What I’ve learnt about deep work after years of being distracted

Assaf Pinhasi
9 min readNov 23, 2022

--

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

What is deep work?

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines deep work as:

“… a professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration... These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

If you want to do deep work, you need to focus for long periods of time.

If you are in focus for long enough, you may enter “the zone”, where it’s pure doing, effortless and fun.

However, getting to “the zone”, and staying there after you’ve hit a “wall” often requires some effort and discipline.

For at least half of my career, I felt that real, deep focus is a precious and rare state, that is almost a luxury.

In the last few years, this changed completely and now I spend most of my days in deep focus for hours and hours at a time. This change was very sharp, unplanned, and very welcome.

I found this interesting and spent some time thinking about how this change came to be. Here is a what I’ve learnt about entering and maintaining focus.

Background

I’ve spent 10+ years of my career as a manager, going in and out of meetings, or in face-to-face conversations with others.

Three years ago I moved to being a hands-on consultant, and now I spend 80% or more of my time doing deep work from my home office.

As a consultant, I also get to work with lots of people and observe their work styles and productivity — from engineers to managers and executives.

Basics

Most people’s minds, including mine, don’t like working hard.

When the mind needs to exert effort, it will often “look for excuses” to quit and move to something more enjoyable.

I find that there are two states in which the mind needs to exert a lot of effort:

  1. Settling down after a context switch
  2. Maintaining focus when hitting some form of a “wall”

During these times, the mind is more prone to respond to triggers which cause a context switch — and again it would be harder for it to regain focus as a result of (1).

Context-switching is scientifically proven to be very taxing, and is known to be a very inefficient way of completing tasks.

Another impact of frequent context-switches is that they become a habit — and impact the baseline levels of focus you dedicate to virutally everything you do.

The “triggers” (i.e. the reasons for context-switches) can be categorized by:

  • External vs. internal
  • Planned vs. unplanned

External triggers

External triggers involve some form of sensory input, typically generated by other people.

External unplanned triggers — disruptions

These are the triggers most people recognize easily as preventing them from reaching a state of focus.

They include background movement or noise, notifications on your phone or screen, or a colleague who walks up to you and ask you something.

These are distractions that you cannot prevent your mind from attending by decision — the mind is wired to attend them if they are sudden and “disruptive” enough.

If the origin of the distraction is intrinsic to the environment, you can pretty much count on it recurring. After several failed attempts to enter a state of focus, exerting a lot of energy in the process only to be jerked out of focus by some disruption, most people simply give up.

Unfortunately, these external distractions are super common in open space offices, which are scientifically proven to reduce productivity.

External planned triggers — participating in meetings

One good example for an external and planned trigger is attending meetings you were invited to.

Most people would avoid starting a task that requires focus if they know they have a meeting that would interrupt them during this task — and find it hard to regain focus for a while after having a meeting.

If you haven’t read the seminal article about manager’s schedule vs. maker schedule, do it now and thank me later.

Being on a “maker’s schedule” means that having stretches of time for focus is pretty much the default.

The article suggests not to schedule meetings in the middle of the morning or the afternoon. Especially if they are on a different topic than the one you are trying to focus on.

This is not that hard if you are an IC — you just need to convince your manager and a couple of other stakeholders.

If you are a manager — meeting others *is* a big part of how you do your work. We’ll get to that soon.

Internal triggers

Internal triggers are ones in which you are the only party involved — they are not caused directly by any influence from the environment or other people.

Internal unplanned triggers —procrastination techniques

Have you ever sat down to work on a task, and within minutes found yourself compelled to do something else? i.e. procrastinate?

The obvious example is actively seeking distractions — e.g. deciding to check your phone for messages, read a piece of news, or making a random phone call.

The less obvious type of procrastination one is deciding to “cross-off a few quick action items off the list” just as you are settling into the main task at hand.

Completing small tasks is easy, and a known source of satisfaction — so the mind finds it comforting and easy.

Moreover, unlike checking social media, crossing items off your list makes you feel virtuous.

Which leads us to the next section.

Internal planned triggers — choosing to spread yourself thin

This type of trigger is the hardest to notice because it is hiding in plain sight — i.e. the average person’s calendar.

The most common way people handle multiple responsibilities is by planning their time in advance, allocating time for activities in the different areas.

Most people would normally plan to do something meaningful about every important area of responsibility at least once a week.

Managers often plan to tackle 10–20 different contexts each day, sometimes spending as little as 15–30 minutes on each topic.

But even individual contributers, and even those on a maker’s schedule, often allocate the morning to one activity and the afternoon to another.

When I say this is hiding in plain sight, what I mean is that 99% of professionals would consider this to be the norm, and the expectation from themselves and others.

So why is this a problem?

First — most people cannot estimate accurately how long it would take them to do anything, let alone any kind of creative work.
Will this thing take me two hours or three or four? I don’t know!

Second — as the article about maker’s schedule suggests, knowing you have an upcoming context switch serves as a kind of “excuse” to “give up” when hitting a wall.

Examples

  • Say you are 3/4 through the morning, and you’re “stuck” on something for say 15 minutes. You may look at the time, decide you are not likely going to make the time box because you’re stuck and… you actively start “rolling out” of the zone.
  • Say you’re in a meeting where you’re trying to figure out something with a few people. The discussion is good but has hit a dead end.
    What’s your reflex? look at the clock.
    If the meeting is mostly over, you and the team will want to start wrapping up and table the discussion you were stuck on.

The default mindset of most professionals is to multi-task, stepping in and out of tasks mid stream, often leaving them incomplete and unresolved when they move to the next task at hand.

In my experience, there is a much better way that requires only a relatively small adaptation to the mindset.

Focusing on one task until it’s done (days at a time)

There are some objectives which are better handled if you can dedicate all your attention to completing them for days and even weeks at a time.

When you give yourself permission to get fully immersed in one thing you are doing, you are able to go a lot deeper a lot faster. Also internal triggers become less common, since there’s no “productive distraction” to jump to.

You are left to just do whatever it takes to get the job done.

The objectives that can benefit from such a mindset are typically:

  • Clear — possible to define success
  • Detailed — benefit from long uninterrupted focus
  • Encapsulated — won’t need to block on external resources
  • Valuable — where benefits of completing this early and at high quality are considerable

In my experience, you can do in one undisturbed week the work that would otherwise take you months with 25% dedication.

Example — Ramping up technically as a new manager

Say you’re a team leader joining a new company. The ramp up process is likely to include tens of different activities during the first weeks and even months.

Some of these activities cannot be rushed and have their own pace — like getting to know others, or figuring out the politics and non-formal work processes.

One activity stands out at very suitable for high-intensity focus is ramping up on the technical systems you are inheriting.

  • Clear — can define what “knowing” the system looks like — from architecture to codebase to work processes to pushing some changes yourself to production
  • Detailed — learning a new system involves holding a lot of new information in your memory as you try to create a clear mental image.
  • Encapsulated — you can plan your time so that you get all the input and support you need up front or at very well defined points in time
  • Valuable — consider the alternatives

Leader Amulti-tasking technical ramp up

  • Learns by reading some docs, glancing at code at different times, and listening/asking for team’s input in meetings over time
  • Spends many months making somewhat uninformed decisions
  • Spends energy on containing uncertainty, and second-guessing
  • Takes a long time to create viable technical vision
  • Finds it hard to give estimations or negotiate without the team’s help
  • Finds it hard to evaluate team member contribution and skillset

Leader B — dedicated technical ramp up

  • Sets aside their first week or two to learning the system through and through — from reading the documentation, having a whiteboard session, installing an environment, running tests, looking at the main modules in the code, adding unit-tests, and completing 1–2 changes which reach production.
  • Forms first-hand opinion about what’s working and what needs fixing
  • Creates technical vision within short period of time
  • Confidently generates estimates, evaluate risks, and prioritize activities
  • Able to evaluate team member’s contributions, strengths and weaknesses.

In my opinion, Leader B’s value will be exponentially higher if they tackle the ramp up right at the beginning and complete it with high quality

Focusing on one thing for days is hard because…

  • If you have multiple responsibilities, it’s difficult to give yourself permission to “neglect them”
  • It’s even harder to get permission from others to do so
  • It’s hard to ensure you are encapsulated enough — and won’t get blocked waiting for something from someone else
  • Other people may not like the concept of “going into meetings without a time limit” and generally have constraints

Generally this mode of work requires a very high degree of autonomy, which is rare if you are a part of a larger organization.

However, if you manage to plan your own time with little need for other people’s approval, the results can be no less than astonishing.

Conclusion

Doing knowledge work often benefits from high degrees of focus.

There are many things that prevent us from reaching and maintaining focus over time.

While some of the challenges are simple to address, others are intrinsic to the work culture we’ve internalized over time — i.e. the need to juggle multiple areas of responsibility.

By adopting radical focus and giving ourselves permission to get immersed in one high value task for days at a time, we can achieve incredible multipliers of output and quality.

This also works for work we do with others — e.g. having important meetings only where the meeting is over when the objective is achieved, not when the time is up.

However to do that, we need to give ourselves permission to immerse in a task, trust ourselves that it will be the shortest path to success, and generally operate with high degree of autonomy.

--

--