In his book Deep Work, computer scientist and writer Cal Newport makes the case for depth over shallowness in our work.
His thesis is provocative: In today’s knowledge economy, work resulting from extended, deep concentration is becoming increasingly valuable at the same time it is becoming increasingly rare.
Newport defines deep work as follows:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
I don’t need to go through the litany of modern distractions that kill deep work, but one great function of managers is their ability to shield their employees’ concentration. If you don’t, you’ll have a group that looks busy but is in reality just treading water.
Some suggestions for managers:
- Batch and limit meetings. Meetings can be huge disruptors in the rhythm of a workday. If you’re an individual contributor who has meetings on a Tuesday at 8:30am, 11am, 2:30pm, and 4pm, it’s unlikely you’ll carve out time for more than half an hour of concentration, thanks to all the other distractions (emails, pings, pop-ins). As the manager, do what you can to:
—Eliminate unnecessary meetings.
—Default to shorter meeting times… and end on time.
—Batch internal meetings in groups so you don’t punctuate the whole week with them.
—Preserve certain days/times of the week as “meeting-free zones” (one friend of mine does “Tactical Tuesdays,” where no meetings are held).
- Set explicit availability expectations. Deep work suffers when we have several different communication tools open at once, each waiting to chime and burst the employee’s bubble of concentration. Some roles need to be available—to teammates and/or customers—more than others. This is why it’s vital to set clear expectations on when people should be reachable, making room as much as possible for periods of time when they can “go offline” to do deep work.
- Be the example. “Deep work” as such isn’t as vital to the task of people management as it is to other individual contribution tasks: your role is about communication, interactivity, decision making, and being available for people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring a deep-work mindset to aspects of your job, whether it’s the hands-on work you do retain, studying management and leadership, or doing team design, meeting preparation, and more.
Develop your own deep-work abilities and talk to employees about these efforts. Ask them directly in 1-on-1s: Do you have enough time to focus? What can I do to protect your ability to concentrate?
Just as exceptional managers are a way to differentiate an organization in a world that ignores their importance, deep work is a way to differentiate a team in a culture driven mad by distraction.