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It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the most valuable skill an engineer can have is coding.
But that’s simply not the case.
There are tons of “soft skills” that make engineers so much better at their jobs, and are arguably just as important as being fluent in a coding language — problem solving, time management, communication, and teamwork, just to name a few.
There’s another skill that engineers should be dying to learn, because it’s one of the most valuable skills they — or any other knowledge worker — can possess: Deep work.
Deep work is how knowledge workers tap into their deepest potential for focus, productivity, and learning. It’s an absolutely invaluable skill that can make you better at just about any job.
But most people suck at it.
In the age of near-constant distraction we live in, deep work becomes even harder to tap into. But it’s the key to kicking distractions to the curb and getting sh*t done at work.
Here’s how to do it.
You just got to the office. The message light is blinking on your phone. You have emails that need answers. You have to stop by the break room for a cup of coffee. A coworker or two stops you for a chat on the way there and back. You’re getting texts and social media notifications on your cell phone.
If you’re like the average office worker, you spend your first hour or two at work bouncing between all these different tasks that aren’t demanding, but are distracting and time-consuming.
If these tasks feel like a giant waste of your time, you’re not wrong.
They keep you busy, but not productive (yes, there’s a difference).
This is the opposite of deep work.
The concept of “deep work” comes from Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport’s 2016 book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Newport writes that deep work is, “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Compare that to shallow work, which, according to Newport, is, “Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
In other words, to achieve deep work, you gotta ditch all the distractions and push yourself and your focus to the limit, which makes you better at your job, increases your output, and makes your work valuable, as opposed to all those simple, half-distracted tasks the average worker starts their day with.
Obviously, deep work is more valuable. It’s a better use of your time. It’s what you should be striving for. But how do you get there, and what’s standing in your way?
Deep work is like any other skill in that it’s not something most people can just do. It takes learning the skill and practicing it to become successful at doing deep work.
Unfortunately, in the modern age, there are a lot of barriers between the average worker and consistently achieving deep work.
For one, we’re expected to be online and accessible all the time.
Email and workplace chat apps like slack give our teammates and clients the ability to shoot off instant communication to us at all hours, and it’s easy to give into the temptation to always be checking for messages and notifications so you can respond right away.
And then there’s the barrage of other distractions that come at all of us constantly throughout the workday. There’s always something new to look at on social media. Coworkers stopping by for a chat. Friends and family with round-the-clock access to us via our phones.
In the age of distraction, how is anyone supposed to get any work done at all, let alone deep work?
To start learning to flex your deep work muscles, put these strategies into play.
Newport says in his book that there are four ways to incorporate deep work into your schedule.
|Scheduling Philosophy||How Newport describes it||What it looks like in practice|
|Monastic||“This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.”||You spend as much of your time as possible on deep work.|
This is only possible if you can delegate or automate shallow work.
|Bimodal||“This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”||You split your time. For example, you dedicate Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to deep work, and schedule meetings and rote tasks for Tuesdays and Thursdays.|
|Rhythmic||“This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”||You divide your day into deep work and shallow work (for example, deep work in the morning and shallow work in the afternoon), and then stick with that schedule every workday.|
|Journalistic||“…fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”||Don’t plan for deep work, but practice it spontaneously and sporadically as your schedule allows; for example, in between meetings or calls.|
Each philosophy obviously has its pros and cons, and different people with different work styles will find different philosophies appealing.
The Monastic Philosophy offers the highest reward, but is unrealistic for most workers, since people generally have different kinds of responsibilities and can’t focus all their time on deep work.
The Bimodal and Rhythmic philosophies are great for people with fairly predictable schedules, who can arrange their tasks to allow for swaths of their days or weeks to be dedicated to deep work.
And the Journalistic Philosophy is an option for people whose schedules are regularly changing, giving them a chance to fit in deep work when it’s tough to be beholden to a schedule.
Ultimately, every worker will have to choose the philosophy that best fits their work style and schedule.
Once you know when you’re going to practice deep work, it’s time to decide how. Newport recommends creating a routine for every time you plan to engage in deep work, so you free yourself from distractions and interruptions and create environmental triggers that, when used every time, can help turn deep work into a habit.
Newport’s advice is to determine a location, duration, structure, and requirements ahead of time, so you know you’re ready when it’s time to do some deep work.
|Location||Choose a space that’s free from distractions and conducive to periods of intense, focused work. If you don’t have a room where you can work distraction-free, or need to deep work on the go, noise cancelling headphones might be all you need to create a deep work conducive location.|
|Duration||Before you start deep work, determine how long you’re going to work. Remember that human brains aren’t designed to intensely focus on tasks indefinitely — in fact, research shows we can only be truly productive for around three hours per day. If you’re new to deep work, start small, with 15-minute sessions, and work your way up from there.|
|Structure||Decide what deep work will look like for you. For example, can you get up and move, or do you need to stay in front of your computer for the duration of your deep work session? Can you have drinks or snacks, or might those be distractions? Set clear, explicit rules, and then follow them every time you do deep work.|
|Requirements||As you practice deep work, you’ll learn what’s required to make a session successful. The key is to have it ready before you begin deep work, so you don’t have to stop to turn off your phone after it rings, find the right music or access software you need. Make sure everything you need is ready to go at the start of each session.|
Having a schedule and a routine, and then using them regularly, are the best ways to learn how to access your deep work skills and practice them. But these tips can help developers get even better at doing deep work.
Don’t expect to become a pro at doing deep work right away. It’s like any skill — you have to practice and get better over time.
For knowledge workers, including software engineers, the time you spend learning to do deep work will be a worthy investment, as it makes you a more efficient, productive coder.
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