Legal “Deep Work” in a World of Distraction
Like fingers pointing to the moon . . . diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to your relationships. 1
You are an administrative law attorney at Fort Hood, Texas. You are just settling in at your desk for the day, and you are hoping today will be more productive than yesterday. You glance at the Post-It note on your desk that displays your to-do list. As you begin the process of doing a legal review for an investigation, a colleague asks you a question. Fifteen minutes later, after helping them research their issue, you sit back down to work on the legal review. You get a few pages into the investigation, and you glance at your computer and notice that an email just came in. After reading that email, you notice you have several other emails you have not read, so you decide to read those. At this point, forty-five minutes of your day have passed, and you feel that you don’t have much to show for it.
You get back on task and finish reading the findings and recommendations memo. However, your work is interrupted again by having to attend a promotion ceremony. Fast forward to the end of the day, and you still have not finished your first legal review. Between meetings, lunch, email, phone calls, walk-ins, taking a few minutes here and there to browse your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and visiting with colleagues at the coffee area, you leave the office later than expected and frustrated. Why was it so hard to finish the legal reviews you set out to finish that morning? You desperately want to be more productive during the day, but it seems like a never-ending battle to do focused work.
Many of us can relate to this administrative law attorney desperately trying to eliminate distractions to do what he is paid to do. This article explores some of the underlying causes of low productivity and frustration in our current working world. One might think with smarter technology, faster communication, stand-up desks, and open office plans, we would be more productive—but studies seem to indicate the opposite.2 This article offers internal rules for individuals to be more productive and external rules to build an organizational culture that allows for focused, deep work in a distracted world.
You can probably feel it. As a society, we are attempting to cram more and more into each workday, leaving little room for focused work and solitude.3 In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that, in a world that is increasingly distracted, those who can cultivate an ability to do what he calls “deep work” will have a distinct market advantage.4 He defines deep work as “[p]rofessional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”5 Deep work allows one to innovate, create, and learn new skills.6 In contrast, “shallow work” is “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”7
In the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, we are not immune to these trends toward distraction and shallow work. The practice of law and the value we bring to our clients often requires deep work and sifting through complexity to find clarity. Whether it is reviewing an investigation, mastering the evidence in preparation for a court-martial, or conducting a thorough review of legal authorities to answer a question, all judge advocates (JAs) must create time and find space to do deep work. Moreover, leaders ought to create an organizational culture where this is not only possible but encouraged. Without proactive steps individually and organizationally, we will be less effective for our client, and JAs will experience continued frustration and live unbalanced lives to offset distraction at work.
Before diving deeper into the need for this change and offering practical solutions to the problem, let me offer a few disclaimers. First, there is value and necessity in “shallow work,” when done at the right time. Collaboration and teamwork are essential elements to the success of any Office of the Staff Judge Advocate (OSJA). This article does not focus on eliminating shallow work, but, rather, on creating space for deep work. As Newport argues, and studies support, there is greater inertia against doing deep work than shallow work, so this article hopes to equip you and your team to push through that inertia and find greater productivity. Second, it is worth noting that the Army does not give us complete autonomy over our time—far from it. However, we still have significant choice in how we spend our time, within certain constraints.8 Implementing many of these rules and principles goes against the grain, but they can lead to improved productivity, more fulfillment at work, and greater retention of talent.
The Need for Deep Work
The very best students often study less than students with lower grade point averages.9 According to Newport, this can be explained by the law of productivity:
High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)10
This law of productivity explains why some students can spend less time studying than others and yet produce better results—they cultivate an ability to concentrate. In the working world, we often confuse busyness with productivity. Newport argues that in an age of cognitive work, employees tend to wear busyness as a badge of honor.11 He says, “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”12 When we create periods with no distractions, we create an environment that facilitates productivity.
We often think we can multitask and accomplish more, but studies show that is not the case.13 Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “Trying to concentrate on two tasks causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity . . . . Particularly when people try to perform similar tasks at the same time, such as writing an email and talking on the phone, they compete to use the same part of the brain. Trying to carry too much, the brain simply slows down.”14 In addition to studies outlining the limitations of multitasking, Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, has studied the effects of people working on multiple projects sequentially. In her paper, Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?, she introduces the idea of “attention residue.”15 After performing a series of experiments, Leroy found those that experienced attention residue had a drop in performance on the next task.16 For example, participating in a meeting (Task A) can create attention residue when you go back to your office to read an investigation (Task B). Similarly, Leroy’s work suggests that even a quick glance at your email or phone can create a new target for your attention, making it more difficult to refocus on your primary task. We may think we can do it all by multitasking and moving from task to task, but our brains do not function at an optimal level in a state of “semi-distraction.”17 We are busy but unproductive, which can have negative effects on one’s mental health over time.
Deep Work Makes Us Happy
In addition to being able to produce better results in a shorter period of time, studies show deep work can simply make people happier. Neurological studies synthesized by science writer Winifred Gallagher reveal that a workday filled with shallow work is likely to leave you feeling more drained and upset, even if these shallow tasks involve activities that were harmless and fun.18 By contrast, research by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Reed Larson found that being in a mental state of “flow”19 results in greater enjoyment than free time, cutting against the conventional assumption that relaxation is what makes people happy. According to their findings, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”20 These findings explain from a neurological and psychological perspective why the administrative law attorney above felt frustrated at the end of a day filled with distractions and shallow work. Cultivating an ability to carve out focused time, even in the midst of a busy work day with innumerable distraction, can make one better at their job and more fulfilled at the end of the day.
If deep work is both more productive and more fulfilling, why is it so rare? According to Newport, “the urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial” is the main obstacle.21 Studies demonstrate we are “bombarded with the desire to do anything but work deeply throughout the day.”22 Work led by psychologists Wilhelm Hofmann and Roy Baumeister reveal two important realities about willpower: (1) each of us has a limited supply of willpower that shrinks as we use it; and (2) we pull from the same stock of willpower for every task, no matter the nature of the task.23 In a world of open office plans and social media, this limited willpower can only fight off so many distractions. If JAs and other professionals want to benefit from higher productivity and increased satisfaction at work, we need rules internal to the individual and external to the organization that cultivate an ability to conduct deep work.
Internal Rules for Deep Work
As you create time and space to do deep work, deciding on a philosophy for integrating depth into your work life can be a helpful first step.24 For most JAs, a monastic approach of eliminating all shallow work is likely an unrealistic philosophy to keep your job. As mentioned above, many forms of shallow work are critical to the success of the organization. Therefore, a philosophy adopted by most JAs will likely involve specific ways, both individually and collectively, to eliminate distractions and manage one’s attention for specific periods throughout the workday.
Questions to Ask
As you decide on your deep work routine, Newport recommends a few questions to help establish an effective routine. First, consider where you will work and for how long.25 This question forces you to visualize a specific location for your deep work efforts. This may be your office with the door shut and a “do not disturb” sign on the door during periods of intense focus.26 This question also forces you to be realistic about the specific timeframe for each session, which is better than open-ended periods. Unless you are already in the habit of doing distraction-free work, a word to the wise as you begin: start small. It may sound silly, but most of us are so accustomed to working in a state of semi-distraction it can be difficult to stay purely focused on a task for extended time periods without practice. The urge to check your email, your phone, or jump to another task can be great, so the best practice is to set a short, realistic time period (e.g., thirty minutes) for your first deliberate sessions of deep work. Remember: time x intensity = level of production. Therefore, even thirty minutes of intensely focused work can produce incredible results.
Next, ask how you will work once you start to work.27 This question forces you to decide and visualize beforehand rules and processes to keep your work time structured. This might be a ban on internet use, putting your phone on do-not-disturb, making a commitment not to check email, or deciding beforehand how many pages of a brief you plan to write or how many pages of an investigation you plan to read. The goal is to eliminate the need to use mental energy during periods of deep work to decide rules. With the rules established up front, you avoid tapping into your willpower reserves.28
Finally, consider how you will support your work.29 The goal is to set the right conditions for your brain to focus during work. This could mean getting a cup of coffee, clearing everything off your desk except the project you need to focus on, going for a quick walk outside or around the building, or finding a snack to have as you work. Since you know yourself best, consider the conditions that have allowed you to work best in the past and create those conditions to support periods of deep work.
Rules for Digital Distraction
It is no surprise that technology can be a significant distraction. One could write an entire article or book on that topic alone (and many have).30 Therefore, it is essential to establish personal rules for how you will manage technological distractions during periods of deep work. These distractions can come in the form of phone calls, emails, text messages, or notifications on your phone, just to name a few. During periods of focus, the best practice is elimination of these distractions. Depending on the strength of your urge to check these items, you may need to completely turn off your phone and close out your email. Whatever the best answer is for you, be deliberate and decide up front how you will eliminate these distractions. As Newport says in his book, “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distractions so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”31
As a JA, it is easy to get in the habit of repeatedly checking your email for new updates. Many of us are prone to have Microsoft Outlook open on our computer the entire workday. This practice may seem efficient, but it can be detrimental when you need to do deep work like read an investigation, research the law, or review an evidence packet. To avoid the urge to multitask, try scheduling in advance windows throughout the day for you to check email. You can do the same thing with checking your phone. Newport suggests keeping a notepad by your workspace.32 On this pad, you can write down the next time you are allowed to check your email or your phone. Until you reach that time, do not allow yourself to look, no matter how tempting it may be. Each time you resist the allure of email and Internet distraction, you build up your ability to concentrate. Newport calls this “concentration calisthenics.”33
In order to build your concentration fitness, Newport recommends scheduling Internet use at home as well. If you are disciplined at work but find yourself glued to your screen outside of work, this can undo the progress you are making at work to rewire your brain.34 The key is building up your ability to embrace boredom. When you find yourself waiting in line, fight the urge to fill that space with technology. Instead, allow yourself to experience solitude and resist switching to distractions. At home, this does not mean you have to eliminate Netflix. It simply means that you should build in blocks of time to intentionally resist technological distraction. Otherwise, the only time you will be resisting distraction is at work, and your brain will not be trained to resist the temptation.
Creating Space in a Busy Workplace
Referring back to our administrative law attorney, one of the biggest distractions at work can be your co-workers. Again, collaboration, being a team player, and socializing are all critical components of an effective working environment. However, without boundaries, individual attorneys and paralegals struggle to focus; and, ultimately, our client suffers due to delayed work or shallow legal analysis. One simple rule you can adopt to create space to do deep work is shutting your office door and leaving a note on the outside that you are doing focused work for a certain period of time. This sends a clear signal to others in your office that you have deliberately set aside time to do focused work on a task. Those in the organization should respect the boundary you are creating. With this in mind, let us examine external rules to create a culture where deep work is encouraged and less rare.
External Rules for Deep Work
As a JAG Corps, the more productive we can be, the better we can serve our clients. An increase in productivity means we are accomplishing the same amount of work in less time. This is what happens when individuals eliminate distractions and can operate at a higher level of intensity. Remember, intensity multiplied by time equals productivity. When distractions are present, and we are trying to do deep work, it takes more time to accomplish the task. Having internal rules is a positive first step toward greater productivity, but external rules throughout the organization will result in widespread increase in productivity. In this section, we briefly explore practical, external rules that facilitate greater productivity by individual attorneys and paralegals. To maximize effectiveness, all members of an organization can adopt these external rules and create a culture where deep work and collaboration are not only possible, but valued.
The Case Against the Open Office Plan
Technology companies in Silicon Valley were among the first organizations to move to open office plans. By 2014, about seventy percent of companies had moved to this model.35 These open office plans were designed to spark creativity, innovation, and collaboration; but, mounting research demonstrates they may have the opposite effect.36 While the Army is not yet a workplace with fancy, open office plans, cold brew on tap, and unlimited snacks like you will find in Silicon Valley, there are lessons the JAG Corps can learn from those that have studied productivity in these open office environments.
In 2018, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban of Harvard Business School and Harvard University examined how transitioning from a traditional office design to an open office layout affected team collaboration.37 Perhaps surprisingly, Bernstein and Turban found decreased collaboration. After switching to open office plans, participants spent seventy-three percent less time in face-to-face interactions, sixty-seven percent more time on email, and seventy-five percent more time on instant messenger.38 The open layout seemed to make individuals want to withdraw. Bernstein explains, “If you’re sitting in a sea of people, for instance, you might not only work hard to avoid distraction (by, for example, putting on big headphones) but—because you have an audience at all times—also feel pressure to look really busy.”39
Other studies have shown similarly negative results. After reviewing over 100 studies of office environments, organizational psychologist Matthew Davis concluded that free-flow office spaces had a negative effect on attention spans, creative thinking, productivity, and job satisfaction.40 Researchers at Queensland University of Technology found that ninety percent of workers in open office plans had increased stress, conflict, blood pressure, and turnover.41 Additionally, a Danish study found that employees working in open office environments used sixty-two percent more sick days.42 A few of the top complaints from those who work in open office plans is noise distraction and a loss of privacy.43 However, there is a way to combat this.
The Hub-and-Spoke Model
As you might imagine, Newport is not a fan of the open office plan concept.44 Instead, Newport advocates for a “hub-and-spoke” model that allows for group collaboration and isolated deep thinking.45 As Newport explains:
It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.46
In the JAG Corps, each office needs space for intentional collaboration and space to perform isolated deep work or integrated depth with only a few people. Ideally, the office layout will cultivate both. For a criminal law office, for example, the chief of justice could create an area for collaboration with a large white board and a conference table and have individual offices for trial counsel to do concentrated work and case preparation. The chief of justice could also create individual office signs to help trial counsel communicate when they are attempting to do deep work and when they are open to collaboration.
Focusing Only on the Essential
One challenge all people and organizations face is determining what is truly essential to the success of the organization. According to the Pareto Principle, eighty percent of the outcomes stem from only twenty percent of the inputs.47 Therefore, much of what we spend time on may not actually move the needle of the organization. As we establish organizational rules to increase productivity, we have to consider what we are doing, not just how we are doing it—in other words, focusing only on what is “wildly important.”48
The more goals a team sets, the less likely they are to achieve any goals. This is because humans are hardwired to do only one thing at a time with excellence.49 According to Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University, “The neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.”50 Just as air traffic controllers have to focus on the plane landing at the moment, our legal offices must distinguish between the important and the “wildly important” to maximize focus and ultimately achieve better results.51 For JAs and leaders, this may mean saying no to good ideas and even some great ideas to instead maintain focus on those items that are truly the most important.
For example, leaders may eliminate certain meetings in your organization that seem important but ultimately detract from the wildly important. It could mean eliminating paperwork, processes, or systems that do not serve the organization but are generally expected because “it’s the way we’ve always done it.” This might also require seeking clarity from your supervisor about what is truly the priority. This process is analogous to what is required to eliminate digital distractions, and it stems from the same reality that we cannot do it all and do it well. Decide what is truly essential as an office and create a culture where individuals and teams exercise deliberate focus only on those essential tasks. Leaders can also take initiative to shield their people from low-priority taskers, where the subordinates do not have the power or authority to set those boundaries for themselves.
As a JAG Corps, we face many of the same problems that led Cal Newport to write the book Deep Work. In a world filled with distractions, those who successfully cultivate an ability to do focused work have a competitive advantage. Similarly, those organizations that face the problem head on and encourage individuals and teams to make deep work a regular part of their work rhythms will greatly benefit from an increase in productivity and job satisfaction by their employees. Like the administrative law attorney who desperately wanted to get his work done, you, too, may feel frustrated. Incorporating the rules outlined in this article can serve as stepping stones toward greater productivity, and, over time, your brain will build up stamina to shield distractions and perform focused work. TAL
1. Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life 2 (2009).
2. See Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World 49-61 (2016) (describing the negative effects of our current work culture on productivity).
3. Chris McChesney et al., The 4 Disciplines of Execution 24 (2012).
4. Newport, supra note 2, at 14.
5. Id. at 3.
7. Id. at 6.
8. Greg McKeown , Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less 36 (2014) (emphasizing that we have the power to choose, but that we can develop “learned helplessness” over time and forget that we have a choice).
9. See generally Cal Newport, How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less (2006).
10. Newport, supra note 2, at 40.
11. Id. at 64.
13. Victor M. González & Gloria Mark, “Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness”: Managing Multiple Working Spheres 119 (2004).
14. McChesney et al., supra note 3, at 24.
15. Newport, supra note 2, at 41.
16. Id. at 41-42.
17. Id. at 43.
18. Gallagher, supra note 1, at 2; Newport, supra note 2, at 82.
19. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 3 (1990). Csikszentmihayli used this term “flow” to describe an optimal mental state. He said, “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Id.
21. Newport, supra note 2, at 98.
22. Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength 35 (2011).
24. Newport, supra note 2, at 101-19 (discussing different philosophies for deep work).
25. Id. at 119.
26. Id. at 120.
30. See, e.g., id.
31. Newport, supra note 2, at 161.
33. Id. at 162.
34. Id. at 164.
35. Maria Konnikova, The Open-Office Trap, New Yorker (Jan. 7, 2014), https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-open-office-trap.
36. Aytekin Tank, Why It’s Time to Ditch Open Office Plans, Entrepreneur (Feb. 7, 2019), https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/327142.
37. Ethan S. Bernstein & Stephen Turban, The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration, Royal Soc’y Publ’g (May 3, 2018) https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239.
38. Suzanne Lucas, New Study: Open Offices Kill Teamwork, Inc., (July 7, 2018) https://www.inc.com/suzanne-lucas/if-you-want-people-to-collaborate-get-rid-of-this-office-plan.html.
39. Christian Camerota, The Unintended Effects of Open Office Space, Harv. Bus. Sch. (July 9, 2018), https://www.hbs.edu/news/articles/Pages/bernstein-open-offices.aspx.
40. Matthew C. Davis et al., The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging Issues, 26 Int’l Rev . Indus. & Organizational Psych. 193, 199 (2011).
41. Shane Borer, Are Open Office Plans Bad for Work?, CFO Daily News (June 3, 2009), https://www.cfodailynews.com/articles/are-open-plan-offices-bad-for-work/.
42. Jan H. Pejtersen et al., Sickness Absence Associated with Shared and Open-Plan O ffices—A National Cross Sectional Questionnaire Survey, 37 Scandinavian J. Work, Environment & Health 376 (2011).
43. Workers Dissatisfied with Open Plan Offices, Univ. of Sydney (Sept. 17, 2013), https://sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2013/09/17/workers-dissatisfied-with-open-plan-offices.html.
44. Newport, supra note 2, at 126.
45. Id. at 131.
47. McKeown, supra note 8, at 44.
48. McChesney et al., supra note 3, at 24.
49. Id. at 25.
50. Id. at 26.
51. Id. at 27.