As Americans hunkered down during the initial wave of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, envious Twitter users noted how many of history’s great works were created while on lockdown. Apparently Sir Isaac Newton developed his theory of gravity at his family’s rural estate while escaping the plague. Two decades earlier, Shakespeare hammered out King Lear and Macbeth while playhouses were shut during a London outbreak.
The examples reminded me of a book, Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is popular among productivity nerds like myself, who are bent on harnessing the insights of human psychology to increase performance. Part research review, part social critique, Newport makes a case for more sustained focus in our work and lives with copious tips for implementing his ideas. For those brave souls balancing childcare, school, and other stressors right now, feel free to just skip this post. For those of us lucky enough to have more time at home without the usual office distractions, Deep Work offers some lessons worth applying. Experimenting now with deep work habits described below can pay off for you and your advocacy organization down the road.
The Concept of Deep Work
Cal Newport’s basic idea is that to perform our best on almost any project—whether a painting, a term paper, or a grant report—we need consistent focus on the task at hand. He cites a body of evidence showing how frequent interruptions or distractions limit productivity. Multi-tasking, it turns out, is really a choice to do two things poorly, rather than one thing well. He argues further, though it is harder to measure, that the longer you stick to one project, the higher your output, particularly for creative work. You can see where this is going. The rise of digital communication and ability to stay connected to people and the news over email, social media, and text messaging create constant distractions that make it harder to do just one thing for a prolonged period. You might feel productive by constantly producing emails, but you end up contributing less.
My favorite thought experiment of Newport’s is to ask you to recall your most recent half hour on Facebook. Was there some value in it? Probably. You may have kept up with what your friends were doing, or sent a birthday message. But was it the best overall use of your time? Probably not. For example, you could have spent that 30 minutes in the company of (or on a Zoom call with) a good friend. Much of this applies to our work lives as well.
Deep Work in an Advocacy Context
Newport’s critique resonated with my experience working in an advocacy organization, with constant pressure to adjust to ongoing political events. Communications staff need to be up to date on the news and responsive to media requests, government relations staff need to provide input on fast-moving legislation, and organizers need to quickly plan a rally ahead of a vote at City Hall. As a manager, I felt it was often difficult to find enough time for activities that were best served with focused attention like drafting grant proposals. Inevitably, meetings intervened, my inbox filled with requests for information, or urgent decisions needed to be made. Of course, for a manager, supporting your team’s needs is the job—or at least a big part of it. More generally, whether in a management role or not, advocacy professionals must do a lot of “shallow work” requiring rapid responses on multiple short tasks.
However, whether in organizing, communications, or government relations, it is critical to periodically sit down and think about plans and strategy. An organizer may need to plan a political campaign or a government relations team may need to draft fact sheets for legislative staff. In both examples, sustained focus without email interruptions or checking Twitter increases the quality of the work product and the impact of the activities that follow. But the culture and cadence of an organization can make it nearly impossible for staff to focus deeply. For instance, penalizing staff for not responding to email immediately, or heavily praising those who do, may discourage them from taking a break from their inboxes to focus. If you think your organization could benefit from more deep work and you are in a leadership role, it’s up to you to create the conditions for greater focus.
Experimenting with Deep Work During the COVID Lockdown
Remember that for any team members facing crowded homes, increased responsibilities, anxiety, grief, illness or other stressors, this period will not be conducive to new work habits. But for staff with fewer distractions during the day, organizational leaders can facilitate more opportunities to try deep work with the following tactics:
- Schedule and Protect Work Blocks: Encourage your staff to protect their calendars in order to dive fully into big projects. Initially, you may start with suggesting people block off a few hours at a time, to dive into a policy report or campaign plan. To help them focus their time, you can set goals together for what will be accomplished and check back in to see how things went. You may even build up to longer periods such as a day or more. The key thing to remember is that in order to prioritize deep work you will need to accept the short-term costs of reduced responsiveness to see the long-term gains.
- Provide Back-up When You Can. You can support staff who typically must be most responsive, such as digital, organizing or communications staff, by covering for them. For example, if you need your digital manager who runs your social media channels to develop a social media plan for the next few months, ask them to take a few hours or a day to focus on developing it. Then provide support with another team member who can fill in if anything comes up. In smaller organizations where this is not feasible, choosing slower times of day for work blocks is a good alternative.
- Change your Systems. You might agree with your team on a day of the week when no meetings are allowed, and everyone is expected to use the time for work blocks on big projects. Be careful: if you set this expectation, but subsequently schedule a bunch of external meetings, you’ll be communicating that deep work is not a serious priority.
- Meetings Matter Too. Finally, you can apply the same thinking to relationship building and meetings. Requiring a staff member attending a coalition meeting to always be online detracts from their opportunity to hear and internalize strategies, provide feedback, and understand partner concerns. While it may not be the most applicable in the COVID world, when we all eventually transition back to meeting in-person again, try considering conferences, coalition meetings, and even internal meetings to be focused times during which staff are expected to be present and not responsive to other demands.
One of the benefits of a transition period like we are currently undergoing is that it provides us new perspectives on habits that we have taken for granted. I do not mean to underplay the significant challenges organizations are going through with potentially major effects on staff, budget, and mission. But where there is room to experiment, the lessons may pay off in new and better ways to work. The necessity of telework may eventually lead to more flexible schedules and widespread working from home even after the pandemic passes. Perhaps for advocacy organizations it can also lead to more focused work too.