Where’s the Library?

Knowl­edge work requires con­cen­tra­tion. To this end, uni­ver­si­ties have libraries in which one can focus on study­ing. In most of our com­pa­nies there are no such zones for unin­ter­rupt­ed work. The cre­do there is team­work and its high­est val­ue is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The results are work­ing days that con­sist most­ly of sched­uled or spon­ta­neous meet­ings with blocks of work in between that are too short for any mean­ing­ful in-depth work and are only used to respond to the flood of e‑mails accu­mu­lat­ed dur­ing these meet­ings or that are more or less enter­tain­ing­ly wast­ed on the smart­phone. All this in open-plan offices with noise lev­els that reduce any form of con­cen­trat­ed knowl­edge work to absur­di­ty any­way or only make it tol­er­a­ble through iso­la­tion with noise can­celling headphones.

When you’re oper­at­ing on the maker’s sched­ule, meet­ings are a dis­as­ter. A sin­gle meet­ing can blow a whole after­noon, by break­ing it into two pieces each too small to do any­thing hard in. Plus you have to remem­ber to go to the meet­ing. That’s no prob­lem for some­one on the manager’s sched­ule. There’s always some­thing com­ing on the next hour; the only ques­tion is what. But when some­one on the maker’s sched­ule has a meet­ing, they have to think about it.
Paul Gra­ham

Bri­an Dono­hue and his prod­uct engi­neer­ing team had start­ed an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment at Pin­ter­est 100 days ago. Between Tues­day and Thurs­day no meet­ings were allowed. Fol­low­ing Paul Graham’s argu­ment of the maker’s sched­ule, the goal was to cre­ate unin­ter­rupt­ed times for focused soft­ware devel­op­ment. The results Bri­an Dono­hue recent­ly report­ed are impres­sive in their clar­i­ty, though not sur­pris­ing: over 90% of devel­op­ers said they have been more pro­duc­tive since then.

This exper­i­ment at Pin­ter­est clear­ly shows that it is worth cre­at­ing “species-appro­pri­ate” con­di­tions for knowl­edge work­ers. How­ev­er, meet­ings and espe­cial­ly those with far too many par­tic­i­pants, bor­ing Pow­er­Point bat­tles and fruit­less dis­cus­sions of peo­ple with a nar­cis­sis­tic ten­den­cy are only one cause of dis­tur­bances. Inad­e­quate office land­scapes that are uni­lat­er­al­ly designed for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion are at least as great an evil.

Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of unin­ter­rupt­ed and care­ful­ly direct­ed con­cen­tra­tion, it turns out, can pro­duce a lot of valu­able output.
Cal New­port

Noth­ing wrong with com­mu­ni­ca­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. But you need also space and time to work alone (or in pairs in the sense of pair pro­gram­ming) in a con­cen­trat­ed way. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, nei­ther the time is usu­al­ly giv­en by such rules as at Pin­ter­est nor the space by suit­able office land­scapes with dif­fer­ent zones. And so every­one has to cre­ate these work­ing con­di­tions for them­selves some­how. “No Meet­ing” blocks in the cal­en­dar can help. Home office too, unless you have small chil­dren at home. Noise-can­celling head­phones are also a very prac­ti­cal way of shut­ting your­self off in an open-plan office and show­ing that you don’t want to be dis­turbed. And maybe there is a qui­eter cor­ner to work some­where in the build­ing, which is usu­al­ly no prob­lem thanks to a lap­top and W‑LAN.

Some orga­ni­za­tions haven’t real­ized this yet, or haven’t artic­u­lat­ed it, but we need artists. Artists are peo­ple with a genius for find­ing a new answer, a new con­nec­tion, or a new way of get­ting things done. That would be you.
Seth Godin

One more major source of dis­trac­tion remains to be elim­i­nat­ed or min­i­mized. As Niklas Göke shock­ing­ly observes, we use our smart­phone every day for 2.5 hours on aver­age. We can and should do some­thing about this, because nei­ther the man­u­fac­tur­ers of the smart­phones nor the providers of the apps and espe­cial­ly not the large plat­forms such as Face­book and Co. have an inter­est in us being less dis­turbed. On the con­trary, they do every­thing to ensure that we pick up our smart­phone as often as pos­si­ble and spend as much time as pos­si­ble with it. As described in Niklas Göke’s arti­cle, there are for­tu­nate­ly a few sim­ple tricks and use­ful set­tings to coun­ter­act this and to turn the smart­phone back into a use­ful tool that obeys our will with­out us suc­cumb­ing too much to its seduction.

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