Gaining focus in a world driven by distraction
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Michael is an up-and-coming leader in his organization. He’s smart, ambitious, proactive, and has outstanding people skills. Based on his excellent track record and potential, he was promoted to a management position. But six months into the job, he was clearly struggling. So when Michael’s manager suggested he take advantage of the organization’s leadership coaching program, he jumped at the opportunity.
In the first coaching session, Michael explained that he was having trouble executing his plans. He’d set priorities each week, and each week he’d fail to meet most of them. Frantic to keep up, Michael constantly shifted gears from one problem to another. When he finally had the quiet time to tackle his priority projects, he couldn’t concentrate.
Coaching conversations with Michael revealed that, since assuming the management role, he was spending most of his time in emergency mode, putting out fires and responding to an endless stream of requests from his team. He claimed he didn’t have time to focus on deep work.
Michael is not alone. According to a study conducted by the Policy Institute and Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College in London, 49% of people agree their attention span is shorter than it used to be, and another 47% say that “deep thinking has become a thing of the past.” These percentages are double the number of people who disagree.
Why deep thinking matters
Deep thinking or “deep work” is a term coined by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University. He defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” Conversely, “shallow work” is described as logistical-style tasks that can be performed while distracted, like work coordination and communication tasks that are easy to replicate.
Research shows that time spent in deep work has significant benefits, including:
- More focus. As you do more deep work, your ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks for extended periods of time increases. As a result, you build mental muscle that pays big returns.
- Better quality. When you’re in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit, your efforts create new value, improve skills, and are hard to replicate.
- Increased productivity. When we focus on one thing for an extended period, we become fully engaged in the activity at hand. Without distraction, the project that typically takes several hours to complete can be handled in a fraction of the time.
- Greater satisfaction. In contrast to shallow work, deep work challenges people to complete something difficult and worthwhile. As a result, people feel a sense of accomplishment and improved self-worth.
While most people see the value and need for deep work, the reality is that it’s becoming harder to achieve. The challenge is most significant for managers who are expected to be present in meetings and available to direct reports, peers and senior leaders. It is especially difficult for inexperienced managers like Michael, who are trying to figure out how to balance their priorities with supporting their teams.
Thriving organizations need leaders who can focus amidst chaos and accomplish priorities. As repetitive tasks are automated and outsourced, the valuable people will be those with the mental muscle to focus
on the cognitively challenging work.
Why deep work tends to be avoided
In Michael’s work environment, multitasking and frequent interruptions are the norm. Multitasking has become an ingrained habit. His brain has gotten used to functioning in an environment where it constantly switches from one task to another. His brain resists when it comes time to sit quietly and focus on a single task for a prolonged period. Five minutes into focus work, Michael feels restless. His default reaction is to reach for his phone and check messages. Inevitably, Michael finds a text that enables him to rationalize that he must attend to something more urgent than his deep work.
We live in a culture that values doing versus thinking. As a result, people are constantly doing things without thinking too much about why and how. For example, consultants who work with both U.S. and Japanese organizations will tell you that in the U.S., when we start a new project, we typically spend 70% of the time doing things, 20% of the time planning and only 10% of the time thinking. Whereas in Japan, before they even embark on any project, they spend 70% of the time thinking, 20% of the time planning, and 10% of the time executing. In Michael’s case, he was investing most of his energy in dealing with day-to-day challenges rather than stepping back and doing the deep macro work to dig into root causes and potential solutions.
Henry Ford summed it up best when he said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” We appear to have an innate energy for working through obstacles to our goals and an equally innate resistance to pausing to understand what these goals should rightly be. Michael was no exception. While he complained about his needy team and the crises de jour, it was clear that Michael preferred the adrenaline rush and immediate gratification of putting out fires to time spent in deep work.
Making time for deep work
Michael may never love deep work, but deep work needs to be a core competency if he wants to advance in his career. Thriving organizations need leaders who can focus amidst chaos and accomplish priorities. As more “shallow work” is automated and outsourced, the people who are valued will be those with the mental muscle to focus on the cognitively challenging work.
Here are seven strategies we shared with Michael for building his deep work skills.
- Eliminate the white space from your calendar. The goal is to have a clear understanding of exactly what you want to be working on at each moment of the day. Be sure to include all your activities, including things like responding to emails, exercising, lunch and checking in with colleagues.
- Realistically, your calendar will not always go as planned. The important thing is to understand why. Build a few minutes into your daily schedule at the end of the day to review your calendar. Assess where you did what you said you would do and where you became distracted.
- Schedule deep work time. Some managers schedule 60 to 90 minutes of deep work time every day. Depending on the demands of your work environment and the experience level of your team, this may not be possible. Scheduling a half- or full-day work-from-home day may be a more practical alternative.
- Make your deep work time non-negotiable. Typically, this will be more of a challenge for the manager than the team—especially managers who struggle with saying “no.” When you communicate what you’re doing and why and when you’ll be unavailable, blocking a reasonable amount of time for deep work seldom causes a problem. Most managers who use this strategy agree that the long-term benefit outweighs the short-term pain.
- Set yourself up for success. Identify a comfortable place for your deep work. For some people that’s a quiet office; for others, it’s a busy coffee shop. Know what works for you. Get rid of anything that’s likely to distract you. Shut down your phone and put it out of reach. If you’re using a computer, work in a single screen. Turn off email, text, and any alerts. Disconnect from the internet. However, if your deep work requires internet research, set a timer for how long you’ll devote to the task. This helps minimize the risk of getting lost in research.
- Surf the urge. If you start to feel distracted, pay close attention to the feelings and do what behavioral psychologists call “surfing the urge.” Take a few minutes to notice the sensations you’re experiencing, then ride them like a wave—neither pushing them away nor acting on them. This exercise helps recondition our minds to seek relief from internal triggers in a reflective rather than reactive way.
Research shows that when you gently pay attention to the negative emotions, they tend to dissipate, but positive ones expand. When this concept was applied in a smoking cessation program, the participants who had learned to acknowledge and explore their cravings managed to quit at double the rate of those in the American Lung Association’s best-performing cessation program.
- Build the muscle. Focus is like a muscle. Like any other muscle in your body, you can strengthen it. Start by assessing where you are. See how long you can stay focused on a single task that requires real concentration before becoming distracted. If this is hard for you, use this time as your baseline and gradually work your way up to longer periods of time. With practice, you’ll get better and better.
Traction or distraction is your choice
We live in a world driven by distraction, where the deep work that moves people and organizations forward is all too often sacrificed to the “shallow” but easier work. The good news is that we have a choice: be victims of distraction or become masters at managing how and where we invest attention and brainpower. The better we become at managing our attention, the more control we gain over our lives and future success.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.