Updated: Jun 20, 2019
Article by: Martina Vetrovcova
Be honest with yourself: have you ever felt useless at work? Sitting at your desk for multiple hours, feeling distracted by everything and everyone, not getting anything done on your agenda? This feeling is not unusual. Scientific evidence shows that most people periodically experience difficulty concentrating at work (see, for example, Rock 2009). The traditional 9-to-5 working model, still prevalent in most companies and organizations, hasn’t proven helpful in preventing procrastination and solving the aforementioned problem once and for all. Some would argue that an 8-hour work day is ideal because it represents a huge improvement from the unregulated and inhumane 10- to 16-hour work days that were the norm during the Industrial Revolution and even many years after (Hopkins 1982). However, the discussion should rather be whether such an arbitrary model is sustainable. The interdependencies that exist between working patterns and sustainability might not be visible at first sight, but the nexus is actually much stronger than you might think.
Working for a rigid eight hours per day is not always conducive to productivity, and the trend has been shifting in recent years towards more flexible working hours. Leading tech giants such as Google and Facebook are prime examples of this approach, and it has been proven that a more relaxed working environment boosts creativity and productivity, not to mention mental health. Studies show that millennials in particular seek work opportunities that allow for workplace flexibility and guarantee a healthy work-life balance (Kohll 2018). However, there are also arguments against flexibility arrangements in the workplace, and major questions continue to preoccupy practitioners and experts alike. How can employers ensure that employees deliver the best possible results without consciously and willingly spending hours and hours in the office or taking work home with them? How can they motivate staff to stay focused on work and get more done in less time? What measures can managers implement to prevent free-riding behaviour at the workplace and boost employee morale? And how should productivity be measured?
An increasing number of authors have been striving to find the perfect answer to these questions by analysing working habits and searching for ways to break the cycle of procrastination. Cal Newport’s 2016 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World provides unique insights into how to concentrate on work without getting distracted. The main argument advanced by Newport is that, nowadays, most individuals engage in shallow work, which he defines as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (Newport 2016). Deep work, on the contrary, requires a state of distraction-free concentration, which has become an increasingly rare and therefore extremely valuable skill in our current working environment. Social media are a significant contributing factor: it has been proven that spending too much time browsing social networks does result in loss of productivity, and even worse, it can become addictive. Also, the prevalent trend of being constantly available via various communication channels keeps us distracted. Newport offers a series of methods on how to effectively change our working practices, including turning off social media notifications or quitting social media altogether, setting realistic goals, breaking up the day into blocks of time, and developing routines and rituals, while also taking meaningful breaks from focus and embracing boredom.
Propagating and nurturing a deep work ethic at the workplace can produce massive benefits for the organisation and the individual. With less distraction, employees will be able to produce better results in less time, go home early, and achieve a fulfilled and balanced life. Measuring the quality of the output instead of the quantity of the time spent at their desk will encourage employees to stop wasting their resources and embrace the value of focused and mindful work. Such modifications can lead to a long-lasting and sustainable change of working habits, which not only increases effectiveness and efficiency but also contributes to happier and healthier working conditions.
Deep work can have a strong impact on several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-Being) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). Constant distractions and fragmentation of our concentration have become the new normal, which not only adversely impacts individual productivity but can also have detrimental effects on our mental health. To put it differently, better concentration is an important driver of excellence that makes people feel accomplished at the end of the day, enables them to enjoy well-deserved free time, and positively contributes to their physical and mental health. More importantly, the ability to master distraction and focus on what matters will help the international community to achieve a just and sustainable world for all.
Hopkins, Eric (1982): “Working Hours and Conditions during the Industrial Revolution: A Re-Appraisal,” in: The Economic History Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 52-66.
Kohll, Alan (October 3, 2018): “Why Millennials Are Good For Employee Well-Being,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alankohll/2018/10/03/why-millennials-are-good-for-employee-well-being/#2d10401b1da5 [26.04.2019].
Newport, Cal (2016): Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Grand Central Publishing.
Rock, David (2009): Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, HarperBusiness.