard to focus on work when you’re answering emails, getting notifications on your phone and trying to keep an eye on Slack all at the same time. Even if you manage to get things done, it’s unlikely that you’re giving it your full attention — the kind of concentration that makes time fly by.
“Deep work” is a concept coined by Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book of the same title. It’s the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, allowing you to get your head around complex information and produce better results in a shorter period of time.
Thinking deeply is a hugely valuable skill in the workplace, but in today’s society, it’s something we rarely do. But why is this the case — and how can we teach ourselves to concentrate more deeply in a distracted world?
“Deep thinking is the process we go through when we have productive, deliberate and purposeful thoughts,” says psychologist Richard Reid, author and founder of Pinnacle Therapy. “So many of the thoughts that we have are random or counter productive — in other words, they make us less effective, they use up our internal resources and they get in the way of our ability to focus and get in the way of enjoyment.”
There are multiple reasons why we’re so distracted in the workplace, including the speed at which we now operate. Not only are we working longer hours, we’re also expected to work at an increasing pace too.
“Some of this is fuelled by technology,” Reid says. “We are accessible for increased periods of time and we are exposed to lots of different stimuli; social media, news, emails and we find that we are constantly flitting between different focuses.”
These digital interruptions mean we’re always switching our focus from one thing to another, preventing us from engaging in deep thinking. “The more that we operate at pace and the more we are switching between things at pace, the more the brain gets locked into that way of being,” he says.
When our attention is drawn in different directions, we’re also trying to multitask — something we’re not actually very good at as humans. Multiple studies have shown that multitasking is actually an illusion that makes us think we’re getting more done.
“Multitasking is fine in moderation, but the research shows that when we are heavily reliant on multitasking all of the time, our ability to remain organised, prioritise tasks and our ability to engage with tasks in a deep thinking manner, starts to become impacted,” Reid says. “What you might find is, when you try to start thinking about something or you try to read an article or write an email — it may take you fractions of time to fully engage fully with that task. This means we are losing these micro periods of time.”
Of course, not every worker needs to engage in deep thought to do their job more successfully. It’s something that will mostly apply to people in creative industries. It might also be hard to convince your boss that you’re not checking your emails as frequently or replying on Slack because you’re in the zone.
But it’s still important for employers to recognise the need for their staff to focus solely on their work — instead of emailing, Slacking or sitting in back-to-back meetings. Research shows that concentrating on one thing at a time until it is finished will pay off.
In “Why Is It So Hard To Do My Work?,” Sophie Leroy, then an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, showed that when moving from one task to another, full attention does not immediately follow. Instead, attention remained on the first task. “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task,” she wrote.
So what can we do to cut out the distractions and try deep work?
If you’re working on something that will benefit from your full concentration, put your phone on airplane mode and either log out of instant messaging apps or set your status to away. Before you do so, though, make sure your manager knows you are working on something that requires you to focus — and that you aren’t just ignoring them.
It’s also important to get used to spending time away from social media. Having more control over the way you use it — for example, avoiding mindlessly scrolling on Instagram in the evenings — will make it far easier to avoid it when you’re trying to work.
Deep thinking takes more than overcoming external barriers, however. Many of us find it hard to focus on one thing at a time when so much is asked of us in the workplace. Being well-organised is key, so you can use your brain for the project you’re thinking about — rather than your to-do list. Write down what needs doing and put it to one side.
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According to Reid, mindfulness is also a helpful tool when it comes to concentration too. “Being in the moment allows us to choose how we want to be and if we choose to engage in particular types of thoughts,” he says.
“Mindfulness is one technique that is very useful in terms of training the brain to be more flexible. Is it time for doing mode — where it's about multitasking, thinking at speed and getting things done — or is it about slowing down and giving deliberate attention to certain things?”