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Deep Work Done in Pairs: an Experiment
It all started with an urge to work in an uninterrupted way for a longer time and build a disciplined approach. It ended as two month set of bi-weekly iterations, including a pseudo six-hour-day work-week. Here’s the story of how, together with Bartek, we’ve set out on a mission of more focused days while working remotely.
First, let’s clarify what Deep Work is at its source:
“The ability to concentrate without distraction on a demanding task.”
The term was coined by Cal Newport, author of the book, under the same name. Paraphrasing involves a great deal of creative (non-repetitive or shallow) work done uninterruptedly.
Our main goal was to have at least a few Deep Work sessions per week. During those, to boost our motivation to get things done, we would meet on a call, mute ourselves but leave the cameras on. This might seem a bit creepy, but it was a social pressure and further cemented the agreement of keeping focused (accountability). This works only in a two-screen setup, so you can see the other person all the time.
Somebody could say: “wait, but was the video, not a distraction itself?”. Well, yes and no. It was a matter of getting used to the presence, and lack of sound did the job. Our approach, according to Cal Newport was something between two philosophies described in the book:
Rhythmic: a routine that defines a specific time period, ranging from three to four hours every day, that you can devote to uninterrupted work.
Journalistic: dynamically finding slots for deep work during the day. Very challenging even for a Deep Work pro.
Our experiment involved the following iterative work with arranging schedules:
Fixed bookings along the week vs. ones planned in the beginning of each day.
Mid-day slots vs. end of the day.
Short slots (=< 1 h) vs. long bookings(>=3h).
True Deep Work vs. ticking off items in a single-threading approach.
Prepping before the session vs. at the beginning of the session.
Each week we aimed at scheduling sessions two to four times a week. Each of us was working on their own, not related, matters.
What worked for us:
Kanban board & defined goal — we visualize things we are working on to see the work is progressing and structuring the time. We used the following format:
description of final value gained [time designated], eg. the workshop is ready to be presented [45']
Preparation — intro on the call what we plan to achieve (c.a.2–10 min) and outro how it went discussing improvements (5 min)
One to three-hour slots — seem to work best during the day.
Peer work — seeing somebody else working on video motivates as they are vested in the same drill; “I don’t want to let him down” was the thought looming around.
Switching off — whether that mail, Slack, browsers, additional applications which are not necessary for the defined goal. This includes phone notifications and notifying others around that you have focus time.
Checking influence on work — checking if scheduling deep work sessions do not negatively influence everyday work and individual response.
Using additional focus enhancers — whether that’s one’s favourite band or ambient music (I use Endel), TimeQube hardware timer (that also notifies others in the same space that I’m working) or others.
What had potential but didn’t work out:
“6h work-day” — the idea was to be available six hours a day, close the working day and focus only on Deep Work for two hours. Thus working a total of eight hours yet without any thoughts that one needs to finish something. Observations:
- most things “blew up” during the afternoon and needed one’s attention
- if it was an intense day, it was hard to concentrate during the last two hours
- it was a genuinely excellent, freeing feeling that there is nothing else to recap on; one can just focus on creative work
- nobody had the predisposition to start the sessions early during the day due to one’s circadian rhythm or work-related meetings
Attention juggling — too much of it during the day left very little energy to focus in the designated slots (doh!). Single-threading during the day significantly boosts stamina. Period.
Preparations — to start a Deep Work session, one sometimes needs to use Slack or e-mail to push things forward. This requires a lot of discipline, and we failed at times to do it before the sessions. Then exploded in checking various notifications with the anxiety that some urgent work is not done. The world probably won’t die in most cases.
Fixed slots — across weeks, those were not sustainable due to working in different parts of the company, but the environment changed now and then. Planning the week ahead on Friday seemed like a safe bet.
One direct reflection from this two-month experiment is that the most important thing is to respect your commitment to yourself. If you don’t defend your Deep Work slots equally as other meetings, you will never succeed with scheduling focused time. This can test your assertiveness and how much value you see and expect to get from these sessions. If you stand your ground in those most challenging moments, you will earn a new habit, more trust in yourself and self-respect.
Our experiment had ended when more pressing assignments came, and now each of us continues on our own. There are some alternatives to try if the idea of pairing works for you but you don’t have an immediate person to do it with:
FocusMate — an online platform that connects people looking for a partner to boost accountability.
StudyMD Youtube — a channel with recordings of people working and ambient music. It’s not the same as a true ‘buddy’ yet can be an alternative.
Kudos to Ewa for inviting us to “discipline challenge” — an initiative for building new habits where we coined the idea. Throughout the two months we had numerous short retrospectives and supported one another with improvements or a cheer. These proved invaluable in situations where we thought we’re stuck or went through series of challenges.
Was the experiment successful? The sessions were productive most of the times and I, personally, felt my motivation and efficiency going up due to the accountability I felt to the other person. From that standpoint it was. That said, we did not manage to sustain it thus it leaves me with mixed feelings. Did we actually buid self-discipline? No. The answer why you will see in Jocko’s video below.
What are your practices for single-threading or Deep Work? How do you deal with interruptions on daily basis?