Over the last few years, our team has been looking for ways to transform our company, push our creative abilities, and ensure that we are constantly evolving to provide better results for our higher education clients. So, our leadership team asked a tough question: How do we ensure that we’re not getting stagnant? Well, the solution was pretty simple. We needed to learn from other professionals, inside and outside of digital marketing. We’re not in the higher education space simply because we believe there is an opportunity in the industry to provide better marketing efforts; we’re in higher education because we believe in the power of higher education. Therefore, we personally challenge ourselves and all of our employees to never stop learning, and I have read a few books that I think are important to help transform any digital marketing company.
Cal Newport, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, asks a simple question in his new book, Deep Work: How can an invidual focus on the tasks that matter most? This is a question I have been pondering for a while. In the digital world, there are so many distractions, and our clients’ goals are big (rank #1 for computer science online), and they take sustained effort and creativity.
But when you break down the types of work that digital marketers have, it comes down to deep and shallow tasks. Shallow work consists of all the emails, the admin, the busy work that is necessary but doesn’t require a lot of brain power, and Deep Work consists of the big tasks that can move a company forward. For example, filing a report for your client on how many links you built in Q3 is a necessary task, but it’s somewhat superficial work. However, creating a strategy overview that will help that same client rank number one for a relevant student-generating keyword can directly impact a company’s bottom line.
Cal Naughton examines how to build a working life where there is more focus on the deep work. Some of the biggest takeaways from his book are as follows:
- Social media is a distraction: Yes, I know this sounds like blasphemy. Even though digital marketers need to have a social presence and maintain the knowledge of trends, the constant chirps of tweets and notifications from Facebook and other platforms will distract you from deep, focused work. Turn off your notifications—or completely remove yourself from social media when you’re under a deadline or working on a big project.
- Slack and other workplace communication platforms can be great, but they can also kill your productivity. If you’re on Slack, then you are probably aware of how many times you’re interrupted by a notification or a message. This constant form of communication helps teams stay connected, but it also distracts individuals. Turn off the Slack function or hit the snooze button and allow your mind to stay immersed in the bigger projects.
- It’s important to think about focus as a muscle. It’s something you can train. The more you focus on deep work, the more your mind develops. You’re literally developing your neural circuitry. If you can focus on a task, you’re not just being more productive, you’re working on the very structure of your mind to perform at a higher level. Time productivity sessions and follow the Pomodoro technique.
- While there is a lot of focus on being productive and efficient in the workplace, it’s important to take the same lessons for deep work in the office and apply them to your personal life. For example, Cal Naughton mentions that your mind isn’t like your bicep, which tires after exercise. Your mind never stops, but what it needs is different forms of activity. So, while you might have an important deadline to meet with your client, it’s important to take the time away from your work and focus deeply on relaxing or another activity. Give your mind a break and schedule “free” time for your mind to wander.
Michael Lewis is, of course, famous for many books, including Money Ball, but what Lewis didn’t know when he wrote Money Ball was that he was going to miss something critical to the history and logic of his most famous book. In the beginning of the book, readers learn that Lewis owed many of the lessons in Money Ball to two Nobel Prize winners and Israeli psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Basically, the book is about how Kahneman and Tversky created a Nobel Prize-winning theory and how that theory altered our perception of reality. It sounds complicated but there is a key lesson that digital marketers can take from the book: Humans are inherently emotional, not logical. What Kahneman and Tversky were able to show through their studies was that people were making poor judgments in uncertain situations, and they relied on their gut rather than data and logic.
So, what does this have to do with digital marketing? It comes down to a key lesson in communication that can help digital marketers talk to their clients and co-workers. Since individuals make decisions based on emotion, it’s important to recognize how issues are framed. Kahneman and Tversky’s studies showed that people changed the way they responded to situations depending on how it was framed. This is an important lesson for digital marketers. If we can think about how to frame strategies, ads, content, etc., to our clients or to the marketplace, then we may be able to push initiatives that are risky yet rewarding and help educate our clients on the benefits of a digitally focused strategy in the world of higher education.
Out of all the books, Creativity, Inc. might have been the most enjoyable. It’s not just because it’s an unbelievable treasure trove of advice on how to build a creative organization, but it also goes into great detail about how Pixar was created as well as behind-the-scenes insight into their movies.
Storytelling is the root of great digital marketing campaigns, and Pixar and Disney are the best storytellers in our world. What is key about the book is that in order to build an organization that is focused on quality storytelling in their messaging, it’s essential to build candor and positive feedback into their organization. If a company does not share the ability to be candid with each other because of hierarchies that stranglehold opinions, then the organization will never grow.
Everyone in the Pixar building, according to Ed Catmull, from the janitor to the director, has the ability to create an idea that will move a project forward. (Think about Ratatouille and the expression: “Anyone can cook.”)
In our organization, we’re trying to find ways to strengthen the structure that breeds candid and constructive feedback. One suggestion in the book is to hold “Notes Meetings.” It’s a simple concept. Individuals in the company submit questions to a leadership team on things they are struggling with. It doesn’t have to relate to a specific department, and the leadership picks the questions and sends them to the team. Then they have a meeting where everyone freely tries to problem solve the issue. This is an opportunity to improve the way feedback is delivered and develop candor. Great ideas can not become great unless they are challenged by people who care about mutual success.
Joseph Lapin M.F.A. is an author, creative director, and journalist, and his writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Narratively, Salon, Slate, and more. He is a former adjunct professor at Florida International University, and he has worked on PR campaigns for Ernst & Young, Brentwood Associates, and more.