Listen to this article
Imagine a new kind of office: an office designed to stimulate people to do their best work.
First, you enter the gallery where examples of your peers’ work are hung on the walls and you are inspired to live up to — and beyond — their standards. Then you move to the salon, which resembles a co-working space with its couches and coffee but is a home to the kind of combative curiosity that thrived in the coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries; your ideas are developed through intelligent conversation.
Next comes the library, filled with the material you must study to push your work further. After that, a cubicle for taking care of administration.
Finally, you reach the space where you can do your most world-changing work: the “deep work” chambers, protected by thick, soundproofed walls. Here you spend slots of 90 minutes working alone on the hardest problems.
This dream was designed by David Dewane, an architecture professor, who called it the Eudaimonia Machine, after the Greek word for human flourishing. The Eudaimonia Machine is a vision of a place for earnest, thoughtful work that contrasts dramatically with the open-plan office of today and its online equivalents: the fast-filling inbox, the chattering Slack app. Start-ups’ propagation of casual work environments has made concentration even harder, introducing the bounce of the ping pong ball and the pop of the beer bottle being opened to distract the struggling worker.
Cal Newport, a computer science professor and author of a blog on work habits, has declared that we are in a crisis because of our inability to do “deep work”, also the title of a book he published last year. He defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to the limit”. He adds: “These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”
The modern office seems designed for shallow work, defined as “logistical-style tasks” that are easy to replicate. This is despite the rise of artificial intelligence, which, by automating such tasks, requires that the knowledge worker prepares to offer something better.
But few companies appear to be ready to cast out the open rows of desks, where you cannot help but eavesdrop on colleagues’ conversations.
Most of the new technologies being adopted by companies encourage more chatty collaboration, such as Slack, Dropbox’s Paper and Salesforce’s Quip. Co-workers commandeer your day by placing events in your shared calendar and endlessly demand attention with pedantic comments on shared Google documents.
There is, however, an antidote emerging in a new generation of technologies. They aim to make time alone at work an affordable indulgence, even if you are not the boss.
The first category deals with preventing the bad habits that the internet, and social media in particular, encourage. Think of them as the nasty-tasting nail polish that discourages nailbiting. The Forest app stops you reaching for your smartphone every second. You open the app, declaring a will to focus, and a tiny tree starts growing on the screen. If you shut it or switch to another app, the tree withers and dies. It aims to make you feel sad about killing the virtual tree.
Less cuddly is the Self Control app for Mac, which blocks distracting websites for a set period, while Anti-Social works with Windows and Mac and focuses on blocking social media sites. Leech Block allows you to schedule when you are allowed access to these sites and sets passwords to “slow you down in a moment of weakness” if you do try to access them outside the allotted window.
If software is not enough of a barrier, for $500 you can buy a Freewrite, an electronic typewriter that only lets you write. The makers boast you can use it inside or out, leave your smartphone on the desk and set yourself up on the lawn — although its retro hipster aesthetic may be too much of a conversation-starter for you to get much work done.
The second category encourages workers eager to concentrate to create their own bubble with music. Many in open-plan offices have adopted the large pilot-style headphones, both to reduce noise and as a signal they do not want to be disturbed. But instead of rapping and tapping to your favourite music, you can try Focus@Will, an app that plays classical music geared for deep work. At the end of each session, you rate your productivity as a percentage, and it uses the rating to adjust the music it plays next time.
SoundCurtain cleverly listens to your environment and adapts its volume, pitch and tone to filter out disruption. The app has settings that include wind, rain and, curiously, simple rain. You can adjust its sensitivity on how quickly it adapts to new noises. Brain.fm claims to be the “most advanced AI music composer on the planet”, creating music for focus, meditation and sleeping. In a pilot study, it found that people recognised patterns faster and more accurately than in placebo music.
The third category, for workers who are free to get out of the office, is apps that reserve you your own space at a moment’s notice. Breather allows you to rent private offices by the hour in cities across the US and Canada. These hourly hotels for the mind come equipped with sofas for blue-sky thinking and many have whiteboards to scribble down the ideas that drop out of that sky. In other cities, some have used holiday-let service Airbnb for the same purpose.
Not all the challenges of creating your own space for deep work can be met by technology.
Managers can expect instant responses to emails, attendance at overlong meetings and a present and available worker in a chair. In a recent podcast with the journalist Ezra Klein, Prof Newport said he saw offices evolving to delegate tasks such as reading email and handling logistics to other workers to protect the time of those doing deep work. This sounds sensible yet familiar: suspiciously like the return of the secretary.
Well spent: apps to make the most of our time
The hunt for technologies to help us do deep work is a direct reaction to the reality that most software is built to distract us.
Smartphones act like fracking on our time and attention, intruding into every last moment we did not know we had, just like the energy industry cracks open rocks to reach pockets of natural gas. Social media companies adjust their algorithms to increase the engagement rates that please advertisers, measuring their success in “time spent” on the network. Now, workplace apps are following the models set by consumer apps, complete with emojis and persistent pings.
Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, thinks there is another way: apps should be built so we make the most of our time. He founded campaign group Time Well Spent to encourage product managers and software engineers to end the race for our attention. In a survey of 200,000 people, he found the apps that demand less of our time make us happier. Users were most pleased with meditation, weather and podcast apps, and least pleased with dating and social media apps, which kept them hooked but not happy.
Harris recommends using apps such as Moment and RescueTime to assess where you are spending your time online, at work or play.
Get alerts on Masters in Management when a new story is published