A Deep Case Study
Tom works in marketing for a venture-backed tech start-up in Silicon Valley. After reading Deep Work, he realized that prioritizing uninterrupted concentration would help him excel in his job, which centers on cognitively demanding research and writing.
But he despaired that regular deep work was impossible given his company’s culture.
As he explained:
Our company uses email and Slack as our primary means of communication. I get so many emails and chat messages every day, and there’s this unspoken expectation in my department that if someone emails/messages you, you should respond almost immediately, even if you were in the middle of something. If you didn’t respond quick enough people would assume that you were slacking off (this expectation was especially strong with instant messages).
Communication environments of this type are increasingly common in knowledge work (and near ubiquitous in tech). And they can be quite distressing.
As Tom admitted, he really didn’t get much “actual work done,” as his days were filled with “putting out fires” and “reacting to other people’s needs.”
Fortunately, however, all hope was not lost…
The Deep Discussion Strategy
I suggest in my book that employees interested in depth should discuss the topic with their boss. In more detail, during this respectful conversation you should try to accomplish the following:
- Explain the concepts of deep and shallow work, noting, of course, that both are important.
- Ask what ratio of deep to shallow work hours you should be aiming for in your job.
- Then promise to measure and report back regularly. (Most bosses will be interested to gain these extra data points.)
With some trepidation, Tom decided to give this strategy a try. Here’s his report:
I explained to [my boss] the concept of deep and shallow work. I asked her about her expectations: how much time does she expect me to spend each day researching/writing, and how much time does she expect me to spend communicating through email and chat?
As soon as I brought it up, it was immediately obvious that if she said she wanted me to spend large portions of my time communicating rather than doing my work, it would have been ridiculous. The only reason this had become a problem in the first place is that we’d never been deliberate about setting expectations.
Tom and his boss quickly settled on a plan in which Tom would have a 1.5 to 2 hour chunk of uninterrupted deep work time in the morning and in the afternoon.
Outside of those chunks he would be answer emails and instant messages promptly.
After talking with his manager, Tom then explained the plan to the team members with whom he communicated most frequently. It took them about a week to adjust to his deep work schedule, and now it doesn’t come up.
As Tom concludes:
It’s been three months now and nothing broke. Checking email and slack less didn’t result in any catastrophic issues. In fact, it’s helped me improve the quality of my work and my ability to focus, and my brain doesn’t feel fried at the end of the day from multi-tasking/switching contexts all day long.
This deep work discussion strategy is simple but it really does work. Many draining work cultures are more flexible than employees expect (see also: Leslie Perlow’s research on the Boston Consulting Group).
Put another way, just because your office seem hostile to deep work today doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t support it tomorrow…if you bring it up.
Just ask Tom. But not between 9 to 11 or 2 to 4, because he’ll be too busy creating valuable things to answer.
(Photo by Kai Hendry)