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Has the Shift Toward Neuro-Productivity Already Begun?

A reader recently pointed me toward an interesting new feature Microsoft added to its widely-used Outlook email and calendar software: support for deep work.

Outlook users can now create a personal “focus plan” that measures how many hours they’re spending dedicated to undistracted work, and can automatically schedule these blocks. Though the tool uses the term “focus time” to label these efforts on your calendar, it also directly uses the term “deep work” in its interface when describing what it’s helping you accomplish (see above).

This is an important shift.

In the first decades of digital knowledge work, human productivity was often viewed through a computer processor metaphor. People were understood as unbounded processors and the goal was to leverage technology to get them as much useful information as possible, with the least amount of friction. In this metaphor, getting more done meant getting more information through the pipeline.

As I’ve been arguing since at least 2016, this is not a useful frame. Humans do not operate on unbounded computer processors, but instead quirky bundles of neurons that have operational properties much different than silicon. If you really want to get more done, you have to understand how human brains actually function, and then arrange for work processes that complement these realities.

Once you start such examinations, one of the most obvious findings is that human brains are not great at context switching. If you want to perform cognitively demanding work, you need to arrange a setting in which your brain can spend time focused on that one task without needing to consider emails, or slack messages, or online news, or Zoom calls, at the same time. An office that segregates deep from shallow work, therefore, should produce more high value output in the same number of total hours.

Given the huge potential productivity gains inherent in a shift toward this neuro-productivity approach, I’ve been convinced that it’s only a matter of time before we began to see large knowledge work players begin to formalize these ideas. Microsoft’s addition of the focus plan feature to Outlook implies that this shift may very well have already begun.

20 thoughts on “Has the Shift Toward Neuro-Productivity Already Begun?”

  1. Did you mean humans DO NOT** operate on unbounded processors?

    Also any tips for working on problems that require an unknown amount of time, and cannot be reasonably planned for in advance? For example, when I’m learning a mathematical proof, I’ve found that it’s not really possible to know how long a given proof will take in advance. How would you recommend scheduling time for such activities without allowing said time to creep into other obligations?

    Thanks in advance

  2. “Humans do operate on unbounded computer processors, but instead quirky bundles of neurons that have operational properties much different than silicon.”
    I think you meant “Humans don’t ..”

    They are linking directly to “Deep Work” book page on your website in the blog post.

  3. The image popped into my mind of a photo of the late author Tony Hillerman, hard at work on one of his Navajo Tribal Police mysteries. The photo showed him sprawled on a couch with his eyes closed – doubtless being efficiently neuro-productive. I love this – damn and blast the icon of the productive worker as a tidy fellow pleasantly pecking away at a laptop in an antiseptic well-lit cubicle farm.

  4. Has anyone seen the “focus” feature on Word (bottom, right side corner)? When clicked, the standard screen turns into full-screen mode, and you can only write text, all other functions are hidden.

  5. Interesting, but here I am at a tier 1 research university and this isn’t available to use despite the fact that we’re a Microsoft school. I’d love to try it out, but our terrible internet security team hasn’t approved it for release to faculty and staff yet and it’s not even on their radar.

  6. I have been using Focus Time in Outlook for the last few months. In that time I have been able to create much higher quality work. My boss has noticed the increased quality and output and fully supports our use of the feature. Other staff are starting to use it as well and I think we are already starting to see the benefits of having a more focused and less distracted workforce at our company. Personally I like to use Focus Time in conjunction with a pomodoro app to help keep me focused.

  7. I love their shoutout and link to Deep Work. Your influence on Microsoft is poetic, knowing from your podcast that you considered taking a job there while in college.

    There’s some irony too because Outlook has primarily been an email tool, and your next book is about a world without email. I’m curious if Outlook will morph into mainly a workflow software with email taking a secondary role.

    • Short answer: yes. Google will do the same, as will other companies.

      Knowledge sector workflow is a *massive* untapped area with hundreds of billions of dollars of unlocked revenue at stake…

  8. The value of understanding the marvel and beauty of the inner-workings of the design and function of the human brain and its intricate connection to how we truly think, process and act, versus forcing thinking to fit into a “computer model” as a way to represent sensing, processing and learning. As if computer logical processing is the best way to “think” and “work” (in seeking efficiency and speed in some vague, imaginary projection of a simplified world of basic cause and effect), rather than computer processing being only one particular subset of approaching certain patterns and relationships to accomplish certain kinds of tasks that can be framed with some form of computation. Computer and logical processing is a smaller subset of very hard-defined parameters of a reduced, representational pseudo-world. Though it does have many beneficial uses, the “computer processing” analogy for human processing and work is not comprehensive and can turn into a straight-jacket for the creative capacity of people. Reducing the brain and mind to a computer is backwards and ultimately restrictive. Thinking that people should be good “Multi-Taskers” and “Context Switchers” is evidence of the influence of a paradigm funneling a person to be like a logical operating system that “multi-tasks” as though that is how a person “should” be or how they “should” think, work, and fulfill tasks. People are so much more creative and capable of so much more than a chunk of organized metal that is specifically designed for holding and changing pre-built, pre-defined representational information. Representational Information and Factual Knowledge is the currency of computers but is not the same as Wisdom. Wisdom is more valuable. The wisdom to seek to understand and connect with the actual design and nuance of the brain to work with it and not against it. Like a surfer being a student to the wave and learning to ride according to its rhythm and design, rather than fighting against how they think water “should” be according to mounds of data and factual information about water. All this points to is that we lack wisdom, not information, on good habits of work that come alongside how we work. And this ties back to Beliefs, Values and Hope. Why we work and what are we truly working to accomplish and why? No computer or digital processor or any of its results will ever be able to answer this. Underlying this article is an unspoken agreement that being “productive/efficient” is important and good. Not saying I disagree with that. Just saying we have mounds, or should I say digitally defined datastores, of information on work and productivity. But that doesn’t mean that its equal to wisdom or replaced our capacity and responsibility to make good decisions in how we approach work. This doesn’t come from, nor ever will, any form of technology because technology is a result not a Guide or Master. Technology is the result of trying to apply our limited knowledge about how things work, and its a great adventure and endeavor. And that result can be more beneficial when coupled with wisdom that comes through learning along the way, a lot of which comes through trial and error and becoming like a child to be a continual student, a continual learner, a disciple of Wonder. Is that not what a “shift” represents? Taking a path, learning, and adjusting as we go. An adjustment is correction and fine-tuning to better synchronize with a more effective way as the result of learning, which means we didn’t know or understand before. Which means we don’t know everything, contrary to how “Data” and “I already knew that” appears. Hopefully the shifts we make connect us deeper with Wisdom. Deeper connected to how things really are.

  9. I hate how all of the productivity arguments, including Deep Work completely ignores service industry. As a manager in a hotel, it is almost impossible for me to implement any of these. I simply cannot ignore calls from guests or I cannot say no to a guest who wants to meet with me. There are 8 differents departmenst under me, which are all so different that someone is constantly asking me something, which are usually emergencies. I really wonder comments on these. Sure, for people working behind a computer or desk can use deep work, but what about people whose job is working WITH people?

    • Deep Work is all about knowledge work. The whole premise of the book is that in this specific sector, which is relatively new, we still have a lot to learn about how best to operate. For someone outside of the knowledge sector to get mad at this book’s relevance to them would be like me getting mad at the author of a book on six sigma because manufacturing quality assurance isn’t relevant to my job. Not sure what I’m missing here?

    • Hello BA. In your job, if you were able to fit in some Deep Work, what would you like to accomplish with it?

      I think that Cal might be missing a trick here, and that Deep Work might still be relevant to you.

  10. What are the other shifts we can expect in the large social media platforms, email services, instant-messaging platforms?
    Also, what do you think about using a version control system like Git/Github for working on and managing projects?
    I heard your previous podcast episode, you answered these questions, I’d love to hear more detail!

    • Some clarifications: With projects, I mean literature writing, academic collaboration and other applications apart from it’s contemporary and intended usage…

  11. Here’s some more background info on this:

    This focus time feature was, afaik, taken from a startup they acquired 5 years ago, called VoloMetrix, that I used to work for.

    One of the main use-cases of our startup was to track/estimate how much time corporate employees wasted on meetings and email. The goal was to help companies save money by cutting out time-wasting activities.

    We also created “personal dashboards” for employees to use themselves (I built the frontends for those) and added “focus blocks” (calendar blocks for deep work) as goals/metrics on those dashboards.

    About a month after I left, Microsoft acquired the company, and started integrating those features into their Office 365 suite and called it Workplace Analytics.

    It’s pretty cool to see this work continue to be built on.

  12. I’ve been a big fan of Deep Work since I bought the book a few years ago, so it is great to see a big company like Microsoft finally start to adopt these principles. The next step is getting companies and their employees/managers who use Outlook on board. The tool is great, and it’s up to the users to make sure they use it effectively.

    Also, I wonder how deep work might play into employment as a whole. If workers can become more productive, won’t companies need less people to produce the same amount of value (if not actually produce more value)?

  13. Hey Cal, I have been reading about Einstein and his immense ability to focus for deep work. Einstein has a reputation of thinking visually instead of verbally when solving the problems in his most field-changing work. I was wondering if this could boost our efforts for deep work as it did for Einstein. What do you think?

  14. Great post.

    I have a question. Lately I started thinking how I would design smartphone that would provide (almost) the same benefits (calling, texting, gps, music, camera, check something using internet) but was designed for my wellness. Like have certain “nudges” that would help or defend me from overusing it. Any thoughts?


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