Lessons Learned from Deep Work
Last updated: Oct 30, 2019
I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport, after becoming increasingly frustrated with how often I’m pulled out of my deep development work for other “shallow” work tasks.
At Orchard, development team leads are both developers and managers, so I need to balance both completing development work with attending meetings, performing administrative tasks, fielding questions, and mentoring employees. So while these tasks might be “shallow” compared to diving into a development problem, they are still an important part of my daily work and can’t simply be ignored. So, in reading Deep Work, I was hoping to learn some strategies for maximizing the amount of the amount of time spent in deep work flow, while still accomplishing all my other necessary tasks.
Drain the Shallows
Newport suggests you look at your day’s schedule, and block out each minute of your day with the specific activity you’d like to work on during that time. This will change and isn’t something you should punish yourself for if you can’t stick to, it’s simply a way to be mindful about the time that you have available and how it will be spent. Unforeseen things will occur, fires will happen. You’ll be pulled away from deep work to do other things. When that happens, adjust your day’s schedule accordingly.
Once you’ve started thinking mindfully about your schedule, and have started accounting for the time you spend on tasks throughout the day, you can begin to batch together shallow tasks. Instead of sprinkling something throughout the day (like answering email), you can instead decide to answer all your emails in a single time chunk, ignoring them for the rest of the day. Since meetings (often) can’t change, it is helpful to batch other shallow activities around your existing meetings. Do you have a meeting from 1:00-2:00 and then another at 3:00-4:00? Spend the hour in between catching up on emails, assigning code reviews, and performing other shallow tasks that you’ve put off until then.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but working more hours a day doesn’t necessarily equate to getting more done. A compressed timeline, with a “hard out” when you go home and stop thinking about work, will create a sense of urgency for completing tasks, giving you less time for your mind to wander. Creating this false sense of urgency is something that you can improve on with practice, and can also be utilized throughout your day by setting time limits for completing things. For example, “I have 30 minutes to finish this code review”.
Maintaining this fixed-schedule helps keep work from creeping into your non-work life, maintaining a balance and limiting the chance for you to burn out. While at work, it keeps you focused and urgent in completing tasks.
Ritualize Your Deep Work
In order to facilitate entering a flow state of deep work, you can add some form of ritual around it. This will be different for everyone, but maybe it involves going to get a fresh cup of coffee, or starting a fresh page of your notebook, or putting on your noise-canceling headphones and playing some music. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but having a process you initiate each time you begin to deeply work can help your brain realize it’s time to push the shallow stuff aside and get down to business.
Similarly, you also need a way to turn off that deep work state. Newport suggests adding a “shutdown routine” at the end of the day, where you go over your TODO lists, examining each item, write TODOs and check your schedule for the next day, and generally just get to a good stopping point. Everyone’s specific shutdown routine will involve different activities, but the idea is that it’s a signal for your brain that work thoughts will be left at work, and there’s no need to worry because you went through your shutdown routine.