Deep Work, Quarantine Edition

Something I deeply believe is that if you’re able to have focused time to work, you’re going to be able to go further, faster, and deeper than those who don’t.

Something I deeply believe is that if you’re able to have focused time to work, you’re going to be able to go further, faster, and deeper than those who don’t.

That’s been especially true for me in this time of quarantine. When this began, I was hyper-available to people, answering emails and chats much quicker than I would usually. That, paired with the uncertainty of this pandemic made for a huge drag on my focus and craft.

After a couple months, I’m happy to say that I’ve found my groove again and figured out how to re-adopt Deep Work for a post-COVID era.

I’d like to share what I’ve been doing in hopes of it helping you. I won’t say this is a prescription, I recognize that not all of this is applicable to everyone. I will say that it’s helped me and maybe you can find one tiny thing to help you.

I’d like to talk about the benefits of Deep Work, dispel the myth of multitasking, and give you practical ways of making it work for you.

What is Deep Work and Why Do I Care? #

Deep Work is a term I stole from Cal Newport’s book of the same name. I use it as a label for the intensive, focused work we value so highly in design. It’s so important that we made it a core value in our design team.

Let’s talk about how that applies to makers like us by reading an excerpt from Paul Graham essay called “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” It gets at the way we use our time in a really eloquent way. The entire essay is worth reading, then reading again.

In this essay, Paul sets up the ways makers and managers use their time and how each person’s use impacts the other. Here’s what he has to say about a meeting that dots our schedule.

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I’m slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning. I know this may sound oversensitive, but if you’re a maker, think of your own case. Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all? Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t. And ambitious projects are by definition close to the limits of your capacity. A small decrease in morale is enough to kill them off.

To me, this underscores one of my deeply-held beliefs: unbroken blocks of time are critical to being a contributing member of any team. Enter Deep Work.

The Impact of Deep Work #

Think about metalsmiths, the ones who forge all the cool knives we use every day. Their work is incredibly careful and focused. It takes hours of dedicated focus to produce a blade. They have to hit the metal in just the right way in just the right spot. A lack of focus, even for a short time, means the possibility of a brittle blade that has to be reforged.

Designing and building software is no different.

If we lose focus, even for a minute to answer an email, we risk losing our focus and momentum. That design solution we’re working towards, we’ve got to go back to the beginning and retrace our steps. The algorithm we’re writing to process a bunch of data, we’re back at square one — all because of a short interruption. If you think this is an exaggeration, know that I’ve seen it happen firsthand to myself and others.

At work, we use Pivotal Tracker to measure our team’s progress towards a goal. One metric in there is velocity. Once we implemented deep work on the team, our velocity /tripled/.

How’d we do that? We blocked off time to do Deep Work. Let’s talk about things you can try next.

What to Try #

Here’s a short list of things that help get you going:

Identify What You’ll Focus On #

This might seem obvious, but it’s so important that it’s worth reiterating. If you know what you’re working on, you can really dive in. Otherwise, your lack of focus will make for a less rewarding and productive time because you’re spending too much time trying to figure out what to do. So, do this before you get started.

Shut Off Notifications #

Those tiny red dots and push notifications are the best at stealing your attention. I recommend setting aside some time where you’re separated from things that notify you. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and drop it in a drawer where you can’t see it. You may still need a way to let someone reach you. I’ll cover that in another post.

Block Off Time, Ritualize It #

For Deep Work to happen and be effective, you need chunks of time to do it. I’ve experimented with short sprints and long stretches of time. But the most important thing is to drop time on your calendar, block it off, and make it consistent.

I’ve found you need at least 45 minutes of uninterrupted time to really get into flow. I find I can focus for an hour and a half, but then I need a break for half an hour or so before I go back.

Chunk Your Meetings #

To call back to the problem outlined in Paul Graham’s essay from earlier, meetings — while important — can really sap your ability to focus. So put them in blocks. Find out when you work the best and protect that time.

I’ve seen people have a morning or afternoon of meetings so they work uninterrupted in the other stretch of time. I work best in the morning, so I protect that time.

If neither of those work for you, try putting your interruptions near your lunch break.

Consider The Optimum Time for Meetings #

Our own Aldric had this addition. He says:

When working on the manager schedule, keep those tips in mind for your colleagues on maker schedules, particularly if you must set recurring meetings with them (e.g. 1:1): try to use the beginning or end of their day, or before or after their lunch.

Wrapping Up #

To conclude, let’s revisit some of the topics we discussed. By now, you and I hopefully share the belief that Deep Work is valuable, rewarding, and worth your time. It can really boost the quality of what you were hired to do. You’ve got a few tools in your toolbox to help facilitate that time, such as identifying what you’ll focus on, shutting off distractions, blocking time on your calendar for it, and chunking your meetings.

What else have you done? I’d be eager to hear. Thanks for reading!