I think the biggest problem we millennials have is that most of us are stuck doing ‘shallow work'.
Rather than diving deeply into complex projects, we are jumping from micro project to micro project throughout the day and never really taking the time to grind away at the deeper, more important stuff. We call ourselves ‘busy’ with a bunch of different projects, but in reality each of those projects is greatly diminished when our attention is spread so thin.
The reason that my generation in particular is stuck in this ‘shallow work’ or ‘distracted work’ way of doing things is because we are constantly communicating with people all of the time. When we’re at work, we always have our email inbox open and are constantly getting little notifications that take us away from what we’re doing. On top of that, we might even have our personal smart phones on our desk or in our pocket are likely getting distracted by it throughout the day.
I work in software sales, so getting an email is exciting. It could be somebody from a large opportunity re-engaging with me after a web demo to ask a question and I want to make sure I help them right away so they know how responsive my company is, which will help them in the decision to buy our software. Or it could be a big purchase order I’ve been expecting, which means pay day.
However, if I’m working on something that requires deeper attention, such as coming up with a new email marketing strategy, building a custom software demo, or even writing another email, and I pay attention to the new email, it totally messes with what I was doing. If I read the new email I’m all of a sudden working a new project and becoming aware of a new problem to solve, and I haven’t even finished solving the problem I was just solving. So I end up going in circles for a little while, delaying the solving of both of the problems compared to if I just did things one at a time, with my full undivided attention.
The work day is a barrage of constant electronic distraction, and it seems like older people, who did not grow up with the same connection to technology that we millennials have, are better at ignoring it. This might be because when their adult brain circuits fused together they didn’t have all of the technology to distract them, so today they just tune it out easier.
It also might be that older people just don’t feel as obligated to their email inbox or latest text message that we millennials do. It definitely seems like I’m seeing a lot more millennials walking the hallways of office buildings while simultaneously looking at their phones than I do older adults. Maybe it’s just a generational thing to feel obligated to give your attention to your email.
It could also be that this isn’t just a problem for millennials, but for everyone that uses technology. However, it really doesn’t feel that way to me... My ‘cultural observation’ makes me think that the constant distraction and inability to get deeper into work is really holding a lot of us millennials back compared to older adults.
I would even go as far to say that the ability to block out the distractions and actually focus deeply on a task could be a huge asset for a millennial worker, and make them stand out from the crowd. Certainly some of the greatest achievements that millennials have made came from people who were able to ignore the distractions and get to business.
Lastly, I believe that these distracted daily habits and this constant hit of small communication may partially be to blame for the lack of direction that some millennials have. Our life is a collection of moments, and if we spend our moments distracted and constantly jumping from thing to thing, then our entire lives are being spent distracted and quasi-focused on trivial matters. When do we take the time to figure out what we truly want to do with our lives, or what is truly important to us? That is an incredibly deep and complex task that requires a lot of deep thinking with no distraction.
My advice to millennials, and especially to myself, is to find out how to cut the noise and distraction, and focus deeply on the task at hand until satisfactory completion. Do not rush to the next thing, focus deeply, work hard at the task at hand and go above and beyond to come up with the best solution possible. This will allow you to solve more complex problems and go farther in the modern work world.
Disclaimer: The idea for this post came to me because I just started reading the book, ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. I highly recommend you pick it up now if you’re concerned that you spend too much time being distracted, jumping from task to task without really accomplishing anything, or are only doing shallow work.
This post originally appeared on Quora