Promoting Deep Work with Your Tech Team

It’s not often I read a book and immediately put the practice into action, but I recently did with Deep Work by Cal Newport. While the subject matter of the book is not new (we live in a culture of interruption, etc.), the methodologies that Newport suggests are worth implementing with your team immediately.

The short definition of Deep Work is work that requires intense focus for extended periods of time in order to make meaningful headway. Software development, when done properly, is deep work.

The Modern Workplace is a Disaster for Deep Work

Open work space is great for collaborating, but the constant interruptions it promotes are extremely harmful for deep work. If you then layer on the constant interruptions of Slack, iMessage, and other messaging tools, it’s a miracle that anything ever gets done besides responding to others.

One of the things I think make distributed teams more effective is that when you’re not sitting next to someone they can’t just walk over and interrupt your train of thought. If you shut down external interruptions like Slack and other tools like it, you can control when you’re interrupted.

My 30-Day Experiment with Deep Work

After reading the book, I immediately put the following things into practice for my daily schedule:

  • I made a list of all work to be done the day ahead and classified it as Deep or Shallow
  • I made large blocks of time on my calendar and labeled them Deep, then created other smaller blocks (typically 30 mins or less) for Shallow. Deep blocks were used to do anything on my Deep list, Shallow blocks were for any Shallow task on my list
  • I wrote all of this on a piece of paper rather than using a digital task list
  • When a Deep block started, I closed all windows or apps not related to getting that task done and did not respond to phone calls or other messages.
  • If something popped up, I added it to either the Deep or Shallow list for the day and kept on trucking. I did not stop to do it right away
  • I made it a point to break in the middle of the day and take a walk or get outside to reset my brain for the afternoon
  • At the end of the day, I made the list for the next day and then shut down for the day (This is a process Newport talks a good bit about in the book, and it was extremely valuable)

My productivity went through the roof during this test, and I was much more relaxed about getting work done. Much of the above is detailed in the book as to how to implement, but I made my own edits to his suggestions to match my work methods.

You Can Control It

There’s a school of thought that says “This is just how things are now.” It’s simply not true, and it’s your job as a leader to promote a culture of deep work on your technology team. Here’s what it might look like (modified to fit your company culture, hours, etc.):

  • Create quiet or private spaces in your office if you have a modern open floor plan. Let your team know they can and should use these spaces for deep work. Or, let them work from home if you can’t make it happen in your office
  • Have your team create large blocks on their calendar (at least 2 hours in duration) where they can’t be interrupted unless there is an emergency. A real emergency
  • During those times, they should be off Slack or at least set to Do Not Disturb
  • They should be off of company email (and hopefully other email as well)
  • Set a goal to start with that everyone has at least one Deep Work block every day, preferably two
  • If required, subscribe your entire team to the Freedom apps to manage their interruptions

It’s hard to over-estimate the potential productivity gains you’ll see both for yourself and for your team if you can get buy in from everyone involved.

I highly encourage you to buy a copy of Deep Work for everyone on your team. It will change the trajectory of your product development nearly overnight.