Is Disconnecting from Social Media an Answer to the Productivity Dilemma?

I recently finished Deep Work, a book in which author Cal Newport contends that professional success in the future will be characterized by those individuals who can still accomplish deep work despite the world of distractions competing for their attention. According to Newport, deep work represents those arduous tasks that require working at our peak mental capacity (e.g., brainstorming, critical thinking). Shallow work, on the other hand, represents those activities that tend to fill up our days but rarely move us forward on our professional goals (e.g., email, meetings). A consistent theme throughout Newport’s book is his excoriating commentary on social media, which he also highlights in Quit Social Media, his third of four rules for working deeply.

In a blog post earlier this month, Joey Mattingly and I explored some of the advantages and disadvantages of social media for pharmacy professionals. Social media has democratized and accelerated the dissemination of health information, and has facilitated communication among patients and providers alike. Conversely, its widespread use has raised concerns regarding patient privacy, as well as the validity and reliability of health information shared online. Although we did not address the risks highlighted in Newport’s book, I agree that the tendency for social media to interrupt even the most cognitively demanding tasks has important implications for health care professionals, especially since distractions of only a few seconds can significantly increase the risk of errors. However, I dispute his assertion that social media has minimal benefit and that quitting it is the most optimal strategy for working deeply.

First, I think it is important to point out that we have a finite capacity for completing the difficult tasks that Newport characterizes as deep work, a fact he also acknowledges in his book. Individuals who are unaccustomed to the focus necessary for working deeply may only be able to do so for an hour whereas even experts are limited to a maximum of three to four hours per day. Either way, considerable time is left over for social media and other activities.

Second, as I discussed in a previous post, evidence also suggests that focused work is optimally done in much smaller increments, with periods of mental rest in between. Otherwise, diminishing returns should be expected. Although a strategy consisting of 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest has been posited as an optimal balance for productivity, a breakdown of 45-50 minutes of focused work followed by a 10-15 minute break is probably more practical to implement. Either way, breaks for social media and other activities can be utilized as a reward for productive work.

I put my mobile devices away when I need to focus on challenging work, but there are times when they must be kept nearby (e.g., when I am on service and someone may need to reach me about a patient-related issue). However, after realizing how frequently my workflow was also being interrupted by social media and other distractions, I recently made the decision to turn off all notifications (including push alerts and badge app icons) except for phone calls, text messages, and the applications we use at the medical center for secure text messaging. Doing so has filtered out all non-urgent communication and has helped restore my willpower for choosing when to engage in social media rather than avoiding it altogether, as Newport suggests.

Admittedly, the tactic outlined above is just a trial-and-error approach to improving focus, and there are probably more comprehensive strategies out there. For those of you who must get deep work done while also maintaining an active social media presence, what are some strategies you have found helpful? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Psychology of Branding: An Art and a Science?

Last week, the theme of TED Radio Hour was the concept of branding and how we assign value to the things we purchase or experience. Research seems to indicate that most of the value we assign to certain brands is the result of our perceptions rather than any measurable differences in quality. For example, how many of the individuals you know who purchased a MacBook did so after concluding that OS X offered them a superior computing experience? There may be a few, but it is probably far fewer than the number of people who purchased a MacBook because of how it made them feel.

You are probably familiar with studies showing that people tend to rate wine more highly when being told it is expensive. I was too. As a health care professional, I’ve also seen this concept play out when patients claim that one drug works better for them than a therapeutically equivalent alternative. But the research that really got my attention during last week’s podcast was one where participants who were told wine was more expensive not only claimed it tasted better – the activity of their brains also changed to match it.

The study consisted of 11 participants who were told they would be sampling five different wines identified by price. However, only three different wines were actually used. Two of the wines were given to the participants twice, once with the true price and a second time with a fake price. The third wine was assigned its true price. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure brain activity while participants sampled each wine. As expected, participants claimed the more expensive wines tasted better, even if it was the same wine assigned an artificially higher price. However, what made the study so interesting was that fMRI results indicated that brain wave activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (i.e., the part of the brain that processes pleasure) also increased when participants were told they were drinking more expensive wine, even if it was the same wine they had already tasted at a lower price.

I recognize the study is small and not one upon which you can base any final conclusions, but it does seem to suggest that there may actually be physiologic reasons for why we prefer certain products and experiences to others. In other words, it’s not just that we perceive them to be better – we may actually derive greater pleasure from them because our brains have been conditioned to associate price with quality.

So what should we take away from this study? Well, other than providing some justification (to yourself or perhaps to your spouse/significant other) that it is perfectly reasonable to upgrade to the more expensive product or experience, I think it also illustrates the powerful influence that branding can have on human behavior. For example, I will probably respond less smugly to a patient who claims a generic product does not work as well for them, even if I know there is no actual difference in its efficacy compared to the branded alternative. As it relates to work, I think it also emphasizes the importance of curating a personal brand, and how that can influence the way people perceive you. If you can develop a reputation for doing good work, clients may be more likely to seek your expertise in the future, even if you do not have a measurable advantage over your peers.

If you would like to learn more about branding and its impact on decision-making, check out the August 12 episode of TED Radio Hour. The study described above is also featured in a 2011 TED Talk by Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University, which you can watch below: