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Photo: iStock

Opinion | What’s your pick: Staying on top or at the bottom?

Responding to every email or chat may mean efficiency, but it leaves no time for deep work

Working from home comes with some luxury like freedom to cook lunch, time to do laundry between tasks, spend time with family. Some even say it has increased their efficiency, with them trying to stay on top of things by responding to emails and chats almost instantly.

But this hyper-connection, which offers a sense of control, connection and security, comes at the cost of deep work and deliberate practice that is required when we need to get to the bottom of things to get a better, more nuanced outcome.

Don Knuth, a computer science professor at Stanford, says email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things but not for those who want to get to the bottom of things. That’s why professor Knuth, the recipient of the Turing Award, stopped using email in 1990.

Being a pioneer in computer science and artificial intelligence, he needs to communicate with thousands of people all over the world. He’s been doing so through his books, snail mail and in batch mode, a technique that is useful if you want to indulge in deep work rather than quick work.

Batching refers to the art of organizing your communication by replying to messages in designated chunks of time, not as and when they arrive. There are three advantages of this approach.

First, you can dedicate more time to do work that moves the needle as opposed to constantly being in the respond and react mode. Second, it augments creativity by uncluttering your mind and calendar. Third, it prevents burnout by multitasking. Research shows just about 2.5% of the population is able to multitask effectively. When the rest of us attempt to do two complex activities simultaneously, it simply doesn’t work.

So, what would you prefer: staying on the top or getting to the bottom of things?

The good news is that we don’t need to choose one or the other. Although we could take inspiration from professor Knuth, we don’t need to abandon our communication tools and become hermits. Author Cal Newport defines deep work as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. As long as we allocate more than a quarter of our working hours to deep work, we tend to develop the discipline for depth over time.

We should divide our week into what investor Paul Graham calls maker days and manager days. Maker days are for doing deep work that leads to meaningful progress, and manager days are for ensuring that the engine our work life keeps cranking.

If we can’t segregate our week, we should carve out maker hours and manager hours on our calendar and let colleagues know so that they think twice before dropping the unsolicited “hi" right when you are trying to ship that critical presentation.

So, instead of saying “yes" to every digital invitation that comes our way, what if we say yes only to those we really want to? It is time for us to take an inward journey and figure out the tangible impact of our working hours. Are we very busy and very unproductive? In our quest to stay up to speed, are we forgetting the difference between urgent and important? Fastest finger first wins only in game shows, not in real life.

Utkarsh Amitabh is the founder of networkcapital.tv, a career intelligence community, and a WEF Global Shaper.

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