Article: The unforgiving minute

Life @ Work

The unforgiving minute

Worthwhile creation demands concentrated work carried out in substantial chunks of interruption-free time. How can corporates cultivate deep thinking in the age of instant communication and other attention-fragmenting distractions?
The unforgiving minute

I have scheduled my work-morning perfectly. A couple of to-dos from yesterday should get the dwindling greys in fettle for a sustained stretch of thinking to create a radically different leadership development model for an emergent sector. But, "Hello, hello, what’s this?" Some unread WhatsApp messages are screaming silent siren-calls at me. As soon as I turn to them, I am struck by the most virulent pandemic known to modern man: Instantisis. There is no known vaccine or cure for this STD (Smartphone Transmitted Distraction). That is, of course, till this column appears. 

Instant messaging access is only the first symptom. Now that the device lies open, glancing at the attractively AI-arranged news snippets is the most natural next step. Oops. That took a lot longer than anticipated. Boy, am I lucky to have seen these email alerts! There are a couple of midnight messages from s/he-who-must-be-obeyed. S/he will be pleased with my EMPATHY (Early Morning Promptness And Tactfully Humble Yesmanship). Might as well also reply to a clutch of plaintively pleading colleagues in distress and swat down a couple of others who have snapped the last straw. And how can one refuse to give warehouses full of wisdom to youngsters (who have only sought advice to butter their job reference requests)?

How the time I had set aside for focused thought has flown! It’s already time for the major time-sink of the day: the monthly review meeting. Fortunately, remote working makes it possible to continue checking my emails and replying to instant messaging while pretending to look at the zoom screen. Multi-tasking, as we all (should) know, is a myth.1 So it’s really the quick-responding WhatsApp friends’ group that monopolizes most of my attention. Today promises to be a regular day full of the new SNAFU (Situation Normal – All Frittered Uselessly). If we cannot understand and reverse the insidious (if pleasurable) drain on the productivity of the modern workplace, we also stand to lose the benefits of serious reading, deep contemplation and those cultural pursuits that make us civilized.

To be Everywhere is to be Nowhere

Archimedes, who (according to one version) was murdered by an impatient Roman soldier whom he ignored while lost in solving a problem,3 is perhaps not the happiest example of the popularity concentration commands but he can surely be a poster boy for how much can be achieved by focus.4 Intense thought, in continuous chunks of time, without distractions, is the prerequisite for learning, problem-solving, substantive contribution and creative endeavour. Despite its universally admired value both for creating value and realizing our own potential, most us are losing this ability to stretch our minds to their limits. Technology has played a major part in this debility but, as we shall see, it has been aided by the way our workplaces function and our growing dependence on dopamine delivering distractors.5

In the thousands of years that have elapsed since proto-humans split off from the proto-chimp line, there have been just five major revolutions in the media we use to communicate with each other – and we are living through the last of them. According to Marshall Poe these five are: Speech, Manuscripts, Print, Audiovisual Media and the Internet.6 Each revolution has had major implications for the way we interact, love, work, fight, organize and think. Our plastic brain7 has itself changed markedly after each such upheaval, with implications for our literature, science, politics, productivity and even happiness. 

Marshall McLuhan, in his uniquely gnomic fashion, was among the first to debunk the comforting notion that media are neutral and just slaves to our bidding. "Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the 'content' of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind."8 Since then, of course, we have a much clearer understanding of the material malleability of the mind and the extent to which it is shaped by the media we use and the methods we adopt for doing so. 

The internet and the ubiquitous hand-held devices through which we can now access it delivers a particularly potent potion to modify neural pathways and keep us hungering for more of the same. Gary Small, who has spent years studying such brain changes, explains: "The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains. Daily exposure to high technology – computers, smartphones, video games, search engines… – stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways in our brains while weakening old ones… As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture…"9 While we struggle to concentrate, the masters of the net universe are out to maximize just one parameter – the amount of our time they can monopolize. The business models of all such platforms are supported by "a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation you have."10 What generates revenue for them, unfortunately, spells disaster for our mental health, productivity and ability to innovate. Even those who had worked out individual regimens for distancing themselves from these platforms periodically have had their islands of tranquility submerged by the Work From Home wave. Remote work deprives people of visual and other cues of individual busyness that are available when people work in sight of each other and thus invites much higher than normal volumes of electronic communication with far lower than usual levels of usefulness.11

Our spontaneous tendency to respond to emails as soon as we spot them is not helping in the battle for our minds. When e-communications first freed us from the tyranny of 'trays' we were all delighted with the freedom to respond when and from where we liked. The initial rebellion against the regimentation of traditional working styles was justified. Like all revolutions, however, this one threatens to eat its children and bring the entire edifice of effective organisational working crashing down. There is no gainsaying that the Taylorean template, prescribing a single best way of doing a job and organizing a work-day, stultified initiative and engagement. We are now grappling with the other extreme – particularly in those non-manufacturing organisations where scientific management had really made no inroads and where, therefore, the counter-movement met no resistance – becoming an orthodoxy of the disorder itself. Since those are also the sectors where the new technologies have made their greatest inroads, they suffer most from the de-protocolization of work while being least aware of it. Ironically, while we have sometimes excised even the retainable principles of Taylorism from much of knowledge work, we lap it up with unnatural eagerness when it is guised behind our favourite platforms and tech aids. "After Taylor, the laborer began following a script written by someone else… Conscious craft turned into unconscious routine. When we go online, we, too, are following scripts written by others – algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us… These scripts … mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment…. Rather than acting according to our own knowledge and intuition, we go through the motions."12 Small wonder then that true breakthroughs emerge most often in garages and start-ups where the t-shirt culture conceals a fanatic focus. Such disruptive innovations are themselves rudely disrupted once idea-factories are ingested in large mega-corporations that have incessant, insistent and imbecilic demands for responses, reports and reviews, with little concern for leaving thinking time intact.

Having pilloried technology and the declining discipline and method in organizing work, let’s turn our gaze inward at our attenuated attention ability. Half a century back, long before the juiciest apples from the tree of IT were in our garden, Herbert Simon spoke presciently: "In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."13 Thus the third nail in the coffin of getting real value from our time is distraction.14 Flitting from task to task (with surreptitious social media glances in between) hugely impairs productivity and sustained thought. Edward Hallowell calls this the Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) and vividly describes what it can do to a manager. "He is robbed of his flexibility, his sense of humor, his ability to deal with the unknown. He forgets the big picture and the goals and values he stands for. He loses his creativity and his ability to change plans… [H]e is prone to melting down, to throwing a tantrum, to blaming others, and to sabotaging himself. Or he may go in the opposite direction, falling into denial and total avoidance of the problems attacking him..."15 Surely this cannot be an acceptable future face of work.

Time Regained

To regain mastery of our time, we need to counter-attack the same trio of technology, flawed work organisation and distraction. Here are some ideas for doing so.

Technology is far too useful and integral a part of our work and home lives to excise from them totally. However, we can modify it to negate its addictiveness and run it to our advantage. We should expect the tech giants to be as cooperative in this endeavour as Superman would be to a request for binding himself in Kryptonite chains. Only by maximizing the amount of time we spend on our devices can they continue sucking in the virtually effortless returns that have been flowing to them. This is where the combined might and paying power of large corporates, worried about a failing tech model, needs to step in. Large employers, who wish to make a dramatic difference in their people productivity, need to demand or commission three new (or heavily modified) platforms for commercial use:

  • Templatized E-communication Administration (TEA): Organisation-wide and level/function-specific scheduling and prioritizing 'wizards' that, while permitting some degree of customization, force all employees to specify slots for asynchronous e-mail access. Naturally there would be immediate notifications of messages from a limited number of IQs (Important Queue-breakers) like the boss or critical customers. After all, we did run organisations without constant e-chatter interruptions and were, consequently, far more focused on each activity when we turned to it. We can use technology to become more effective than we were without becoming its Skinnerian rats!
  • Synchronous Executive Access (SEA): What TEA does for e-mails, SEA would do for bunching real-time communication demands. Phone and other platforms would be automatically video/voice-mailed for response in blocks of time set aside for the purpose (see section on protocols below). Once again there would be a few IQ exceptions. 
  • Programmable Executive Assistance (PEA): An Executive Assistant, that once was the signature accessory signalling very senior executives, was also a wonderful device for guarding their time and a reliever from time-consuming tasks that didn’t require personal attention but couldn’t be delegated down the line. AI can make this remarkable position available virtually to every manager.

Technology-based focussing and distraction-cutting tools can only be enablers. For them to yield any time capitalization, organisations have to reshape their ways of working radically. Telenor has made tremendous progress in this direction and their guidebook on Workfulness16 would be a wonderful starting point for any firm embarking on the journey. These three changes will require the most effort:

  • Protocols and Processes Facilitating Flow: To maximize the "… moments … when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile"17 organisations need to guide several systems that have been left to impulse and individual whim. Training and getting people accustomed to focussing and using just certain, limited (off Circadian peak18) parts of each day for meetings or getting e-mail responses are a few examples of what each firm needs to recast. Ideally, TEA and SEA times should be the same for each geography.
  • Culture Conducive to Concentration and Craftsmanship: This is not a plea to make work less demanding but to value quality over quantity, craftsmanship19 over 'turbo-fan work' (high-volume bypass ratio) and relationships over ruthlessness. Each of the latter choices is fatal to concentration.
  • Skilling Instead of Willing: If we recognize that people’s impulses cannot be ordered or willed away, the kind of training we impart will be quite different. "[T]he question is how to limit the harmful behavior caused by impulses situated primarily in the limbic system... Besides encouraging the use of technical solutions for managing and sorting incoming calls and messages, the training consists of learning how to resist the temptations from the phones. We replace unpreferred behaviors with preferred behaviors that we repeatedly practice until we automatically behave in the preferred way. They become automated, and we do not have to actively think about them."20

Once our organisational and technology enablers are in place for doing the heavy lifting, the demands on self-regulation and discipline should be entirely manageable (though not easy) for most employees. There are several attention-fixit books that can aid the process. For instance, 'Deep Work', by Cal Newport, has several sensible suggestions and the Rhythmic Philosophy of Scheduling that he describes meshes well with the technological and organisational changes we have considered above.21

The Devil Finds Work for Busy Hands to Fail

To make this transformation work, one more vital element is needed: the respect we have for the time of our fellow employees. Isn’t it curious how the most courteous of people behave like infants, unable to defer gratification for another minute when an electronic device for initiating communication is in front of them? But timing is not the worst of it. It is the sheer casualness or craftiness that lies behind such requests. Particularly in group e-mails or messages, you can be ambushed by people who write (or speak) to create an image of being foresighted and perspicacious while simultaneously showing you up as lacking these. In the process, your target achievement is blocked till you respond with a hugely disproportionate expenditure of time compared to that which went into the seemingly innocent query or comment. In the new world of efficient, excellent and enjoyable work that we are contemplating, people need to be aware of, measured on (a vital 360º feedback parameter, going forward) and penalized for making pointless encroachments on the time of colleagues or rewarded for making their communications limited, purposeful and constructive. 

After all: you ARE your brother’s (and sister’s time-) keeper! 

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Notes:

  1. Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony D Wagner, Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 106(37):15583-7, September 2009.
  2. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, Penguin Classics, 1969.
  3. Plutarch, The Complete Works of Plutarch, Delphi Classics, 2013.
  4. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is quoted as writing: "He who understands Archimedes and Apollonius will admire less the achievements of the foremost men of later times." in Uta Merzbach and Carl Boyer, A History of Mathematics (third edition), John Wiley & Sons, 2010.
  5. Simon Parkin, Has dopamine got us hooked on tech?, The Guardian, 4 March 2018.
  6. Marshall T Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet, Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  7. P Voss, M E Thomas, J M Cisneros-Franco, and É de Villers-Sidani, Dynamic Brains and the Changing Rules of Neuroplasticity: Implications for Learning and Recovery, Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1657, 2017.
  8. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Routledge, 20001.
  9. Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, William Morrow, 2009.
  10. Tristan Harris, quoted by Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, Penguin, 2017.
  11. Visty Banaji, 'Working from Home is NOT a piece of cake', 25 January 2021.
  12. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, W W Norton & Company, 2011.
  13. Herbert Simon, Designing Organisations for an Information-Rich World, in Martin Greenberger (ed.), Computers, Communications, and the Public Interest, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.
  14. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: Reclaiming Our Focus in a World of Lost Attention, Prometheus Books, 2018.
  15. Edward Hallowell, Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, Harvard Business Review, January 2005.
  16. Telenor and Katarina Gospic, Workfulness: a guidebook for companies aimed to create a healthy digital working environment, 2015.
  17. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008.
  18. Visty Banaji, India Eagerly Awaits a Sixer, People Matters, 15 April 2021.
  19. Visty Banaji, In Praise of Craftsmanship: Past Perfect – Present Imperfect – Future Tense, 8 June 2018. 
  20. Carina Guyard and Anne Kaun, Workfulness: governing the disobedient brain, Journal of Cultural Economy, 11:6, 535-548, 2018.
  21. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Little, Brown Book Group, 2016.

 

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