NR Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys, one of the world’s largest technology companies, once told me that the key to building a successful organization was to find one thing you do really well and keep doing it well over and over again. Another leading American tech entrepreneur told me that if I was focused, there was a lot I could get done in 8 hours a day. And every aspiring entrepreneur has been advised to stay very focused in their early days.
Focus is paramount for building and delivering an excellent product. But one of the great paradigm shifts over the last decade has been the drastic reduction in the cost of launching and operating a business. The Founders Institute estimates that with the combination of cloud computing, mobile solutions, crowdfunding and social media, a startup can launch for just $1500 and grow quite large without requiring outside investors or strategic partners. But bootstrapping through crowdfunding, or marketing through social media requires the opposite of focus. It requires a constant presence on multiple social media and communications platforms and immediate responsiveness to a large, unorganized community of followers.
How does the entrepreneur stay focused while checking email, Slack or Twitter every six minutes?
A new book by Dr. Cal Newport, A World Without Email, explores the challenge facing knowledge workers to be productive and focused while facing the daily deluge of emails and external communications requiring their time and attention. Newport is also the author of Deep Work, a best-selling book that provides a methodology for knowledge workers to maximize their learning, productivity and impact through intense focus and structured processes.
In his new book, Newport identifies the problem as the “hyperactive hive mind”, which he defines as “workflow centered around ongoing conversations fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages”. In other words, we spend our days responding to email asynchronously – with no particular priority or strategy other than when it popped up in our inbox. Email and messenger apps allow easy communications between large groups of people, but Newport argues that humans perform most effectively in small groups – an analysis echoed by many leading management thinkers.
Newport then provides several important solutions to the productivity challenges caused by this unstructured, whac-a-mole form of working. The first is to consider our “attention” as capital, like money or equipment. Newport believes that in “a world without email”, productivity will improve if knowledge workers can remain focused on adding real value and optimizing their time. He suggests that organizations develop smart production processes modeled on the manufacturing sector, but adapted for knowledge work. He also points out that there are new productivity tools, such as online scheduling and project management, that can reduce reliance on email and messages. An example that resonates is the “ticket” system used by IT departments in large organizations for their tasks, where incoming requests are organized, prioritized and then responded to.
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For knowledge workers in any organization, Newport’s analysis and recommendations will resonate. But are they realistic for small business owners and entrepreneurs? Most small businesses in America consist only of their owners, and another large segment have only 1-5 full-time employees. In addition, high growth startups often feature entrepreneurs who “do everything else” so that their initial investment capital can be used to build and pilot their products. Newport responded that “the property that makes the hyperactive hive mind so detrimental is the need to keep checking inboxes or channels to keep up with unscheduled, back-and-forth messaging. The key to avoiding this harm is to put in place processes that help you get things done without casual, ad hoc messaging. One simple trick is act as if you have two part-time jobs: one working on product/strategy, and one working on administrative work, and assign clearly separated time for each, so the context shifting induced by the latter doesn’t impact the former.” In other words, entrepreneurs will still have to do everything, but like everyone else, doing it all at once is counterproductive.
I also asked Newport how the entrepreneur can balance the incredible opportunity provided by social media to build their business and compete with larger, well-established brands. At first glance, social media was deliberately designed to trigger the hyperactive hive mind. How does one tweet ten times daily and still be productive? Newport answered that “there’s a difference between running a social media marketing campaign and using social media as a persistent source of diversion and distraction. If you’re running a targeted social media campaign, put aside time to work on it like you would any other project, but outside those sessions I would recommend giving these platforms a wide berth, as they can otherwise fragment your attention fragments too small to be useful.”
Lastly, I asked Newport if the work from home transition caused by the pandemic has started to swing the pendulum the other way. Are we seeing Zoom meeting fatigue become part of the hyperactive hive mind? More and more people are saying, “this could have been an email” (instead of a Zoom meeting).
According to Newport, “remote work certainly intensified the excesses of the hyperactive hive mind work flow, leading a lot more people to realize more clearly that the way we work isn’t working. What I think is happening with Zoom is that a lot of people are using it as a proxy for productivity. They may be uncomfortable with their ability to keep track of an important project and put aside regular time to make progress all on their own. What they do trust, however, is that if there’s a meeting on their calendar they will attend. So by setting up a standing meeting for a new project, you can gain some reassurance that you have it under control. The problem is that you’ve now taken a lot of time and attention from a lot of people. Back when we were in offices, when meetings happened in real rooms, and you had to see the resulting people in person, there’s a higher social capital cost to bringing everyone together, so you’re more likely to find other ways to organize your work. Also, a lot of what sometimes happens in these Zooms could instead happen by grabbing someone for 5 minutes after another meeting or in the office hallway.”
For early stage entrepreneurs, the lessons of Deep Work and A World Without Email are particularly important. With limited resources and time, the entrepreneur should embrace all tools that help them remain focused on building their product or service. One of the insights of Deep Work was that understanding complex problems and building solutions to them requires sustained, intense focus. The subjects that today’s entrepreneurs grapple with – artificial intelligence, COVID, plant-based protein and others, are complex and intellectually challenging. They should embrace any and all productivity tools that allow them more time to work on their science, innovation or design.
The question gets a little trickier because of the incredible potential of social media. Becoming an influencer on social media establishes a unique personal brand, can save millions in marketing costs while bringing in millions in revenue or donations. Using crowdfunding can be far less expensive than venture capital, and more likely to succeed, as only a small fraction of startups actually get venture capital. And the size of your audience on Twitter or Instagram has been known to sway investors and attract top talent as well. But the principles Newport espouses apply here as well. Over the last decade, marketers and PR professionals have developed social media marketing strategies with similar benchmarks and methodologies to plans used for television and earlier media that don’t require constant attention. Twitter and Facebook have long allowed users to schedule posts and tweets.
Newport had another principle that resonated – the specialization principle, which calls for knowledge workers to work on fewer things with more quality and accountability in order to be vastly more productive. As Murthy said, “to do one thing well”.