“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” wrote Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize laureate in economics, in 1977. This seems to ring especially true today; everywhere you look, you see people huddled over their smartphones as Facebook notifications and email alerts from the office pop up. Companies like Mercedes‑Benz Group AG recognised early on that digital advancements didn’t necessarily ease the burden on employees and that it was time to develop new and flexible options for teams. But what can we ourselves do to stem the flood of tasks and news? First, we have to determine where the problem lies.
Cal Newport is a leading mind of the new school of concentration. He is a computer scientist and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book Deep Work became an international bestseller. “For many employees, too many emails, conferences and phone calls cause stress. They feel as though they fall short on key tasks because they’re forced to finish them when they get the time,” he says. Cal Newport sees what most of us accomplish at the office as anything but focussed.
He describes it succinctly as ‘shallow work’ – the mere processing of bureaucratic tasks or communication via email and smartphone. Shallow work allows employees to demonstrate a certain degree of productivity without having achieved quality performance. “If the brain is the machine of the services and technology industry, then we can’t continuously interrupt it. We have to set it in motion,” he says. What Newport calls ‘deep work’ describes a form of highly concentrated action, a rush of productivity that can only be tapped by blocking out all possible distractions.
It is a rejection of the eight-hour work day in open-plan offices, of the excessive meeting culture, and of the expectation that employees should always be reachable. He says that spending time offline these days is of immense value if you can use the time to concentrate on an important problem. He adds that being able to master the art of deep work is a key skill, especially in an age in which we are drowning in information.
The average day for Cal Newport is hardly one we wish for ourselves: he only recently began using a smartphone, and he refuses to use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And when he gives talks about why social media is superfluous, he doesn’t only garner approval. But his approach is worth considering. The computer scientist tells us that new technical gadgets do not necessarily equate to progress. Many people are stressed because they concentrate on the wrong things.
He agrees with the psychologist Winifred Gallagher when he tells us that our perceptions are influenced by our focus: “What we think and feel is the sum of the objects of our concentration.” Spending the entire day in meetings or answering emails means we are focussing on negative things, such as problems with colleagues, deadlines or other superficial matters. Those who work in such a focussed way that they lose track of time and space, however, will know the sense of satisfaction one gets from this deep work. Motivational psychologists described such a flow back in the ’70s: the state of losing oneself in one’s work, the sense of focus practised by writers, painters and high-performing athletes.
For Cal Newport, the conditions that writers create for themselves are ideal: an isolated area, pairing down technology to the essentials. But how can this be carried over to the office? Industrial psychologists think that getting rid of digital distractions may be a good start. After all, it’s a matter of control. Of who decides what to focus on and when to focus on it. But according to the psychologist Daniel Goleman, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. “Just like with treatment for addiction, the first step for many people is to learn how not to be distracted by digital stimuli,” he writes in his book Focus.
Goleman says that focus is like a muscle that we have to stretch, and that the best brain training is to take breaks to practice awareness and refocus. He goes on to list numerous neurobiological studies that show how people who have meditated for many years were able to strengthen certain links in the brain that promote concentration. For example, how they were able to more quickly deactivate the parts of their brain that cause distraction and to make better use of their prefrontal cortex, which controls our will to concentrate. “In the mental gym, as in any fitness training, the specifics of practice make all the difference,” Goleman writes. “It’s all a matter of how much you practice.”
As little as 60 minutes of focussed work without interruptions is enough to improve the quality immensely. This is what Cornelius König, professor for industrial and organisational psychology at Saarland University, discovered in a study of managers. König calls this making use of the ‘quiet hour’. The conditions are simple: turn off your smartphone and Internet, go to a quiet place and focus on the most important item on your to-do list. With a bit of practice, you will develop a flow – and it is in this moment that you will become a happy ‘deep worker’.
With the ‘Leadership 2020’ initiative, Daimler aims to achieve sweeping cultural change. “The new leadership culture makes processes more efficient and strengthens the organisation. Employees then become more motivated, which fosters the will to change,” says Elmira Schmidt, who is in charge of feedback culture. These are the eight categories: