There’s general agreement about the types of traits to look for in a candidate during a job interview—attention to detail, for instance. If an applicant forgets to attach a resume to an email, that might suggest he’s forgetful or disorganized. Similarly, if a candidate calls you “Mark” when your real name is Matt, that might be a warning that she’s prone to winging it in important situations.
But there’s another crucial trait that’s not only overlooked in most hiring processes, but is also actually often misinterpreted as negative—which creates a big advantage for those few organizations that recognize its value. I’m talking about a job candidate’s ability to resist distraction. And perhaps the easiest way to assess that is by keeping an eye on the speed of their email responses.
How fast does your candidate reply during the setup and aftermath of the interview process? If he or she always responds within minutes, be wary. If it takes a couple hours to hear back from a candidate, pay them extra attention.
Why? Because the ability to resist distraction matters. I’ve spent the past several years researching and writing about an activity I call “deep work,” which is to focus intensely without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. I’m convinced that deep work is like a superpower in our high-tech, highly competitive economy.
Being able to work deeply allows you to master complex information quickly, produce higher-quality work, and do it all at much faster rates. It’s also immensely satisfying compared with more tedious, tactical chores like replying to messages and attending meetings.
Lest you dismiss someone’s email response time as a weak indicator of such an important capability, remember how few tools hiring managers actually have at hand to make major judgments about a prospective hire. Small queues are important. At any rate, it isn’t hard to deduce that slow repliers either don’t check their inboxes constantly or don’t fire off responses every time they do. That forbearance hints that they’re good at resisting distractions. And if someone is good at resisting distractions, they’re probably better able to engage in deep work.
Of course, there are some caveats to consider. While it’s possible that slow response time indicates a deep thinking habit, it could just as easily indicate negative traits. Maybe they didn’t see your email because they spent the morning trawling Facebook. Maybe they’re a procrastinator who saw your email but couldn’t muster the motivation to respond.
So use a slow email reply as a filter to identify candidates who might have potential. Then test your suspicions that they may be skilled at working more deeply than most. Here are a few ways to do that.
1. Assign a sample task. Give the candidate a non-trivial task, relevant to his or her skill set, that’s matched with a tight deadline. If the candidate delivers a good result on time, this should reduce your fear that they’re lazy or prone to procrastinating.
2. Ask how they manage their time. Working deeply in our age of distractions takes discipline and structure. To do it well and consistently, you need to balance your shallow obligations with deeper efforts. Not everyone is good at that. So if the candidate has obviously thought a lot about these workflow issues, chances are they’ll be able to describe them to you. Their response could indicate that their slow replies to your emails are intentional, letting them devote more intensive focus on other things.
3. Look for signs that they can learn complicated things quickly. Mastering complexity requires intensive concentration—which email constantly breaks. In other words, it’s a deep task. Don’t just ask about a complicated project or challenge they dealt with, ask how they dealt with it and how fast. Being able to prioritize this sort of problem requires cutting out smaller annoyances effectively.
If a job candidate is slow to respond to your emails and does well on these sorts of tests, consider yourself lucky. Chances are good that you’ve just found someone who’s becoming increasingly rare (and therefore valuable) in our current economy: a knowledge worker with the ability to resist distractions and focus intensely on the efforts that really matter for your organization.
For many hiring managers, the idea of applauding someone for slow communication may still sound ridiculous. It flies in the face of the mental model we’ve come to associate with the ideal knowledge worker—always on, always connected. Indeed, most job candidates understand this model and are now likely to emphasize their ability to stay on top of things in a fast-paced world. They’re likewise more apt to reply to emails quickly in order to prove it.
If you’re hiring an administrative assistant, a customer service representative, or a project manager, then of course responsiveness is important. But for almost any other skilled knowledge-work position, speedy execution is far from the biggest priority.
The more difficult, complex tasks that require deeper skills, justify a competitive salary, and aren’t easily outsourced or automated universally depend on deep work. That’s true whether you’re looking for a programmer, copywriter, consultant, or designer, just to name a few—all roles in which connectivity is basically irrelevant next to the volume and quality of deeper work they do. And it’s that type of work that adds real, lasting value to your organization.
To put it another way, having someone who always replies immediately to your emails is convenient for you. But having someone who can deploy more sophisticated skills on more complicated challenges for long stretches is convenient for your organization. The choice should be obvious, even if it’s slow in coming.
Cal Newport is assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of several books, including the recently published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.