Deep Work Book Review - Deep Workers, Deep Workplaces

Deep Work Book Review - Deep Workers, Deep Workplaces

November 22, 2019 | Posted by Velentium Book Club

Welcome back to our Velentium Book Club series on Deep Work by Cal Newport. In this post, we’re going to look at the two primary abilities that characterize Deep Workers and discuss briefly some ways to find prospective new hires with those characteristics. We’ll also examine how certain management and corporate culture practices can work against a person’s ability to work deeply after he or she has been hired.

Newport defines the outcome of working deeply as the product of (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus). Those who can focus intently over an amount of time appropriate to the task to be completed or problem to be solved develop two distinct abilities:

  • The ability to quickly master hard things
  • The ability to produce elite quality at speed

Both of these are expectations for the Velentium staff. To work here, learning must excite you, and you must enjoy speed. These qualities are coded into our name: “Velentium” is a composite of Velocity + Momentum + Ingenium (the Latin word for “Talent”).

Screening prospective hires for deep-work ability is challenging, since interviews don’t typically include enough time to get into the deep-work mode. However, we do find that publishing the building blocks of our name, the explanation of our values and the strength of our interest in promoting deep work as a regular workday habit in our recruiting encourages applicants to self-select.

The correlation between Newport’s Deep Work abilities to Velocity + Ingenium is fairly obvious. Less obvious is how Momentum fits into the equation. To understand that, you have to understand what Newport means by (Time Spent). There are many ways to schedule time, and they’re not all created equal. Frequent switching – between tasks, subjects, projects, locations, you name it – leaves us struggling against something researchers have dubbed “attention residue.”

Attention residue is a low-level distraction lingering in our minds from ideas associated with the previous thing we were focused on. Attention residue accrues from whatever we engage with: conversations, research, work environments, news/media/ entertainment, and so on, and stays with us after we transition to the next thing. Attention residue measurably limits our ability to focus fully on the next thing for many minutes after we’ve begun to refocus our attention. Then, frequently switching from task to task, project to project, or even place to place impedes both quickly mastering new skills and subjects, as well as producing high-quality deliverables at speed.

Now Momentum makes more sense. Continuity matters – not just at the project level, where consistency helps ensure high-quality client experience and consistency of staff output, but also at the day-to-day level, where it impacts project schedules and daily output, as well as individual experience and job satisfaction.

That’s why Newport’s discussion of (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) in the context of current business trends – especially in the high-tech world, which is our home turf – was so interesting to us. The emphasis on “open office” floor plans and communication tools reminiscent of always-on social media feeds, the prioritization of rapid response time, and continuous high availability to colleagues, are certainly conducive to spontaneous learning and collaboration… but not at all conducive to supporting Deep Work. Just the opposite, really – at least for offices with more than a dozen staff.

The problem, according to Newport, with this emphasis on structures that support high continuous availability is that they incentivize looking busy overworking intently, responding promptly to interruptions over thinking responses through carefully to minimize the total amount of time and attention required to communicate and coordinate, and defaulting to “paths of least resistance” or personal preferences when prioritizing tasks over high-cost, high-return strategic challenges.

Again, we think he’s right. Helping prospective hires self-select based on their affinity for deep work is important, but incorporating deep-work support structures into our day-to-day is even more valuable as a retention strategy. Research suggests that people leave an employer due to anonymity, irrelevance, and/or immeasurement – three factors that promote job misery. Deep work, on the other hand, is deeply satisfying – more on that in the next blog post. It won’t necessarily help address workplace anonymity, but in our field, it is the critical path to doing relevant work that produces measurable results. Changing lives for a better world is what makes Velentium tick, and we want everyone on staff to make real contributions to that effort.

What are your company’s priorities for daily activity? Are your stated priorities being undermined by your implied or incentivized priorities? What structures exist (desk layout, communication tools, meeting schedules, etc.) to support collaboration and learning as well as intense focus and deep concentration? Does your workplace support both of these working modes well, or is it a bit lopsided in one direction or other? Leave a comment on this post or our LinkedIn share. We’d like to hear your thoughts!

Next time, we’ll look at deep work’s potential to enhance work-life satisfaction, and share a few ideas about how to be a positive influence for deep work among your colleagues (even if you’re not the one running the project or the office).


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