I understand the problem you face every day when you start working. You have an idea of how you’d like your day to go, and then you turn your computer on.
Your inbox was populated overnight by bleary-eyed inbox-zero adherents pounding away in a converted closet. A couple more hours have been consumed on your virtual calendar by well-intentioned colleagues scheduling important meetings. And then before you even manage to catch-up in your inbox, that not-so-friendly chime from Slack or Teams cues the symphony of distraction that is your day.
It’s a wonder we get anything done at work. And it’s no surprise that when we leave our desks, we often feel a hollow ring of having accomplished less than we’d hoped despite spending more time than we intended.
The most valuable currency we have in this world—and especially at work—is our attention. But for most of us, our workflows are unintentionally designed to set us up for relative failure, slicing our attention and sending it through crisscrossing streams of asynchronous communication.
I’ll explain how we got here and how we can fix it.
Our guide for this journey is Cal Newport, the New York Times bestselling author of several books on the science of productivity, including Deep Work and his newest volume, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work In An Age Of Communication Overload.
Now before you stop reading this article because, no matter how tantalizing, you know you’d lose your job if you stopped responding to email, Slack, and Teams, let me assure you that Mr. Newport isn’t a yoga teacher who only communicates via smoke signals—he’s an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. And while his research has revolutionized the way several companies communicate—virtually eliminating the need for email and direct messaging—neither he nor I work in an environment that is ready to make that drastic of a change.
The question I asked him recently, therefore, was: How can we benefit from the principles you’ve outlined even if we’re inside of an organization that isn’t likely to overhaul its communication regime? He told me it’s something he’s thought a lot about, and practiced.
But first, how did we get here?
How We Got Here
Through May of 1998, when I graduated from college with a finance degree, as shocking as it is for me to say this, I only ever used email to communicate a few times over the course of a month in which a short-lived girlfriend was studying abroad in Nepal. Around the time she came home enlightened enough to dump me, I got a job in the financial industry—as the tech bubble was starting to stretch a little thin—and immediately, I entered a whole new world driven predominantly by whatever landed in my email inbox. Instant messaging followed shortly.
Newport argues that the arrival of email on the scene didn’t just impact how we communicate—it altered the very ecosystems in which we work. It forever changed our workflows.
If you’re reading this post, it’s very likely that you’re a “knowledge worker,” a term that was introduced by Peter Drucker in the 1950’s to differentiate us from the more common assembly line workers whose days were pre-programmed by an automated conveyor belt down to the second. Drucker, the OG productivity guru, executive coach and corporate consultant insisted in his classic work, The Effective Executive, that “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He must direct himself.”
Drucker was absolutely right that autonomy is a huge motivator in the best knowledge work, but Newport told me, “We’ve taken Drucker’s autonomy and pushed it too far,” in failing to differentiate between workflows and the actual execution of work.
The Hyperactive Hive Mind
As a knowledge worker, you need to have autonomy in how you do what you do—the execution of your work. But working on teams requires workflows, and if everybody’s using a different workflow, employing a haphazard barrage of unscheduled communications through numerous mediums, that’s going to necessarily have a detrimental impact on our work, individually and collectively.
Why? “Because our brains were never designed to maintain parallel tracks of attention,” Newport says. The net result is the new workflow ecosystem in which most of us exist Newport calls the Hyperactive Hive Mind:
A workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services.
While A World Without Email does an exceptional job in Part 1 making an evidence-based case that email reduces productivity, makes us miserable, and actually has a mind of its own, if you resonated with my opening paragraph, you already know that. Now it’s just moved from your subconscious to the front of your mind, so let’s talk about what we can do about it.
Limiting Distraction By Applying The Attention Capital Principle
Newport told me he introduced the Attention Capital Principle because, while he knew knowledge workers would yearn to be free from the hyperactive hive mind, he feared that those “in the C-suite” might think “it’s more productive and better for the company if you’re accessible.”
Of course, he doesn’t think that’s true, so to help company managers and leaders understand this, he put it in terms of what those managers and leaders are tasked with maximizing—the investment of capital. It just so happens that “in knowledge work…the main capital is the human brains you employ. And the question is: What’s the right way to deploy these human brains that is going to not only produce the most value for the organization, but be sustainable?”
Newport doesn’t want organizational leaders to lose people to turnover because knowledge workers are burnt out. He encourages us, therefore, to apply The Attention Capital Principle:
The productivity of the knowledge sector can be significantly increased if we identify workflows that better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information.
How, therefore, can we apply this principle individually?
1. Identify the discreet processes common in your work.
I work in the wealth management space, and common processes for financial advisors that are likely applicable to many knowledge workers are:
· Interacting with clients and prospective clients
· Conducting analysis
· Advancing knowledge through continuing education
· Engaging in team and company meetings
Newport calls this “asymmetric process optimization,” which he describes as a needlessly fancy term for identifying what it is that you do and how you spend your time. These processes are then optimized by step two.
2. Limit unscheduled messaging in each process.
“Given what you can control, what can you do to minimize the amount of unscheduled messages” in each aspect of your work? Newport asks. The number one email communication drag is back-and-forth communique designed to schedule meetings. How many times have you experienced a game of asynchronous communication ping-pong like this?
1. “Let’s get together sometime soon to discuss.”
2. “Yeah, that would be great. What works for you?”
3. “Tuesday or Wednesday next week would work.”
4. “Ah, I’m on Spring Break next week. How about the following?”
5. “Well, that happens to be my Spring Break—sorry. Let’s look at the week after.”
6. “OK, let’s just touch base after you get back and we’ll get something on the books.”
After seven tag-your-its, you’ll get the privilege of starting that madness all over again in a few weeks. It can all be avoided with not-so-new technology from Calendly, TimeTrade, and others that enables you to cut this down to no more than two volleys:
1. “Let’s get together soon to discuss—click HERE to find a time that is mutually convenient.”
2. “We’re on the books. Enjoy Spring Break!”
And if your calendar (and/or email inbox) is simply too crazy to manage with software, Newport even suggests that the productivity gains to be netted from an investment in a part-time virtual assistant are significant.
3. Structure your days and weeks—and constrain your mind.
Having identified your most important processes and limited unscheduled messaging to the greatest degree possible in each, you can now identify how and when these processes will be best handled on your calendar. Some dedicate half or whole days to each of their primary processes, but the key is to not vacillate back-and-forth between them. “[W]hen it comes to producing value with your brain, sticking with a task until done before moving on to the next, the more efficiently and effectively you’ll work,” says Newport.
He’s even created The Time-Block Planner, an analog guide and journal specifically for the purpose of helping us make the most of every minute. And yes, “Batch your email or instant messenger time into their own blocks. When you get to one of these communication blocks, do nothing but communicate, and when you’re not in one of these blocks, don’t communicate at all.”
You may have heard that before, but have you done it?
4. Set proper expectations, but don’t overdo it.
Lastly, when it comes to maximizing time to do our most important work, while at the same time communicating effectively with clients and teammates, Newport suggests that clarity is more important than accessibility. “People only really demand constant access if there’s not a ton of structure or clarity about how your interactions happen,” he told me.
This could be as simple as letting new clients know that you hope to respond to emails within 24 hours, for example—or taking the step increasing in popularity of establishing client communication through secure portals designed for that sole purpose, getting client communication out of the inbox entirely. Similarly, the most efficient teams maintain their communication entirely within project management software.
But especially when you’re applying the attention capital principle on your own, he suggests that expectation setting, itself, is best handled with a minimalist approach. He recalls how Tim Ferriss introduced a revolutionary idea in 2007 in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, when he suggested setting up an auto-reply for your email inbox, effectively warning all email senders that you only check email twice each day at Noon and 4:00pm, for example. This might’ve been necessary in the super-charged hyperactive hive mind workflow of Silicon Valley at the time Ferriss suggested it, but it likely doesn’t apply to your work today—and it may not be well-received to announce your approach to any of the innovations you install to maximize your knowledge work.
In fact, the best time to communicate any of this might be after you—and those you work with—begin to notice the benefits in the improvement of your work. Newport predicts that if you stick to your plan, it’s an inevitability that improvement will be the outcome. Once you’ve got it down individually, consider sharing with your team, where you may find the greatest benefits to be gained from systematizing workflows and communication methodologies. Then, when your team is recognized for its increased efficiency and effectiveness, it’s a good time to share why and how you’ve gotten there with leadership.
But even if it never goes beyond you—and even if we never see “a world without email” in our professional lifetimes—I believe that the insights to be gained from Cal Newport’s new book can help us decrease the distraction that weighs us down and increase our productivity by getting the most out of the precious commodity we possess as knowledge workers: our attention.