Foreword: Recently I read "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" by Cal Newport on how you can get in a state of truly full focused work cycles without any distractions. This mode is a special skill with which, if mastered, you can genuinely stand out in your field of activity. In this book, the author describes the workflow and the steps that personalities who have already done notable publications with it have gone through to fall into this mode of productivity.
And at this point, I wondered if this mode could also be achieved in our field of activity?
So, as stated in the named book - Deep Work is the ability to shut out the world and focus solely on the task at hand. When I look at our field of activity with this definition (customer contact, ticket work, teams, meetings - you name it), the question immediately arises whether we could implement this type of work mode or not.
So let's look a little deeper and maybe we can find an approach.
Why are distractions so bad for us?
Our world is full of distractions. A quick view on your phone while reading the newest notifications does not seem to be a big problem but it will considerably interrupt your concentrated working. And even if you can discipline yourself in this regard, the quick context switch will throw you off track at the latest. When we are constantly switching tasks, we’re activating and deactivating different parts of our brain and the problem is our brains don’t work like light switches. They take time to boot up. It's impossible to put all the power we have in our brain into one task if we constantly switch the context. The result is that we spend up even more time finishing that one specific task or learning new things. And in a job of constant improvement and the desire for functioning automatisms and processes, that can't be the goal, can it?
Creating good focus habits is crucial to activating your full brainpower.
But learning to focus is hard
The first thing to mention is that learning to focus isn't easy. It is a skill that can be learned like programming or riding a bike. It will require a lot of practice. And anything that required practice means it's difficult. If it wasn’t, you’d be good at it by default. While you're tackling this challenge, you're not going to write the perfect lines of code right away, or get your workflow right so that you can concentrate for several hours straight. But this should also not be your direct goal. For example, first, write down the things that actively prevent you from working on a topic for a good amount of time and then try to solve them.
You are distracted by your mail client because you are constantly mentioned in mails -> Just turn off the notifications for the time you have set for yourself.
You are on call and the monitoring actively distracts you from concentrated work? -> fix the monitoring first and then take care of your tasks.
I could continue this list at this point but I think the core message is now clear.
You’re going to struggle and that’s OK. We all start small.
General ways how you can create habits for Deep work
The above examples are already quite specific to just my work environment. Nevertheless, I would like to mention a few general things that can help to get into this state of concentrated work.
This concept is relatively simple. The harder it is to get to a distraction, the less likely you’re going to give into it. Distractions have 2 sources: internal and external distractions. Internal distractions usually come from you and can be trivial things like checking your Twitter feed. However external distractions come from your environment. These can be for example the mentioned mail notifications.
Fortunately, we can try to limit both of those distraction types. A few things could help you to solve this:
- Airplane mode on your phone - I think I do not need to explain this further - No connection = no distractions from your phone :)
- "Deep Work" slots in your calendar - Of course, you should also talk about this with your team beforehand. Often solutions can be found for something like this just by talking to each other. But with the help of the set slots, you can let others know that you don't have time for appointments or other coordination but are trying to solve a task in a concentrated way.
- Craft your environment — Your work location has a huge impact on focus. Open workplaces are bad for focused work. The key is to set up your working environment in a way that decreases the chances of some sort of external distraction.
It’s important to understand why being distracted can be harmful to your concentration and why maintaining high levels of focus is beneficial.
Being aware of the importance of Deep Work will add some extra motivation to find culprits in your workflow to fix your sources of distractions.
Also, I can recommend this book if you are more deeply interested in the topic: Cal Newport - Deep Work.
Software development can be boring sometimes. Like writing boilerplate code or watching your pipeline for the third time to finish your automation code aren’t the most entertaining activities. However, it’s a reality of the job and it’s mostly unavoidable.
So what can you do to make the boring parts of the job more interesting? (even if boredom is great for our brains in some situations):
- Make your code as beautiful as you can - This will kick in some extra fun for you. Try to make it flawless.
- Sneak in some extra learning — When you find yourself writing code that’s not challenging, find ways to learn something new. For example, if you write your ten-thousandth Ansible playbook - write it in vim if you aren't familiar with the keybindings. Anything like this will give you something to focus on while doing something tedious (not to say that writing Ansible code is easy every time).
It is a constant battle - a conclusion
I think that developing good focus habits and avoiding distractions can help you in every stage of your career. Learning this skill can give you a real advantage in your work environment. Not only personally but also against potential competitors.
The better you become at cultivating Deep Work, the more you’ll surprise yourself and others with your newfound abilities. Positive outcomes of this are that you will enjoy your work more and more and you will clear space for other activities in your personal and professional life.
Right now I am heavily involved with the idea of deep work myself and it is not an easy skill to learn for me. It's more of an ongoing battle against countless temptations that you have to win again every day until you have strengthened your habits so much that you fall into this mode all by yourself.
However, it’s worth the attempt because the benefits are just too great to ignore.