Why I may not answer your phone call: Productivity in the age of distraction

I recently had a conversation with a new collaborator where I needed to say that I communicate primarily by email and scheduled phone calls. The person at the other end said, “Well, I just pick up the phone, you might need to adapt to that.”

When I’m running workshops or giving a training course I‘m understandably not available to take a call, but I don’t do these activities all the time. That’s a special situation, but there have been a number of occasions when I was working in my office and I still didn’t pick up the phone. Why?

As a knowledge worker in the gig economy, my workday has its necessary project management components, email, appointment setting, briefing or catch up meetings, travel arrangements, etc. These are shallow tasks that don’t take a lot of concentration or focus. Some days are all that, but those I would say are not my best days and thankfully not the majority.

Mostly what people engage me to do, is what Professor Cal Newport calls “Deep Work,” which are new things that I need to create in focused and concentrated blocks of time. These things might include a design for a complex 4-day multi-stakeholder workshop that produces a set of validated guidelines or a collaborative project; or a new approach for a leadership training course that meets the learning needs of a demanding set of corporate sustainability leaders; or a thoughtful piece of writing that concisely draws out the key learning from 50 hours of expert interviews; or a chapter of a book.

These are things I cannot do in small slices of time around email and phone calls. They take longer blocks of concentrated, uninterrupted time. This is what people engage me to do, including this new collaborator.

Taking an unexpected phone call breaks a train of thought and propels you out of your Deep Work. It doesn’t do this perfectly or completely, however. As Professor Sophie Leroy’s research at the University of Minnesota shows, the Deep Work that you were so focused on leaves “attention residue” which will also affect your conversation with the phone caller. If I were to take that spontaneous phone call, some of my attention would still be on the Deep Work task that I was doing when I was interrupted, so the caller is not getting my full attention on the phone. Both projects now have suffered.

To avoid this, I will continue to protect my scheduled blocks of Deep Work which is so vital to my productivity and the quality of my outputs. This ability to do Deep Work also greatly contributes to the pleasure that I find in adding value to important initiatives, and ultimately shapes my reputation as a knowledge worker in a crowded global marketplace.

You can send me an email request to talk and I will schedule a call with you, and then be very happy to protect my time to deeply work with you.

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