The importance of Deep Work for software developers

Recently I started reading a very interesting book, written by a new, but famous writer, Cal Newport which also happens to be a computer scientist. The book is called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and it has two big parts: Part One handles the why - why deep work is valuable, why deep work is rare and why deep work is meaningful. Part Two handles the how - how can we achieve deep work.

This post will not be a review of this book but more of an experiment I had with this concept of Deep Work and the little hacks I found helpful in achieving this state of focus and flow.

Why is Deep Work valuable?

One thing that we can all agree on, is that work is divided into 2 big categories: Deep Work and Shallow Work.

Shallow Work is represented by the divided effort we put into our tasks. Instead of fully focusing on the task at hand we divide our attention and effort between emails, chats, social media and the main work we have to produce. Many studies have shown that Shallow Work is not able to produce great, meaningful results (specially in our field of activity).

On the other hand, Deep Work, is the state we achieve when we put our un-devided focus and attention on the task at hand and we achieve the state of flow. Studies have shown that going into a Deep Work state for a chunk of time between 1 and 3 hours can produce great, meaningful results. Whenever we work on a piece of software that requires our un-devided attention and we do research and code on the task at hand we are able to produce great work. Besides the increased quality of our work we are also able to produce more in this relatively small chunk of time, allowing us to never feel pressured by deadlines, which, in the end leads to better customer satisfaction. Although the benefits of Deep Work are obvious, in today’s society and work environment we, as knowledge workers, are able to achieve this state less and less - which makes Deep Work a rare commodity. Here are few factors that prevent us to achieve Deep Work state:

1. Social Media

Social media is the biggest and most important factor that requires our attention constantly preventing us to give everything we have to one task. We are constantly bombarded by Facebook messages, tweets, photos we need to pin on Pinterest wall, Instagram a nice landscape or our hight tech workspace, snap some small progress we made on our project or the Asian lunch we are about to eat. And even though personally we somehow managed to stay away as much as we can from social media distraction, we are told that in order to successfully market ourselves we need to be visible, post on as many platforms as possible which in the end renders us unable to be fully focused for even few hours a day.

2. The Office

Even though remote work becomes more and more popular, the vast majority of us still work in an office - and what is even worse - in an open space. Open spaces are sources of distraction, and even though we can put our headphones on to avoid the noise we get constantly bothered by somebody coming to our desk with “urgent” matters. And if somehow we manage to avoid “human contact” for a few hours, then we have our inbox and internal chat distracting us from our task. And we all know that all mail is “urgent” and requires immediate reaction. Studies have shown that even the smallest distraction, like the noise of a new email message we have received (even thought we might ignore it) has great impact on our attention and prevents us greatly from achieving Deep Work and a state of flow.

How to achieve Deep Work

By reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and other books like Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength and The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich I’ve came up with few life hacks I am experimenting with, to be able to produce more meaningful work both in the office and at home.

1. Start really early

As during the day I can’t just simply isolate myself from the world and start producing great results, I decided to try and wake up at 5 A.M., drink my morning coffee and from 5:30 A.M. until 07:30 or 08:30 A.M. to work on my personal projects. I find this better than working after office hours for several reasons:

2. Create fixed times for checking email

Even though we tend to despise emails, they are a very important part of the office work. You can’t work in a company, no matter how big or small, and completely ignore email. This will only lead to a huge, unread batch of email in our Inbox that will produce anxiety and more stress or lead to people coming to your desk and distract you for even bigger chunks of time. But this doesn’t mean we have to be constantly alerted and distracted by emails. One experiment that I found very useful in dealing with email was to check email at fixed times. My solutions is to check email at 11:00 A.M. and 16:00 P.M. . This gives me at least 3 chunks of 1-3 hours of uninterrupted work as well allowing me to not leave my Inbox grow out of proportions.

3. Stay offline from internal chat

Internal chat is one of the worst distractions from your work as any small chat can easily turn into a big conversation and gossip. By mostly staying offline from internal chat will discourage people from approaching you as they will either have to send an email - for which we already have a solution - or come to your desk directly - for which I will present another solution next.

4. Keep your headphones on even if you don’t listen to music

I suggest buying active noise cancelling headphones or very good noise cancelling ones. By having them on most of the time, you will be protected from the open space noise as well as people will think twice before approaching you as headphones are a sign of being busy and in a state of complete focus and flow.

Conclusion

As important and meaningful Deep Work is, we cant isolate ourselves from society nor can we completely isolate from office norms or technological progress. Most of us find really important to stay in touch with latest news (specially in technology) and we also need to be active in the office and with our colleagues. I found the 4 tips above useful in my daily routine and they helped me to achieve at least two 1-3 hours Deep Work chunks of time. Let me know in the comments bellow what you think about these 4 hacks as well as if you have any new ones that can be useful.