Trusted To Do Deep Work
Exploring the connection between trust and our ability to do deep work
While reading the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, I was struck by the connection between our ability to complete this incredibly valuable type of work, and the trust we need from our organizations/bosses to do so.
What is Deep Work?
According to Newport, deep work is “is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
There is a distinct difference between doing, and creating or learning. We’re all really good at doing — keeping busy, checking off items on our list, shuffling papers, etc. Newport coins this type of work as “shallow work.”
Shallow work focuses on the act of doing. Responding to emails, participating in meetings, etc. These tasks are typically done in a state of distraction, and do not require focus to complete.
Conversely, deep work focuses on the art of mastering or creating something from nothing — whether that be idea generation, content creation, or even thoughtful research and planning.
Why is Deep Work Important?
The ability to complete deep work brings out the real value that individuals bring to an organization. It’s doing the work that cannot be automated, or cannot be easily replicated. It brings together competence, experience, and creativity.
The outputs of deep work is the value that your organization brings to it’s customers, and what sets you apart from your competition.
In order for deep work to happen, we have to create an environment that supports it. That is — an environment free from distractions; that includes things like email, slack, phone notifications, interruptions, etc.
For us to achieve a state of deep work, we must allow ourselves to focus on a single task whole heartedly. It sounds simple, but take a minute to reflect on your recent work day.
Do you have your email inbox up on the screen at all times?
Do you have notifications popping up on your menu bar?
Does your phone constantly make sounds?
Are people constantly walking by your desk and saying hello?
You’re likely more distracted than you think.
The Multi-Tasking Myth
If you’re anything like me, you might think you’re focused, but really you’re operating in a constant state of distraction. To make matters worse, we’ve been trained to see this as “multi-tasking” — a skill that we pride ourselves on professionally.
But does multi-tasking really work? Yes, for shallow work. Can I respond to emails, stay engaged on slack and answer my phone simultaneously? Probably.
But this doesn’t work when deep work is required. Newport discusses a concept of “attention residue.” The principle of attention residue does like this: every time you switch from task A to B, a residue or your attention remains on task A. This makes it difficult to focus with high-level intensity on the new task. Therefore, you lose productivity over time if you’re constantly switching between tasks.
He argues that “working in a semi-distracted state is counterproductive.”
Which makes sense. You’re allowing your mind to wander, and jump around. Inevitably, you’re not going to give your best to the task at hand. And this is important for deep work related tasks.
The Constant Availability Myth
In addition to the multi-tasking myth, we have also been trained to be in a state of constant accessibility.
With advances in technology like emails, and cell phones, we are always available at the push of a button. Many professionals pride themselves on being accessible, and see this as a valued leadership trait (think “I’m always there when my team needs me”). And while accessibility and promptness are important, we cannot let them get in the way of doing deep work.
If we respect ourselves, our work, and our organizations, we need to acknowledge that boundaries are critical to creating an environment that encourages deep work.
There is nothing wrong with setting healthy boundaries at work to protect our time. Sometimes, we need to train people to respect those boundaries, and that means making people wait. At first, it can be uncomfortable, but with time we set ourselves up for the greatest success by prioritizing our time.
You don’t have to be constantly available. Setting aside two hours for deep work, closing your door, or putting on your headphones, and telling people that you’re going to be head down is absolutely ok! This behavior should be encouraged.
The Trust and Deep Work Connection
As employers, we play a large role in creating an environment for, and promoting a culture that encourages, deep work. We are responsible for setting the team up for success; in this case, it means helping to eliminate distractions, and breaking the multi-tasking and constant accessibility myths.
What does that have to do with trust? Trust is at the core of creating a deep work positive environment. Only in a trust based relationship can we genuinely allow for deep work.
The three issues we discussed above are all interconnected. The typical organization looks like this:
- It’s filled with distractions (the avg. person switches between 35 applications over 1,100 times per day according to this study).
- Simply by having all these applications, we promote multi-tasking.
- We expect immediate responses across all mediums (people feel pressured to answer emails within 20 minutes, treat slack as an instant messaging system, and feel like they always need to answer their phone).
Distractions + Multi-Tasking + Constant Accessibility = Shallow Work Environment
People focus on shallow work because it makes them look “busy.” And looking “busy” is seen as being productive. People want you to think they are busy, because they equate business to value (“look at how much work I’m doing”). But business, again, focuses on doing instead of creating. This type of work does not create value for your organization.
People are reluctant to set their own boundaries, especially if they are expected to be constantly available. Saying “no” is one of the hardest professional skills to develop. This type of working style does not create value for your organization.
We need to give our teams permission to move away from unproductive work habits, and give them the freedom to find working styles that support their unique productivity style (which will vary depending on the individual, their role, and their objectives). You will not find that in a micro-managed, authoritarian, highly structured organization.
And in order to give our teams this permission, we need to trust them. We cannot give freedom without trust; conversely, without trust we default to highly unproductive work environments (because it makes us feel in control of that which we do not trust).
Trust your team to create healthy boundaries, trust your team to reduce distractions (when needed), and trust your team not to be constantly available on all mediums. Showing trust by giving them this freedom will help them feel valued, seen, appreciated and understood.
And a byproduct will be better, deep work.
Questions for Reflection:
- What distractions, busy work, and productivity killers exist in your organization?
- Do you prioritize deep work, and support an environment that facilitates successful deep work?
- Does your team feel the freedom to create boundaries, and break unhealthy success myths, that will allow them to do the deep work they need to do?
- Is your team, and organization, built on trust that makes giving people this freedom doable?