“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” The words of the great industrialist Henry Ford, from over a century ago, still resonate today. In the knowledge economy, the assembly line has been replaced with a new method of output. The future of work depends on your ability to think – and to think critically – about ways to innovate, create and lead through change. The challenge is: the world wants to rob us of our greatest skill. Indeed, we are living the docudrama of The Social Dilemma – and it’s crippling the future of work. Social media, combined with a desperate desire for distraction (brought on by the pandemic) makes everyone have the attention span of a ferret after a double espresso. Nervous and uncertain about the future, bombarded by 500 million tweets per day, how can we create new ideas – without the focus and fortitude to develop them? The future of work depends on focus. Because where you put your attention is where you find your results.
Three crucial skills are required for the future: we must eliminate distractions, find time to think, and discover the value of deep work.
- Stop the Busyness: If you’re doing lots of stuff, in a very visible manner, are you really prepared for the future of work? Sure, everyone sees that you’re responding to emails at 7pm on a Sunday night, and you’re filling the Slack channel with bits and bytes, but is that really productive? “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs,” author Cal Newport says, “many knowledge workers turn back towards an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff.” Newport says that knowledge workers must identify a better way to demonstrate their value – the subject of his groundbreaking book, Deep Work. Less inputs, more output, perhaps? In the future of work, it’s crucial to understand the difference between activity and impact. In his book, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distractions, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, author David Rock says, “A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test.” We all know that checking email every 10 minutes isn’t productive, and checking Instagram even less so. So, why do we do it? Because, imbalance: the challenges of the pandemic are many. Avoiding distractions (while working from home, addressing home school obligations, and more) is virtually impossible. It’s all made worse by a desire to escape from the mundane. That escape often turns into too much – too much Netflix, too much to drink, too much shopping, or too much other stuff (I’ll leave that to your imagination). We crave distraction, because of the sameness of the circumstances. But in the future of work, our ability to access undistracted attention is crucial. Because the number of distractions are only going to increase. The future belongs to those who can focus intently – not multitask incessantly – and access new ideas.
- Finding Time to Think: Let’s face it: shallow thinking is easier than really engaging with a challenge. But it’s a lot less satisfying. Is it a good idea to forward an email to colleagues, and just say, “Thoughts?” That kind of time suck isn’t helping people to think, it’s an invitation to unspecific distraction. How can you take a position of self-leadership, when it comes to preparing for the future of work? The future demands something more effective than just being easy – and generating a huge time suck for your colleagues. Why are there too many meetings? Because they are easier than really devising a structure that works. Guess where the real opportunities are, in the future of work? Before you show up for that 3-hour zoom meeting, find some time to think of a new way of solving the same old problems. Then, find time to think of ways to step into leadership communication – so that your boss and colleagues can share in your ideas.
- Investing in Deep Work: The future of work rests on your ability to reject these seven words: “That’s the way we’ve always done things.” How to shatter the status quo? Listen. In the future of work, these words will matter even more than they do today: “I hear you.” That’s what Nancy Kline says, in her book, Time to Think. Specific engagement and non-competitive collaboration is where it’s at. “To be ‘better than’,” Kline says, pointing at the root of competition, “is not necessarily to be good.” Her recipe is a simple one: stop interrupting, and listen more. See how collaboration is what winning really looks like. While remote managers are busy over-communicating, forward-thinking team leaders understand that listening is where you find new ideas. Make it OK for folks to share half-baked concepts, and release the obligation to completely cook something before it is shared. Because, in the future of work, collaboration will be more critical than ever. That means you don’t have to have all the answers – but sharing ideas with others is the best and fastest way to accelerate innovation. Kline says that asking questions is key. “Because, unlike a statement, which requires you to obey, a question requires you to think. The mind seems to prefer to think, not to obey.” Which do you prefer?
The future of work begins with a process of elimination. What can you do to eliminate distraction? Low impact attention-grabbers are the enemy of your career. Look away from that website, and look into what really matters. You don’t have to move to a cabin in the woods, or isolate your fourth grader for three days straight, in order to find time to think. Consider how you can create space, time and boundaries for yourself – so that you might be able to see into the future. Deep work is where you get the biggest bang for your buck – it’s not from surfing Instagram. Besides, that email message will still be there in an hour. Put your attention on what really matters – and commit to making a bigger difference in your career – as you prepare for the future of work.