Ignoring Inspiration - Working From Home and 'Deep Working'
Editorial Note: The following was written by one of our current LLB students, Devin Eyre. Devin is on the board of the Strathclyde Student Law Society. Any amendments are only in formatting. Just to say, though - we are working on communication, but do make sure you check your emails still as Devin outlines later in this piece.
Recently, I have had the pleasure of speaking to many lawyers via online interviews, during the later sections of the interviews I get to ask questions. Each interview I have asked the same question to, surprisingly, similar results: ‘’are you finding it difficult to work at home?’’ Every response I've had runs along the lines of ‘no, actually, I find I am getting more work done’ or ‘no I enjoy working in my own space’.
Without exception I am surprised, how is it that these professionals who are placed in an environment which is specifically made to increase productivity and hard work find they work better at home with the barking of dogs, screaming of children and countless distractions?
I have narrowed down the cause into a simple line of reasoning:
The modern office is a center with many distractions which interrupts inspiration and is the antithesis to ‘’deep work’’.
Firstly, I would like to explain why I was interested in asking this question in the first place. Since lockdown has started, we have all had too much time on our hands, we would think that this would increase our productivity. However, in my case, as I'm sure is the same for many of my fellow students, this has not rung true.
I wanted to ask these professionals, be they lawyers or staff at the university, how their experience has been in the hopes that they would give some golden tip which would instantly write that assignment I have been putting off. Much to my dismay there was no golden ticket.
That’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot however, moreover it has spurred me on a journey into ‘’deep work’’. Cal Newport in his book aptly named ‘’deep work’’ describes the term as: ‘’professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit’’. This still leaves the question, if deep work is done in a distraction-free state how come many professionals seem to work better at home than in the office?
An attack on the (open-plan) office:
The open plan office came into prominence during the first half of the 20th century where confining walls were replaced by long open desks. This seems like a good idea, the removal of the walls gives more breathing space so workers don’t feel as confined, and all staff are accessible which improves teamwork and coordination, though the obsession with removing walls borders on ‘’insanity’’ when the consequences are fully revealed.
While walls may be confining, they also do a good job of keeping distractions at bay. Without them phone calls, email notifications and conversations between other staff divert our intention away from our work, away from the task we are hired for.
This may read as opinion, I hear you say: ‘concentration is subjective, some people may be able to reach a deep work state in an open-plan office and the increased collaboration may outweigh any small distractions’. While it is true some people are better at handling distractions than others, when we take into account the idea of ‘’attention residue’’.
This idea posits that each of us have a finite amount of willpower and attention. Even though we may be able to multitask every unread email we see, or phone we hear or tempting office-snack we smell distracts us from our tasks.
Let's relate this to a situation that all of us students have found ourselves in: the decision to work on a silent study or noisy floor of the library. I used to work on level 3 of the library, especially when all the silent study floors were full. I thought that the noise wasn’t a distraction and if I just focused and knuckled-down then I could get my work done.
What I, and many other students found, is that it is easy to get distracted by the constant chatter around you. If we think of level 3 as one big open-plan office and the silent study floors as closed-plan ones which do you think facilitates productivity?
The office isn’t as productive as it was made to be, the constant risk of distraction interrupts deep work and stops workers from focusing on the task at hand. For many the home offers places where one can hide away from distractions. It is easier to cram your phone deep into your desk to avoid distraction than it is to do the same with an annoying co-worker.
Even with the security of a sealed-off office the modern workplace offers more distractions which divert our attention away from inspiration and deny deep work.
A note on erasing emails:
Emails make up a huge part of office life and culture. They seem to be an easy ‘free’ form of communication, but they come at the cost of concentration. There is nothing worse for increasing attention residue than emails.
Let's take the example of Tom Cochran a worker at Atlantic media. Intrigued by the amount of emails he sent he started gathering information within the company. He found that in an average week he received 511 emails and sent 284, averaging about 160 emails per day. If he only spent 30 seconds on each email this amounted to 1 hour and 30 minuets each day sending and responding to emails.
Expanding this to the entire company he found that Atlantic media was paying people over 1 million dollars per year to respond to emails alone, with each email costing around 95 cents – hardly ‘free’.
Applying this to your (our) own studies, how much time do we spend distracted by emails or texts which could be better used preparing for exams? Every time you check your inbox you see many unanswered emails and once seen your attention is divided amongst them.
This is made all the worst by notifications; these distract us from our work further, they circumvent the need for us to manually check our emails and pop-up on our phone screen or laptop with an all-too-familiar ‘ding’.
It is undeniable that the time spent on emails is too great for them to be considered ‘free’.
With constant electronic distractions deep work becomes all the harder, and it becomes easier to ignore inspiration. I am not arguing for the return of the horse and cart, but rather I don’t think productivity should be evaluated on how many emails are responded to but rather how much quality work is produced daily.
I would recommend checking your emails at a designated time each day where you can respond to them all at once, so your attention isn’t diverted away from your work.
The home is also subject to emails, some may argue they have to answer more emails at home since face-to-face communication is no longer an option. Though, many at-home workers may be able to manage these emails better due to the ability to work their own hours.
Commentary on escaping rigid work hours:
Along with the plastic cubicles, fluorescent lights and water coolers many associate the office with rigid nine-to-five work hours. Since many are now working and studying at home they have moved to set their own hours. Of course, employers still expect workers to be accessible during this time and daily tasks still need to be completed. A shift away from these work hours may be a great opportunity for deep work to take place and inspiration to take hold of many workers.
Charles Darwin during his work ‘On the origin of species’ awoke at 7 and started his day with a short walk, from there he would return and study for an hour and a half, then take a break and read his letters from the day before until noon. From here he would walk until satisfied with his learning and then stop working.
How is it that such a small amount of ‘working time’ can result in such great work? It is because effort isn’t calculated by hours spent working but rather how much time is spent in a state of deep work. Time spent x Intensity of focus = High-quality work produced. If Darwin was interrupted by constant pop-up emails he may never have accomplished all he did.
To me, it came as a shock to hear that people may work better at home than in the office. But since I have started my journey into deep work it has become more understandable. I hope you have found some of the information here useful, and if not at least intriguing. I hope you all are finding the transition to working at home inspiring.
Deep work : rules for focused success in a distracted world, Cal Newport, New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
Indistractable, Nir Eyal, Bloomsbury publishing, london, 2020.
How to reduce 'attention residue' in your life, BBC, by Madeleine Dore 31st January 2020: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200130-the-life-hack-to-reduce-admin-and-carve-out-downtime
The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office, By George Musser on August 17, 2009, Sceintific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-origin-of-cubicles-an/#:~:text=The%20typical%20open%2Dplan%20office,a%20white%2Dcollar%20assembly%20line.&text=In%201964%20American%20furniture%20company,surfaces%20and%20multiple%20desk%20heights.
 This was during the Strathclyde law society’s ‘legal speed interviewing event’ which many students found useful and I would recommend to anyone who wants interview experience. Full disclose I am the head of academic events for the society so obviously I am a little biased.  Cal Newport, Deep work, Grand central publishing, 2016, p.3  Scientific American, The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office, By George Musser on August 17, 2009  This topic is handled well by the TV special called: ‘The secret life of office buildings’ by Poppy Edwards aired 2011.  The effect of regulatory focus on attention residue and performance during interruptions, M.Schmidt, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Volume 137, 2016, Pages 218-235  I understand this analogy isn’t perfect; students aren’t paid to go to the library (unlike office workers) and if we were it would still be difficult to convince some of us to leave the cozy confines of our beds. And some students may find working with others better, a topic I wish to write about in the near future.  Please don’t actually do this.  Tom Cochran, Email Is Not Free, Harvard Business Review, April 08, 2013  n2 pp. 53-55