Entrepreneur looking at laptop computer at home.

Can a CEO really do deep work?

One of the reasons I started FLOWN was because I discovered ‘deep work’. Cal Newport’s book Deep Work came at a point in my life where I was exploring my ikigai – my life’s purpose – after stepping down from Skimlinks and starting a two-year sabbatical.

Discovering deep work

As a passionate traveller and lover of nature, I already knew how much of my inspiration, imagination and innovation came from stepping away from my day-to-day, tapping into my non-cerebral side, and creating space for new ideas to emerge. Discovering Deep Work was a revelation: here was science that backed up what I had felt intuitively my whole life.

It was quite ironic, then, that in building a company that helped deliver ‘deep work’ to its customers, I struggled to find the peace and space to do my own deep work. It turns out, being a founder/CEO is hard work. I knew that, of course, after 11 years of running Skimlinks, but my two year sabbatical had conveniently made me forget the visceral aches and heaviness that turning an idea to a self-sustaining business inevitably brings.

Can CEOs even do deep work?

I recall Cal Newport even makes allowances for CEOs in his book, explaining that there are certain professions that will find it harder to do deep work, as their responsibility is to be always available to their team, to act as connective tissue, and perpetually scanning the horizon for opportunities, threats and patterns. I feel it myself now: this constant tenseness and anxiety that comes with mental overdrive.

I know I’m not alone in this, right? I know all you founders, CEOs, leaders and executives can totally empathise. How can you set aside time to think, to get stuff done, to get enough distance so solutions and patterns can emerge from the maelstrom of activity around you?

Well, this is what I do, and what I encourage you fellow travellers to consider doing too…

1. Schedule time in with Flocks

If I don’t block deep work in ahead of time each week, my week becomes a fragmented flurry of meetings and calls, with bits and pieces of time here and there that can only accommodate shallow work like answering emails. I finish my days frustrated, with a hideous backlog on my to-do list and a sense I’m not quite doing enough.

So, I now use Flocks, FLOWN’s facilitated deep work sessions. Each week, I add to my calendar 3 or 4 sessions – a mix of 2hr and 1hr sessions – from the Flocks scheduler page. Then, as the week progresses, meetings fill up around these blocked sessions, but my deep work time is sacrosanct, little oases of time I can think, tackle meatier pieces of work, go deeply into something without distraction. I love it.

If you aren’t already a member of FLOWN, join now, and attend any of our Flocks sessions. We send out a Friday reminder each week, so you can make it a ritual of yours to plan your week ahead, and ensure you prioritise and carve out time for deep work. To quote the marvellous Doist blog: “I view deep work as a boundary I clearly set in my work-life. It empowers me to focus on what really matters most.”

2. Create a culture of ‘deep work’

As I always say, “culture isn’t what you say it is; culture is what you do, and what you are seen to do by your team”. If you want to create a culture that prioritises time to think deeply about important problems rather than spend their day doing low-value low-hanging fruit only, then as the CEO, you need to be seen to create an example, so your team feel comfortable doing the same.

So we created ‘Deep Work Fridays’, which are meeting-free days when the team are encouraged to work on their bigger meatier tasks away from the fragmentation of attention that meetings create the rest of the week. We created a culture that gives permission to people to ask for meetings to be pushed to times that better suit their need for uninterrupted periods of focused work.

And, of course, we encourage the team to book themselves into any Flocks sessions they like throughout the week, so they can block out further chunks of time to do deep work, while at the same time feeling connected to a community of peers. I really encourage all your leaders to do the same for your team, they get a lot of value from taking part.

3. Actually take a few days off

I was coaching another founder recently, and he was confessing to feeling close to burn-out, unable to sleep, in a constant state of anxiety. When I asked him if he’d had some time-off lately, he said he hadn’t had any time off in 3 years, and he couldn’t yet, because he was so close to that next big deal that would protect his company.

I recalled a similar feeling when I first started Skimlinks. My parents were visiting me in London, and I was too busy to spend any time with them, because I was so close to raising funding. In retrospect, that week I missed with my parents had no real impact on my fund raise. But it’s one less set of memories I have of my family.

What I told my friend (and what I wish someone had told me back then) is: exhaustion and anxiety are interpreted as desperation and fear to potential investors or customers. By not taking time off to rest, play, and connect to your non-cerebral side, you make it less likely you’ll achieve your business goals. And business success is a marathon, not a sprint… a week off in the context of a 5 or 10 year journey won’t make any difference.

Customers or investors are so busy with their own lives, they won’t even notice you weren’t there for a week. But the difference a week off can make to your headspace is enormous.

So, take the time. Book a few days somewhere beautiful. Try not to work, or if you feel compelled, ‘work’ by reading, thinking, planning… take your mind into the far future, give the next week or two time off.

That is what our FLOWN spaces are there to do for our members. Provide the physical space to create the right mental space for imagination, innovation and inspiration to emerge. Or just to rest, to play, to connect with nature. Do not underestimate the power of this type of un-action. They are the building blocks of creativity, of resilience, and of empathy.

Deep work is possible, and utterly necessary, for founders and CEOs.

We just have to be more intentional about factoring it in, and creating a culture that recognises its importance from both an efficiency and productivity perspective, as well as a mental health and well-being perspective. So set the example for your team:

  1. Schedule in next week’s Flocks sessions now
  2. Create a ‘deep work’ culture for your team
  3. Book a few days in a FLOWN space, to think, read, ponder, work somewhere beautiful
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on pinterest

Sign up for the mailing list for offers and updates