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Why ‘Deep Work’ Is the Key to Your Team’s Success

A 3-step plan to help supersize productivity

Every project manager and scrum master dreams of a team that works with the mechanical precision of a German cuckoo clock. The pendulum swings naturally, without a rush; each gear is perfectly-sized to fit with the other; and working product is delivered through the door reliably — like clockwork.

But it isn’t easy to make this vision a reality. Team members have to communicate, urgent issues pop up, and, Facebook and mobile phones are always enticing.

Uninterrupted time has become more valuable, and distractions have become ubiquitous. This has increased the value of “Deep Work” — a term described by Deep Work author, Cal Newport, as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

Workers who can overcome distractions and focus on Deep Work have an edge over their colleagues who are busy playing Candy Crush or fielding falsely-urgent requests from a junior developer. Likewise, teams that can coordinate their Deep Work into a sustainable system for shipping quality products have an edge over competitors that are constantly monitoring their Slack channels.

How can a team create a workflow that optimizes Deep Work while keeping production moving smoothly? There’s three factors to consider.

What stands in the way of teams accomplishing Deep Work?

First, we have to understand what makes it so difficult to optimize for Deep Work within a team.

  • Know your Deep Work. What constitutes Deep Work differs for various team members. Studies on deliberate practice suggest you only have the capacity to do about 2–4 hours of this type of work each day. The process of examining one’s own cognitive demands often reveals unexpected layers. For example, a writer may discover a distinct difference in mental demands when she is researching and fact-checking, versus when writing a rough draft.
  • Combat distractions. If every team member can contact every other member of your team at any moment — and often does — Deep Work is being interrupted, at a detriment to your team’s productivity and creativity. Instant communication such as Slack and email, as well as unnecessary or poorly-timed meetings, carve gaping canyons into Deep Work time. If any given team member can get three times the work done in a 2-hour block of time within the day, every moment wasted is several moments of lost productivity, gone forever.
  • Keep production moving. Ideally, each team member could pick a block of Deep Work time without fear of being interrupted. But the reality of teamwork isn’t so simple. Dependencies are delayed, impediments stand in the way, and communication within the team is essential to keeping production moving.

Three Phases to Optimize Deep Work

To optimize Deep Work within a team, you need a system that protects team members from distractions, while allowing for communication within the team. This is not an ideal that can be achieved overnight.

That’s why you need a three-phase approach. Working methodically toward a vision of optimized Deep Work can train team members’ brains and prevent overly-ambitious visions from creating team conflicts that trash the attempt altogether.

Phase I: Identify Deep Work (1–2 weeks)

During this phase, team members look inward. They spend time contemplating the subtly-changing contours in mental energy required to do the various components of their work, while slowly building Deep Work capacity. The objective is for each team member to identify his own Deep Work.

  • Each team member does initial brainstorming about which components of work may require full focus, which require communication, and which are necessary but don’t require full concentration. For a programmer, this may be designing new features, attending scrum meetings, and fixing easy bugs, respectively.
  • Take notes throughout the day. Test the assumptions from your brainstorming session. Are Deep Work components mixed in with shallow work? You eventually want to designate lower-energy times for this shallow work.
  • Practice uninterrupted work. Many workers don’t get a chance to do even 10 minutes of work without a distraction. Yet, almost anything can wait 10 minutes. Pick a task, set a timer for 10 minutes, and work on that task uninterrupted for the duration. It’s such a ridiculously easy goal that you can’t fail. However, when you resist a distraction, you strengthen the neural pathways of focus in your brain. Additionally, once you get moving on your task, you won’t want to stop. Depending on your team size, you can practice this “10-minute hack” as a team, with everyone simultaneously working for 10 minutes without interruption.

Phase II: Cultivate Deep Work (4 weeks)

Once team members have improved their sensitivity to Deep Work, it’s time to start thinking about how best to cultivate and encourage it. The objective in this phase is to build Deep Work habits, while gaining a sensitivity for the best times to achieve it.

  • Build a one-hour habit. Pick a one-hour time block in your day for uninterrupted Deep Work. Put it on the calendar, and protect that time.
  • Experiment with Deep Work times. Everyone has peak- and off-peak times. Counterintuitively, people tend to be more creative during off-peak times. Experiment by scheduling your Deep Work time in different parts of the day.

Phase III: Coordinate Deep Work

Now that team members recognize their best times for Deep Work, weave together everyone’s optimal Deep Work habits. It’s time to work on a sustainable system for optimizing Deep Work, while keeping the team working together smoothly.

  • Compare Deep Work times. Teammates should discuss their most-productive Deep Work periods to see if there is any overlap. There could be opportunities for team-wide Deep Work time, such as “No meetings after 3pm!” Or the team may discover Deep Work conflicts that need to be reconciled.
  • Optimize for Deep Work. Let’s say a manager likes to have meetings first thing Monday morning but a programmer’s prime Deep Work time is during that time-period. If possible, any meetings should be scheduled sometime later on Monday, after the programmer has had a Deep Work session. The productivity gains may be well worth the inconvenience to the manager.
  • Build communication protocols. Agree upon protocols for communication. Are there certain hours during which everyone can agree to not interrupt one another? What kind of problem permits what kind of interruption? (For example, when is it acceptable to tap someone on the shoulder?) If an interruption is necessary, can the interruptor wait until the interruptee finishes the current task? (Interruptor: “Can you help me with something?” Interruptee: “Definitely! Can we talk in 10 minutes?”)

It should be the goal to enable every team member to do Deep Work during the individual’s prime hours of the day, and arrange communication to keep projects moving forward. By doing so, a team can improve the quality of its work, while producing even more than before.

You can’t expect it to happen overnight, however. Follow these phases for incorporating Deep Work into your team’s workflow, and you’ll be well on your way to delivering like clockwork.

This 3-step Deep Work plan is just the start! To make it even easier for your team to achieve maximum productivity, check out Favro. It’s a tool that will keep everyone working on the right things.