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How Managers Can Help Teams Focus on the Work That Matters

How Managers Can Help Teams Focus on the Work That Matters

by Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Deep work is hard to imitate and highly valuable
  • Managers need to schedule deep-work time for their people

Most of us aren't paid to go to meetings, answer emails or check social media. We're paid to do work that requires our focused attention and mental effort -- deep work.

But managers often see mundane tasks or "shallow work" claiming so much of their employees' time and attention -- and their own -- that it pushes deep work to the back of their calendars. Or off them entirely.

Cal Newport, a Georgetown University professor and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (and, full disclosure, the son of Gallup's Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport), says that deep work is what creates value and generates high-quality work quickly.

Deep work is also hard to replicate. In fact, he says people with the skill to do it -- and deep work is a learned skill, not a habit -- are more productive and do better work. That's a competitive advantage for individuals and their companies.

It's hard to argue with that viewpoint, but even managers find it hard to ignore emails, avoid meetings and pretend they don't care how their Tweet landed.

Especially when the distractions are so attractive: Email taps into our primal impulse to seek out random rewards, resulting in addictive behavior and social media is designed to captivate. And people can get testy when you don't answer their emails.

Meanwhile, the people you manage face the same struggles with shallow work that you do -- and they may not even recognize that it is a problem.

Incessant distractions are an intentional feature, not a bug, of our highly connected world. Some employees, particularly the younger ones who've had contact lists since birth, may not recognize the relationship between slow productivity and shallow work, between frustration and distraction.

Your employees need their manager's help.

Start by having your people track the time they spend on deep work in a week versus how much time they spend on shallower stuff.

After these patterns of behavior are documented, take the following actions to help prioritize the importance of deep work:

Then, help your people find the time and solitude they need to concentrate on deep work. If deep work is a scheduled priority, it's likelier to occur while still allowing for normal human interaction among coworkers.

Managers can help employees notify their internal partners that deep work time is not to be disturbed. Put deep-work time periods on shared calendars for each employee and provide a prewritten automatic email reply to help employees set boundaries -- for example, "I'll respond to messages before 1 p.m. today and after 4 p.m."

They may even need to post signs outside their workspaces: "I'm deep in deep work, but I'll be available after 4 p.m." This helps keep coworkers informed and leaves deep-work periods undisturbed.

You may need to help people find space for deep work, too. Open floor plans can make concentration difficult for some individual contributors, almost impossible for others, and people may need to leave their work area to get deep work done.

Managers should be prepared to defend the time and space deep work requires from encroachers. The most ruthless of whom, by the way, may be the very employee you're trying to help. We're conditioned to respond to message alerts like Pavlov's dogs to the dinner bell.

You can referee requests for your employees' time, but you must also require accountability metrics from your people. This will help keep them on track and prove the worth of deep-work time.


You can help your people use their strengths to do deep work.

Managers who know their employees' talent profiles can use the individual's strengths in the service of deep work.

Some of the themes of talent that are captured by the CliftonStrengths assessment are a natural advantage to deep work -- say Focus, or Discipline. Other themes may not be so obviously useful, but strengths are the lens through which we see the world. Capitalize on them.

Use language that resonates with those specific talents to draw the connection, which may not be obvious to employees, between these powerfully motivating talents and the outcomes of deep work. The results of deep work can provide a better platform for values or can strengthen the systems that bring people together. Deep work may even help customers benefit more from your company's products and services.

Meanwhile, keep deep-work periods short for people who have little natural proclivity for it, and gradually lengthen the time period as skills develop. Recognize the effort it takes to learn this skill. Incentivize deep work until deep work becomes its own reward.
At which point, you may need to help your employees leave deep work.

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "The best moments usually occur if a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile." That's the definition of a deep work/strengths set matchup, and the experience (Csikszentmihalyi calls it "flow") is almost euphoric. Why would you step away from that to read an email about the new parking lot policies?

Because sometimes we have to. We get paid to produce highly valuable deep work, not shallow work. But shallow work creates social cohesion and keeps us all on the same page. Shallow work is important, too, and it does require your attention.

Especially, and paradoxically, for managers. Part of that role is finding solutions for people problems, and there's no end to them. Yet your primary value to the company is in the deep work that only you can do.

So take the advice you give your workers. Do the shallow work that must be done, but schedule time for deep work, yourself. Keep your elbows out -- deep work can be easy to put off, and will become an afterthought if you let it.

Accept that you may feel bored and isolated until your deep-work skills improve and you find your state of flow. Deliberately connect the time you spend on deep work with the value you create.

Then go see how your Tweet landed. You'll have earned it.

Learn more about how Gallup can help your organization shift to a culture of performance development:

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