Interruptions, administrative tasks, and too many meetings are among the common complaints voiced by today’s professionals. When was the last time someone complained about a canceled meeting? In other words, everyone understands what hinders productivity, right?
Not so fast, says computer scientist Cal Newport. While we all realize that interruptions and fragmented time are troublesome, we fail to recognize:
- The frequency of interruptions: We convince ourselves that we are focusing on one task at a time, such as a complex interaction design problem. Yet, every ten minutes or so, we check email or answer a text. Yes, we’re performing one task at a time, but the duration of that task is brief.
- The cost of these interruptions: As Newport explains on a recent episode of Hidden Brain: “Even those very brief checks that switch your context even briefly can have this massive negative impact on your cognitive performance. It’s the switch itself that hurts, not how long you actually switch.” (Emphasis mine)
This task switching was the focus of a study by business professor Sophie Leroy. She gave participants a cognitively demanding activity, such as solving a puzzle, and then briefly interrupted them before they completed it. When they returned to the original task, their performance dropped. As Leroy explains, these “results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”
Leroy calls this carryover from one activity to another “attention residue,” meaning that people are still thinking about the previous task even as they turn to the new one.
The most effective way to avoid attention residue is to structure your work in a way that reduces interruptions. Such structure requires understanding the difference between deep and shallow work.
Deep Work, Shallow Work, And Why They Matter
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” writes Newport in his book Deep Work. This work allows us to absorb, understand, and act on complicated information. Examples including coding, complex project plans, user research, and sophisticated design work.
Shallow work refers to tasks that do not require extensive thought and focus such as filling out expense reports and answering emails, texts, and Slack messages.
Shallow tasks are necessary. The question is how much time to devote to shallow and deep work and how to structure work in a way that facilitates reflection and concentration.
The Solution: Five Practical Tips For Pursuing Deep Work
Tip 1: Jump Into Design Work
Avoid the temptation to text or check email first thing. Put your phone on do not disturb. Get out your sketch pad or open your design tool and challenge yourself to solve one gnarly design problem by 10:00 am.
While this tip sounds like common sense, it’s not quite so straightforward because we are conditioned to respond to signals around us: “External triggers are cues from our environment that tell us what to do next. These are the dings and pings that prompt us to check our email, answer a text, or look at a news alert,” explains habit expert Nir Eyal in a post about distraction.
Eyal continues: “Competition for our attention can come from a person as well, such as an interruption from a coworker when we are in the middle of doing focused work.”
Computer scientist Cal Newport expands on this point by explaining the biology behind the itch to respond. When we don’t reply promptly to a text or email, we feel like we are ignoring someone from our tribe. Emotionally, it’s the modern-day equivalent of ignoring someone who is tapping on our shoulder as we sit around the fire. In short, it’s difficult to ignore messages and requests from co-workers.
Difficult but not impossible. Extend jumping into design work by blocking out untouchable time on your calendar. What about emergencies? “The short answer is that there really never are any,” writes podcaster and New York Times bestselling author, Neil Pasricha in Why You Need an Untouchable Day Every Week. These untouchable days involve deep, creative work.
While most professionals cannot set aside an entire day each week, they can mark two-hour blocks on their calendar a few times each week. Colleagues simply see “busy” when viewing your calendar. While not foolproof, this quiet signal shows that you know how to manage your time in order to engage in the deep work that your job requires.
Tip 2: Kickstart Your Brain With Useful Questions
By definition, deep work takes time and considerable brain resources. Sometimes we need a cognitive boost before tackling the problem head-on. When this is the case, ease into deep work by composing a list of questions to stimulate reflection. For example:
- What is the organization trying to accomplish?
- How does this site, product, or app align with that goal?
- If revising an existing design: What would I do differently if I could recreate the design from scratch?
- What would I do now if there were no legacy system constraints?
Note that these questions involve design but also encourage reflection beyond the immediate design challenge. The latter is important because the longer you work on a product or project, the easier it is to develop design blinders.
Easing into deep work or jumping in with both feet are often useful as long as it’s possible to avoid those nettlesome distractions. Even so, everyone gets stuck and needs time to regroup and let the mind wander.
Tip 3: Schedule Unstructured Thinking Time
Just as designers and other professionals need time to think through complex problems, they also need time to let the mind wander. The reason is the science behind “shower moments,” when ideas seem to arrive out of the blue.
In fact, the brain needs time for incubation, the psychological term for the unconscious recombination of thought processes after they are stimulated by conscious mental effort such as working on a specific design problem. In other words, when you set aside a strenuous mental task and do something less demanding, the brain is able to process and organize your thoughts to form new ideas.
Effective leaders value unstructured thinking time as outlined in How to Regain the Art of Lost Reflection. Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn, blocks at least 90 minutes for reflection and describes these buffers as “the single most important productivity tool” he uses. Susan Hakkarainen, Chairman and co-CEO of Lutron Electronics, uses 40-minute walks to reflect explaining that “Thinking is the one thing you can’t outsource as a leader. Holding this time sacred in my schedule despite the deluge of calls, meetings, and emails is essential.”
In short, designers should take their cues from these business leaders. Give your brain a break.
Tip 4: Vote It Off The Island
This tip comes from the Harvard Business Review article Stop Doing Low-Value Work by Priscilla Claman. She cites the example of a controller who was producing monthly reports that nobody read. He sent a list to his colleagues asking them to identify the three or four most important reports. He simply stopped writing the reports that no one was reading.
Another approach is to request permission to not do something such as asking customers if they really want their receipts. The point, writes Claman, is to stop doing something that is not important but to ask first to avoid getting in trouble. It’s vital that we stop ourselves from doing unimportant work.
Designers can identify possibly unimportant work by asking if:
- Every wireframe must include detailed annotations;
- Every design deliverable must include a detailed design document;
- It’s really necessary to produce many variations of a design when studies about choice and decision making show that too many options make it harder to reach a decision.
No one wants to feel as if their work is sitting on a virtual shelf. By asking clients and stakeholders what matters to them, you’ll cater to their needs and save time by discarding unnecessary tasks.
The next step is to assess the remaining important work to determine how much time you can, and should, devote to deep thinking.
Tip 5: Distinguish Deep And Shallow Work
Follow the steps below to make this assessment concrete, something you can point to and share with your boss.
- Identify the activities that you consider deep work such as planning a usability test, drawing wireframes, or mocking up a prototype.
- Identify shallow work activities like answering emails, attending administrative meetings or meetings tangentially related to your core responsibilities.
- Estimate the amount of time you spend on deep and shallow work each week.
- Meet with your boss for thirty minutes and ask her what she thinks the ratio of deep to shallow work should be. Ask for a specific number. If you disagree, politely ask if you may experiment with a different ratio for one month.
- Then, stick to the agreed-upon number for one month. Document any changes to your productivity, anything that contributes to a better product or service. After one month, report these findings to your boss.
This approach offers two advantages:
- It’s usually wise to solicit the boss’s support.
- A single proposal about deep work will not change an entire organization. Involving management, however, can serve as a catalyst for broader change just as the Google Ventures Design Sprint influenced the design process at Google and beyond.
Why Deep Work Makes Everything Better
Deep work allows designers and developers to thrive by leveraging their skills to solve complex problems and create better products and designs. Better products are likely to boost the bottom line while thriving and highly satisfied employees are more likely to stay (reducing turnover) and put their best selves forward.
Perhaps the best news for employers is that deep work does not require adding staff. The solution, explains computer scientist Cal Newport, is to re-configure work and communication. In other words, it’s not more people; it’s the same people managing work differently.
For example, agencies often answer to clients and need to be available at a moment’s notice. Rather than require every employee to be tethered to a phone or laptop, Newport suggests assigning a different employee each day to a dedicated email or a special “bat phone.” This shows the client their importance to the agency while also allowing designers to concentrate on designing, building, and solving problems.
Deep work is the ability to focus on challenging tasks like design and coding. Frequent interruptions make deep work nearly impossible and impose a high financial cost. In this piece, we’ve described five tips for maximizing the time you devote to deep work.
- Jump into design work.
Draw fresh wireframes or work on a new design problem before checking emails and Slack messages. Block two-hour chunks on your calendar to allow time for deep thinking.
- Kickstart your brain with useful questions.
Take a few minutes to ask what you are trying to accomplish and how it aligns with the company’s keep performance indicators (KPIs). Alignment with KPIs is especially important for user experience designers who are frequently asked to justify their budget
- Schedule unstructured thinking time.
Take a walk, stare out the window, or whatever allows your mind to wander. This “downtime” allows the brain to form new connections.
- Vote it off the island.
Are you writing reports that no one reads? Are you scheduling meetings that your co-workers find less than useful? Ask your colleagues if it’s okay to stop. They might respond with a gleeful “yes!”
- Distinguish deep and shallow work.
Then, meet with your boss to arrive at the right balance between these two types of work.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- How People Make Decisions
- Maximizing The Design Sprint
- Creating Online Environments That Work Well For Older Users
- SmashingConf Videos: User Experience Psychology And Performance