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Productivity

How I Hacked My Schedule To Get 3 Days Of Deep Work A Week

Over the last year, my role at Buffer has changed from an individual contributor to a technical leadership role.

While the amount of time I spend coding and doing architecture hasn’t changed much, the way I go about the tasks has changed significantly. Instead of being focused on a project from start to finish, I move around projects as needed.

Sometimes a team will get blocked on a tricky problem or need to make a decision that could impact other teams or request technical mentor-ship to level up their skills. I’ll jump in and provide technical context (when I can) and try to help in a way that will reduce the reliance on myself.

The goal is to teach and automate myself out of a job!

A couple of challenges started to crop up as the scope of projects increased.

The first was that the frequency of random questions increased. It is important to note that Buffer is a fully distributed team with no physical office, so the random questions come in the form of private Slack messages. 99 percent of the questions fell under the important but not urgent category (sometimes they’d find the answer after a bit of searching 🙌.)

Source: Dean Yeoung

Another challenge was that some teammates thought they couldn’t ask me questions because I wasn’t explicitly on their team. This led to questions being asked when things became urgent and often required an expensive context switch.

While working on cross-team projects, the context switch was making very difficult to get things done. Especially when working on projects that span multiple teams, there is a huge amount of context that needs to be formed in your mind before you start solving the problem. Building context can take hours, only to be lost by a random interruption.

After some reflection, I realized both of these problems were related. Cross team projects require a clear communication as well as long periods of Deep Work. Deep Work involves minimizing distraction to stay focused on a cognitively demanding task, which allows you to get the most of your time. If you’re interested in learning more about Deep Work, check out Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

For me personally, I can context switch within these two boundaries, but crossing the boundary between communication and coding is very difficult. With that realization, combined with the observation that most of the questions I was getting were non-urgent I reorganized my schedule:

chart: monday and friday are for meetings and tuesday through thursday are for deep thinking

I’ve been doing this since mid-November and have already noticed some changes:

  • Teammates from multiple teams have requested pairing sessions
  • The number of non-urgent questions has gone down (almost to 0)
  • Urgent communication is much more visible through Slack
  • I’ve been able to complete several long-standing tasks

It is important to note that deep work time can be interrupted by things that are both urgent and important. Ignoring pager alerts would be bad for everyone! However, treating every question as urgent is likely to do more harm than good.

Depending on how you work, this may or may not work for you. I chose to organize my schedule this way to minimize the type of context switches that were holding me back and make time for important things like pairing/mentoring. Being able to organize your own schedule is a wonderful perk of remote work. Figuring out what works for you can be a challenge, and can even change over time. It’s more than setting aside time for work, its also deciding what you’ll do with the time you set aside.

Over to You

  • Have you heard of Deep Work before? Have you tried it?
  • How do you think your schedule might change if you added in time for more deep work?

 

Photo by Estée Janssens

  • Great article! I try to do so much deep work as I can (I’m a designer and in charge of part of my company’s social media account), but I struggle with keeping my focus throughout the day. Do you have any tips on how to stay focused at work when there are no longer “breaks” scheduled (meetings etc.)?

    • Hey Johanna 👋 thank you for the kind words!

      A couple questions for you about your current work environment:

      – Could you describe the environment you work in (ex. open office, work from home, coffee shop …)
      – What type of word to you do day to day, is it mostly design work, mostly managing social media, 50/50 mix of the two
      – What about your work do you enjoy most?

      I know! So many questions 😬 but it will be helpful to answer your question with context!

      • I work in an open office, but it’s usually very quiet. Sometimes I work from home but that just doesn’t work at all (I find myself doing chores instead of actually working…).

        On a regular day I work with either After Effects, Sketch, or Premier to create the assets for Facebook and Instagram. That takes about 90% of my productive time. The rest of the time I try to brainstorm new ideas for posts, have review calls and social media management. This is the productive work, but I tend to spend at least an hour/day picking songs to listen to on Spotify, WAY too much time reading emails, and too much scrolling on Instagram…

        What I like the most about my job is to create, and that I improve my design skills every day. It’s also fun to see the huge follower growth on our channel :)

        • Nelson Yung

          So, Harrison didn’t reply…..Someone needs help 😞

  • Óscar Domínguez

    Hi Harrison,

    Great article! I’m Oscar and I work as Web Developer in Barcelona. In the past the company started to grow and I ended up managing/mentoring like ~20 developers, unexperienced in the developer world some of them but most of them unexperienced with our product. It was impossible to manage them, work with our Customer Success team to manage urgent tasks, mentor them and still find timeboxed time to still keep coding and growing as a web developer.

    The situation was unsustainable and the company put me in a position just as developer (much easier). Now our company plans to scale this in subteams so now I will me mentoring/managing 3 colleagues. It’s important to me to still keep growing as developer and also to mentor and prioritize the team day by day tasks. Do you think I should apply Deep Work formula?

    Thanks

    • Hello Óscar,

      Managing 20 developers seems like quite a workload, just 1 on 1 syncs with each team member would take up half of your time!

      Mentoring 3 colleagues sounds like a much more manageable number that would let you focus more on each teammate’s needs. Depending on how you work, setting a similar schedule might be helpful with some small tweaks (since you’re also doing engineering management).

      A possible schedule:

      Monday

      1 on 1 syncs (1 for each teammate for an hour)
      Weekly stand-up (or daily)
      Followup tasks from syncs and stand-up (management related tasks)

      Tuesday-Thursday

      first half of day – solo tasks (leveling up your coding skills!)
      second half of day – product meetings, cross team syncs, pairing, mentoring, planning
      (you could swap which half here if you think better in the evening)

      Friday

      management related tasks – product meetings, cross team syncs, pairing, mentoring, planning
      (could swap Monday and Friday)

      This schedule optimizes for some big blocks of thinking time in the morning (or evening) Tuesday – Thursday where you get some time to do some coding, while still having lots of time to plan and mentor teammates. I’d still spend 30-60 minutes at the start of each day learning something, since that help you improve over time! Would love to hear how this works out for you!

  • Stella Smith

    I really need this! As i have read in the Consumer Health Digest most adult are prone to distraction and thus lowering our productivity! thanks for this! I really think making a schedule can improve my life

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