Deep Work with Micro-Frictions

posted on 23 Jan 2021



“How do I …”

You have a 5 PM deadline and you are yet to send out that proposal to your boss. It’s 4:30 PM and all you have managed to scrape together is a title, date and author. And yet, you cannot find an hour to yourself because notifications do not stop. Every few minutes, the ominous red dot convinces you to drop everything you are doing and respond to another question or chime in another discussion. All this while, your mind fighting the increasing levels of Cortisol as it computes the trade-off between eroding credibility at work or at home. For it will be yet another late evening and the chores may have to wait.

Signposts with direction to many countries distracting from the open ocean in front.

Since starting to work from home, how many times have you had a similar experience? My conservative guess is, more often than you would like. Work that requires long stretches of productivity has been sabotaged by a stream of innocuous looking interrupts. With each notification we get, we feel compelled to respond to it in near-real-time. This is now an implicit expectation, whether organizations like to admit it or not. Some make the problem worse by adding ever-more complicated guidelines on “communication best practices”, as if people are machines and will operate as per well-defined, rigid protocols.

Recently, I found myself fondly reminiscing of my time in the office and long stretches of productivity I was able to achieve despite the open floor plan and colleagues sitting right next to me who were a few feet away from disrupting my flow but seldom did. And I asked myself why that was the case? I am in the confines of my own home and should have no one but myself to blame if I am unable to find the time to do deep work. Surely there is no one walking over to my desk anymore to share an anecdote or two.

Counter-intuitively, I think that is the problem. I no longer have colleagues who can walk over to my desk and see that I have my headphones on, deep in the zone. They no longer observe me working, and realize in order to get my attention, they need to distract me from what I am doing. More often than not, this micro-friction served as a moment where someone would re-assess if it was really worth distracting me right now or could they just send me a message that I could respond to in my own time. I know this has made me pause and change course more than once.

With virtual-only communication, this micro-interaction has disappeared. We can no longer distinguish between the well-meaning and sometimes necessary interrupts that deserve our immediate attention from those that do not need a response at all. As a result, most people default to treating each notification as an event analogous to a fight or flight stimulus, requiring an immediate response.

We need, headphones on, tap if you need me, for instant messaging. It should take more than a few characters interrupt someone’s productivity, albeit unintentionally.

There are several other factors at play here. However, we cannot ignore the impact of this miniscule yet effective friction that served as the last line of defense in meaningful productivity at the workplace. With the vaccinations rolling out, some of us may well be on our way back to the office this year. But remote work is here to stay. In short of taking some drastic measures to reduce distractions, we need to find ways to re-create micro-frictions in the virtual world that naturally exist in the physical world. We need, headphones on, tap if you need me, for instant messaging. It should take more than a few characters to interrupt someone’s productivity, albeit unintentionally.

A counter-point here is that it should be up to every individual to protect their time and ensure they are being productive. This is paradoxically both completely true and yet completely ineffective solution to the problem. It fails to acknowledge the social dynamics that compel individuals to conform to social norms in a workplace. As much as we would like to be mavericks and shun the herd, our actions speak otherwise. If not, would we find ourselves in notification hell in the first place?

As we continue to adapt to a rapidly changing workplace, we will need to find ways to add micro-frictions to interrupts and make it a socially acceptable norm. Deep work requires long stretches devoid of any distractions. When I started writing this post, I kept getting notifications that could wait, so I switched them off. Someone would need to call me to get my attention which they are unlikely to do unless it is indeed urgent. It is easier for me to do this with my personal time. It should be just as easy for everyone at work.

Categories:  #productivity  #management