A study commissioned by Microsoft found that since the year 2000 – or about when the mobile revolution began – the average human attention span dropped from 12 to 8 seconds, which places us just below a goldfish, which tends to stay focused for an entire 9 seconds at a time.
Humbling – but not that surprising.
When your brain is hooked on distraction, it’s constantly seeking the next hit of cheap stimulation from email or chat, playing an endless game of whack-a-mole with unread notifications. The proliferation of open-plan offices is not helping matters either.
We have reached a point where we have to relearn how to concentrate.
Many tasks we perform don’t require full concentration – answering emails, attending meetings, chatting on Slack – they fall under what Cal Newport calls shallow work.
In his bestselling workplace productivity book Deep Work, Newport argues that deep work, on the other hand, – the kind of work that draws upon all your mental reserves and requires singular focus – is both increasingly important and increasingly rare.
The steady flow of distractions is irreparably fracturing our attention and limiting our capacity to go deep. Instead of focusing on solving a single challenging and high-impact problem, we tend to go back and forth between surface-level work and substitute busyness for real productivity.
It creates the impression of being continually – and visibly – engaged in an activity, which leads us to the false conclusion that as long as we keep ourselves busy, we’re being productive.
In the manager’s schedule, each day is cut into 30-minute or one-hour intervals. The maker’s day is different. He needs time to create, to build – but, before that, he needs to think. A productive day for the maker is made up of deep work.
And when you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, distractions are a disaster.
For a maker, a single 30-minute-long meeting can blow the whole afternoon. As people began to wake up to the productive disadvantages of meetings, a trendier alternative in the form of instant messaging tools like Slack has taken their place.
But it is arguably even worse.
At least meetings consume a bounded amount of time. Chat, on the other hand, maintains a constant presence throughout your workday. The brightly colored pop-up notifications accompanied by a pleasant little sound effect elicits an almost Pavlovian response, leaving us in a constant state of partial focus and robbing us of uninterrupted stretches of time to concentrate on the work we’re supposed to be doing.