Our 11-minute lives

Monday, 16th December 2019

Guest blog by Alex Heywood, 4and20million

Dear Employee,

We have an exciting new project we’d like you to lead. We want you to use it to showcase your very best work. It will require intelligent thinking, careful planning, seamless collaboration and flawless execution. We want it to be the very best of your capability. You have 11 minutes.

This isn’t some far-fetched thought experiment. It’s the everyday reality of your office.

Research has shown that office workers do indeed spend an average of 11 minutes on a task before switching to something else. Even worse, this 11 minutes is interrupted three or four times by other distractions like emails, calls or colleagues (research by Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics).

The impossibility of doing great work in short, interrupted bursts is probably a recognisable frustration – we’ve all struggled to make headway on that big, important task because of the constant interruption of competing distractions – the 100 or so emails that arrive through the day, or the need to check our smartphones every six and a half minutes. Add to that meetings, office conversations and phone calls, it’s easy to see how we struggle to devote focused time to a single task and to feel we’re making time to do our very best work.

Rather than a serene flow of productivity, our days can more often feel like a series of false starts, competing priorities and stubborn To-Do lists.

FranklinCovey refer to this stream of day to day tasks as ‘the whirlwind’, as it sweeps up all of our time and attention in a rush of urgent tasks that we seem to be constantly fighting against. Cal Newport draws the distinction between shallow work – short, frequent, attention-light day-to-day tasks like emails – and the more valuable deep work, where we employ single minded focus, concentration, time and the fullness of our intelligence to complete something complex and valuable. Deep work is frequently interrupted to make way for the shallow. The whirlwind blows away our best intentions.

But this reality isn’t just a source of frustration. Our increasingly fragmented attention is causing bigger problems for our brains, our mental health and our work in three major ways.

The myth of multi-tasking
Firstly, it’s causing us to value multi-tasking and to admire those who can seemingly flit from one spinning plate to another, skimming the surface of a range of tasks at any one time. We’ve come to prioritise immediacy over considered, narrow focus – a condition you’ll recognise if you feel the urge to reply to every email straight away.

The problem with this is that, despite our protestations, we simply cannot multitask effectively.

Studies show that when people swap between two tasks, completing them takes 25% longer and involves 50% more errors. Try it yourself – count to 10, then recite the alphabet to J. Easy. Now interweave the two, 1A, 2B etc and see how much harder it is and how much longer it takes. In embracing multi-tasking, we’re making things harder and of lower quality. Trying to maintain multiple ideas in our minds means none are considered in appropriate depth. You can do multiple things moderately, or one thing well at a time.

Stupid is as stupid does
But this is the least of the concerns with our 11-minute lives. Of more consequence is the second issue – that our brains physically adapt to this way of thinking. Like a bodybuilder training a muscle, the brain adapts to be good at what we ask it to do. Learn a language, and our speech and language centres improve. Play chess, and our logical mind becomes stronger.

Neglect the skills of focus and concentration, and those cells literally atrophy and weaken. The more we practice and wire our brains to flit between shallow periods of focus, the worse we get at being able to concentrate for longer when we need to. As the celebrated neuroscientist Michael Merzenich puts it, “we are training our brains to pay attention to the crap. The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove deadly”.

Are we really prepared to lose the ability to think deeply and concentrate for long periods, just for the sake of keeping on top of emails and WhatsApp?

Even leaving aside the implications for our intelligence, the ability to lose ourselves in a single endeavour is the principal requirement for the state of ‘Flow’ – the psychological state that is closely connected to our overall happiness and in which we can escape the everyday concerns and self-doubts of our conscious brains. Not only does shallow multi-tasking deny us this enriching flow state, it also has a negative chemical effect Every switch in our attention releases a micro-dose of cortisol, the hormone linked to stress. By flitting from one task to another, we’re polluting our brains with stress hormones.

None of this is a positive picture. We are priming our brains for the shallow and stressful.

Creating a shallow society
The final concern is for the wider impact on society at large. In an age where we rarely read a long article in one go (congratulations if you’ve got this far without so much as a glance at your inbox!), we’ve come to value snappy, easily digested ideas and arguments over the more complex.

The great Richard Feynman, one of the fathers of quantum physics, was also supremely gifted at making the complex understandable. As his colleague David L. Goldstein wrote:

‘Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level.”’

Despite his brilliance as a teacher, Feynman recognised that not everything can be explained in a nutshell – that sometimes complexity, nuance and detailed study is needed to fully grasp an important concept. And yet if we fast-forward to today, you can find Quantum Mechanics explained in 60 seconds by Brian Cox on YouTube.

The point here is that we risk being seduced by the simple; the neatly packaged, top-line summary notions that fit our appetite for brevity.

But what if some of the best, most important ideas are more complex, or require deeper understanding? While it’s tempting to apply this question to Brexit and the three-word mantra explanation of ‘Brexit-means-Brexit’, it’s equally possible to condemn Barack Obama’s detail-light ‘Yes We Can’ campaign slogan from the 2008 US presidential election, where specific policies were secondary to inspirational rhetoric. Ealier in 2019, the media has asked us to consider whether Winston Churchill was a great war time saviour or an evil white supremacist, as if a single sentence pigeonholing is the only way of characterising a life.

Let’s fight back
From every angle, the fragmentation of our attention is a negative and potentially dangerous trend. But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in finding some solutions. So, here’s the good news – we can fight back.

First of all, we need to set the conditions to give ourselves a fighting chance. When it comes to work, constant email checking is the most ubiquitous and stubborn problem. So here’s something that’s worked well for us. Set up an out of office that says something like this:

Thanks for your email. I’ll be away from my inbox for longer periods of time today. If your message requires urgent attention, please call me on xxxxxxxxx. Otherwise, I’ll respond to you as soon as possible, and within 24 hours”

The inclusion of a phone number is crucial here, as it means you’re just as reachable as you always have been. The effect is dramatic however – 100 or so emails translate to maybe 5-10 urgent calls.

With this urgency filter applied, you can safely close your email down for an hour or so and focus without the new message alerts breaking your attention.

With emails tamed, the next step is to create specific times in your day to devote to a single, focused task. Use your calendar to book out designated time slots of 90 minutes, just as you would for a meeting. This reminds you and tells others that you’re busy at that time, and prevents you from putting your focussed work off indefinitely. 90 minutes is the longest the brain can function at full flow before we need a break, so this is the perfect amount of time to submerse yourself in some deep work.

Even if you can achieve this just once a week, imagine the quality work you could get done in one 90 minute burst of focussed effort.

Finally, get away from your phone. If leaving it in another room makes you feel physically sick, at least leave it away in your pocket on silent, where it’s less able to interrupt you with a flash of a WhatsApp message, Facebook update or news notification. As a bonus side effect, just think about the positive message it sends to the people around you in a meeting or over a pint in the pub – you are worth my full attention, so I’m not going to keep half an eye on whatever random stuff pops up on my phone at the expense of our conversation.

By taking control of our attention, we can restore the ability to focus and allow our brains to flourish

With distractions set aside, the final step is to practice the skills of focus and single-tasking, training the brain to be good at these skills. When you’re next alone on a train, or sitting on the sofa, try putting your phone down or switching the TV off and just sitting in silence. Boredom will quickly come, but by training our ability to resist the temptation to fill every moment with a shallow distraction, we can become better at avoiding these distractions when we really need to.

All of this requires concerted effort. But the rewards for doing so – and the consequences of not – make it more than worthwhile.

We’re on a rocky road that leads us to hurried and distracted thinking, superficial learning, fragmented meetings and shallow relationships. But by taking control of our attention, we can restore the ability to focus and allow our brains to flourish (and feel great in the process).

Thanks for giving this your attention.