Deep work is a team sport


I’ve been a believer in Deep Work since I first read Cal Newport’s book but it’s been a constant struggle to implement deep work as radically as he suggests in the book.

You might call it an excuse but it feels easier for an isolated academic that relies on the brilliance of their intellect to radically embrace deep work then for a lay-knowledge worker like myself to embrace it while enmeshed in a collaborative team with customers to answer to.

Since reading the book, I’ve experimented with ways to make Deep work more consistently applicable in my work context. In the context of my work there are two major roadblocks to more uninterrupted deep work time. I need to review, respond, and provide feedback on what my colleagues are building in their deep work time. And our entire company must stay highly responsive and engaged with our customers, especially when they report issues or feedback. In a given day, this rolls up to nearly a hundred smaller conversations, comments, and notifications just for me.

The approach that’s worked well for us is to treat deep work as a team sport. Instead of protecting our own time and attention we try and protect the time and attention of the team as a whole and maximize the total time of deep work the team gets across the week. Here are the protocols we use:

Rotating front line days

Each person on the team has one day a week where they are on the front lines talking to customers about issues and feedback. The engineer on front line duty sacrifices any ability to do deep work that day so every other engineer can be blissfully ignorant of the fires that are burning that day.

The work of the engineer on duty that day is a difficult one. They’re responsible for being highly responsive, dealing with every major issue that comes in that day but also for protecting the attention of their teammates. When diagnosing issues, they’re constantly balancing whether or not to interrupt a domain expert or try and figure it out themselves and protect the expert colleague’s attention on that day. If you don’t optimize deep work at a team level, you’d be incentivized to just interrupt a teammate whenever you aren’t the expert.

Expect one block of collaboration per day per person

Each person on our product team spends one chunk doing collaborative work like answering questions, providing feedback, or doing code reviews. I typically do this conversational work at the start of each day.

The obvious benefit of only being expected to respond to communications once a day is that you can batch all your communications together in one shot and then have the rest of the day to work in silence.

The non-obvious benefit is that you can get the benefits of deep work for a traditionally non-deep task of answering correspondences. When I set aside a full hour in my day to answer questions, emails, and review things, I find I am more detailed, thoughtful and insightful than if I were to answer things as they rolled in. Setting aside that hour lets me treat the work of providing good answers and feedback as meaningful work itself as opposed to a pesky interruption I’m trying to squeeze into my day. When everyone on a team buys into this, it creates a culture of thoughtful conversation and feedback that raises the quality of the end product being created.

Be thoughtful about mentions and asks

We field hundreds of tickets a day in customer support and are always trying to route feedback and ideas to the right people inside our team without overwhelming people with conversational load. We’ve created a two tier system for mentioning colleagues on conversations.

We use the typical at-mention syntax when we want to get feedback in within a day. And for conversations that are valuable but aren’t urgent, we ‘tag’ the conversation with a specific tag for each person. This gives each person to read and process those less urgent conversations in one go at a time that works for them.

It’s easier to do deep work when you implement it as a team goal and make protecting other’s deep work time the cultural norm. When deep work isn’t a team sport, deep work practitioners tend to come off as a quirky and unreliable misanthropes.

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