Managers, Makers, and Deep Work

Deep work is the activity performed by team members in a state of distraction-free concentration which allows them to push their cognitive capabilities to create new value for the customer.

“The ability to perform Deep Work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” - Cal Newton

The value stream

The value stream is defined as all of the activities and processes which add direct value to the products and services received by our customer. In other words, value-added activities are those our customer is willing to pay for, and non-value added activities are those for which they aren’t willing to pay.

Highly effective enterprises spend less overall time and resources on non-value added work and, therefore, provide greater value to their customers. Conversely, enterprises that spend too much time and energy on non-value added work, they are disadvantaged when compared to their highly-effective, value-added competitors.

Deep work drives value

Deep work is the activity performed by team members in a state of distraction-free concentration which allows them to push their cognitive capabilities to create new value for the customer. By its very nature, deep work is value-added.

However, in a traditional office setting, much of the day’s busyness is non-value added. That is, activity the customer is not willing to pay for. To maximize the value of our enterprise, we must maximize the value we create for the customer. Deep work is the key to unlocking this value.

Read this article from American Psychological Association. Some highlights:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.

According to Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein, converging evidence suggests that the human "executive control" processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage "goal shifting" ("I want to do this now instead of that") and the other stage "rule activation" ("I'm turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this"). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That's helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.

Another article on multitasking from Standford Uni:

People who frequently use many types of media at once, or heavy media multitaskers, performed significantly worse on simple memory tasks.

...multitasking isn’t efficient. We know there are costs of task switching. So that might be an argument to do less media multitasking – at least when working on a project that matters academically or professionally. If you’re multitasking while doing something significant, like an academic paper or work project, you’ll be slower to complete it and you might be less successful.

Another article, also mentioning the challenge of using social media

'It's easy to fall into the trap of multitasking. In that case, it seems like there is little real progress and this leads to a feeling of inadequacy. Concentration decreases, which causes stress. Prolonged stress hinders thinking and memory,'

Social media is really nothing but multitasking, with several parallel plots and issues. You might end up reading the news or playing a game recommended by a friend. From the brain's perspective, social media only increases the load.

Deep Breaks

What is a deep break? It is a break that gives your brain a brief resting time to stave off mental fatigue but yet keeps your focus.

According to this article, "regardless of the industry or job type, repeating cycles of intense, highly focused work followed by short breaks seem to produce the best performance."

Cal Newport, a computer science professor who writes about the intersection of digital technology and culture, mentions that "Anyone who regularly succeeds in long deep work sessions is almost certainly someone skilled at deploying deep breaks to keep the session going without burning out or losing focus."

He gives the following advice about deep breaks:

There’s no single description of what constitutes a deep break, but here are some useful heuristics from my own experience:

  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a target that might generate a professional or social obligation that you cannot completely fulfill during the break (e.g., glancing at an email inbox or social media feed).

  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a target that your mind associates with time-consuming distraction rituals (e.g., many people have a set “cycle” of distracting web sites they visit when they surf that has become so ingrained that looking at one site sends their mind the message it’s time to look at them all).

  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a related, but not quite the same, professional task (e.g., if you’re trying to write a report, and you turn your attention to quickly editing an unrelated report).

  • Deep breaks should not turn your attention to a topic that is complicated, stressful and/or something that will sometime soon need a lot of your attention.

  • Deep breaks should not usually last more than 10 – 15 minutes, with some exceptions, such as for meals.

Read more here.

The ultimate input

In the chapter on Asynchronous Communication, we discussed the need to shift our management paradigm from managing inputs (like in a traditional office) to managing outputs (as in a remote environment).

Traditional (synchronous) managers, because they share the same physical space, can directly manage their team’s activity, thereby controlling inputs. Remote managers don’t have the same luxury. Therefore, rather than managing inputs, you must learn to manage outputs.

And yet, this may be the fundamental paradox of managing remote teams. In a world where inputs are largely outside of our control, deep work is the key input we must ensure. Every task and activity a manager undertakes should directly or indirectly create capacity for their team to perform deep work.

Facilitating deep work

You should be intentional when it comes to scheduling periods of focused deep work. Choose a location that is distraction-free and comfortable for meaningful durations of work. Determine your goal in advance for productive minutes or hours.

Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up to longer sessions. Your ability to focus will improve as you progress. Prioritize downtime between deep work sessions so that your mind and body have a chance to recover and recharge.

Deep work is not intended to be a constant affair. Rather, it is made possible by the downtime which surrounds it. Long hours with no downtime are detrimental to deep work. Strategic breaks allow our subconscious minds to continue working on complex problems while we rest.

Makers and managers

In synchronous office environments, managers’ schedules are prioritized over makers’ schedules. In other words, the manager’s schedule reigns supreme. In asynchronous environments, however, makers are performing deep work and their schedules take precedence over the managers’.

Top performers work in long, uninterrupted deep work blocks. Effective remote managers don’t force a schedule on their team. Instead, they support their team’s deep work practice and strive to be makers, themselves.

Deep management

Elite remote managers consider their own management activity to be deep work. They automate the non-human aspects of their role, such as task assignment, project coordination, quality control, etc.

By doing so, they leverage time and resources to focus on the more human challenges of management, such as automation, coaching, and workflow design.

Conclusion

The role of Deep work is central to the value stream of high-performing remote teams. Effective remote managers support the deep work practices among their team members, and facilitate their own deep management. By doing so, they ensure world-class standards for quality and performance.