Sales professionals face a unique challenge in the modern workplace. Our job requires us to be responsive and available to build new connections, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the more responsive and available we are, the harder it is to do meaningful and valuable work. Here lies the paradox of sales professionals, it's our job to bring on new customers, but a majority of the required work distracts us from that goal. The truth is we do much more than just call prospects and email clients all day. Prospecting, market research, developing collateral, training new employees, building repeatable funnels, and much more land on our plate as well. This work is hard to squeeze in between emails and requires uninterrupted time to be effective, but as most salespeople know, there is no shortage of incoming client emails or outbound calls to make. So how can sales professionals manage client relations while focusing on meaningful projects to move their career forward?
Cal Newport's book Deep Work offers a solution. The subtitle of the book is "Rules for focused success in a distracted world". Newport coined the term Deep Work to describe work that's performed in a state of distraction-free concentration and pushes cognitive capacity to its limit. This type of work creates new value and it's what sets apart a reliable sales rep from a rockstar who can close new deals while completing valuable internal projects.
The paradox of the salesperson means it's difficult to focus on Deep Work. In the book, Newport idolizes those who don't use email and devotes an entire chapter to quitting social media. Needless to say, a lot of his suggestions, while actionable for a writer or an academic, are not realistic for the realities of a sales professional.
Despite the extreme suggestions, there is no denying the value and power that lies in Deep Work. It unlocks new opportunities and creates value for individuals and organizations. In this article, I walk through Newport's rules for Deep Work and translate them into actionable recommendations for sales professionals who can't escape to remote locations with no internet connection for weeks at a time. It's my hope that finding a balance between responsive client communication and unplugged Deep Work will improve your output, create new value for your organization, and reduce your stress levels along the way.
Deep Work is "distraction-free work that pushes cognitive ability to its limit and creates new value". You can think of Deep Work like flow. It's valuable work that requires focus, energy, and actively removing distractions. Newport defines a few different styles of Deep Work.
The first is called the Monastic style. This is the most extreme type of Deep Work. It includes long uninterrupted bouts of focus for months or even years at a time to work on a singular project or objective. Examples of this style of Deep Work include authors and researchers who don't use email and remain almost unreachable so they can focus deeply on their craft. It's safe to say this style of work is off the table for most sales professionals.
Next is the BiModal style of Deep Work. This philosophy of work attempts to eliminate distraction for only a day or two at a time instead of the complete elimination of the Monastic style. While disconnecting for a full day or even a full week is difficult for sales professionals, it's something we do all the time. If we can turn on an autoresponder and unplug for a few days to go on vacation, we're certainly capable of doing the same to focus on Deep Work periodically.
Since the pandemic began, my team at VeryApt has been working remotely, but we've developed a BiModal schedule that includes one day of in-person work each month. We close our email, decline meetings, and postpone all of our daily responsibilities to focus on Deep Work together. We discuss our strategy, long term vision, develop new scripts, reframe our value proposition, and other similar work. We're able to plan around this day each month and the value of the work we do in such a short period of time is astounding. For the rest of the month, we all get back "in the trenches" to implement and execute the ideas generated from Deep Work done in the office.
Finally, comes the Rhythmic style of Deep Work. This philosophy is the most conducive to the realities of sales professionals and the demands of everyday life. Instead of carving out days or weeks of uninterrupted time, the Rhythmic style of work translates Deep Work sessions into a daily habit. An hour of Deep Work a day will result in an impressive output after a year. I reserve the first hour of each day for Deep Work because I've found it's the easiest time to avoid distraction. As the day goes on there are increasingly better chances of interruptions, "emergencies", and other responsibilities. I focus on cognitively challenging work that requires my full attention and creates new value like creating onboarding programs for new sales hires, automating reporting and internal processes, or doing market research on a new customer segment. Regardless of the task, this hour of work each morning sets the tone for the day. It also gives me the confidence to focus on client outreach for the remainder of the day knowing that I've already moved the needle forward on valuable projects.
Outside of intentional Deep Work, Newport suggests building a daily schedule around blocks of similar activities. For most sales professionals that might look like a block of outbound calls, an hour to respond to emails, an afternoon filled with back-to-back sales meetings, or time dedicated solely to prospecting. Whatever the activity, it's important to focus completely on one thing at a time to limit the cognitive load of switching back and forth between different types of work. In addition to full engagement throughout the workday, Newport preaches a complete disconnect outside of work hours.
As a sales professional, it's becoming increasingly difficult to disconnect from work. Communications with clients expand across an increasing array of communication channels, it can feel like there is no hiding from phone calls, emails, LinkedIn messages, Twitter DMs, and even text messages at all hours of the day. There's an obligation to be responsive and attentive to customer needs whenever they arise, but Newport argues to embrace boredom by cutting off all work at the end of the day and taking breaks from focus instead of taking breaks from distraction.
Creating a hard cut-off for work at the end of each day serves to refresh the mind and recharge properly for the next day. Client messages look urgent whether you see them 10 minutes or 10 hours after they were sent. The temptation to check email or LinkedIn in the evening or on weekends can be overwhelming to make sure you're not "missing anything important", but each peek opens up a whirlwind of worry. Carrying around the thought of an extra email doesn't sound like much, but it will prevent a full disconnect that allows your mind to truly relax and recharge. Unplugging from work at the end of the day refreshes the mind so we can do better work the next day and let's be honest, the email that's snuck in after dinner is never that important anyway. The cost of sending one more email or checking your inbox to see if there's anything 'urgent' is too high to justify any peeking.
To shut out work completely at the end of the day Newport includes an important caveat. You need to have a system you're confident in to ensure nothing is slipping through the cracks. If you're not 100% confident everything is taken care of when you log off, you'll be constantly worried you missed something. There will always be more work to do but placing them on tomorrow's to-do list and having a plan is enough to allow your brain to shut down for the night, relax and refresh itself to tackle the next day. While Newport sees any work outside of normal hours as a detriment to recharging, he sees social media as the number one threat to Deep Work.
Social Media platforms have a simple goal: to get users to spend as much time using their service or platform as possible. The more time spent on social media the more money they generate from advertising. These incentives are important to reiterate because they differ from the main objective of sales professionals: closing deals. Newport views social media as a detriment to every type of work. However, hidden in his 35-page argument to delete all social media forever, there are some valuable frameworks for using these tools effectively instead of cutting them out completely.
It's no secret that social selling has become a powerful tool for sales professionals. Using LinkedIn, in particular, opens an entirely new channel to connect with prospects and reach out to potential clients, but it's still a 26 billion dollar company built on devouring the attention of its users for as long as possible. Newport introduces something he calls the Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection. Simply put, those using this approach to choosing network tools will justify using the tool if there is any benefit to using it. For example, if a sales professional is spending time on LinkedIn and happens to connect with someone that converts to a customer there is a benefit to using that tool, and they to continue using it.
Newport goes on to juxtapose this approach, with the Craftsmen Approach to Network Tool Selection which states that knowledge workers should "adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts". This approach may rule out LinkedIn as a viable tool to use because although a lead converted to a customer, there were also countless hours wasted throughout the year scrolling, liking, sharing, and agonizing over zippy content to push out. In this situation, it's clear the negative impacts of the tool were greater than the positive, so it should be eliminated.
Although Newport takes a hardline approach to social media, he encourages critical analysis of every tool knowledge workers use compared to their big picture professional goal. As a sales professional, the goal is bigger than a yearly sales target and might read something like "To provide an elegant solution for customers who have a specific problem that our product solves" (I'm speaking quite generally here, but I hope you get the point). To support this goal there are key activities. For most sales reps these include identifying customers that have a problem their product or service can solve and explaining the value of their product or service to those customers.
Using the Craftsmen Approach to Tool Selection, sales professionals now have a clear framework to decide what network tools are worth their time. It may turn out that all of your customers are on LinkedIn, but the time spent creating content, distractions from your feed and low conversion rates mean it's not a tool worth your time. While Newport would probably prefer if sales reps everywhere deleted their social accounts, in the right circumstances they can provide immense value. Less is probably more when it comes to using social media in sales, but if the positive impacts outweigh the negative, dive in. After pruning social media accounts Newport closes his book with a warning about the realities of shallow work.
Shallow work is necessary, but its importance is overestimated. After accounting for scheduled obligations like client meetings, internal meetings, calls, etc., the day typically doesn't have too much time left. It's easy to fall into shallow work to fill the gaps (writing proposals, answering emails, chatting with coworkers), but it's critical to leverage the little time that is left over to prioritize deep work. In the same way 80% of revenue comes from 20% of customers, 20% of the activities produce 80% of the results. More than likely these high-impact activities cross over with Deep Work.
To prioritize this type of Deep Work, Newport encourages scheduling every minute of your day. Time should be allocated in blocks of no less than 30 minutes and it's best to overestimate how long a specific task will take to allow for more flexibility. Newport sneaks in blocks of Deep Work where he has room in his schedule each day, but for sales professionals, the longer the day goes on, the busier and more unpredictable it becomes. For this reason, it's critical that sales folks block off as much time as they can for Deep Work first thing in the morning. This is the only protected time before a steady stream of emails, calls, requests, and meetings trickle in throughout the rest of the day. To limit distractions and ensure nothing else gets in the way of Deep Work, create a non-negotiable block of as much time as you can (preferably 90+ minutes) to begin your day and fill in the rest of time around appointments and meetings with other critical activities like prospecting or client outreach.
Outside of creating a schedule and making it harder for other people to email him, Newport doesn't provide much guidance on limiting the amount of shallow work in your day. Sales professionals have a few different options to help with these "logistical-style tasks that don't create new value". The first thing we can do is eliminate the task altogether. If there's no true need or benefit from the activity then simply remove it. The next thing we can do is automate activities. Most sales professionals are probably automating generic email follow-ups, but automating additional CRM functionality or reporting will carve out even more time for Deep Work. If activities can't be eliminated or automated, they should be delegated. If your firm has teams in place to handle administrative work or customer requests leverage them to remove shallow work from your plate and focus on selling.
To close this chapter Newport suggests doing more work in email responses to reduce shallow work and make more time for Deep Work. Instead of firing out quick responses to clear your inbox, Newport outlines a Process-Centric Approach to answering emails in which he looks 2-3 steps ahead in the correspondence and does a lot of upfront work. He will outline next steps, provide availability, and detail exactly what he needs from the recipient all at once. This approach is of great benefit to sales professionals because it anticipates customer questions, provides clarity, and reduces the number of emails clogging up time in the future. A little extra time spent on each email drastically reduces the amount of back and forth from each correspondence providing a better experience for customers and more time for Deep Work.
After reading Deep Work, I was struck by the simplicity and value the practice could bring. Outside of my job in sales, I saw immense benefits to my productivity in my writing, but I struggled to apply the same lessons to my work as a sales professional. Slowly, (and with lots of trial and error) I combed back through the book and tried some new structures in my day. As I began to block off more time for Deep Work and think critically about the structure of my day and the value of each activity, the changes began to compound.
Chipping away on big picture projects with Deep Work each morning and eliminating shallow work from the rest of my day have served to improve my sales outcomes and provide a sense of calm control throughout each day. Although Newport's book isn't as obviously transferable to sales as it might be to academia, I think there is still enormous benefit to working deeply in the world of sales and I hope this post will encourage you to spend more uninterrupted time on important and difficult projects.
Thanks for reading!
If you enjoyed this post, you'll like my newsletter, Prompted.
Every Sunday, I deliver insights and prompts surrounding personal development to help readers become a bit better each day.
Check it out and subscribe below!