A Wake Up Call to Small Business Owners: Deep Work vs. Busy Work

Spoiler alert: Multitasking does not work. The computer industry introduced this term to describe how a CPU can handle simultaneous processes. Then, a not-so-very-smart corporate bigwig decided that all new hires must be able to multitask (i.e., keep everyone busy, reduce payroll expenses) and so multitasking became the new buzzword and a source of pride for many humans on the planet; a perfect opportunity to discuss the homo sapiens brain.

Multitasking doesn't work because we (humans) are not wired for it. That's right, with over one trillion neural connections neatly tucked into a three-pound brain, multitasking is the equivalent of driving in Manhattan during a Presidential visit -- yep, mental gridlock. 

Attempting to circumvent our innate wiring and insisting that we can multitask is an illusion; just because you can talk on your cell, check your Facebook feed and respond to an email doesn't mean a thing, except that you're in auto pilot mode.

You're not doing meaningful work. You're not being productive and as such you're also directly affecting your Company's profit margins. More on this later.

As Cal Newport points out in his book about "Deep Work," brilliant human beings developed an incredible skill to get meaningful work done: "They all have the drive to cut themselves off, on a regular basis, from their busy lives and isolate themselves to think deeply. It allows them to use their brains to do influential and productive work." 

Single-tasking is not the answer because "brief checks" of email or social media interrupts deep thinking mode. This is also called, "attention residue" and it affects productivity. 

If your brain is how you make a living then you have to worry about your cognitive fitness; how much are you leaving on the table by multitasking or even distracted single-tasking. 

Atlantic Media did a study and calculated how many hours employees spent collectively on reading emails. They concluded that companies pay employees the equivalent of a Lear Jet to send and receive emails. 

Here's the thing: No one made a fortune by being really good at sending and receiving emails. As Cal Newport says in a must-listen Hidden Brain Podcast, "We built up a culture of convenience and simplicity at the cost of effectiveness and true productivity."

There is a direct correlation between productivity/efficiency and profits. Encouraging and facilitating a culture of multitasking is one of the most ignored opportunity-costs in every business. 

I recall one of many arguments with my boss on the subject of busy employees. 

"You should take a look at Stuart."


"I noticed that he's not busy, he was staring at the ceiling."

"Maybe he's thinking. He's working on a project for me."

"I don't pay him to think; he should be busy doing something."

Nor surprisingly, when the boss used to do his walkthrough around the office everyone was very busy and when he was on vacation? Forget about it. 

Meditation is rapidly becoming fashionable; it seems that everyone is meditating or thinking about it. And while meditation has proven to be beneficial, meditation is about disconnecting not doing deep work. 

Cal Newport can do deep work by not having any social media accounts. Imagine that. 

Multitasking is half-assing at best. The road to doing deep, meaningful and productive work begins with this realization: Time is a powerful force we only appreciate when we look back. 

The human brain doesn't know how to think about time; if you ask most people what's real, the present, the future or the past? Most people would say "the Present," but they are wrong. "The present is a psychological illusion; it is a wall between yesterday and today. All moments in time are either in the past or the future." Dan Gilbert, Psychologist. 

So, if you as a business owner, want to get the most productivity out of yourself and your employees, then create a culture that fosters and nurtures deep work. 

Instead of saying, "I have twenty employees" say instead, "I have twenty brilliant and productive thinkers who do amazing work that makes a difference in our lives and the lives of our customers."

The inspiration for this post came from my favorite NPR podcast, Hidden Brain and the episode titled, " The value of Deep Work in the age of distraction."