“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
It may have been 34 years since Ferris Bueller bunked off school – and if life moved fast back then I would love to see what he’d make of a world filled with Tik Tok and Slack – but this sage advice still rings true, especially when it comes to our working lives.
Over the past decade technology has given us a bewildering number of new ways to communicate and, fun and useful as they may be, they are also ruthlessly efficient at distracting us from whatever it is we are trying to achieve. And if we don’t start slowing down a little bit, our brains are in danger of becoming overwhelmed.
It’s worryingly easy for those of us with desk-based jobs to fill our working days with a blizzard of distractions, from emails to Slack, Teams and Trello. It’s common to have an office full of stressed-out, over-busy people who aren’t actually completing much meaningful work.
According to Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington Sophie Leroy, this is because our brains get exhausted switching between different tasks. Her research on the subject led her to coin the term ‘attention residue’ to describe how our minds struggle to leave one task unfinished in order to take up another. Her work shows that breaking your concentration to check a notification, just for a couple of seconds, can be enough to derail your brain completely from its task.
Writer and Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown Cal Newport has also studied the way seemingly innocent distractions can hold us back. His book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World argues that multitasking is counterproductive, and that focus is the new IQ. For Newport, deep work comprises “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” and these efforts “create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”.
His book recommends scheduling planned chunks of deep work which make us more efficient across all aspects of our lives, as well as embracing mindfulness in order to develop focus: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable… In short, deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy.” Now the chances are that if you’re a proofreader, writer or editor you are already nodding along. All these jobs require focused concentration for extended periods of time to get the best result. Congratulations on the superpower: you’re a modern day, laptop-toting hero!
Perhaps surprisingly, one further skill which can help to build your powers of concentration turns out to be downtime – offline. In one of her papers Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Southern California, argues that the brain is anything but idle when we do nothing. She found that, much like when we are sleeping, daydreaming is an opportunity for your brain to make sense of recent input for the longer term – in other words we should stare more into space, and less at our phones. Which is actually another idea I can see Mr Bueller getting behind. Who knew the kid was so ahead of his time? Well, all of us, obviously.