The core concept of Deep Work isn't really controversial. Everyone knows that hard problems require focus, but that doesn't seem to stop people from surrounding themselves with notifications and distractions. It also doesn't stop many companies from burying their employees under a deluge of Slack notifications and must-respond-immediately e-mail expectations.
Once you start putting a name on it (It's not focus, it's "Deep Work (TM)"!) it becomes an easier sell to many (though not all) of the people who need to hear it. Attaching an explanation, a methodology, or a movement to something really does seem to amplify the importance.
It's the same effect that makes "Dopamine fasting" more poignant than suggesting that people take a day off of watching TV, checking their phones every 10 minutes, and browsing time-waster websites all throughout the day. They're the same thing in concept, but once you attach a catchy name and/or a semi-scientific explanation to something, many people start taking it more seriously.
In my time mentoring junior devs, one of the biggest predictors of future success was a person's ability to sit down, focus, and get work done. Many college grads are coming from an environment where their classes are neatly divided into 1-hour classes spread throughout the day. They're pulled in many directions by their phones, social engagements, activities, homework, and classes. They get in the habit of only focusing for 1-2 hours at most before going on to the next thing. Once they graduate and have to sit in one place and work on one thing for 8 hours a day, many of them struggle. If I try to lecture them on the importance of sustained focus and minimizing distractions, I sound like an out of touch old guy. If I instead say "Hey, we practice Deep Work here. Let me get you a copy of a Deep Work book so you can join us" then they're on board.
So you may not like the branding. You may not like seeing the same topic rehashed over and over again. But practically speaking, I don't care how it's accomplished. As long as it gets more people to take sustained focus seriously (both employees and managers alike) then I'm all for it.
> Once they graduate and have to sit in one place and work on one thing for 8 hours a day, many of them struggle.
Funnily enough, I'm finding that a work environment isn't actually very conducive with doing work. I spend most of my day being distracted with very little opportunity to focus on something.
> If I try to lecture them on the importance of sustained focus and minimizing distractions, I sound like an out of touch old guy. If I instead say "Hey, we practice Deep Work here. Let me get you a copy of a Deep Work book so you can join us" then they're on board
I would have the opposite reaction. "Deep Work" is cringy, but if you said "we value sustained focus and minimizing distractions" I would be very interested.
In my experience nobody sits in one place and works on one thing for 8 hours a day. I am tempted to say that it's not only rare but it's undesirable.
I can work for approximately 5 hours straight without needing any sort of break; but part of becoming a more senior developer was to realize that this is actually a really bad thing for me. The “sweet spot” for me appears to be either 1.5 or 2 hours long. If I have some urgency I will literally shut down my laptop and move to a coffee shop or some other physical context and spend at least 15 minutes taking in the new ambiance before opening up the laptop and resuming a separate 2-hour burst of focused work.
The reason is basically that the flow state is good for one very important parameter that we might call ‘grit,’ the actual overcoming of pain and moving a project to completion... but it fails of course at a whole range of metacognitive processes which I might imperfectly class along at least three separate axes as... well, the words are not great but ‘creativity’ and ‘organization’ and ’empathy’ work. Flow states are really good for when you know what needs to be done and how to do it because your project is well-organized. They can be poor for stepping back and thinking “is this really the best way to satisfy that person’s needs?” and for stepping back and thinking “is there some more powerful idea I could leverage here which would make all of these sorts of problems just go away, even if it is a little strange given how the system exists right now?” and for simply asking “how can I clean things up now to make my life easier in the future?”. Even if you have individuals who by their personalities simply exude grit and radiate it for everyone else, which is an absolute treasure to have, you may want to balance them out with people who have a sort of moralistic imperative of “this is how a system like this should be built.” I don’t want to work with just hackers—but with hackers, engineers, dreamers, and evangelists—on my dev team. Either as separate people or as separate hats which people take on over the course of the day.
This is something I stumbled onto recently. I've been hellbent on making sure I had no distractions and could hit that 5 hour flow state, only to find smaller chunks gave me more points to reflect on the state of the work and redirect it more effectively.
Thanks for capturing it into words.
Do you tell managers this as well? That the developers need deep focus time? I've been fighting for this my entire career, it's nearly always our managers not shielding us from interruptions that have been my problem.
I'm not sure if the distractions you're referring to are people just scrolling through twitter all day and not working or actual work distractions.
It's a delicate balance. When I was in a manager-of-managers position, I didn't explicitly micromanage how managers ran their teams or run their days. People don't respond well to that. Instead, I tried to lead by example by setting my own focus hours, giving ample notice for upcoming meetings, setting expectations for response times at the tops of e-mail messages, and so on. If you try to create an atmosphere that fosters sustained focus throughout the whole company, people tend to notice. If a specific manager becomes bad about interruptions, we'd have an offline conversation.
> I'm not sure if the distractions you're referring to are people just scrolling through twitter all day and not working or actual work distractions.
It's not an either-or. It's always both. It's not uncommon for juniors devs to complain that their workplace doesn't let them focus while their phone buzzes every 5 minutes from some notifications that they've opted-in to receive.
Work distractions tend to trigger people to check Twitter, HN, Reddit, or other sites before they get back to work. It's easy to turn a 5-minute work interruption into a 15-minute break because getting back into focus is an uphill battle. It's much easier and more enjoyable to catch up on those notifications on your phone.
The difference is that people tend to overlook the distraction of notifications they like, and instead blame everything on the notifications for distractions they don't like.
One of the most valuable skills people can learn is how to return to focus quickly. That's not to say that distractions are okay, but it's up to the person to cultivate a habit of descending back into their work as efficiently as possible when interrupted.
Why did you quit your manager-of-managers position?
For me, it's miserable. It's like knowing work is being done, but you aren't there doing it. You don't always properly understand it, the people you're managing don't, and it feels like you're the bureaucracy slowing things down.
For me at least.
My point was that it's important to recognize that "This doesn't work for me" isn't equivalent to "This doesn't work for anyone."
In this case, the Deep Work concept and associated writings really do work for a lot of people. If they don't work for individuals, that's fine too, but it's not really productive to try to detract from the material without proposing a better alternative.
Also, no one will dispute that there is a lot of questionable or bad self-help material out there, but that doesn't mean that you should immediately discredit and disregard 100% of it. If your skepticism heuristic is so sensitive that everything gets dismissed before you even get into reading it, you're going to throw the good out with the bad.
Like many, when it comes to personal projects, I want to accomplish something and enjoy myself. The problem is that those are often at odds with each other: accomplishing something worthwhile requires hard work that isn't always enjoyable.
I've modified the system slightly to a "20-Hour Method" but the idea is the same.
I decide on something I would like to learn or work on and focus on it for 20 hours. Remarkably, I felt the weight of this decision for the first time, I knew my decision would direct a significant amount of time and effort. I never felt this before, because I knew my decisions would only last until the first small obstacle.
This system is how I balance the trade-off between doing what I enjoy and pushing through the hard times. It's not a motivational trick to me. It is the objective way I have decided to balance the trade-off between hard work and constant enjoyment. With few exceptions, I know that the only way out is through, so I do the hard work, and when 20-Hours rolls around, I often find I do want to continue, even though I hated some parts along the way.
Otherwise it's a difficult, tedious grind.
After readin this I am going to try it out.
We have it totally backwards.
Maybe pairing would help here as a way to get more of this knowledge transferred more quickly so the shallow work can be spread out?
This is probably the main reason why I burned out last year (1 year before COVID-19). I started programming when I was 12, but after 30 years of acquiring knowledge and experience, I'd find myself getting blank stares at meetings when I explained the crux of a problem and how to go about solving it. The team just perceived me as slow and out of touch, without realizing that I had just short-circuited everything they were discussing. They'd arrive at the same conclusion I did in a few weeks, but by then we'd be on to the next challenge. Rinse, repeat.
So instead of getting into the zone on hard problems, I found myself going through the motions to satisfy productivity metrics slapping duct tape over junior-level spaghetti code. It was unfathomable to them that their technique was at fault because they were so deep in what they were working on that they couldn't see the forest for the trees.
I've decided to take a break for a year or two and am currently doing handyman work for a good friend to make rent. I'm healthier and happier than I have been in many years. So for anyone reading this who feels any unease about where the tech industry is heading, I just want to reassure you that you can try new things and the world won't come to an end. You're capable and have resilience that maybe you haven't had to tap into for a while. Maybe we're just coming up against walls that we can't easily climb ourselves, and we just need to wait for the industry to catch up to what we already know.
TL;DR: my life is basically the cliche ending of Office Space right now, but that happens periodically and that's ok.
Someone's gonna get the less experienced junior somewhere.
I agree if companies don't have non-management tracks for experienced engineers. That does result in the environment you're talking about in about the worst way where your most experienced eng's are unhappy / hate managing and inexperienced eng's are stuck with bad managers
How does this happen? Is it just easier to leave a negative comment than to say something meaningful if you enjoyed the article?
Negative comments that don't add value are not viewed the same way for some reason.
All you need to do is find some flaw or imperfection, comment on it, and so long as you're not wrong... you'll at least be counted amongst those making valid observations; even if what you're pointing out isn't fatal to the proposition or fails to win the big picture case.
Making a positive assertion however is much more difficult. You have to not only find a valid observation but then be convincing that the supporting observation makes a compelling case in favor of the proposition; perhaps with supporting evidence, etc.
So a flaw can stand on its own and be factually true, but a supporting argument must be part of a larger framework of support to have meaning. And I'm not so sure this is wrong by itself. Positive statements and assertions should have solid foundations to win the day.
Where I think we go wrong is we allow the negative arguments win the day for an opposing position. We let the ease of someone making a negative argument confuse us into thinking that person's opposing proposition is right and is so doing we fall into the trap of false alternatives. Current public discourse, speaking in the US, has taken this problem to the extreme. Activists come out against one thing or another, often times with legitimate complaints and gain public support in their opposition... but then get away with translating that shared opposition into support for a different idea without having ever had to make the positive argument in favor of it.
A critic can be correct in making a criticism... but that doesn't make them right.
Though it's not uncommon to see posts of the "I agree, and here's an anecdote as to why" variety getting heavily upvoted, but those are harder to write, and so less frequent.
I just mentioned that I have a personal aspect (not actually an advantage, at times), that sort of gives me the same thing.
I realize that people that are heavily invested in orthodoxies can sometimes consider all "non-positive" feedback to be "derogatory," but that's on them.
There's a lot of really good, decent, intelligent, skilled people in this world, and the vast majority of them manage to be that way without any mentoring from me. I applaud and support them; but I also won't insist that they meet my personal bars, and will push back, if they insist that I meet theirs (not all the time -sometimes, they have every right to expect me to meet their bar. This is not one of those times).
People who care enough to comment on the title (ha) or add comments are an overlapping group.
For one, posts are often upvoted based on their title/subject, and only afterwards are read and evaluated for their content.
1. See hn link.
2. Go directly to comments.
3. Top comment is seen as counter argument to the article.
4. Discuss on premise defined by top comment (not article).
Unless there’s a way to safe for sure (ex HN weighs in with analytic data) it’s all speculation.
Honestly, I believe most of the value derived from open office plans is that it is harder to fake work and fake productivity. Now, everything that people were doing is out in the open and provides some measure of accountability. Maybe I'm being a bit too cynical, but I think that's a big contributor as to why open office environments are common.
And partially yes, it's because some people making the decisions don't understand the value of 'deep work' and the environments that encourage it.
I had the pleasure to work in a genuine had-a-door office environment from 1997 through 2002. It was amazing for focus, productivity, and I found our employee communications to be generally excellent as well. I'm sure it was also stratospherically expensive on a per-dev basis, but probably still a rounding error relative to our compensation.
I hate open-plan offices. Deeply. I also see my overall "building occupancy charges" every month and am acutely aware of the pressures to be frugal. (I think real-estate is the wrong place to do it, but I understand the bean-counting view which is very apparent and productivity of expensive employees is not readily apparent [in a dollars/cents way].)
The problem is, nobody else care about your "deep work", or benefit much, except yourself. The pendulum always swings too far, and turn back..
"As the journalist Daniel Coyle surveys in his 2009 book, The Talent Code , these scientists increasingly believe the answer includes myelin—a layer of fatty tissue that grows around neurons, acting like an insulator that allows the cells to fire faster and cleaner. To understand the role of myelin in improvement, keep in mind that skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated. This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits—effectively..."
This seems to be supportive to the argument for deep work. Happy myelination, everyone.
Has anyone made their workplace compatible with deep work?
* by which I mean notifications, Slack, Zoom, email, meetings, open offices, sprints, etc.
That said, I have found that I don't really need this, myself. That's mostly because I'm a bit "on the spectrum," and tend to drop into what I call my "fugue state." When I am in this state, I can churn out a vast amount of really good code, with almost no working documentation, as I can keep a fairly complex system in my head, applying adjustments as I meet friction. In fact, the most common reaction I get from people is "You didn't write that!". It's very draining. I usually come out of the state feeling exhausted and, sometimes, sick (I once puked my guts out, after spending about 10 hours, working on a painting). I used to have an employee that was a lot more "spectrumish" than I am, and he easily knocked my best efforts into a cocked hat. His work was stunning. I suspect that it still is.
But that kind of thing is very individual, and can't be taught. I have written a great deal about my personal process, but I feel it is more expository, as opposed to educational (https://medium.com/chrismarshallny). I am quite aware that I am nowhere near the "top of the heap," and that there are prodigies out there that, on a bad day, can blow away my best.
Otherwise, I tend to ignore most of these "connect to your inner power" things.
I don't dispute their validity (usually), and have friends that have done things like the Tony Robbins courses and Lifespring, and whatnot. It seems to have helped them. It's just not the way I feel like going.
I do have a personal process that depends on a fairly rigorous self-discipline. Not many "shortcuts." Does seem to work.
I have a weird anxiety avoidance that makes me willing to do almost anything, including very hard things, if it isn't the thing that is necessary. I can hyperfocus on just about anything else.
I've slowly learned to redirect back to the necessary thing, but its been a decades long path to overcome the tendency.
I'm speaking in past tense because since covid I haven't meditated and my mind has become a racing mess. If you can will yourself into doing it I'd highly recommend trying it. You can always stop if you don't see a benefit.
This society is so individualist, that we talk only about the self.
Sounds like you've found a self improvement hack.
Here’s another for those writing the “get things done” derivative.
0. Exercise (+5min HIIT)
1. Turn-off distractors (ex. notifications, dumbphone, etc.)
2. Breathe & drink a glass of water
3. Put a timer with your effort (Forget pomodoro!)
4. Put the tab your working on
5. Press F11
6. Start working
7. GOTO step 2. IF sleepy or tired add step 0.
You either enjoy doing it or you don't. Focus on deriving joy out of the process and not the end result.
Most of the successful people I know tend to enjoy the process and don't seem to be extremely occupied with results.
But based on the post, I felt that if you want to learn a skill you should have some fun or be interested enough in learning. Setting four hours blocks with specific goals don't help. I believe that it's not that people have problems entering deep work that's causing people not to sit down and read through repositories, but they don't care enough, or enjoy the process of learning that's preventing them from making significant progress.
For the next poster that wants to toss their hat into the ring, please do a piece on the Quiet Eye. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.