Deep work: Moving beyond busyness to true productivity

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By Dino Signore

From social media and online chat to email and smartphones, we live in an age of unprecedented connectivity. Granted, today’s technological tools are useful, but too often they seem to be using us — keeping us busy but not productive.

In his book “Deep Work,” Cal Newport says that deep work (cognitively demanding activities that produce new value and sharpen skills) is becoming increasingly more important — and increasingly more difficult. Pointing to the business world’s emphasis on serendipitous collaboration, rapid-fire communications and the need for a social media presence, Newport writes: “It’s bad enough that so many trends are prioritized ahead of deep work, but to add insult to injury, many of these trends actively decrease one’s ability to go deep.”

For second-stage business owners, deep work is particularly important, regardless of what industry you’re in. The CEO’s primary role is that of a visionary. This includes weighing the pros and cons of where you want to take your company in the next five years, analyzing competitive threats and new opportunities, and making judgment calls about the macro environment and your firm’s market niche — all of which takes a great deal of cognitive power.

I often hear CEOs complain about the lack of time to do this kind of deep work and wish for more hours in the day. Yet the real solution lies in how we use our time and are able to eliminate distractions.

In his book, Newport discusses a variety of approaches to deep work. These range from a monastic regimen where individuals isolate themselves for long periods of time to establishing a certain time for deep work each day or whenever the opportunity presents itself.

There’s no one right way to go about a deep work ritual. The point is to create a discipline that fits you. Academics often take sabbaticals and go into seclusion for months to focus on a project, which would be nice for business owners, but not practical. I like Newport’s idea of taking a “sabbath” and staying off the grid for an entire day or at least a few hours.

Whatever approach you opt for, Newport suggests setting some rules to determine:

  • Where you’re going to do deep work.
  • How you’re going to support your work, such as ensuring appropriate access to caffeine or incorporating exercise breaks.
  • How you’re going to work. This may include turning off email or establishing metrics for what you want to accomplish, such as writing so many words per hour. (Part of my approach to deep work is to go offline. If I’m trying to write an article or outline curriculum, I start in longhand on a legal pad and avoid my computer as the temptation to look at social media or news feeds is just too tempting.)

Facilitating deep work is one of the reasons our foundation created Think Week. Designed for second-stage business leaders, this four-day workshop blends leadership and business content with lots of reflection time. A team of business experts make formal presentations and are available for one-on-one time, but the schedule is not heavily packed. Participants decide how to spend their time. If you want to listen to a speaker, that’s fine. If you want to go for a hike in the woods or sit staring at the trees and think about your business plan, that’s fine. The point is to provide you with an environment and resources conducive to deep work.

Deep work is also important to cultivate beyond the C-suite, especially if your organization relies on knowledge workers to be successful. How can leaders build an environment that encourages a continuous flow of new ideas and innovations? Some things to consider:

  • Evaluate your physical space. According a Harvard Business Review article, the average person is distracted every 40 seconds when working in front of their computer. Are there quiet places where people can go when they need to concentrate and not be interrupted?
  • Rethink open-door policies. I used to think being constantly accessible to team members was a good thing. But if you need to do deep thinking and there’s nowhere else to go, it might be time to close your office door or post a “do not disturb” sign above your cubicle.
  • Set policies to encourage deep work, such as how quickly employees should respond to emails. We often feel compelled to respond immediately — even when the sender of the email isn’t expecting an instant reply. Are your employees really providing value if they reply to someone before they have a complete answer?
  • Experiment with ways to eliminate distractions. For example, you might try establishing a time each day when there is no Internet activity.

Bottom line, if your people are busy but not as productive as you want them to be, then step back and rethink what’s going on i­n the office. Reflection is critical for any knowledge work. And though you can’t go to a physical monastery, you can develop just-in-time strategies for deep work. Make it psychologically and career-safe for employees to say, “No, I can’t be interrupted right now.”

Article copyright © 2020 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.