There are many demands on the modern developer’s day. Some of these activities range from extremely difficult to very casual, and most of them are necessary to stay functional in the workplace. For me, a typical day can consist of daily updates, answering emails, various Agile meetings, pairing, designing, testing, coding, documentation, instant messages for asking and answering questions, playing to office politics, and the like. The point is, there is a lot to do, and in reality, we only have a limited time (roughly 40 hours a week if we’re holding the contract to its word 😉) to do that work.
Now to some, this may seem entirely feasible. I mean, the answer for productivity should be simple. Some might say we need to stay on task and just get it done! However, I think this is a bad approach and can be massively inefficient.
If we look a little closer at our required work, the various tasks roughly fall into two separate categories, those important tasks that require little concentration, Shallow Work, and those that require immense concentration, Deep Work. (These terms are borrowed from Cal Newport, and I highly recommend checking out his blog.) And to a degree, this puts us in a rough situation, as while meetings and thoughtful communications are paramount to keep our jobs, it is often those very things that can be overly-relied on and prevent us from accomplishing the more challenging tasks.
The Challenge of Deep and Shallow Work
A distraction can happen in an instant. An IM pops up on your screen and derails your thought process, or an email, or a meeting notification, is sent and makes demands on your attention. But as research shows us, once distracted, it takes much longer to get back on task. In an interview with Fast Company, Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, states the average amount of time it takes to re-concentrate on a task average to 23 minutes and 15 seconds after being distracted. That is an immense cost and all for a notification that could have probably waited!
As you can see, we have a bit of a problem here. With the interruptions of daily life and the necessities of working with others, how could we ever accomplish anything of substance?
I honestly believe that the answer lies in the old ecclesiastical adage: “There is a time for everything.” Many of us, myself included, tend to go about our days like a stream of consciousness. We tend to grab on to whatever is positioned in front of us with little to no caution as to how that will affect our flow. While flexibility is paramount to any working environment, I find that if I delegate certain parts of my day to deep and shallow work beforehand, then much more can be accomplished on the whole. This intentional scheduling not only gives us the advantage of being able to accomplish more in less time but also helps us achieve better moods, less stress, and more job satisfaction at the end of the day (see this study).
Okay, you might be wondering, that’s great, but how do I accomplish this? There are many ways to do this, but here is a practical example. Every morning, I look at my calendar. In my planner, I write out hour by hour what’s required of me by work and look for extended moments of unreserved time. I try to carve out 1 - 2 hours in which I can concentrate and turn off notifications.
Daily sessions of deep work might not be possible in every environment, but the point is to find the time. If you need to clear some time offline with your boss, then do it! If you easily get distracted in the office environment and need to negotiate a day working from home, that should be an option for you! At Corgibytes, we’ve implemented a Slack channel for our daily stand-ups, and this has been an immensely helpful approach to reducing daily meetings with little negative trade-off. If you and your team think you could benefit from that approach, then I’d highly recommend it!
Now, obviously, I would like to state that I’m not an expert in this, and the last thing I want is to give you an avenue to feel guilty about how you spend your time. The workday can be very demanding, and we have to strive our best to meet the demands of each day. Sometimes we may have a plan that we need to change to engage in more communication or discourse. However, having a plan is a great way to take advantage of the open moments, and hopefully, this post has encouraged you to take a slightly more critical look into how we schedule our time.
There is much to say about this topic, and I have only scratched the surface. If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend taking a look at the works of Cal Newport and his book Deep Work.