One of the most horrifying statistics for modern knowledge workers is how much time they spend on email. They send, receive, and respond to email for an average of 5.6 hour per workday.
According to Cal Newport, our highest value work is rare, valuable, and cognitively demanding. Between open offices, emails, and digital distractions, the modern workplace is an interruption factory that leads to the exact opposite of productivity.
The Questionable ROI of Open Offices
Silicon Valley startups and tech companies have fueled the movement towards open offices, and companies in many other industries have followed their lead. It's likely we will see companies invest millions of dollars to build open offices over the next few years.
But are they making an investment that will lead to declines in productivity, creativity, and innovation? Does the open office actually lead to a negative ROI? People who study our working habits through the lens of neuroscience would argue that it does.
According to Steven Kotler, it takes 90 minutes of uninterrupted creation time before you reach a state of flow, in which you achieve a 500% increase in productivity, and performance goes through the roof. That's hard to do if you're being interrupted all day long.
In a recent training I did for a Fortune 500 corporation, one of the attendees said that the open office had been incredibly disruptive to her workflow because people were constantly interrupting her. All of this disruption makes it impossible to get into flow.
We were discussing various ways she could deal with this. She mentioned another employee who had a specific set of headphones and made it clear that when he was wearing those headphones, he was not to be interrupted. So I suggested that everybody on the team get themselves a pair of bright red Beats headphones to signal they weren't to be interrupted.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues for a different kind of open office, one based on a hub and spoke model. The spokes would be pods where deep work gets done, while the hub would serve as a place for collisions that lead to the original goals of an open office, without being so disruptive to deep work.
The Library Rules at Basecamp
In their new book, It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work, the authors suggest what they call “library rules”:
Walk into a library anywhere in the world and you'll notice the same thing: It's quiet and calm. Everyone knows how to behave in a library. In fact, few things transcend cultures like library behavior. It's a place where people go to read, think, study, focus, and work. And the hushed, respectful environment reflects that. Isn't that what an office should be?
So, why not build an actual library at your company? The cost of a library would be chump change in comparison to the design of an open office.
The Litmus Test for High Value Work
A good litmus test of whether time spent on something is “high value work” would be if it meets these three criteria: 1) rare, 2) valuable and 3) cognitively demanding.
Email fails the litmus test. But to drive home the point let's quantify it. Say an employee has a salary that's $125,000 a year. If we assume it comes to $10,000 a month divided by 160 hours of work, that's roughly 60 dollars an hour. Multiply that times 5 hours a day, and companies pay their employees $300 a day to check and respond to email. It's likely my estimate is conservative.
Social media fails the litmus test. It causes people to confuse attention with accomplishment, and gradually turns them into a cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes. A not so harmless byproduct for a seemingly harmless habit.
The overwhelming majority of the way people spend their time in the modern workplace fails nearly every litmus test for work that is truly valuable.
Transforming the Interruption Factory into a Deep Work Machine
Transforming the interruption factory into a deep work machine isn't just about productivity hacks or steps to follow. It's about behavioral change that begins at the very top.
Leadership Sets the Tone
Leaders set the tone for their organizations. If leaders send, reply, and respond to emails all day long, the people who report to them will feel as if they are expected to do the same. Given that they are often the hubs of communication, they face the biggest challenge in changing their behavior. This requires relentless prioritization, clarity, and an ability to distinguish the signal from the noise. For leaders, it's worth asking whether or not an email is leading to an action that aligned with the organizations objectives. If not, maybe there's no need to send
Get Information Out of Silos
A few years ago I was interviewing Chris Fussell about the book Team of Teams, which he cowrote with Stanley McChrystal. In fighting against Al Qaeda, Chris and Stanley encountered something they had never seen before: the speed at which information traveled.
In the US Military, information had traditionally lived in silos, and was protected and given to people on a need to know basis. But to defeat Al Qaeda, that had to change, so they had let information flow freely in order to develop what Chris described me as a “shared consciousness”.
After that conversation, Slack became our shared consciousness for our team at Unmistakable Creative. It reduced a lot of back and forth emails, and increased the speed at which things got done. But, Slack is also closed most of the time, by default.
The brain is a terrible place to store information, and that's why every organization and individual should be built a second one. While Evernote is great for a knowledge repository, Notion has become the place where our team manages all of our workflow. In Notion, we can do all of the following:
- Write, edited and proofread blog posts
- Manage and assign tasks
- Share files
- Comment and collaborate on projects, and ideas
The result is a A LOT less email, fewer Slack messages, and a lot more getting things done. You can see a screenshot below.
Adopt a Rhythmic Philosophy for Deep Work
The deep work methods used by artists, authors, and other creatives who work for themselves are not well suited for the workplace. Knowledge workers don't have the luxury of going off the grid for weeks or hours at a time. But that also doesn't mean they can't make deep work a part of their culture. They can adopt what Cal Newport calls “a rhythmic philosophy”.
This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you're going to go deep. - Cal Newport
This deep work approach is not only feasible for knowledge workers in the modern workplace, but it produces all the conditions for flow: an hour of uninterrupted creation time and focus on just one task. One of the easiest ways to start this by waking up in the morning and writing 1000 words.
Design a Distraction-free Digital Environment
For success in life, turn things off. Turn off notifications, shut down your inbox, and turn off anything else that might disrupt your focus during your deep work blocks. Every interruption that you shift your attention to causes attention residue, affecting the original task you were working on for a non-trivial amount of time.
Almost anybody reading this has had the experience of looking in their inbox to discover something that they can't deal with at the moment, but is a fire they'll have to put out. It completely derails their focus. That's attention residue at work.
I can't tell you the number of times I've done this and it screwed my mood for an interview on The Unmistakable Creative. Sometimes it's been so bad, that I actually scrap the interview and apologize to the guest.
Build a culture of focus and depth
Make a Distinction Between Urgent And Important: The other night I was talking to my dad about his own working habits as a college professor. I asked him how many times a day checks email. He said it was roughly 30. When I asked how many out of the 30 actually were necessary, he said 10. More than likely, it's less than 10. This is the plight of the modern knowledge worker. We react more than we respond. Our inboxes are filled with a lot of stuff that's irrelevant to our work. And we overestimate urgency and underestimate importance.
As obnoxious as it might sound, the copywriter Dan Kennedy sorts his email into two categories:
- Is this person trying to get me to do something?
- Is this person trying to give me money?
The overwhelming majority of email falls into the first category. It's insane to spend that much time each day catering to other people's priorities.
Set Times for Communication Related Activities: For a corporate culture to transform from an interruption factory into a deep work machine, there should be set times for communication related activities like email. People put meetings on their calendar, and checking email should be treated a like a meeting people have with themselves.
Every meeting should have a purpose and agenda: My first job out of business school was at an online travel company. Every Monday, we had a team meeting. When my hours were reduced and I relocated to Costa Rica, I dialed into this Monday meeting, and listened the the CEO and marketing team talk about the broken air conditioner for 45 minutes. My job was to build the blog and brand for a new flight booking engine. In a whole year, we built the blog, but never launched the booking engine. "Because it's Monday" is a really bad reason to have a meeting.
- Make sure every meeting has a purpose and an agenda.
- Put somebody in charge of running the meeting.
- Use an app like Reason8.ai to take notes, and put your phones in the middle of the table.
- If you can't do #1 or #2, cancel the meeting.
Incorporate Symbols that Establish Boundaries: I suggested the pair of bright red Beats headphones for the leaders of the company I was training because they make a large, loud statement that can't be ignored. They go from being a pair of headphones to a symbol that is linked to the message of "Don't fu@# with me, I'm flowing." These kinds of symbols help individuals draw clear boundaries.
High Quality Distractions: Not all distractions are bad. Going for a walk (without a phone) is a high quality distraction because it allows you unplug, move your body a little bit, and reset your mind. Having a serendipitous conversation with a co-worker is valuable as long as it’s not the result of an interruption to your deep work.
Every single day there's some new social network or tool that everybody should be on. Unless your employees can distinguish the signal from the noise, they'll always be unproductive. If companies want to get the best of their employees, they should transform interruption factories into deep work machines.