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The Dark Side of the Obsession With Focus

Oliver Burkeman joins Derek to explain what we get wrong when trying to eliminate all distractions and interruptions while working

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The New York Times bestselling author and contrarian self-help writer Oliver Burkeman joins the show to talk about his new audio essay series on work, focus, and interruptions—and how, too often, our emphasis on eliminating distractions ironically takes us away from the most important things in life.

If you have questions, observations, or ideas for future episodes, email us at PlainEnglish@Spotify.com.


In the following excerpt, Oliver Burkeman explains to Derek why it can be harmful to categorize all interruptions to your focus as problems.

Derek Thompson: I want to talk about two audio essays that you recently recorded on the Waking Up app that really hit me in a very deep way. I have written and read and podcasted so much about productivity, and for most of my writing and reading and podcasting career, maybe the most persuasive idea in the space of productivity that I keep coming back to again and again is this: If you want to get anything worthwhile done, you need deep focus, deep work, deep attention, and that means that it is, above all, essential to minimize what is sometimes called “context switching,” bouncing between tasks and shedding precious focus in the act of switching. These principles of eliminating interruption, eliminating distraction are so commonly repeated that they’re almost obvious to the point of being trite, and that’s why I was stopped in my tracks by the persuasiveness and the wisdom of your recent audio essay, which said, “No, there is actually a subtle problem with these pieces of ancient wisdom.” So tell us, what is the problem with living life with a strong emphasis on eliminating interruptions?

Oliver Burkeman: I find it very appealing to be contrarian about these things, but I also want to make sure I’m being truthful about them, so I feel like I have to say, I don’t think that this is false, the idea that context switching imposes this drain on focus and attention. But I think that the subtle problem that underlies all of this is that the more you go through your day with a very clear, conceptual, intellectual plan for how it should go, for what the boundaries of your time are, for what you’re doing for the next three hours and what will be a problem if you get interrupted or blown off course, the more you bring that to your day, the worse it is when you are interrupted. Because reality collides with this brittle overlay that you are placing on top of it. And even more subtly, perhaps, more things end up getting defined as interruptions and as problems.

Thompson: Can you give me an example of this idea that we are quietly driving ourselves crazy by over-defining interruptions as problems?

Burkeman: If I’m working from home and it’s the afternoon and it’s part of the day when my arrangement with my partner that day is that I’m working and she is hanging out with our 7-year-old son, if he bursts into the room to tell me excitedly about something that happened to him at school that day—as he may do in the middle of this podcast recording, just as a warning—there may be contexts where I can’t entertain that interruption, but I don’t want to be deliberately signing up to an approach to productivity that, first of all, defines that lovely moment as a bad thing because it doesn’t fit my scheme when I’m someone who does have the good fortune and the privilege to be able to entertain that interruption. Obviously, if I was not working at home or working for a terrible boss who would fire me the moment I was distracted, I couldn’t do that, but I can, and I risk this self-imposed desire to turn it into a problem because I’ve got my little schedule drawn up, and it contradicts that schedule.

I was just going to say, alongside that, there’s always been this question in my mind when the costs of task switching, costs of interruption are discussed, often with reliance on neuroscience and stuff. I’m always wondering, Why is the conversation always about responding to that situation by trying to eliminate task switching and never about getting better at task switching? I mean, if all this stuff about neural plasticity is where it’s at, then maybe we ought to be able to get a little bit better at moving between tasks in that fashion.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Oliver Burkeman
Producer: Devon Baroldi

Subscribe: Spotify