Trying to be efficient at work by multitasking and responding to emails quickly could actually be hampering productivity, according to an innovation psychologist.
Dr Amantha Imber, founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, has encouraged public servants to be “mono-taskers” when attempting to tackle their deep work. Deep work refers to the tasks which require deep, focused thought over several hours, while shallow work refers to the habitual, short tasks which are not cognitively demanding, such as responding to emails and taking phone calls.
According to Imber, the average adult can stay focused for roughly six minutes before they give into distractions such as instant messenger or social media. These addictive forms of tech can be detrimental to productivity at work.
“What has happened in this age of digital distraction that we’re living in, where we are bombarded by notifications and interruptions mostly of the digital variety, is that most people now spend most of their days engaged in shallow work … fitting in deep work among all the shallow work, when it should be the other way around — if the value you bring to your organisation or department is in your thinking that you produce,” she said at the 2019 BiiG public sector conference in Brisbane last week.
Imber suggests workers establish a deep work routine which aligns with their chronotype. In other words, if someone is a morning person like roughly 20% of the population, they should schedule the work which requires the most focus for the morning. If it takes a few hours and half a dozen coffees for their brain to warm up, however, then they should schedule harder tasks for the afternoon.
Workers should book their deep work times into their diaries or calendars for everyone to see, “so that time is protected”, Imber says. When organising meetings with colleagues who have a different chronotype, employees should consider who needs to be the most switched on during the meeting and schedule accordingly, or meet somewhere in the middle.
But beware of the temptation to multitask. Imber says doing two things at once can make tasks take about 40% longer than if the tasks had been done separately. The way an individual sets out their to-do list can also have an impact. Rather than having one large list with every task on it, separating the deep work from the shallow work can make it easier to complete more difficult tasks, as individuals will tend to default to the simpler tasks when faced with an enormous list.
When someone feels stuck in a rut with the task at hand, Imber suggests that rather than reaching for a distraction, they should set a timer for 10-20 minutes, push through the work, and “surf the wave of the uncomfortableness”. If the usual workflow has not returned by the end of the timer, have a break. Most of the time, however, pushing on will result in returned productivity, Imber says.
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When it comes to the best location for focused thinking, open-plan offices “kill deep work”.
“We assume that we have open plan environments because they’re great for innovation because they’re great for collaboration,” Imber says. “But actually, what happens in open plan offices is that face to face communication actually decreases by about 75%.”
This is because workers often do not want to interrupt their colleagues or broadcast their opinions to a room full of people.
“On the other hand, digital interruptions in the form of email and instant messenger increase by about 60%,” Imber says.
Workers should think about the places where they can easily focus and should go there to do their deep work, whether it be a cafe or at home. If that is not possible, invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, consider placing a “do not disturb” placard on the desk, and set up an auto-response email during deep work hours.
As “willpower is a limited resource,” Imber shares three hacks to resist digital distractions:
- When working on something, go full-screen mode to “visually block out all the other little distractions and temptations that are trying to get your attention.”
- Look at the screen time function on your phone to find out which apps are “hijacking your attention”, and delete it off the phone for a week. After that week, look at how your behaviour has changed. If things improved, keep the app deleted forever.
- Use the Freedom.to software, which locks you out from whichever websites distract you at particular times of the day (if your department allows it).
And what if a workplace equates hard work with immediate email responses? Imber suggests having an open conversation with the boss about how much of the day should be dedicated to knowledge work and what their expectations are. She also encourages public sector leaders to consider how they can help cultivate a workplace which allows employees to produce their best work.