How founders can create a culture that fosters deep work
Deep work is a term coined by Cal Newport in his aptly named book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. It’s essentially a self-help book for business owners.
He describes deep work as focusing on one task for an extended period of time in a distraction-free environment.
Deep work challenges you cognitively and requires your full attention. It forces you to eliminate stressful distractions and fully concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Sounds great, right?
Well, the above aspirational behaviors and agendas mean nothing if you don’t actually know how to create a culture that fosters deep work.
Before we dive into exactly how to do that, it’s important to explain that we all can suffer from something called attention residue.
Attention residue causes our attention capacity to slowly wither away over the day as we flick between a variety of tasks. This makes it especially hard to focus on one thing for a long period of time.
Importantly, attention residue can come about from self-distraction, too. Fostering a culture of deep work is not as simple as advising your team not to distract each other. Instead, it’s about baking in processes, workflows, communication practices, and more, that create an environment that allows for deep work to take place.
There’s no single-track path to achieving a deep work culture, but there are some best practices you can follow to give your business the best chance of success.
Optimize your workflow for lead measures
First, let’s clarify what a lead measure is (and a lag measure, too).
Lead measures are the professional activities you use to achieve a certain goal. And, they help you stay on track to meet your goal by a certain time.
The goal you’re trying to achieve is the lag measure. It’s a post-event measurement that tells you when a goal has been met, but it doesn’t allow you to influence whether or not you’ll reach that goal.
Put simply, lead measures help you achieve the lag measure.
Let’s use an example.
Imagine your goal (lag measure) is to increase online conversions by 20% over the next financial year.
To achieve this goal, you need lead measures in place. Here are a few examples:
- Increase the monthly number of website visitors by 20%
- Increase your social media following by 200 followers (per platform) each month by hosting monthly giveaways
- Improve your website user-experience to reduce friction points and optimize the buying journey
These lag measures help you reach your end goal.
But how does this fit into deep work?
When it comes to deep work, it’s not enough to know that you need to increase online conversions by 20%.
You need the lead measures to guide your work and use your time productively.
So, make sure you optimize your workflow for lead measures, not just your end goal. That’ll help your team get their minds into the right headspace to do some deep, meaningful work.
Create helpful accountability
To keep your team focused and motivated, you must encourage accountability.
Whether that’s using regular progress updates or setting specific goals and measurements for their work, accountability gives your team a sense of responsibility.
As a result, they’re more motivated to do their work.
And when you have a motivated team, they’ll be more inclined to do deep work to reach their goals and produce top-quality work.
Having said that, only 20% of employees strongly agree that the way their performance is managed motivates them to produce outstanding work.
So how can you make sure accountability keeps your team motivated?
The answer is simple: get your team involved in the process.
Research shows that employees who are involved in goal setting are 3.6 times more likely to be engaged.
So, make sure you talk to your team about what your most important metrics are, how to measure their performance, and what your goals should be. That’ll motivate them to do deep work to achieve their goals.
Make time for collaboration
Collaboration is an incredibly useful tool for any business. It helps teams generate new ideas, keeps employees engaged, and can enhance productivity.
But there’s a time and place for teamwork.
To encourage deep work, you need to bring some structure into your collaboration efforts. This will show your team when they can work collectively and when they should be focusing on their own tasks.
Whether that’s scheduling a weekly group call or asking team members to arrange group work between themselves, make sure everyone is clear about when it’s time to work as a group and when it’s time to fly solo.
As a result, your team can allocate specific time to fulfilling deep work without getting distracted by peers.
ByteChek’s CEO and Yac user, AJ Yawn, says that he encourages his team to spend 10% of their working week on themselves:
“One of our core values is for the team to spend 10% a week on themselves. So they'll spend four hours a week just doing anything. Yoga, meditation, going to the beach, whatever they want to do. We constantly ask people how they're spending their 10% and just kind of try to enforce that on folks.”
Why is this helpful for deep work?
Because focusing on a cognitively challenging task for a long period of time is pretty exhausting. Your team needs downtime to recharge so they can keep it up.
Additionally, as we mentioned above, self-distraction can be just as damaging as being distracted by another person. Implementing forced breaks to focus on non-work related things is a great way to keep those self-distractions in check.
After all, if you’re giving your team specific time to meditate, check in on social media, read, play with their dog, or whatever else they instinctively do when they’re supposed to be working, they’ll be less inclined to self-distract during deep work periods.
You can also enforce lunch breaks, make sure people clock off at the end of the workday, and introduce smaller group breaks throughout the workday to encourage your team to have downtime. Or, you could follow AJ’s steps and use the 10% rule.
Whatever path you choose, it will help to ensure your team is mentally prepared for deep work.
Start by reducing shallow work from your day-to-day
Shallow work is the easy, logistical tasks that don’t require deep thought, such as replying to emails or filling out forms. It’s non-cognitively challenging work. Most of the time, these tasks can be performed while multitasking.
To give your team the best chance of completing deep work, it makes sense to reduce the amount of shallow work, right?
With less shallow work, employees can focus on getting more important work done.
But how can you reduce shallow work from your day-to-day work schedule?
Create boundaries around work hours
The concept of creating boundaries around working hours and setting time frames for tasks is known as Parkinson’s Law. It’s the idea that whatever time you assign to a project, that’s how long it will take.
So if you assign three months to one project, it’ll take three months. But if you assign six months to the project, you’ll make it last for six months. In other words, the amount of work expands to fill the allotted time.
When it comes to deep work, clarity on working hours is pretty important. And it can help you reduce shallow work, too
By providing a clear working structure.
With a clear working schedule, your team can easily plan their work. This means they can schedule an amount of time for their deep work hours and allocate time to shallow work when they have capacity.
Be clear about when your employees should be working, and when they shouldn’t. This allows them to structure their work and focus on areas that require more thought and detail.
Be reachable only at specific times
Another way to reduce shallow work is to schedule set times for your team to reach you.
For example, you might plan a weekly call with your team for them to ask any questions or run through any work related questions.
As a result, they’ll spend less time trying to contact you throughout the week and more time focusing on their work and being productive.
It also allows you to focus on your own tasks in more detail. You don’t have to worry about responding to your team instantly because you know there’s a designated time for that. It’s a win-win.
If you’re not a fan of scheduling a set time to speak to your team, you could also consider asynchronous communication. It allows your team to contact you when it suits them, and you can respond when it suits you.
We’ll go into async communication in more detail later, but it’s some food for thought in the meantime.
Be comprehensive in your communication
How many times have you been asked to do something only to find yourself needing more information to actually complete the task?
We’ve all been there, and it’s frustrating.
To reduce the need for back and forth, make sure your communication is comprehensive.
Let’s say a colleague asks you a closed question.
Instead of simply saying yes and putting the ball in their court by posing another question, provide as much information as you can. This means they don’t have to keep coming back to you with more questions and they can focus on getting their work done.
Keeping a record of responses can also help put a stop to back and forth communication. Recording your response in a transcribed voice message allows recipients to review the answer later. In a group channel, you can also allow others to weigh in on the response for a comprehensive answer.
The benefit to sending asynchronous messages is two-fold. Recipients can review responses later, and the sender can address the query in their own time.
Communication is certainly a tricky skill to master. It’s one of the hard things about being a business owner, but it’s important to get it right if you want to create a culture of deep work.
Take stock of useless tasks
Okay, maybe ‘useless’ is a strong word. But there will always be tasks on your to-do list that don’t move the needle to help you achieve your goal.
To create a culture of deep work, you need to know what these tasks are.
By understanding which tasks aren’t a priority, you can focus on getting the important tasks done. In other words, you can spend more time doing deep work and less time worrying about shallow tasks.
The best way to take stock of non-priority tasks is to categorize them.
For example, assigning tasks to shallow or deep work categories. That’ll help you track which tasks require more thought and less distraction.
Control your conditions: Creating an environment for deep work
We’ve looked at how you can reduce or remove shallow work from your workflow.
Now, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty: How to create an environment for deep work.
Let’s get straight to it.
Create a deep work routine
Having a set routine makes it easier to focus on deep work.
Think about it. If you know that every Tuesday and Thursday you’ve scheduled time to focus solely on deep work, you’ll get into a routine. It’ll become second nature to include deep work as part of your workflow.
But how do you roll out a deep work routine for your team?
We suggest using time blocking.
Time blocking is a time management practice. It involves scheduling every part of your day so you know what to do, and when to do it. This allows you to manually block time in your calendar to focus on deep work.
Take a look at the following calendar as an example. The user has blocked ‘focus time’ in their schedule to focus on deep work.\
There is no set schedule for when to do deep work. You can organize your deep work schedule according to your own rhythms.
Some of your team members will be morning people, others will peak just before or after lunch. To help all walks of life adopt deep work, Newport devised four deep work scheduling philosophies.
The monastic scheduling philosophy is for deep work purists. Deep workers dive headfirst into their projects, sometimes retreating to quiet places for weeks or months at a time. This scheduling philosophy is for people who are able to put aside distractions for long periods of time, checking emails once per week (or less).
The monastic scheduling philosophy is not the most conducive to a work environment, but it’s one that Newport offers. Let’s explore the other philosophies which are a little more sympathetic to the modern workforce.
The bimodal scheduling philosophy splits weeks into periods of deep work, where distractions are eliminated, and periods of shallow work, where distractions are welcome.
An example of a bimodal work week might look like Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays dedicated to focused work, with Wednesdays and Thursdays open to meetings, emails, social media, and other activities.
Because of the day-long restrictions, the bimodal scheduling philosophy would require a lot of flexibility within a normal work environment. The next couple of scheduling philosophies focus more on organizing deep work within a day.
The rhythmic scheduling philosophy builds deep work into our daily habits. The idea is to manage consistent, uninterrupted three to four-hour periods of deep work every day, separated by blocks of shallow work periods.
This might look like deep work in the mornings and shallow work in the afternoons, or vice versa.
The final scheduling philosophy is the journalistic scheduling philosophy. It proposes fitting deep work where you can, varying this from day to day. This is the scheduling philosophy that most use when schedules are unpredictable.
The journalistic scheduling philosophy allows for shallow work to dominate, with periods of focused work as they arrive. This requires skill to get into deep work straight away, during times of respite from distractions.
Let’s look at the workplace environment so you can set conditions to enable the best scheduling philosophy for your teams.
Make a “grand gesture”
The concept of a grand gesture comes from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.
He says that creating a radical change to your normal work environment will increase your perceived importance of a certain task. As a result, you spend less time procrastinating and more time doing the work.
But what exactly is a grand gesture?
It could be anything. If you work remotely, you could head out and work in your local coffee shop. Or, cancel your Netflix subscription.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. But you get the point.
By making a grand gesture, you should be able to focus more on your work. And being able to focus is pretty helpful when it comes to deep work, so think about how you can incorporate this in your business.
Build the perfect environment
Deep work is much easier in a pleasant and comfortable workspace that’s free of distractions.
In fact, 75% of knowledge workers say they’re more productive with fewer distractions.
So what can you do to create an environment where deep work thrives?
Here’s what we’d suggest:
- Minimize distractions: Keep workplace distractions to a minimum and your team will have a much higher chance of doing deep work. Time blocking, as we’ve already mentioned, is a great way to do that. Ask your team to check calendars before they reach out to someone to see if they’re in the middle of something, and voila, you’ve prevented a distraction.
- Use async communication: To stop employees from feeling like they have to reply to messages and emails as soon as they come in, consider using async communication tools. Take Yac, for example. With our platform, you can send messages and voice notes to illustrate your point, and the recipient can respond whenever they want with no pressure to respond instantly. So if someone is in the middle of deep work, they can keep it up and respond to the query when they’re ready.
Enforce time constraints
If employees don’t have a deadline, their work could go on forever. Well, maybe not forever. But certainly a very long time.
Think about Parkinson’s law. If you give someone a year to complete a task, they’ll make it last a year.
So give your employees a deadline and time constraint to work towards. Hopefully, this will motivate them to do deep work.
You can even think about implementing a four-day work week to boost productivity in a shorter timeframe.
Without time constraints, who knows if anyone in your team will ever get around to doing deep work in the first place.
Get your digital house in order
There’s no denying it. Digital platforms and devices make our day-to-day lives easier and more efficient.
But when it comes to deep work, the trick is knowing which digital platforms to use and when to use them.
Let’s take a look at this in more detail.
Digital detoxing vs. intermittent digital fasting
Before we go any further, let’s clarify what digital detoxing and digital fasting mean:
Using one or both of these methods can improve your concentration by providing:
- Less distraction: 69% of young people in the workplace say that checking a personal device interferes with concentration. If you remove this distraction, you can concentrate on a task for longer.
- Less stress: Taking time away from your workspace allows your mind to recharge. Even if you’re in the middle of deep work, a short break can do a world of good.
Ideally, every team would enforce a digital detox in some way. Even if it means spending your lunch break away from your laptop or computer. Your mind can recharge, allowing you to come back stronger and more focused.
Intermittent digital fasting, on the other hand, is only valid for employees who regularly use social media. So if you have a team that’s active on social platforms, consider implementing intermittent digital fasting.
Ultimately, what you decide to do is up to you. You know how your team works best, so figure out what you think would be appropriate and roll with it.
Move to asynchronous communication tools
When it comes to communication, you need to think about how your team can communicate effectively (especially if you are a remote team) without distracting employees from deep work.
This is where asynchronous communication tools can help, like Yac.
With our platform, you can share and exchange information without requiring an immediate response. Whether it is canceling a useless meeting, giving quick feedback by sharing your screen, or sending a quick update via voice note, there's no need to respond instantly.
You can host asynchronous meetings, too. Simply record your voice note, send any files or screen recordings, and your team can listen to your meeting information when it suits them.
And with research showing that 31 hours are spent in unproductive meetings every month, being able to spend less time in meetings is certainly a good thing.
By using async communication tools, you reduce the need for meetings, minimize distractions, and allow your team to concentrate on the task at hand. So make sure you think about incorporating a platform like Yac into your business to help you create a culture of deep work.
Avoiding the productivity tool trap
In Deep Work, Cal Newport created the idea of ‘The Craftsman Approach’. It’s a method that helps businesses select and use tools that influence success. He says:
‘Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.’
Put simply, you should only use tools and platforms that help your business.
With too many platforms in place, your workflow becomes overly complex. As a result, your team will spend more time figuring out how to use those platforms and less time doing the deep work.
So ask yourself this: What tools do you need to get stuff done?
Chances are, it’s a lot less than you think.
Our advice is to keep things simple. Overcomplicating your workflow can impact your team’s ability to do deep work.
Create a culture of deep work with Yac
Creating a culture of deep work doesn’t happen overnight. This article is a solid starting point for you to take action and make the necessary changes to your work culture.
Over time, deep work will become a work habit, and workplace distractions will be kept to a minimum.
If you’re thinking about using async communication to get the ball rolling, give Yac a try. You can sign up for free to see if we’re a good fit. Or take a look at our customer success stories to see what other users have said about us.