After exploring the problems with email, Cal Newport dives into different ways to solve them with several principles. The first principle is the “attention capital principe.” Newport essentially argues that the most valuable asset knowledge workers have is their brains. Since the human mind is what produces value in knowledge work, it needs to be able to focus. It needs its “attention capital” preserved. The human brain has only so much energy it can devote to creative or deep work per day. Therefore, if organizations can improve its workflows, they can “better optimize the human brain’s ability to sustainably add value to information” (103). Preserve the mind’s ability to focus and the productivity will follow.

Newport goes on to point out that knowledge work has two component: work execution and workflow (110). Work execution is how you actually do the work (e.g. writing a sermon, drafting a book chapter, designing a website, etc.). Workflow, on the other hand, is how work is identified, assigned, coordinated, and reviewed (110). In other words, workflow is the management of work tasks. Workflow answers the question of “How do we keep track of everything going on?” Newport’s advocacy for workflow is not micromanaging. Micromanaging happens when supervisors meddle with work execution, telling their employees how to do their jobs. Workflow instead focuses on how to structure our work.

Newport then lays out a couple different ways that organizations might help workers preserve their attention. First, they can build workflows which minimize context switches and overload. Organizations can flip the scripts on projects. Instead of always being in reactive mode for a project, the organization can “decide when to communicate about the project” (114). Newport also cautions that building systems requires inconvenience. It is often inconvenient to put thought into one’s work system, because nothing is more convenient than email (118). Yet having a system built around email is notoriously ineffective. Finally, Newport advocates for finding partners. Real change happens through buy-in and ownership of the system (125). If people “feel like they have ultimate control over their ultimate success,” they will buy in (125). Therefore, involving real people in real discussion is the way forward as an organization.

The bottom is this: protect your attention.

Application

  • Step one: pull together key stakeholders for a conversation about work execution and workflow.
  • Step two: highlight the values of deep work, and attention capital. Focus on making it work for everyone.

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