Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

Why focus is the new productivity in the age of remote work

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Published on August 12, 2020

Illustration by Justin Tran

Some changes happen seemingly overnight, others snap into place after months and years of progress.

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When we look back on 2020, it will almost seem like both kinds of change happened at once; quick, propulsive world-changing events forced long-gestating changes to be quickly adopted. So many of us are doing our jobs remotely after years of awkward growing pains from increasingly dispersed teams and inconsistently implemented “work from home” days. 

If you were prepared, you’re laughing. But it’s worth talking about the holes and patterns in our usual office lives that have been exposed by this rapid change, and how our usual metrics of a “productive” worker may have been changed forever.

The way things were

We were already seeing a massive change in how the idea of productivity was understood for years. In an office environment, the average worker would accomplish about three hours of work a day. It’s a statistic that, while shocking, is hardly surprising to anyone who has worked in an office in the last decade (especially an open-concept office). Add up the time spent in meetings, taking lunch breaks, catching up with co-workers, and digging through your inbox, and it makes sense that more than half of your office workday was never spent on actual work.

Movements to address this glaring problem have been floated and executed in various ways around the world—from the 6-hour workday to the 4-day work week. But U.S. companies have largely resisted these ideas—especially in legacy industries more averse to change. Despite evidence to the contrary, the notion that those “wasted” hours of unstructured time still contribute to the cohesion of a workforce persists. Is it generational? A placebo effect? A love of water coolers? The jury is still out.

Because of the COVID-19 crisis that has challenged our face-to-face approach to business in the name of public safety, the old structures of office culture have been more or less canceled and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Even if we ever do return to some semblance of normal, it’s unclear if those ways will return, as well. As more and more companies commit to permanent remote work options, we need to realize something: This isn’t going away, and the skills we bring to the job will change in turn. 

There is a culture shock for workers who go remote for the first time; distractions and pitfalls are common and plentiful, and formerly “productive” workers can find themselves lost in the rhythms of a new workspace. In an office, the biggest threat to your creeping deadline would usually be an unplanned brainstorm session or a passionate debate about what the heck happened in the season finale of Westworld.

For better or for worse, when you’re at home, the biggest enemy to your productivity is staring right back at you as your Zoom call loads up: It’s you.

The power of focus

Imagine being locked in a room surrounded by all your favorite things and being told to focus on work for 8-10 hours at a time. Outside of being a really weird way to discipline your kid, it’s also the reality many remote workers face every single day. 

While office environments are rife with productivity-killing distractions, most of us understand on an implicit level that when we enter a workplace, our priorities need to shift in turn. When your place of work is also your place of rest and solace, that switch can be harder to make.

But let’s back up for a second: What are we talking about when we talk about productivity? Is it job performance, the ability to convert, the appearance of looking busy while covertly browsing your favorite websites? (You know who you are.) Depending on the role, it could be all or none of those things. But our new distributed work reality is the great equalizer. It removes all the noise and distraction of the office and replaces it with the much more potent distraction of your home.

Make no mistake: Our greatest selling point, now and for the foreseeable future, is our ability to prove we can get things done even while our Instagram is blowing up and that new comedy special just dropped on Netflix. 

“You are not paid to be on top of things. You are paid to get to the bottom of them,” writes Saatchi & Saatchi CSO Richard Huntington in his blog post for Adliterate. “And that means that you are going to prioritize focus and depth in your work over being responsive and organized.”

If you can make your ability to concentrate the strongest tool in your toolbox, you’ll be miles ahead of anyone else struggling to marry their old-world office skills to a new reality of Zoom calls and days that seem to pass in the blink of an eye.

Our greatest selling point now is our ability to prove we can get things done even while our Instagram is blowing up.

The shallow and deep ends of work

Productivity is a lot like creativity—it can feel impossible to summon on a dime. But there are situations and habits we can embrace to make it more likely to appear. This idea, identifying and cultivating the exact ways you are at your most focused and productive, is at the core of Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Upon its release, the book made waves for some of its suggestions, like when Newport gently but firmly urges readers to ditch social media entirely. For some of us, that’s simply not possible due to the nature of our jobs; for others, especially now, social media is our last lifeline to the outside world. But big statements like this cut to the heart of what Deep Work is trying to say about productivity and focus, which is that our collective attention is constantly stretched perilously thin. 

Simply getting through a single workday involves opening so many mental tabs in your brain’s web browser that when something needs your full attention, you may find yourself unable to get your marbles together and make it happen. It turns out, there’s a reason for that.

Newport says that the majority of day-to-day tasks that we handle are “shallow work:” low-effort, low-concentration activities like checking and replying to emails or scanning Slack for new threads and DMs. These can be easy or relatively quick to take care of, but they’re everywhere, and unlike many other activities in our lives, they cannot be compartmentalized.

Unless you’ve completely optimized your notification settings to only bother you in extreme and specific circumstances, then you’ve probably had this happen to you. You’re putting together a pitch deck or planning out a coding sprint (both of which are forms of deep work that require your full attention and talent) only for your phone to chirp you out of the zone. It could be a text message, a social media notification, an email, or another overzealous coworker going too hard on the @channel function. Already, your focus is compromised.

Even if you take just a couple of minutes to pop over to your inbox and clarify something with a client, the damage is done. Newport calls this “attention residue.” When we jump back and forth from shallow to deep work, each transition makes it harder for us to immediately snap back into our main task. Eventually, the residue builds up, slowing you down further and further with each ping, until you’re staring your deadline right in the face. We have a limited store of willpower every day, and by surrounding ourselves with perpetual distraction machines, we’re almost ensuring that all of that focus will be spent just trying to get back on track.

Plan for success

In his book, Newport shares the stories of famous creators and achievers like Bill Gates—how they often go into self-imposed deep work exiles and emerge with finished products, like Gates and the first version of BASIC. The idea behind deep work is deceptively simple: If you devote all of your attention to one thing, you’ll be able to do it faster and better than you otherwise would have. More importantly, you’ll be able to add those extra degrees of scrutiny and thought that turns a good idea into a great one that only you could have devised.

The problem is obvious: Who can escape for weeks at a time to finish a project? Most of us are just trying to hit our daily deliverables at work and keep things rolling. On top of that, how can we be expected to disconnect from the internet and social media when that’s where our jobs are located? 

In short, we can’t. Not everything in this book can fit the shape of our current day jobs, but we can still integrate pieces of it into our daily grind.

Have a productive day (every day)

Random, unplanned distractions are the enemy of deep work, so the idea is to find a place for everything: time for deep work, time for shallow work, and yes, time for aimless internet and social media browsing. Odds are, all three of those categories exist simultaneously across your workweek, fighting for control like gigantic unplanned metaphors. So your first step should be to break them up.

Treat deep work like you’re having an extremely important recurring meeting with yourself, and plan accordingly. Block off time in your calendar, shut down all but your most high-level emergency notifications, and commit to a block of deep work time every day (Newport suggests the morning, but consistency matters more than being an early bird). If you can’t remember the last time you truly focused, you might struggle to even commit to an hour of dedicated deep work. But it’s about direction, not perfection.

Now build the rest of your day the same way; schedule time for shallow work, and answer all your emails and DMs in one fell swoop. The goal here is to keep your focus aimed at whatever you’re scheduled to be doing currently. If you feel the need to watch some YouTube trailers, then write a time on a notepad and take your “internet break” then.

Arguably the most important part of being a productivity machine is knowing how to shut yourself down. Newport recommends a daily ritual at the end of your day where you make a list of all your unfinished tasks to tackle tomorrow and then mentally (and even verbally) declare yourself done. Netflix awaits.

Jack-of-all-trades, master of some

Deep work is, at its core, another form of mindfulness; Newport says they both “share a commitment to being intentional with your attention.” It’s training your body, your brain, and your work calendar to be present on your current task. While it can clearly pay dividends if you’re in a situation where you can disconnect for hours at a time each day, those same philosophies can easily be used to create clear barriers between your work-life balance while you work from home. 

Most importantly, by starting this now, you’ll be giving yourself tools that will only grow stronger and more relevant with age. The tornado of distractions that surround every one of us will only increase in volume and intensity over time, and with deep work, you are teaching yourself how to cut through the noise.