What is deep work?
In 2016, Cal Newport popularized the phrase “deep work” through his bestseller of the same title. Since then, it has been a go-to mantra for success and productivity in teams across the world. Essentially, deep work is the practice of working on a single, often cognitively demanding, task for an extended period of time, without distractions and with full intent concentration to facilitate productivity.
Let’s take a minute to examine our everyday work lives. A quick retrospect of any work morning will show that most people spend a considerable amount of time responding to communication from colleagues or providing updates to managers. Then comes a brief period of work on projects or tasks of importance. Even this time chunk is interjected with shallow work – routine tasks that are part of everyday work but not necessarily demanding of deep attention, such as email updates, slack messages, management tasks, and logistical updates, etc. Not to mention the distraction of work chatter, coffee breaks, social media updates, and the list goes on. Essentially, a person is always busy in an always-on world, but not necessarily productive or effective with research indicating that this switching between tasks causes a lag of 40% in productivity.
Newport’s book is the result of his observation of this common everyday reality and the contrasting of this work pattern with the habits of successful and productive individuals. Research has shown that individuals who allocate dedicated time slots, usually ranging between 90 to 120 minutes, to a cognitively demanding task without the distraction of even background updates, perform significantly better than others. This physical, emotional, and mental state of deep work allows the human mind to perform at its peak capacity, often yielding astonishing results.
Spotlight on focus time
Focus time is an incredibly famous and widely adopted time management solution. It involves dedicating clearly defined chunks of time to accomplish particular tasks with small breaks built-in. In practice, this might look like allocating a 45-minute time slot to work on an important task. This is followed by a quick break of 5 minutes that is usually used to stretch or take a short walk or even grab a healthy snack. Post the 5-minute breather, the cycle continues with another 45-minute slot for focused work. This cycle would go on for about 120 minutes until the schedule allows a longer 30-minute break.
This sounds almost regimental, however the practice has been proven to increase focus at tasks while preserving energy, improving well-being, and promoting better productivity.
The success of this method stems from the sense of urgency from doing tasks in a time-bound manner. The explicit reminders of break and work times and the spotlight on getting down to business within a given time frame help individuals to dedicate their entire potential to the task at hand.
Focus time is an excellent partner of deep work, often being touted as a fundamental practice to a deep work routine.
Deep work in the remote workplace
Remote work is a natural ally of deep work. The reality of being away from office chatter, the reduced external distractions, and the comfort zone one creates within their remote work setup become important factors that contribute to practicing deep work.
However, this alliance of deep work in remote settings needs mindful partnership since it’s also equally possible to not succeed. Remote workers tend to adopt a lifestyle of being “always-on”. Usually, they stay on by staying active on shallow work activities – email and instant messaging being the most common. When workers feel pressured to stay active on communication platforms, they lose the opportunity to practice deep work.
What hampers deep work in the remote workplace?
Attention residue due to context switching
Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, first introduced the term attention residue in her 2009 research paper ‘Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?. She studied the effect that switching between tasks had on employee performance. The results showed that people struggle to transition between tasks, often risking under-performance in subsequent tasks. She also observed that disengaging after completion of one task led to better performance on ensuing tasks.
In the remote workplace where employees struggle to find a balance between their work and personal lives, and where employees are pressured to collaborate, communicate, and work all at the same time, the multiple switching between tasks hampers the opportunity to create and follow a deep work routine.
Staying always on
The culture of staying plugged in to work, particularly the staying “available” on communication apps, to combat the pitfalls of the problem of low visibility has led to an increasingly busy workforce. This workforce, although plugged in and busy, unfortunately, doesn’t deliver results in terms of volume or value. The need to stay visible to colleagues and managers, particularly in remote work environments, severely limits an employee’s ability to follow a deep work practice.
A very small percentage of remote workers have the luxury of dedicated home offices. Even when workers have workspaces, they are usually invaded by clutter, blurred boundaries between life and work, and occasional spillovers from other aspects of life – such as child care or pet care. In such surroundings where other priorities of life aren’t delineated from the workday, it’s quite natural that focus time or deep work find little attention.
The simplest and most common obstacle to deep work is the human nature of resisting hard or undesirable work. When a task at hand requires sharp focus and optimum mental capacity, human nature is to push such tasks to a later time while choosing to focus on easier, more shallow work.
How can managers promote deep work?
Understanding the obstacles to deep work can equip managers with strategies and tools to facilitate the practice in their teams. The most successful ideas to help teams adopt and sustain a deep work routine are:
Build a robust remote visibility practice
Using a data-enabled visibility practice, where employees’ work can be duly credited, will allow teammates to focus effort on tasks that contribute to the larger goal. A focus on visibility where managers prioritize productivity metrics over presenteeism will alleviate teammates’ preoccupation with the optics of being at work.
Encourage focus time slots
A practice of allocating focus time, be it 30 minute or longer time slots, can be a top-down approach in organizations, wherein managers can explicitly block out their calendars for focus time and communicate the process with their direct reports. They can then encourage their teammates to adopt a similar routine where all peers are aware and respectful of each other’s focus time slots.
Communicate goals and deadlines
When team members are conscious of deadline-oriented goals, a common natural response is to focus efforts on such goals. Communicating the vision for a task while also adequately addressing the sub-tasks, deadlines, and roadmap for success can enthuse teammates to prepare and execute with focus.
Invest in project and time management tools
Use technology to combat distractions. There are a plethora of options that are available to make focus time and deep work an easier habit to adopt. From simple calendar tools that mark time boxes for scheduled work to list or project trackers such as Jira, Clickup, or Trello, apps can ease the transition to deep work practice.
Encourage flexible work-styles and personalities
Stay aware of your teammates’ diverse working styles and personalities and follow through by allowing flexibility to accommodate different work modes. People are able to focus and do their best work at different times of the day, some people like physical mobility to be a part of their breaks or downtime while others need a different working environment. Accommodating personal preferences will help individuals to adopt deep work practices that are tailored to their unique personalities.
Promoting asynchronous working environments, where employees are not required to respond to communication immediately, but have the opportunity to block out time for communication purposes, can also help promote focus time slots.
Take a hard look at your team’s meeting schedules
The biggest challenge to deep work and focus time is synchronous team meetings. Most meetings are too long, happen too often, and are too haphazard. Use data to inform your meeting scheduling – who needs to be present in a meeting? how long are your most productive meetings? how seamlessly can your team collaborate with or without meetings? Avoiding virtual meeting pitfalls and promoting asynchronous work will make time for deep work.
Promote work-life balance
An inherent portion of deep work is breaks and downtimes. Encouraging your teammates to adopt healthy lifestyle habits including developing hobbies or setting healthy work-life boundaries will help them value and consider meaningful downtime which will rejuvenate them and bolster their focus time.
When people live and work from distributed spaces, a team’s culture of prioritizing deep and focused work becomes paramount in determining the productivity of the team. Leaders must ensure that they build a culture that promotes and protects deep work by paying attention to factors such as meeting culture of the team, interruptions caused by communication tools, time spent in synchronous collaboration, allocation of DND time slots, context switching as indicated by the number of tasks “in-progress” simultaneously, etc. Gaining data-backed visibility into these factors will help managers strategize work processes that inherently facilitate deep work and contribute to the success of a team.
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