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Being focused at work is overrated

28 Jan 2019

Amid all the questions of whether we can, we have failed to ask whether we should. You could try and do everything in your power to maximise your productivity – or, you could embrace the fact that being focused at work is overrated.

Today, productivity is god. People valorise working themselves into a powder. The modern worker will stay late because they think it’s a sign of their commitment, occasionally encouraged by employers. They are, overall, seeming to put their work over their wellbeing. This is why the latest, greatest productivity ‘hack’ is something of a holy grail.

To be fair, this isn’t unique to this era. Work culture has often skewed this way. For years, being called a ‘machine’ has been framed as a compliment. This has been exacerbated by the rise of automation and the resulting threat people feel towards their livelihood – though this arguably isn’t new either. You can go back as far as the 19th century and find people who were feeling boxed in by a robot takeover, so much so that they felt like they had to compensate by overworking.

Today’s working generation are incredibly hard on themselves, something that was crisply articulated earlier this month in an story by Buzzfeed News reporter Anne Helen Peterson which dubbed millennials ‘The Burnout Generation’. As Peterson puts it, workers constantly feel the need to work towards “optimisation”. For them, working life is a relentless drive towards greater efficiency.

Yet just as the computer chip is becoming too small to improve upon any further, there is only so much people can do before they reach the limits of their own productivity. In fact, there are many convincing arguments that being focused at work is actually pretty overrated.

You’re more focused at work than you realise

One of the core problems that people face in their drive to be more productive is underestimating their productivity to begin with. Unfortunately, ‘work’ has experienced concept creep in recent years. What do you define as ‘work’? When are you working and when are you slacking off?

Are you counting sorting through and answering your emails as work? If not, you should be. Even though you may feel the floor of your stomach fall out when you look at the clock and realise the majority of your morning has been spent in Outlook, this absolutely counts as working. It probably doesn’t feel like it since emails are often just one small part of completing a larger task. While it may be tempting to count them only as a stepping stone towards actual productivity, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The secret work tasks you do every day

For the record, the planning stages in the lead up to executing a task also counts as work. You may not have actually started, but you are still devoting mental energy to a task. If you simply sweep that under the rug and don’t count it as being productive, you’re erasing a legitimate source of mental drain.

Even if your mind wanders during that time, the cogs are likely still at work. If anything, allowing yourself time to be distracted could actually aid you.

You may not know this but, if you’re a mobile worker, the EU Court of Justice ruled in 2016 that the time you spend commuting from job to job counts as working time. Even if you don’t once look at your emails and spend the entire train journey relaxing, you are still not only working, but your employer has to pay you for it.

Even if your employer doesn’t specifically ask you to work, any work that you do is still arguably work hours. The question, according to The Department of Labour, is whether an employee is “suffered or permitted to work”.

For example, if you are sick with a cold and decide to work from home by checking in with emails, that counts as working. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t in the office, aren’t necessarily executing the full extent of your working day or that you worked from home of your own volition – it counts as working time.

Time spent on-call on a premises, even if you spend it relaxing or even sleeping, still counts as working. It doesn’t matter that you’re “not doing anything” – you would be penalised for leaving and have to be ready to begin working at any given time.

Often, things that would be counted under labour legislation as working time gets frequently discounted by workers themselves. It means that people can end up berating themselves for getting nothing done while simultaneously getting burnt out.

Total focus is impossible

Why is it that much of the discourse surrounding productivity acts as if humans are capable of staying totally focused throughout the entire day? Beating yourself up for not running at peak performance constantly assumes that doing so is within the realm of possibility. For the record: it isn’t.

In fact, some research indicates that the average attention span is as little as 14 minutes. The famed Pomodoro technique is predicated upon the underlying assumption you are never going to be able to sustain total focus for hours and hours at a time.

What’s more, the average worker has so much working against them. Modern technology constantly barrages us with distracting notifications both work-related and not. Life is a series of frenetic electronic pings, of bright lights and vivid colours, and not enough credence is giving to the fact that we have built with human hands a world where focus is difficult.

Not to mention that what you eat, how you sleep and your emotional state will all contribute to how focused or unfocused you are. There are ways that you can improve or preserve all of these, but there’s only so much that is under your control. It is why social psychologist Devon Price argues that laziness doesn’t actually exist.

So, relax. Being focused at work is overrated. You’re doing fine, probably better than you realise. While it’s always good to strive for improvement, it shouldn’t become a stick to beat yourself with.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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