Why It’s So Hard to Focus at Work (Hint: It’s not you, it’s your workplace)

Think back to the last time you encountered a difficult challenge at work– one of those problems that require hard, long thought and perhaps some…

Think back to the last time you encountered a difficult challenge at work– one of those problems that require hard, long thought and perhaps some focused drudgery to break through. The kind of hard work that makes you uncomfortable. What did you do?

If you work in the knowledge economy, chances are you interrupted yourself several times along the way — checked your email, went on Facebook, got up and chatted with a coworker, started on a different task, etc.

On average, employees who do the majority of their work on computers are distracted once every ten and a half minutes. Many of those interruptions come from external sources – like an incoming email or a colleague stopping by to chat – but a significant portion of the interruptions came from the individuals themselves. Voluntarily switching from one task to the next without finishing the original task first accounted for a full 44% of work interruptions.

In the bestselling workplace productivity book Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that deep work — the kind of difficult tasks that draw upon all your mental reserves and require singular focus — is both increasingly important and increasingly rare in the modern workplace. As computers are able to automate more and more tasks, it’s the people who are able to learn new, complex skills quickly and perform consistently at a high level who will be the winners in the new economy.

But Newport’s book, like the vast majority of research and advice on the topic, focuses on the individual. What can I do personally to focus more and become more productive? Very little has been written about what companies can do to make focus an organization-wide habit. Which is a shame because they and their employees stand to gain a great deal by approaching work a little bit differently…

Why should companies and leaders care?

You may think your attention is fluid, easily flowing from one task to the next. But Sophie Leroy, a business professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota, would argue otherwise. And she has the evidence to back it up.

In a 2009 study called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, Leroy discovered that attention acts more like molasses than water; you can redirect it, but a sticky “attention residue” stays behind, fixed to the last task you were working on. That residue is particularly thick when you don’t complete one task before moving on to the next one. But even when you do manage to finish the first task, your attention stays fractured.

In two separate studies, Leroy found that the effects of attention residue on participants’ productivity were unambiguously negative:

“People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task. The thicker the residue, the worse the performance.”

The conclusion is perhaps unsurprising: if your attention is divided, it’s harder to get things done. What is surprising is that so few of us take this common sense idea into account during our workdays. In Deep Work, Cal Newport lays out what this attention residue means for us as modern workers, operating in environments that are too often full of potential distractors:

“It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so… [But] that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.”

It’s not just productivity that takes a toll when workers are constantly interrupted. Researchers have found that people attempt to compensate for all those distractions by working faster and faster, leading to “more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort.”

Take email, perhaps the most ubiquitous and reviled workplace distraction, as an example. In one study, Gloria Mark of the University of California at Irving took email away from a group of civil workers for a whole five days. She found that workers’ stress, measured by heart rate, decreased significantly over the course of the experiment. Freed from the constant task-switching that comes with email, participants (again, unsurprisingly) also reported feeling more in control of the workday.

Recent business management research reveals that a virtuous cycle exists between workers’ mental health — mood, emotion, and motivations — and the quality of their work. Happier workers make more progress. In turn, more progress leads to happier workers. On the other hand, constant interruptions, context switching, and shallow focus negatively impact both sides of the equation, causing unnecessary stress and making it difficult to make any meaningful progress.

This dynamic hints at the kinds of things today’s companies could be doing to create healthier, more productive workplaces. Yet the trend seems stubbornly headed in the opposite direction.

Focus: A dwindling resource in the workplace

From large corporations in sprawling office buildings to small remote startups — constant task switching has practically become a requirement of the job. One study published in the Harvard Business Review found that “over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.” In many companies, employees spend a full 80% of their time communicating with coworkers.

Open office floor plans that supposedly create moments of serendipitous collaboration are still common, particularly in the tech world despite the evidence that increased noise and interruptions make it more difficult for teams to get work done. (Though the fad is cooling off, and people are discovering just how useful noise-cancelling headphones can be).

Workers continue to spend an average of six hours on email in a day, according to one survey. Another study found that the average worker checks email 74 times a day. That’s nine times an hour in an eight-hour workday.

Meetings, the corporate pastime that everyone loves to hate, still take up 15 percent of companies’ time, on average, with questionable tangible benefits.

Nimble start-ups scoff at the lumbering email and meeting cultures of their more traditional counterparts. But the much trendier alternative — real-time group chat — is arguably even worse.

Meetings consume a (theoretically) bounded amount of time. Email can (again, theoretically) be closed and only checked at certain times. Group chat, on the other hand, maintains a more or less constant presence throughout the workday (and often before and after the workday as well). One study of the most popular business chat app Slack found that people spent an average of 10 hours a day in the app (that’s 67% more than the average spent on email).

The move toward real-time chat in the workplace is perhaps the fastest and most dramatic shift in the way we work, ever. Slack launched in 2013 and already boasts 4 million daily active users and is valued at $3 billion. Big tech companies — from Microsoft to Google — are taking note, creating their own Slack clones to compete.

This new class of business app mimics the instant messaging apps that people already use in their personal lives, further blurring the line between work and life. They’re more casual and fun than email, promising office jokes and socialization seamlessly interwoven with work conversations. The chatty interfaces encourage one-line-at-a-time, real-time communication, with desktop and mobile notifications for each incoming message.

While onboarding new users, Slack “strongly recommends”– not once but twice — that you turn on desktop notifications. Users who oblige can expect to have their attention whisked away from the task at hand and into the app at a moment’s notice by brightly colored pop-up notifications accompanied by a pleasant little knocking sound.

(When my own company still used Slack, I noticed that I had developed a disconcerting Pavlovian response to that distinctive sound. Any time someone in my coworking space would receive an audible Slack notification, I would reflexively check to see whether it had come from my own Slack account.)

The result is a near-constant state of partial focus and task-switching with sticky attention residue clinging to each new input long after you’ve gone back to whatever you were doing before.

As we saw earlier, each additional interruption, no matter how brief, comes at a price paid by companies and employees alike in lost productivity and increased stress. The pressures to be always available — in meetings and open offices, on email and group chat — create a harried culture of constant interruption rather than a sustainable culture of meaningful productivity.

What companies can (and should) do about it

Don’t get me wrong, collaboration and communication are important. So is building social connections in the workplace. But in most workplaces today, the balance between connectedness and focused productivity greatly favors the former at the expense of the latter.

People are beginning to wake up to the productive disadvantages of back-to-back-to-back meetings, open office floor plans, and (to a lesser extent) real-time messaging in the workplace. The growing amount of research into workplace interruptions suggests that the few companies who help their employees focus deeply for extended periods of time on difficult tasks are the ones that will get ahead in the long-term. But how do you get there?

Charles Duhigg, author of the New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit, encourages leaders to think about any group behavioral change through the lens of organizational habits — routines that people learn over time based on the rewards within their environment. Meetings, email, and real-time chat are all organizational habits. The general expectation to be constantly connected and available is a organizational habit. But habits can be changed.

Duhigg dedicates the last section of his book to examining how groups learn routines, and how they can be disrupted and remade:

“[S]ome habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

What does that mean for the leader who wants to change her company’s culture around deep work?

“[W]here should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits holds the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”

Change is hard, but starting with just one concrete shift that rewards deep work over shallow work can cause a chain reaction in how a team approaches everything about their work. Here are some example deep work policies that companies are already implementing:

Set a max quota for total meeting time company-wide.

Start measuring and setting goals for lowering the total amount of time your team spends in meetings. It gives your team the opportunity to rethink which meetings are actually necessary and which could be moved to written communication or just nixed altogether.

Have your team mark off time for deep work time on their calendars.

Elevate the status of deep work on your team by having everyone block out time on their calendars to focus on a single, important task. Hold that time sacred. (See the Google video above.)

Have the team list the single most important thing they want to complete each day.

One of the challenges of focusing in the modern knowledge workplace is that work is often ill-defined. When everything seems important and urgent, it’s difficult to prioritize and focus on the things that have a real impact. Instead of having people list out every single thing they want to accomplish in a day or week, have them identify the one thing that they believe will have the biggest impact instead. It will help form the habit of always thinking about what work will have the most impact and discourage getting sidetracked by shallower work.

Limit email/group chat before a certain time in the morning.

Personal productivity experts have warned people against starting the day with email for years. Mornings tend to be the best time for focused, hard work when we’re fresh and haven’t hit decision fatigue yet. Why not make it a company-wide policy? Have your team experiment with waiting until 10am or even noon before checking their email. Does anything bad happen if they wait 4 hours longer to respond to an email? Are they able to get more done in the focused hours of the morning?

Make asynchronous communication the default.

When immediate responses are the norm, your team’s attention will always be divided between the work at hand and the messages coming in. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Asynchronous communication — sending messages without the expectation of an immediate response — can free your team to disconnect fully to focus on their work and reconnect later to respond. Make clear to your team that delayed responses are not only acceptable but the preferred way of communicating. Switch from a group chat app like Slack or Microsoft Teams to a communication tool built for asynchronous communication like Twist.

Everyone on my own team at Doist knows that a response at any time within 24 hours is perfectly acceptable. Yes, communication happens a little more slowly, but a policy of asynchronous communication allows us to get more work done overall. There’s never a doubt that deep work is the priority.

Learn more about real-world applications of asynchronous communication in our online handbook, The Art of Async: The Remote Guide to Team Communication. See how remote companies like GitLab, HashiCorp, Toggl, and AngelList implement asynchronous communication to get more done.

Yes, technology is awesome. It gives us the power to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere in the world. It makes fully distributed teams and flexible work-from-home policies possible. But when left unchecked, all the increased chatter can come at the expense of focused time for creativity, problem-solving, and learning. It’s time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

Let Todoist take the mental load

Join millions of people who enjoy peace of mind, and getting things done.

Get started for free