Alicia Navarro on how to build the right physical and mental space for deep work and inspired rest
How important is location when we think about deep work? Why is inspired rest so important, and how can we find it?
In this episode, we welcome Alicia Navarro, a serial tech entrepreneur with a passion for product, brand, design, and culture. In 2007, Alicia founded Skimlinks, which grew to a $50 million a year global business and was acquired by Connexity in 2020.
In 2018 she stood down from her role as Skimlinks CEO and went on a journey to find her next venture. On that journey, she became frustrated by the lack of creative spaces for deep work. And so her latest company, Flown, was born.
In this episode we discuss:
- How to put Cal Newport’s theory of Deep Work into practice
- How to change corporate culture to embrace inspired rest
- Why, as an entrepreneur, saying no may be the best thing you can do
Host and Producer: Georgie Powell
Alicia Navarro: I felt, “Well, maybe I’ll try a co-working space”. So I tried all the London co-working spaces and was appalled at the conditions that I was expected to create in. Yes, it was very nice from a social perspective, but having a desk in the middle of a row of desks, in the middle of many rows of desks, in a noisy homogenous office space, I just was convinced that this was not the space that was going to bring out my most creative thinking or thought works.
Georgie Powell: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital wellbeing. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. Each week, I’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. I’ll be asking them three questions to get to the heart of what productivity means to them.
This week, I’m in conversation with Alicia Navarro, a serial tech entrepreneur, with a passion for product, brand, design, and culture. In 2007, Alicia founded Skimlinks, which grew to a $50 million a year global business, and which in 2020 was acquired by Connexity.
In 2018, she stepped down from her role as Skimlinks’ CEO and went on a journey to find her next venture. On that journey, she became frustrated by the lack of creative spaces for deep work, and so her latest company FLOWN was born. With FLOWN, she’s creating deep work places and spaces for knowledge workers.
Today, we’ll be talking a lot about how to put Cal Newport’s theory of deep work into practice, how to build a culture of flow in a remote work team, and why saying no as an entrepreneur may be the best thing you can do.
Alicia, welcome to Freedom Matters. It’s fantastic to have you on the show. Thank you so much for being a guest with us today.
Alicia: My absolute pleasure, Georgie. Thank you for having me.
Georgie: To kick off, I asked Alicia to explain a little bit more about FLOWN.
Alicia: Yes, I’m the founder of FLOWN, @flown.com, and we describe ourselves as a deep work toolkit. We want to provide the ideal mental and physical spaces for being your most creative, productive, and fulfilled self.
It’s quite ambitious because basically, we’re trying to be like Airbnb meets calm.com for work. We provide a bunch of online tools and content that helps you achieve focused work and inspired rest. We also provide a curated collection of remote deep work enabled properties, homes and hotels, that you or your team can escape to when you need to get away from your day-to-day to work, focus, and create.
Georgie: Amazing. I love those two things, focused work and then inspired rest. What do those two things mean to you guys?
Alicia: Yes, the journey for creating FLOWN was a very personal one. When I left my last company, I was the founder of Skimlinks that I ran for 12 years, and then stepped down. Then I used this two-year sabbatical in order to think about what I wanted to do with the next decade of my life.
I did what I always do when I want to find an answer, and I really want to contemplate, which is, that I step away from my day-to-day, I explore, I learn, I play, and that’s when these moments of inspiration come to me. It was during that very deliberate exploration process that I was going through, that I discovered Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work.
It was a real moment for me because in that book, I read all the science that validated all the ideas that I’ve been having instinctively at the same time. It was then that I realized, “This is what I want to do with the next decade of my life because I know how valuable this philosophy and practice is for me.” For those who haven’t read the book, the concept of deep work is one where, when you work in a state of distraction-free concentration on something significant, not only do you get more done at a higher level of quality, but it is the source of human contentment when you get these opportunities to do things that matter and to really express your talents.
The key thing about deep work is that it’s not just about work, that in order to be your best self, you also need to intersperse these moments of focused, intense work with moments of play, with exploration, with learning, with immersing yourself in nature, with being exposed to people outside your immediate bubble, being exposed to ideas. It’s that process of play, exploration, and learning that create these new neural pathways in your mind that help develop your creative thinking ability so that when you do return to work, you’re better armed to do better work.
So at the heart of FLOWN, it was about, “Right, well, how can we build a toolkit that gives the tools and resources and spaces that are good, both for achieving focused work, but that are also powerful and effective tools when you want to take a deliberate break and use that break to rest, to learn, to play, and, therefore, be able to return back to work more creative than you were before.
Georgie: In our conversations with experts from their fields, freelancers, and entrepreneurs over the past few months, one thing has consistently struck me, their awareness about how to work well, and the places that enable them to do that. This seems so at odds with corporate culture, which, certainly up to the pandemic, was characterized by homogenous space and a set nine to five. How, I wondered, was Alicia thinking about place when she was building her FLOWN experience?
Alicia: Well, it’s really interesting that you raise that because the concept for FLOWN began before the pandemic. A lot of people think that I’ve created it because of the pandemic, but it had been an idea that I’d been brewing and developing for two years prior to that. It was because of this bafflement that I felt when I left my company. I suddenly was working from home a lot, and I was going nuts, I was going nuts from lack of stimulation. So then I felt, “Well, maybe I’ll try a co-working space.”
So I tried all the London co-working spaces and was appalled at the conditions that I was expected to create in. Yes, it was very nice from a social perspective, but having a desk in the middle of a row of desks, in the middle of many rows of desks, in a noisy homogenous office space, I just was convinced that this was not the space that was going to bring out my most creative thinking.
As I researched more about deep work and about optimal conditions for creative, productive work, it just seemed to me that weird that we had all this data and science about what brought out the best in humans, and yet, the way that we worked was diametrically opposite to that.
What became clear to me is that you need different spaces, both mental and physical spaces, for different types of work, and that the ideal environment was one that was flexible, that was mindful of the different environments that brought out the best for different types of work.
That’s not always going to be possible for all companies, but what I had imagined at the time was that, and this is again, pre-pandemic, that offices would be great places for collaborative work and for team bonding, but that you would still need opportunities, that your employees would still need opportunities to get away from the office environment when they needed to complete an important piece of work.
I had a big team of engineers at my last company. An engineer, in particular, requires a flow state to work. You really need to immerse yourself in the problem, and not be interrupted. When you interrupt an engineer, you take them out of that state, and it’s really hard for them to get back in.
So engineers would sit there, all with their big headphones on. I remember, at the time, we used to sometimes give our engineers a few days at a hotel if they needed to get an important piece of work done. It was crazy as well, at the time, that these engineers would go to a hotel, without their big monitor, in a chair that would give them backaches. There just wasn’t, again, the opportunity to work in a different environment, but in an ergonomic way.
So when I was explained with this idea, and I was stuck with the limitations of the London co-working spaces, I thought to myself, “Well, why not become a nomad for a while and see what it would be like if I just book Airbnbs around Spain and France.
So I went on this three and a half months journey, traveling by myself with my dog to different Airbnbs around France and Spain. It was frustrating, it was really hard to find places on Airbnb that had reliable Wi-Fi, that had a desk that was an appropriate height, that had a chair that wouldn’t hurt my back after five minutes of sitting on it, that had a power socket near the desk. It seemed to me that we were pigeonholing this use case, this remote work use case into properties that were not catering for it.
That was the kernel of the idea for FLOWN, and that’s how it grew. Now, when I think about the future of work, especially post-pandemic, I think everyone’s cottoned on to the fact that there’s going to be a lot more remote workers, but I still think that the hospitality industry is not quite understood, that the needs of remote workers, and not just provide a desk in a corner, there needs to be other things that they provide in order to make that experience as productive, creative, and effective as possible.
Georgie: So we’ve talked a lot about how FLOWN supports place and space, but how do you support deep work and inspire play with your software?
Alicia: The problem is, of course, most people can’t afford to go to a nice cabin in the woods on a regular basis. That’s a rare thing that the people with a lot of money can do. We were very eager from the beginning to make sure that we were accessible and that we weren’t an elitist service. We also wanted to be valuable every day, not just the small number of days that you could get away.
We looked again at the science and the research within the Deep Work book and other books, like Flow, about what are the conditions that create the right mental space for deep work. That involves things like having opportunities to do deep work, interspersing with play and exploration, rituals of accountability, and access to diverse thinkers.
For now, we started with Flocks, which are virtual groups, these deep working sessions that we host via Zoom. It sounds really basic, but it’s just so effective to commit to doing that work, to blocking it in your diary, and protecting that time, so that your day doesn’t get full of these shallow work meetings.
On the play side, we then have quests, these 10-minute audio meditations, but they’re active, productive meditations. Again, Cal Newport talks about them in the Deep Work book. The idea is that sometimes, you need to get away from your cerebral side, you need to detach from the work that you’re doing, you need to go for a walk, you need to connect with nature, you need to connect with your non-cerebral side, your senses, your emotions, your physicality. By doing that just for 10 minutes, what happens in your brain: A, your [unintelligible 00:12:15] create new neural pathways, so you strengthen your ability to be creative, but you’re also creating this space for new ideas. The idea of quests is that, well, let’s just build a product that supports that.
We also then have the academy, which has these short-form videos that explore different concepts around deep work. Then we have theAlmanac, which the idea behind that is, often when we take a break, our default habit is to jump on Facebook or Instagram or the news, and start doomscrolling. These are habits that are instinctive, but are not particularly productive or good for us, so we came up with the Almanacas an alternative. They’re five-minute reads that are amusing, instructional, inspiring in some way, and the idea is that it’s content, without ads, without having to find a site that are a alternative to the doomscrolling, social media addiction.
The idea there is for us to become similar to Headspace or Calm, in that we’re this tool that provides these really creative forms of content that can be used, instead of for meditation, for being more productive and more creative.
Georgie: Amazing. How inspiring.
Alicia: Yes, try them out. Honestly, you’ll see what I mean. They’re just quite delicious [inaudible 00:13:35]
Georgie: Once again, this approach to creating the right mindset for both focused work and then inspired rest seems at odds with common corporate culture. How can these new better ways of working start to permeate throughout knowledge workers, not just those with the privilege to choose how they work?
Alicia: Having run my own startup, I became very fascinated by culture. It’s one of those things where your culture is not what you say, your culture is what leaders of the company observed that they do. To have a culture that’s high performing, but that also allows opportunities for play and rest, your team needs to see the leaders prioritizing that.
Now, that doesn’t mean laziness, that doesn’t mean taking huge amounts of breaks, but that does mean a recognition that sometimes you need to go for a walk, or sometimes, it’s important that you stop what you’re doing and play the guitar for a while, or play with your dog for a while, and that these diversions, when taken in aggregate, result in a much more creative and fulfilled team environment, and the outputs then become better over time.
I think it’s increasingly starting to be understood. I think that there is a growing awareness of the importance of wellness and mental wellness in their employees, but what I like about our approach and the way I’ve been thinking about it is, the FLOWN approach is a really holistic one. It’s to say, it’s not just about the physical space, it’s also about the right mental space. It’s not just about work, but it’s also about the right type of rest. It’s that interplay of the two of these dualities that bring up the best in what it is to be human.
Georgie: The concept of laziness versus rest is something we’ll explore further with upcoming guest Devon Price. I wanted to understand more from Alicia, why had rest become so important to her?
Alicia: Do you know, it’s interesting you say that. One of the books that I read during my sabbatical after I left my last company that became my theme for my sabbatical was the Tom Hodgkinson book, How To Be Idle.
It talks all about the history of idleness and how, actually, this obsession with work as the definition of your life is a very modern one, actually, a legacy of a protestant work culture, and a rich life is actually one that weaves in lots of different aspects, not just work. Actually, that inverts work into a source of joy and fulfillment [inaudible 00:16:12]
That’s the philosophy of what we’re trying to do with FLOWN, which is, how do you transform the way that we view and do work? So there isn’t this work-life dichotomy, but a work rest dichotomy because life is work and rest.
Georgie: Yes, amazing. So, then, if you were to summarize, what does productivity mean to you?
Alicia: Good question. I think it’s about making the time that you spend in work mode result in output that is meaningful and significant and moves the needle, and that is not spent distracted by the easy, shallow tasks. I think it’s about working smart on the things that matter and not spending your days weary because you’re working 15 hours a day, and you end your day feeling like a desert because there’s nothing there that’s blossoming out of the work that you’ve done.
Georgie: Do you reflect back on some of your time at Skimlinks and think that you should have worked differently?
Alicia: Good question. No. I worked very, very hard at Skimlinks, particularly in the early years. Sometimes, there is no escape. If you want to start a startup, sometimes there’s no alternative but to work really hard, but you do it knowingly that you’re not balanced, and you’re taking a hit on your health and on potentially the relationships in your life, but you are doing that for a purpose, and you’re doing that for a period of time.
I think it becomes a problem if you stop seeing it boxed in those very logical boundaries, and it starts being the way that you define your life, so you very consciously balance your life. There is always something that takes a hit. However much I would love for this not to be true, you just cannot have it all, certainly not all at once.
Alicia: You just have to make those compromises very deliberately. You could still be productive. I think, in retrospect, looking at how I worked, I don’t regret it. I worked very hard, but I also played very hard, and in the end, I’m very proud of what we achieved. This time round, though, I’m very deliberately crafting our team culture in a different way. We’re a remote-first team, we’ve hired more senior people, and we are taking a very balanced approach to work and life, and really trying to use our own principles as deliberately as possible. We’re not perfect, and part of the reason I’m doing this company is because I struggle with it.
Because it [inaudible 00:18:53] naturally for me, I’m trying to be mindful of it and think about, “Right, how can I make sure that the hours that I do work are spent doing the things that move the needle, and that I don’t waste my time on things that don’t matter.” I’ve learned to say no a lot, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re doing your first startup because you want to say yes to everyone, you don’t want to lose any opportunity because you never know what’s going to turn into a big relationship or a big break.
This time round, I guess I’m just being a lot more picky with how I invest my time. I think that makes a big difference.
Georgie: Alicia explained how in particular she’d learned to say no to meetings with prospective investors.
Alicia: So one of the things that happen when you’re an early-stage startup is, a lot of VCs get in contact with you because– Well, the first time around, you think the reason they’re getting in contact with you is because they want to invest in you, so you end up spending a lot of time doing these hour-long calls where they get to know you. What I’ve learned now from having been doing this for many years is that’s not what’s actually happening.
Now, I understand how VCs work, and I love them, but the way that they work is, their own internal measure of success is what proportion of deals have they had visibility on. For them, you are a KPI that’s been tipped, and so they don’t mind investing an hour of their time because that helps them look good to their managers. An hour of my time is worth a lot, so I have learned to say no to investors that want to meet with me when I know that it’s probably not going to be fruitful. It’s amazing how learning to say a polite no is one of the most empowering things to do as a busy person.
Georgie: Yes, interesting.
Alicia: You don’t to have to be rude, but you certainly can say a very politely, “I can’t right now, but thank you.”
Georgie: To finish off, I wanted to understand more about what FLOWN were doing to install deep work culture within their organization.
Alicia: In an in-person office, as a leader, I was always very mindful of how I behaved in an office because I knew that I was observed, and how I conducted myself, how I comported myself became what the culture was.
But in a remote office, in a remote team, how do you do that? How can you be observed when I’m sitting by myself at home? You have to be very mindful, then. We use Slack and comms in a very deliberate way. We’ve got a value deck. Every day, we belly laugh, shriek Eureka, and smell a rose because- what it means by that is, we find the humor in what we do, we celebrate learning and discovery, and we appreciate nature and small things. So we’re encouraged when we have these moments that we share them with the team.
Alicia: Yes, we have Monday, take-offs, and then Thursday night, jolly trolleys. But we begin them each time with sharing our intentions for the week, and then we try to hold each other accountable, so we’re really living our values, and we deliberately craft the way that we celebrate, the way that we promote, the way that we measure performance by these values.
That’s just the basic rules of culture building, but to create a deep work culture, it then extends into things like how we let people know that we’re working. I attend a lot of the deep work sessions that we run, the Flock sessions. We’ve created deep work Fridays, so we don’t have any team meetings or anything on that day. We create this culture where it’s okay for people to say no because they want to focus on a piece of work. I make it clear that people that prioritize focused work are rewarded.
Georgie: Amazing. Okay, well, I’m super inspired. I just want to get back to work now because you’ve just really inspired me just to do great works. That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?
Alicia: Yes, it is.
Georgie: Alicia, it’s been so lovely to talk with you today. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. We’re really grateful for having a relationship with FLOWN, FLOWN and Freedom, and hopefully talk to you lots in the future as well.
Alicia: Likewise, yes. We give Freedom to all of our employees as a perk. Yes, we put the butterfly icon on Slack when we’re in deep work mode, so we have a very tight relationship with you guys already internally.
Georgie: Fab. That’s awesome. We love that. Yes, as I say, keep in touch, and thank you so much.
Alicia: Likewise, thank you so much.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. Until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.