Coined by Cal Newport in 2012 on his Study Hacks blog, deep work is the ability to reach a state of increased productivity when performing cognitively taxing tasks by minimising or ignoring external interferences. Making deep work the centrepoint of your knowledge work schedule generates three key benefits:
- 1. An increase in the quality of your output;
- 2. An increase in the quantity of your output; and
- 3. A passion that manifests as a deeper sense of satisfaction when undertaking and completing tasks.
In a 24/7 world driven by technological change and innovation, distractions are everywhere and unavoidable. Emails, social media interaction and digitalisation of basic administrative tasks often require immediate attention and an instantaneous response. The workspace, whether office-based or remote, as a result, becomes a hot-bed of multi-tasking, interruption, and profound information overload. And when it’s been found that re-focusing on a task after being distracted takes a person on average, 23 minutes and 15 seconds, this just leads to more speed and more stress.
Like a lock that eventually gives way after being repeatedly picked at, unconstructive, fragmented time reduces the ability to concentrate and therefore resist such distractions. If permitted to continue then over time, deeper working becomes harder to attain and you need to work for an increasing amount of time on complex tasks before reaching peak productivity.
Consequently, at Made Tech, we’ve been trying a number of techniques to help teams commit to periods of deep working. Success of each varies from person-to-person as everyone responds differently to external stimuli and some are naturally better than others at zoning out distractions. While it’s worth taking time to work out what works on an individual level, these are some strategies we would recommend.
Adapt your working environment
Flexible working is embedded in our culture so people can choose where they work from and as much as possible when. We do however require most of our teams to have larger overlap with their customers' working times as well as try to discourage working in the evenings. This is to ensure work/life balance, and because it has the potential to prevent relaxation and risk negatively impacting work being done the following day.
During pairing activities, our teams use pomodoros – a time management method which breaks down work into intervals of deep work, separated by short breaks (25 minute pomodoros and 5 minute breaks for example). This technique is not limited to development or pairing environments – anything that requires periods of uninterrupted concentration can benefit. Our developers and engineers have started using the timer system while working on client projects with good outcomes, so we recently extended its usage to the marketing and sales teams as well.
Make it a daily habit
Planning periods of deep work and creating a ritual makes it easier to focus than when you try to transition from shallow work when the moment (or a deadline) takes you. Being in a quiet space at a set time every day gets you into a rhythm and stops energy from being expended unnecessarily by jumping between complex and simpler tasks.
From experience, we’ve found that deep work is best practiced in the morning when distractions are less frequent, or the early afternoon prior to post-lunch slumps.
Control your distractions
Breaks aren’t a sign of laziness, they’re key to productivity both before and after a period of deep work. Allowing yourself to fully relax during such time is therefore crucial because the mind needs to wander rather than think about what you’ve just been working on or what you have to do next.
To manage any potential interruptions during breaks and deep work, dedicate set times for shallow work and online activity i.e. checking emails and social media at 10am, 1pm and 5pm and stick to it. Extensions and apps like StayFocused and Freedom can help while you get used to working this way. Another good thing to do is to book meetings in blocks rather than spread across the day, potentially slicing it up. Eventually, it will all become second nature.
Mastering intense focus isn’t easy, but if you want to perform at your peak, achieve set goals and successfully tackle complex tasks and projects, then it is absolutely necessary. Even undertaking a deep period of work for one-to-two hours a day, is sufficient to get significant results for beginners. It’s therefore worth taking these steps and putting in the effort to get there because you and your clients will reap the rewards.