In today’s connected world, productivity’s biggest enemy is cognitive overload, costing businesses millions of dollars a year. And this is as much a problem in the boardroom as in the mailroom. A Harvard Business School study found that the “average CEO spends one in three hours on activities that were not planned in advance.” This totals 13 hours per week in unplanned activities, or more than an entire day at work.

Such spontaneity has nothing to do with poor time management or scheduling skills. It simply reflects the number of situations that arise in the day-to-day running of a business that high-ranking executives have to deal with immediately.

Or do they? Some leaders don’t even realize that there is a better way than spending their days in a blur of email, rushing from meeting to meeting, says Cal Newport. The author of “Deep Work,” who is associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, says that if instead we train ourselves to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task, we could quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. He insists that “deep work” will “make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.”

According to Newport , there are several ways to implement deep work, from removing distractions completely to setting a habit-forming time each day for a couple of hours’ deep concentration. Whichever route we choose though, deep work will only be effective if we have structure or rituals – putting ourselves in an exotic location to focus on a writing project, say, or locking ourselves in a hotel room until we finish a task – and if we constantly review our progress.

Bill Gates, who practiced deep working techniques when he was CEO of Microsoft, tended to work early in the morning and late at night when the office was quiet. He also set aside one week a year as his “Think Week.” During that time he isolated himself in a remote cottage to research, read, and strategize – the ultimate deep work session.

That’s a practice that has been adopted by many other top executives, such as Michael Karnjanaprakorn, CEO of online learning platform Skillshare, who takes two think weeks a year to actively disconnect from his regular routine.

Other business leaders have structured their entire working week according to deep work principles. Tom Karwatka, CEO of software house Divante, explains on his company website that he recently moved all status reports to Mondays and all his meetings to Friday, clearing Tuesday to Thursdays for deep work. During these days he focuses on work, tries not to check his email and has reduced communications with his staff.

“I have been able to move on with many projects thanks to this approach,” writes Karwatka, who credits deep work for revitalizing him and helping him rediscover the fun in his job. There are unforeseen benefits too. “I think that this is also helping my people to work better,” he says, “without being disrupted by my emails all day.” This company-wide focus appears to be working, with the company growing more than 30 percent year-on-year in 2018.

Newport further asserts that if CEOs and senior executives want to see a genuine improvement to their focus levels, then how they spend their downtime also matters. Insights or solutions can often come from our subconscious. That is why we all need to properly switch off during our downtime, he advises. Boredom should be embraced too: Checking our smartphone in a cinema queue sends us once more hurtling toward cognitive overload. Or, as Newport puts it: “Once you’re wired for a distraction, you crave it.”

Going cold turkey

But is everybody’s wiring equally up to the task of deep work? According to Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, there are big differences between people when it comes to concentration levels. “We found that around 50 percent of people have the ability to dip in and out of social media and the like at their desks and their productivity will not suffer,” she says. “That is not the case for the other 50 percent.”

Mark says this personality trait cuts across work and out-of-office behavior. “Those with poor self-control can learn techniques to focus better or they use technological support to help manage distractions or to let them know how they spend their time.” She points to the slew of website and app blocking software such as Cold Turkey Blocker or FocusMe, which promises to enable people to work 25 percent more efficiently by avoiding multitasking, as well as helping them quit addictive online activities such as games and gambling.

While there is undoubtedly a demand for such products, several companies – from giants like Google and Zappos to startups such as Zumba and Box – have taken a different approach by introducing courses devised in-house to help sharpen attention skills.

Over the past decade, Google has put almost 2,000 employees through a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course called “Search Inside Yourself,” devised by Chade-Meng Tan – widely known as “Meng” – a former software engineer at the company. Employees practice focus exercises and learn meditation techniques to clear their heads of office distractions. Meng later expanded the course into a bestselling book and co-founded the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

Training spotting

However, it is not just Silicon Valley’s nonconformists that have embraced this approach toward tackling cognitive overload. Software giant SAP’s in-house training courses emphasize “attention training,” while other German companies have introduced a wide array of measures to improve focus and productivity. Both Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom, for example, limit after-hours and weekend email use.

Newport professes to ignore his own email inbox for up to three days at a time. He further boosts his productivity by moving all related messages to temporary folders before reading them – a technique, he says, which makes projects much easier to tackle.

As Newport puts it in his blog: “It certainly does help me maintain my sanity when I have to return to the world of workplace communication after travel or long deep work binges.” —  Boyd Farrow

Published: April 2019

Images: Danae Diaz for Delivered.