Deep work

One might think that deep work is for hermits only – people who can take a break from the rest of the world for months or years to write a book, do some important research, code a new way to address a challenge that matters.

The truth is that the more we manage to implement deep work practices in our days, the better we will be equipped to succeed in the current economic and social environment.

Deep work – which draws from concepts such as flow and deliberate practice – matters because we live in times where we need to learn new things fast, and we need to master the things we learn so that an audience with scarce attention will find them worthy of their time.

Moreover, deep work is crucial to our happiness and success when we consider two ways our minds work.

First, as we move from one task to another, some “things” of the first task stick with us. It’s what researchers call attention residue, and it drains our mental energy. Just think at how you feel after a full day of meetings, calls, and emails.

Second, when we do shallow work, following things that capture our attention span, we are most likely to feel upset, nervous, stressed at the end of the day: “when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right“. (Winifred Gallagher, Rapt)

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 Newport, Deep Work

There is an approach to deep work that should fit in everyone’s lifestyle, particularly in those of us who fall into the “knowledge worker” category.

It is called rhythmic approach, and it is about transforming deep work into a regular habit. By transforming deep work into a habit, you avoid having to figure out when it is the right time or the right setting to do deep work. You just do it, because it is part of the rhythm.

Jerry Seinfeld writes a joke every day. You could write a chapter every day, you could journal every day, you could meditate every day. You could study your favorite topic every day, from 11am to 3pm. You could focus on solving a tricky problem in your work every weekday morning.

By doing a little bit of what matters to you on a regular basis, you will get to do a whole lot in a longer period. Perhaps even the whole thing.

Rituals support the practice of deep work, because rituals reduce the amount of decisions you are going to take. Try to figure out in advance:

  • Where you will do deep work
  • What rules you will follow (e.g., no internet, no mobile phones, no social media etc.)
  • What support you need (e.g., a bottle of water, some snacks, etc.)

Ensure that you put a stop to work, so that you can recharge the batteries and be fresh the following day. Four hours of deep work in a day should be your limit. If a task is unfinished, use the last 5-10 minutes of your deep work practice to plan what you will be doing to finish it.

Deep work is also about challenging things we take for granted.

  • Should I be connected to the internet at all times when I work? Organizing the day in internet-blocks and no-internet blocks is a great way to go deep.
  • Does productivity equal replying emails and attending meetings? Figure out what happens if you do not reply to emails that do not include a direct question to you, or decline invitations to meetings where you should be just audience.
  • Is social media necessary to my life? Try quit it for a week and see if people notice, if you notice.
  • Does your boss want you to commit to shallow work? Discuss the topic with them, and see if you can agree on a maximum amount of hours you will spend in meetings and with emails.

For many, there’s a comfort in the artificial busyness of rapid e-mail messaging and social media posturing, while the deep life demands that you leave much of that behind. There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good. […] if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning.

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Motivational Interviewing for Leadership

We are ambivalent about change. We both want it and resist it.

Leaders have to deal with this reality on a daily basis. And traditionally, the way they go about change is via imposition: if things do not change (the way they say), negative consequences will follow.

The harsh reality is that if you impose change, the moment the threat ceases to exist is the moment when behavior goes back to what it was.

[…] ideas provided by others or an exterior source led to increased activity in some areas of the brain but not in those areas that encourage action. In contrast, when the ideas came from within the individual considering change or were self- generated, the part of the brain that influences change became more active.

Wilcox, Kersh, and Jenkins citing Ewing et al., 2014

Change works, instead, when it starts within the people who are asked to change. Leaders have a responsibility to leverage that part that wants change and minimize that part that resists it.

That’s what motivational interviewing is about.

Motivational interviewing has four key principles:

  1. Partnership – recognizing that each member of the team brings expertise and specific valuable elements to the table.
  2. Acceptance – acknowledging that everyone is perfectly capable of finding solutions that make perfect sense to them.
  3. Compassion – putting other people’s interests in front of ours.
  4. Evocation – understanding that whatever solution others find will make them feel a lot better than an imposed solution ever could.

Leaders who can use motivational interviewing effectively have the capacity to elicit change talk rather than sustain talk.

They ask open-ended questions.

Where are you with the project? instead of Have you finished the project?

What do you think about the training? instead of Do you have thoughts about the training?

What do you make of this information? instead of Are you finding this information useful?

They use affirmation to acknowledge the other person’s strengths, values, intentions, success.

They do not say You did not complete the project.

They do not say I like that you completed a part of the project.

They say You gave it your all!

They use both simple (repetition) and complex (interpretation of feelings and underlying meaning) reflection.

When they hear We just need more staff. All of our problems revolve around that one issue. Staffing!

They might play it back saying You feel it’s such a simple issue, and you’re frustrated that we haven’t done more to address it.

They use summaries to show they are truly listening and to guide the conversation further.

Very similarly to coaching, motivational interviewing is a dance between engaging (establishing a connection), focusing (determining the direction for the conversation), eliciting (change talk), and planning (what to do next).

While you and those you lead are seeking a shared mission, or the “WHAT” in your goals, your role as their leader is to assist them in finding their own “WHY” for following through with behaviors that support those goals. By understanding their agendas or reasons for engaging in a particular behavior, their “WHY,” you can work collaboratively to develop a “HOW” or plan for following through with the identified goals.

Wilcox, Kersh, and Jenkins

The sense of style

We are social. And we are used to communicate through speaking. We talk to those we know, we catch hints on their understanding, we monitor their behaviour, their eyes, their face, their expression. We are asked to clarify when something is not clear, and we can then continue.

With writing, though, everything is more complicated. The reader exists only in our imagination. And to ensure that communication actually happens, we need to take some extra care.

It is not about following a list of rules and directives.

It is about having a good understanding of the make-believe world in which we pretend to communicate.

To achieve such understanding, classic style can be helpful.

The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world. The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. The purpose of writing is presentation, and its motive is disinterested truth. It succeeds when it aligns language with the truth, the proof of success being clarity and simplicity. The truth can be known, and is not the same as the language that reveals it; prose is a window onto the world. The writer knows the truth before putting it into words; he is not using the occasion of writing to sort out what he thinks. Nor does the writer of classic prose have to argue for the truth; he just needs to present it.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

Classic style makes the reader feel like a genius. The goal is to make it seem as if the writer’s thoughts were fully formed before they were put into words.

Classic style is about:

  • Cutting an argument to its essentials;
  • Narrating it in an orderly sequence;
  • Illustrating it with analogies that are both familiar and accurate.

This is made more difficult by the curse of knowledge, and particularly by chunking – when we put together ideas and concepts so that they are easier to memorize -, and by functional fixity – the more we become familiar with something, the less we think about what it looks like and what it is made of.

As writers, we need to assume that the reader does not know.

We are primates, with a third of our brains dedicated to vision, and large swaths devoted to touch, hearing, motion, and space. For us to go from “I think I understand” to “I understand,” we need to see the sights and feel the motions. Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images.

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style

There are things we can do to become better writers.

  • Reading is the essence of good writing, and we should take the habit of lingering over good writing when we find it – what makes it so good and memorable?
  • Have somebody, possibly from your audience, read what you wrote.
  • Read what you wrote out loud.
  • Re-read what you wrote after some time has passed.
  • Think in syntax trees to spot errors.
  • Prefer right-branching to left-branching or center embedded construction
    • Right-branching – In Sophocles’ play, Oedipus married his mother.
    • Left-branching – Admitted Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan attacker Brian Sean Griffith dies.
    • Center-embedded construction – The view that beating a third-rate Serbian military that for the third time in a decade is brutally targeting civilians is hardly worth the effort is not based on a lack of understanding of what is occurring on the ground.
  • Before adding something to a sentence, make sure that what comes first is clear – keeping sentences open for too long puts a strain on the reader. Also, save the heaviest for last (topic, then comment; given, then new).
  • Use similar sentence structures to make it easier for the reader – e.g., avoid changing the subject from one sentence to the other, or going from active to passive voice.
  • Ensure coherence throughout the text by
    • introducing the topic early;
    • stating the point (what you are trying to accomplish) early;
    • using indefinite (e.g., an Englishman) first, then definite (e.g., the Englishman, him, he) to refer to the same;
    • using the same form to refer to the same thing – being mindful of avoiding too much repetition;
    • connecting ideas and thoughts with examples, explanations, sequences, causes, effects.
  • Look things up, as memory is fallible.
  • Have sound arguments, that can easily be verifiable independently by the reader.
  • Don’t confuse an anecdote or personal experience with the state of the world.
  • Be mindful of false dichotomies.
  • Understand that disagreement and criticism are ok, and it is not the role of the writer to prove everybody wrong, or lazy, or stupid, or motivated by the wrong values and principles.
The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

When coffee and kale compete

Every person wants progress, and when we design or market products and services we should focus on the progress we are enabling customers to make.

This is the foundation of Jobs To Be Done (JTBD).

With this approach, two things happen.

First, value is no longer seen as a transaction. It does not run out the moment a purchase is done or a service is delivered. Progress extends over time. The best way for a company to serve their customers is to understand the system of progress they are in – a good example being Weber, that does not stop at producing high-quality grills, and completes the offer with tools and resources to make the customer the grill master they want to be.

Design your product to deliver customers an ongoing feeling of progress – Alan Klement

Second, competition is no longer restricted to products or services that have a similar functionality or physical appearance. Anything that helps the customer achieve the progress they have envisioned (or might envision) for themselves is competition.

A Job To Be Done is the process a consumer goes through whenever she aims to transform her existing life-situation into a preferred one, but cannot because there are constraints that stop her

Alan Klement, When Coffee and Kale Compete
When Coffee and Kale Compete – Book Cover

Leaders eat last

We want safety. And unsurprisingly, safety is also what we seek in the organisations that hire us. We give everything and more when we are in a circle of safety looking after each other; on the other hand, we withdraw when leaders offer us no sense of purpose beyond money and benefits.

There are four chemicals that are responsible for our happiness: two of them – endorphins and dopamine – help us get things done; two of them – serotonin and oxytocin – incentivize working together.

Most of the organisations we work for are designed around dopamine hits: hitting the numbers, achieving goals, being appreciated by a manager, and getting financial reward. While this might keep us focused on the short-term, it simply prevents us from building bonds with our co-workers and our leaders. If the system rewards individualism, everyone will look after themselves, and we will not feel safe: what will happen if I make a mistake? Is my colleague trying to backstab me? Are layoffs going to be planned if we do not meet this year’s targets?

To increase engagement and feel better we need higher levels of oxytocin. We need to feel accepted as part of the group and no longer suffer the anxiety of feeling like we are on the edges. While dopamine is instant gratification, oxytocin is a lasting feeling of calm and safety.

This is what work-life balance is about: where do we feel safe? If we feel protected both at work and in our personal life, then oxytocin can diminish the effect of stress.

And this is the role of leaders: build a circle of safety and extend it to include those working in the team.

Courage comes from above. Our confidence to do what’s right is determined by how trusted we feel by our leaders.

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Few great examples of what this means in practice.

  • Next Jump and its lifetime employment policy. When managers cannot take the easy way (firing people), they need to focus on making great hires and actually manage people (with coaching, developing, and training). The result is a 1% turnover rate in the engineering team.
  • Capt. Marquet turning the USS Santa FE from worst submarine of the USS Navy fleet to most successful. “The goal of a leader is to give no orders. Leaders are to provide direction and intent and allow others to figure out what to do and how to get there”.
  • James Sinegal, co-founder of Costco. While directive leaders outperform empowering leaders in the short term, in the long term higher levels of team-learning, coordination, empowerment and mental model development win. What’s more, empowering leaders leave a healthy company behind.
General Electric vs CostCo vs S&P500, graph from Leaders Eat Last

We live in an era of abundance, and the scale at which we are able to operate today is difficult for many of us to grasp. There are endless opportunities for growth, for improvements, for faster execution. We look at things on charts and reports, building distance between us and those we mean to serve. But distance also means that things start to lose their original meaning. Leaders can combat the abstraction by:

  • Having face-to-face interactions, rather than virtual;
  • Taking responsibility for the care and protection of those in their charge;
  • Making explicit what the benefit for others will be (instead of the benefit for us);
  • Giving their time and energy (instead of rewarding with money).

While many of us are disappointed in their current role and are perhaps thinking of quitting, much better results can be achieved by staying and starting to implement ourselves these principles at scale. Leaders are human beings as well, and they seek the same level of safety: when they are down, we can ask how are you? Our colleagues are human beings as well, and they seek the same level of safety: we can build a small circle of safety, and then expand it to other peers and other departments. We have the power to make changes.

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. And that’s the trouble. Leadership takes work. It takes time and energy. The effects are not always easily measured and they are not always immediate. Leadership is always a commitment to human beings.

Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last
Leaders Eat Last, book cover