Why You Cannot Get Work Done

Alright. Confession time. I actually like air travel.

Despite the long lines, cramped seats, and terrible food (if there is food at all), I might be the last person on the planet who enjoys flying. Here’s why: 30,000 feet seems to be the one place that I can disconnect. A flight provides solitary time that allows me to focus on that new idea, a client presentation, or whatever else I cannot get done on the ground with the interruptions of email, IM and phone. It provides a space for thinking deeply (just don’t purchase the WiFi).

It turns out that I am not alone in my love of highly focused flight time. In a recent episode of Innovation Hub Cal Newport tells the story of an entrepreneur who after securing a book deal took a non-stop flight to Tokyo, had an espresso in Narita Airport and got right back on the plane to come home. The 26 hours of flight time was used to focus on writing his first draft and it turns out to be a great investment. This type of focused worked was not going to happen on the ground.

The entrepreneur in the story was searching for time away from the constant distraction of email, IM, social media, and the constant hum everything else that prevents us from thinking deeply. This shallow work refers to the mundane, day-to-day tasks and regular interaction that we dedicate an incredible amount of time to throughout the day. Deep work is tougher. It involves finding solutions to long-term problems, creative concepts,


Not trying to sell books, but the concept is solid.

and new ideas. To use a simpler analogy, Newport says that shallow work is the stuff that keeps you from getting fired while deep work is the kind of stuff that gets you promoted.


Want more details? Cal Newport has written a book on the topic of deep work. It is aptly named Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World and it is now on my reading list.

So here is the basic question: Do we really need to constantly be on a slack channel, respond to every email within minutes, and always be accessible on a messenger app in order for to be considered working? This kind of talk might make me a bad millennial and perhaps, in the eyes of some, an even worse employee, but I am going on record here to say that enough is enough. The law of diminishing returns has officially kicked-in. We are well past peak communication and our productivity is suffering.

I know. I know. This is a blog and class on Social Media. We are supposed to be championing the benefits of these wonderful platforms. But, let’s embrace the good and recognize the bad. What shocked me is that each time we shift our focus away from a task it takes us, on average, 20 minutes to fully refocus on that task again. Each email, phone call and peak at social media costs us 20 minutes. Break away from a set task 6 times and there goes a quarter of your work day.

Unfortunately, our communication problem is not going to get any better as organizations as social media and other technology companies look to tackle the challenges of enterprise wide communication by applying what they have learned with their public platforms. These new platforms are popping up every day. Just this week Microsoft launched Teams, its new collaboration platform, and decidedly took a large bite out of Slack’s market. Sorry, Slack. Even a cute New York Times advertisement isn’t going to help.

At the end of the day we all want to be more productive and here is one way to get it done. Find time for deep work. My plan for the next month is to embrace the concept of deep work and see what happens. Will the world stop turning because I drop off of email for two hours a day? We’ll find out. Here is the strategy:

  1. Determine a deep to shallow work ratio that is going to allow me to spend dedicated time on critical tasks, but also meet the responsiveness needs of my organization.
  2. Protect deep work time that has been set aside. Block the calendar, hid someplace, shut off phone, email, and social media. Whatever it takes.
  3. Create a backlog of work to focus on: new ideas, blog posts, presentations, whatever is up on the back
  4. Establish a routine for deep work that will get me in the right frame of mind quickly. Grab coffee, shut the door, put on the right music, and get sh*t done.

Experiment starts tomorrow. Let’s see how this goes. Stay tuned.


  1. daniellep2153 · ·

    I also find myself using flights, trains and bus rides to get work done. I am definitely the kind of person who can’t have a phone or tablet near them when trying to do work. Even if I’m not getting emails and texts, I am easily distracted by social media platforms. Unfortunately, it’s significantly more difficult to avoid such distractions when working on a computer. Like you said, protecting your work time is essential. I used SelfControl all throughout college and I don’t think I would have been nearly as productive without it. This Mac app allows you to block distracting sites for a period of time (that you set). I also find having a to-do list near also keeps me focused on the tasks at hand. Overall, great post!

  2. Aditya Murali · ·

    Very cool post! I definitely share the sentiment that deep work is absolutely necessary. I have realized that we can do more things at once, but not as efficiently, due to these advancements in technology. What I mean by this is that I can do 10 things at any given moment, but the total time it took to complete those 10 different activities is probably longer than the total time it would have took if I focused on each one individually. I think social media and smartphones have given us the illusion that we are so much better off and so much more productive than ever before, when in reality I think we have given ourselves too many distractions and original thought/deep thought has become so hard to accomplish.

  3. gabcandelieri · ·

    Great insight. It is concerning how much I use my phone to multitask while doing homework and in the workplace. I find myself even using a rewards system–once I complete a given assignment I allot myself a certain amount of time to answer emails, texts, check Instagram, Twitter, etc. This method definitely interrupts my deep-thinking process and I find myself wondering how my end-product could have benefitted from uninterrupted concentration for a longer stretch of time. I completely agree that the workplace demands a constant presence on email and social media. I am currently interning at an advertising agency in Boston and my daily tasks are constantly requiring me to be on some form of social media–whether it be benchmarking how other agencies are presenting customer satisfaction metrics or analyzing a client’s current digital strategy in order to assess how we can improve their social presence. After I become used to virtually traveling from one platform to another to complete these tasks, it seems odd to transition to tasks that do not require as much digital mobility such as writing a blog post. During these tasks I find it harder to focus and block out the constant social noise.

  4. sandytanny · ·

    Awesome post and I hope your experiments goes well! I should probably try doing something similar. I have a horrible track record of staying on task — Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube are just so tempting. Like you said, after distracting ourselves with texting, social media, or emails, it takes so long to get back on track and my productivity has definitely suffered as a result. The SelfControl app for my laptop is definitely something that helps as it blocks any site for a specified amount of time. But I usually end up cheating and using my iPhone after 20 minutes. I’m also interning this semester with a majority of different tasks and deadlines I need to meet. At work I find myself so much more productive since I’m not using my phone during work, as to not seem rude or inefficient, and my co-workers and supervisors around me can see what is on my computer screen so I am much less likely to go on Facebook or YouTube.

  5. alinacasari · ·

    Great post! I never had a name for it but deep work is definitely something that is often underappreciated. Last year I took over 30 flights and you might be one of the few people who understands why it didn’t bother me to fly so much. I am so much more productive when I don’t have my phone or computer. I often bring a journal and just write notes or I’ll work on case studies or just read a book. Anytime I do this I am done with whatever task in half the time it usually takes me because I can concentrate for a long period while being relatively uninterrupted. Similar to this I really like cruises because you can’t use a phone, so it truly feels like a time to just shut off that social media side. While I realize having space and time for deep work is something that is extremely important tt’s hard to have self-control with not checking my phone unless it is imposed on me.

    I think having 2 hours a day without email is a bold and somewhat daunting, but worthwhile task. I anticipate that embracing this concept of deep work will add so much more quality productivity time to your daily life. Please let us know how it goes!!

  6. Totally agree. I’ve actually taken FB off my main work computer, and I rarely buy wifi on flights for just that reason.

  7. Alright guys, update: Day 4 of my Deep Work Challenge and I would say it has been fairly successful. So far this week I have been able to knock out several PowerPoint presentations, a blog post on Customer Friction (work blog), and have been spending a great deal of time on a new framework for examining digital transformation in organizations.

    Best part of all is that no frequent flyer miles were earned in this process :o)

  8. I hate flying, it makes me dehydrated, I eat terribly, sometimes I get sick, I fractured my school in Heathrow Airport once, and there are rarely great vegetarian options for me. Okay, so now that I got that out…I love the idea of unplugging. Last year I realized for the first time that I was attached to my phone, we had become inseparable. I had 180 seconds or less to respond to my girlfriend at the time – or else. I would incessantly watch markets and keep in contact with my analyst group on relevant current events. Suddenly the idea of putting my phone away for any serious period of time was as foreign as not having a phone at all. I do make efforts on vacations from school to put the phone away on a weekend. It can feel physically liberating.

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