Small business owners accept a broad array of responsibilities, and each one slightly fractures our overall ability to focus. Even more demanding is our era’s constant stream of seamless digital distractions, which can threaten our focus so much that value-generating work becomes impossible.
If you feel yourself constantly split between tasks or unable to focus, creating the conditions for deep work will let you work faster and at a higher quality—plus, it’ll give your company a competitive edge that increases productivity and makes your employees happier.
What is deep work?
Deep work is a concept coined by author and computer scientist, Cal Newport, and refers to difficult creative or specialized work that must be done without distraction. He contrasts deep work with shallow work, or rudimentary work, usually logistical tasks that can easily be done while distracted.
Here are some examples that illustrate the difference:
|Switching between multiple small tasks
|Focusing on one big task for a long time
|Responding to emails, social media, or Slack messages
|Researching and analyzing customer or employee feedback
|Coding an algorithm to sort through a large data set
|Meeting without a clear agenda or benefit
|Meeting to solve a particular difficult problem
It’s important to recognize the difference between shallow work and busywork—work done just to look busy. As a business owner, you and your employees have to do shallow work to keep the business operating, while your deep work is what generates value and enables growth.
Why is deep work important for business owners?
Deep work is more fulfilling than shallow work
Creating the conditions for deep work also creates the conditions for flow, a psychological state in which you’re so immersed in a demanding but enjoyable task that you lose any sense of time or fatigue. Flow is an intense and rewarding experience we usually only find from our hobbies, but you can cultivate a workplace which promotes flow for you and your employees.
Deep work gives you a competitive advantage
In a business world besieged with micro-distractions, prioritizing focus gives you clear advantages. For example, habitual deep work will allow you to look beyond the immediate future to focus on long-term growth. If your employees can concentrate on their work as needed, your company will be more efficient, less prone to errors, and a more desirable place to work.
Deep work affords you more freedom with your time
Realistically, your brain can withstand only three or four hours of deep work per day before you’ll need to rest. If you or your employees finish the most pressing or difficult work in concentrated timeframes, you can use the remainder of the day for shallow work or leisure.
Why can’t I focus at work?
There are three major factors most likely to impair your concentration:
- Your digital media habits. Your social media, email, and texts will regularly interrupt you if you don’t turn off notifications. No one can work deeply if they’re always expected to respond instantly.
- Your office. Open layouts can foster collaboration, but they can also amplify distractions such as noise or odors—e.g., when someone is eating lunch at their desk. Make sure to have suitable workspaces for you and your employees to do deep work.
- Your company culture. Enforcing a multitasking culture through overwork or understaffing hinders engagement with work. Being constantly on-call outside of work hours makes rest—and therefore deep work—impossible.
Tips for business owners to practice deep work
Lead by example
Alert your colleagues, partners, and employees that you’re going to regularly practice deep work. Be clear that you won’t be reachable during these hours. Allow yourself and others to experiment with scheduling, and hold one another accountable to the basic principles of distraction-free, high-value work.
Batch your shallow work
Consider which of your necessary tasks constitute shallow work, then schedule them for certain times rather than scatter them throughout the day. For example, you can eliminate dozens of interruptions by checking your email, Slack, or business social media at two to five set times per day.
Schedule your deep work
Block two to four hours every workday for deep work (Google calendar offers a ‘focus time’ option) and only deep work during those hours—this will afford you time for your most valuable tasks while avoiding overwork. Schedule shallow work and breaks into your remaining hours.
An IBM document coined ‘multitasking’ in the 1960s to describe computer operations—it’s not something human brains can do. What we do is rapid task-switching, and each switch fatigues your brain and reduces productivity. For both shallow and deep work, use a to-do list to order tasks, rather than shuffling between them.
Eliminate distractions which stop you from starting
Find a quiet space or block noise with ambient sounds or simple music played through noise-canceling headphones. Close or group browser tabs that aren’t relevant to your current task. If you’re tempted to visit social media or other sites, use a site-blocker browser extension, or an app-blocker for your phone.
Eliminate disruptions which interrupt you while working
Before you begin deep work, turn off notifications for email, Slack, and your phone (or power off the phone). None of these messages will be so urgent that they can’t wait a few hours for a reply. If you’re expecting an important call or message, reschedule your deep work.
Delegate some of your shallow work
Shallow work doesn’t require your expertise, so consider which of these tasks can be given to employees without overloading them. Assess which projects currently involve or require your approval, and which of those you can empower your employees to handle themselves.
Breaks are crucial for creative problem-solving and shouldn’t be frowned upon, but make sure to let your mind rest. Don’t reach for your phone without a specific intention—instead, leave your station and make a hot drink, strike up a conversation unrelated to work, or go for a walk outside.
Take care of your health
While deep work—like all types of flow—can be invigorating, it’s also draining. Maintain a proper work-life balance to help you recuperate, and practice healthful sleep, exercise, and dietary habits to keep your mind sharp.
How to create a deep work culture for employees
Deep work can dramatically boost employee satisfaction and company growth, but it must be embedded in your company’s culture and structure, not exercised as an individual choice.
- Allow your employees time and space for deep work, and destigmatize downtime. Employees should feel more comfortable staring into space to recharge than exhausting themselves with valueless busywork.
- Let employees hold one another accountable for deep work practice, and reconsider how reachable everyone should be. Find a balance between open communication and private time, and let employees disconnect outside of work hours.
- Establish break areas, recreational activities, or outside space that employees can use to recharge.
- Lead your team by example, and encourage open discussion on how the company and individuals can best create the conditions for meaningful, value-generating work.