“What are the reasons why it’s difficult to maintain attention during virtual meetings?” This is a poll question I always ask when running virtual workshops with our clients. The answers range from the usual to the funny, such as “noise from kids playing outside,” “browsing FB/IG while on zoom meetings,” “Shopee/Lazada delivery,” “dogs barking,” and “poor internet connection.” These distractions are always present for many of us working from home, whether it be during virtual meetings or when replying to e-mails, which may impact our productivity.
I have argued in previous articles that workers in the Philippines may have experienced a net productivity decline due to the work-from-home (WFH) arrangements. I noted that the productivity gains from forgoing the daily commute in favor of WFH are canceled out by environmental factors at home, such as a noisy environment, distractions from family members, and a spotty internet connection.
But the future of work beyond the pandemic is going to be hybrid, i.e., employees working from home part of the time and in an office part of the time. In fact, according to the recent Accenture Future of Work Study 2021, 83% of workers surveyed said a “hybrid model would be optimal.” This is further supported by a survey I conducted with a retail company which revealed that 67% of the workers prefer a hybrid setup.
So how can we minimize, if not, completely remove all distractions from our WFH setup and regain our productivity? Enter “deep work.”
The concept was coined by Cal Newport, the renowned best-selling author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” which I read in 2016. Deep work refers to “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
This is a chockful description of the idealized state of working during pre-pandemic time, when our office work environment was replete with distractions from endless meetings and social media. But I’ve come to realize the value of deep work when the pandemic struck — your work hours at home can easily slip away towards activities that Newport refer to as “shallow work,” which he defined as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
“Shallow work” can come in the forms of small work spurts such as replying to e-mails and messaging platforms. While these are necessary, you can easily gravitate to checking personal e-mails and messages until you get buried in the social media rut.
How we can practice “deep work” is by building a deep work routine until it turns into a habit. There are four areas to consider in practicing deep work in a WFH setting:
First is location. You should choose a space at home that’s distraction-free and conducive to long periods of focus. This can be an extra room with the door closed or any area where noise will be minimal. This should also be near your Wi-Fi router so you can connect directly via a LAN cable. In the absence of such a location, use noise-canceling headphones that will shut the world out while you work and trigger your brain that it’s time to focus. You must be consistent with this environment to breed familiarity which will let you start a deep work session more rapidly.
Second is duration. Before you get into a deep work mode, decide on how much time you’ll devote to each task. You can work in chunks of 30 or 45 minutes with five-minute breaks in between. If you have successive videoconference meetings, always take a five-minute break in between to rest your eyes. I take this break by stepping out to my garden and looking at the plants and trees. My doctor told me that looking at the greenery for a few minutes prevents eyestrain.
Third is structure. Define what deep work will look like. These are your explicit rules that you follow during the deep work session. For example, will you mute your phone, or will you let yourself check the internet? How will you measure the success of a deep work session, e.g., lines coded, clients called, documents read?
Fourth is requirements. These are the required mechanisms to support your commitment to deep work. This may be a specific type of music, snacks in the afternoon, beverage like coffee or tea, or access to specific software. Be ready to have these before you start to dive in.
There are more concepts on deep work, and you can check out the book and apply in your WFH setting. But the key is harnessing precious resources during this time of distraction — your focus and attention. With this you will truly be productive.
Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is the founder and CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the chairman of the Information and Communication Technology Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University.