Cognitively demanding tasks like writing code require deep focus without distractions. If you are constantly interrupted, you are not going to be at your best. Deep work is what we need to be efficient and get more work done. I share my experience creating deep work environment no matter if you are a freelancer, working in a team or managing a team.
You are probably gonna say “Yeah, that is common sense, I know that I do not need to be interrupted”. The truth of the matter is that many times we are not conscious of all distractions around us. Even if we are, we don’t believe that we can do anything about it but the truth is that we can and we must.
I first heard the term deep work on a podcast where Cal Newport was talking about it. I think this term perfectly captures the essence of the state one needs to be in order to tackle demanding tasks. I can compare this to the state of flow in programming also know as “being in the zone”.
When you start a cognitively demanding task it is like submerging yourself in deep water. You focus and isolate yourself from the environment around you. The more you work on your task the deeper you go. In this state, you are fully focused on the task at hand - you have all requirements, rules, discussion related to a task in your head and you are working towards a solution. One interruption and you are pulled to the surface and after that you have to the the whole submerging exercise again.
Deep work is essential. The problem with deep work is that it is very fragile especially in the modern working environment with open offices, social media, constant meetings, and more.
Many people believe that they are good at multitasking, I was certainly in that group, but it has been proven multiple times that this is not the case. One of the reasons for that is the cost of task switching. According to Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task”. So basically a large chunk of focus and mental preparations go to waste when we are being interrupted.
Another associated cost is stress. According to this study, employees that are multitasking have significantly increased levels of stress and frustration.
If you think that stress is not very tangible, we can certainly do some cost calculations in term of dollars. Let’s take company X with 20 employees with a wage of $30/hour. If task switching takes 10 minutes (a lot less than what seems to be real) and we have 5 interruptions per day, than that amounts to about 3,744 wasted man hours for a single year or $112,320. If the company had 100 employees the cost goes up to half a million dollars.
So it seems that interruptions are quite expensive in terms of dollars, stress, and frustrations. So how can we become more productive, reduce stress, and actually feel good about the work that we do?
Creating an environment where employees can deeply focus and work on problems without unnecessary distractions (aka deep work) seems worth pursuing. There are several main sources of distraction. Let’s list the worst offenders and determine how to tackle them in various situations.
Social media is one of the worst enemies of deep work. As discussed here, it is not so much the social media as those pesky notifications that are stealing our attention. The best thing that you can do is to put your phone on airplane mode. If that seems a bit too harsh just disable all notifications from social media. I dare you to do that and see the results.
Email is another huge disruptor. Similarly to social media, constant email notifications will kick you out of deep work. To mitigate that, simply turn off email notifications and return to your email once every few hours and answer emails in bulk. Yes, there are important emails but most of then do not need our immediate attention.
Meetings & calls is category that can has huge impact. Many times meetings are just randomly scheduled. More often than not we are dragged into meetings every hour or so which is not ideal. Try to group meetings and have them one after the other. For example, allocate a daily slot for meetings - say 4 to 6 PM. Some people go even further by allocating one day of the week for meetings. Obviously this might not work for everybody but if you can, try it.
Working in a team can be one of the most fulfilling experiences but it does have its challenges. If colleagues are stealing our attention every 5 minutes we won’t be able to focus. If you are a team lead or in other lead position, you should create a balance between deep work and discussions, meetings, etc.
Personal time management is very important as well. Many times we are our worst enemies as we constantly find little chores to do that can actually be postponed like getting a small snack every 5 minutes. If you are that kind of guy or a gal, you could try the Pomodoro technique. It is a simple technique where you start a timer with a predefined time block, I personally use 50 minute blocks, and while the timer is ticking you only work on the task at hand.
Sometimes you cannot control your environment but you can always hack it to your advantage. For instance, if you work in a busy noisy office you can go to work two hours before everyone else or stay 2 hours late. Simple but it can have a profound effect on the quality and the amount of work you do.
Another hack is to simply use two work-from-home (WFH) days. More and more companies are allowing Work From Home and you should be taking advantage of that. Schedule your WFH days in such a way that you do your most important work away from interruptions and I bet that you will feel the difference.
Finally, listening to music can provide an easy way to enter and sustain deep work. The key here is to listen to the same music over and over again when doing deep work - I have a Spotify playlist called Peaceful Piano that works great for me. The brain likes patterns so if you listen to the same music every time, your brain will use that as a queue and you will have easier time focusing.
If you feel that you are constantly distracted, feel stressed, or simply trying to find new ways to be more productive, please give deep work a try. Maybe you are not in a position to control all variables but only changing a single aspect of your work day can have huge impact.
While back I reorganized my days to better support deep work and I felt it right away. I decided to get up a bit early and work on a task before going to the office. It was a simple change that allowed me to focus for about 1-2 hours on an important task. Two hours does not feel like much but, lo and behold, I started completing important task that we lagging behind, I felt more accomplished, and stress definitely reduced.
If you would like to dig deeper into deep work and setting your environment for success I would like to point your attention to the following books: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success
Let me know if you are practicing deep work. Let’s discuss any impediments, questions, or ways that you can embrace deep work. Let’s get more things done.