Using Deep Work to Raise the Bar in Financial Thought Leadership
Writing is an activity that requires incredible concentration. Working sporadically and in short bursts of energy generally doesn’t translate to great writing, especially when it comes to the institutional-quality thought leadership that we focus on at WFC. Early on in my writing career, I recognized that. So I started carving out time to eliminate distractions and focus on my work for hours at a time. I found that this practice allowed me to produce better writing and be more efficient with my time.
I always knew that improving my ability to focus by limiting distractions was a huge boost to productivity. But it wasn’t until one of our writers shared a book on the subject that this practice really sunk in.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport provides the science behind what I was intuitively feeling about the kind of attention needed to produce great work. The book galvanized my thinking and led me to lean in and embrace the deep work approach. I believe in this approach so much that I even encourage my team members and writers to read Newport’s book and set aside time for deep work on a regular basis.
Having implemented deep work principles for several years now, we provide our ideas for how you can elevate your productivity and creativity by going deep.
What is Deep Work?
According to Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University who studies the intersection of digital technology and culture, deep work is a professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Newport argues that this type of work adds new value, allows you to improve your skills, and is hard to replicate—i.e., it better enables you to produce differentiated, value-add work.
In the book, Newport argues that to produce at peak levels in today’s world, you need to work for extended periods of time with full concentration on a single task, completely free from distractions. No social media, no email, no text messages, no co-workers asking you “how was your weekend?” Newport makes the case that deep work is becoming increasingly rare just as it is becoming increasingly valuable. By mastering deep work, therefore, you can produce differentiated and valuable work that sets you apart from your peers and competitors.
WFC’s Deep Work Principles
Here are five aspects of implementing deep work that have been particularly helpful at WFC:
- Build deep work into your everyday schedule. Set a time each day that is reserved for deep work. At WFC, we try to set aside four hours every morning for deep work, while our afternoons are generally reserved for meetings, calls, and the “busy work” required to run a small business. We have found we are best able to deeply concentrate in the morning (Newport agrees that the morning is the best time for this work), but we’d recommend some trial and error to determine what time of day is best for you. Newport recommends that beginners start with one hour of deep work per day, while those who have mastered the practice can maintain a concentrated state of deep work for more than four hours at a time.
- The next day of work starts the night before. Newport says that you should never leave the office before planning for the next day. And we wholeheartedly agree. Before leaving the office on a given evening, we go through our schedules for the next day and make a plan for how we are going to tackle the next day. This way, we know exactly what we need to focus on and are able to dive right into deep work when we get to our desks the next morning. Perhaps most importantly, going through this exercise helps us to mentally shut down the “work” parts of our brains and focus on our families when we get home.
- Limit your email or your email will limit you. Many people have a hard time looking away from their email for an extended period of time. But to deeply concentrate and produce differentiated, valuable work, you need to work in a distraction-free state. And email (and social media, browsing the news, checking LinkedIn, etc.) is certainly a distraction. At WFC, we check email in the morning to be sure we’re aware of any potential emergencies throughout the coming day. Then we close down our email, turn off our text message notifications, place our phones out of sight, and focus on our deep work until our next scheduled email check-in.
- Prepare your physical environment. It’s important to create a distraction-free physical environment. For example, Scott likes to have his desk completely spotless and organized before beginning his deep work, and he sits near a window to provide natural light and to allow him to peer outside for momentary but not-too-distracting breaks. Connor, on the other hand, favors a standing desk in front of a blank wall, and he listens to ambient instrumental music to help him concentrate. (See Connor’s recent blog post, “Music to Help You Concentrate,” for his deep work music suggestions). The key here is to find the physical environment that works best for you and to plan ahead.
- Allow your brain to rest. Your brain is like a muscle in that it needs rest to function at its peak capacity. It is important to create a shutdown ritual that allows you to relax and stop focusing on work once you are finished. Principle 2 above—the next day of work starts the night before—is key in allowing your brain to recharge. Your brain won’t be able to rest if you’re thinking about an email you need to send or a task you need to finish after you have shut down for the day. Instead of thinking about work when you’re away from your computer, focus on being present with loved ones, cooking a meal, listening to music, reading for pleasure, or just simply resting. Our culture often makes it seem that you must always be working to get ahead, but it can be just as important to allow your brain to recharge between sessions if you want to produce at a high level.
Eliminate Excuses and Produce Your Greatest Work
Skeptics may argue that the deep work approach is too idealistic, arguing that unplugging from email for hours each day would put them at risk of being fired. Every work situation is different, and we aren’t saying this approach will work for everyone. But expectations can be changed. You weren’t hired just to respond to emails and handle administrative tasks—the kind of work that Newport would label “shallow work.” You were hired to do meaningful and differentiated work and to use your brain to its fullest potential.
We encourage you to embrace the potential of deep work, even for just a couple of hours per day. We expect you will be happily surprised by the quality of work you are able to generate in a relatively short period of time.
Deep work has not only improved my ability to generate high-quality financial thought leadership, it has also helped me to be a better business owner, father, and husband. By better scheduling my time and maximizing my efficiency while working, I can shut down at the end of the day and be fully present with loved ones. Try it for yourself and you may be surprised at the results.
We would be happy to speak with you about your writing process and how you can improve you and your team’s ability to produce meaningful thought leadership more efficiently. Please feel free to reach out to Scott and/or Connor if you are interested in learning more about our process.
Carving out time for deep work is just one step of our writing process at WFC. To learn more about the other steps we follow in our quest to create investment-grade writing, we encourage you to download our guide.
About the Author Scott Wentworth is the CEO at Wentworth Financial Communications. He collaborates with a team of writers and editors at Wentworth to help professionals across the financial services industry build their brands by creating investment-grade white papers, bylined articles, newsletters, blogs, social media posts, and other forms of content marketing.