The ability to multi-task has always been a resume staple, seen in a positive light and acknowledged as a must-have attribute in today’s modern workplace. However, Cal Newport – Assistant Professor at Georgetown University – believes the ability to focus on uninterrupted, distraction-free work is an important skill that is being eroded by today’s lifestyles.
“Deep work” as Cal coins it, is “when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. This isn’t something new, it’s a topic that’s been floating about for quite some time – and has been popularised in films like The Social Network.
However, a study at the University of London has found that multi-tasking causes a drop in IQ level on a similar par to missing a night of sleep. Even if we feel like we are getting much more done we are working at a much lower level and therefore taking longer to do the same amount of work. This is because each swap between work leaves a leftover “attention residue” where we are still thinking about the other task.
And it get’s worse, the constant switching between tasks can cause permanent damage to the brain – MRI scans have helped to discover less brain density in areas of empathy and emotions. It’s also very addictive, due to the sense of fulfilment that comes from completing small innocuous tasks such as replying to an email, keeping up with your twitter feed, accepting LinkedIn connections, etc. We keep doing it again and again.
The golden question is, how do we stop this destructive cycle? Lots of developers already have a few tricks up their sleeves and below are a few which we’ve found to work best:
1. Recalibrate your work life
If you’ve got a holiday coming up or even the next weekend, learn how to live without distraction. Switch off your phone, disconnect your internet connection and do anything that will ensure you’re just doing that one task. Fix that leaky tap, play a game of chess, organise your paperwork. Something that you will need to concentrate on for an at length period – ideally not watching the full extended Lord of the Rings trilogy.
2. Schedule a full day to get rid of small tasks
Back at work dedicate a day to trimming down your to-do list. Think of this as your cheat day. Use this day to complete anything that you have outstanding – catch up with your emails, merge in those pull requests, roll out that code you’ve been putting off. Schedule this weekly, fortnightly, monthly – whatever you feel appropriate.
3. Plan your day
Look honestly at your standard work day and figure out where your distractions come from and how to avoid them or at least schedule them for certain times of the day. Set aside time during the day to go over your email/twitter/LinkedIn etc. and stick to it. Generally first thing in the morning and at the end of the day works best – read and archive everything you can, complete anything quick, add to your to-do list anything significantly larger. Once you’re done close your email until next time.
4. Forget about your task list
Decide what you are doing next and stop thinking about everything else. You may have a long list of things to-do, but they don’t matter right now. You need to concentrate on the task at hand and let anything else be forgotten. If it’s a big project, write a mini to-do list for that one project and know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to achieve it.
5. Get wired, Go Zen
When you’re ready to start your work try following these steps to avoid any distractions:
– Inform everyone around you you’re going to be starting your next project and, if you’re working on a laptop, sit somewhere different
– Turn off chat
– Disable all notifications
– Close your email
– Ensure you’re stocked up with your drink of choice / snacks
– Select your playlist wisely and put on your headphones
– Reach a Zen like state of concentration