Deep work and email habits

Lately I have been enjoying Cal Newport’s writing on work, and particularly his new book Deep Work which I am in the middle of reading (definitely recommended). His basic thesis is about the power of sustained, focused, distraction-free work on cognitively demanding tasks—what he calls deep work. It takes intentional effort to make the time and space for this kind of work, but Newport argues cogently that doing so can have enormous benefits.

Newport’s ideas have really resonated with me—I think I was already converging (albeit slowly, with little clarity) on similar ideas and practices over the last few years—and I’ve begun trying to put some of them more deliberately into practice. First, I have scheduled two large (4 hour) blocks of time for deep work each week. These blocks are sacrosanct: I won’t meet with students, schedule committee meetings, or do anything else during those times. I physically go somewhere other than my office—usually the library, occasionally my favorite coffee shop, somewhere relatively quiet and interruption-free where students and colleagues won’t find me. I first do as much as possible without turning on my laptop: course planning, reading, brainstorming, a lot of longhand writing (blog posts, papers, grant proposals, whatever—for example, I wrote this blog post itself longhand during my deep work session this morning). Sometimes if I need to write a longer, thoughtful email response, I will even print out the message beforehand and write my response longhand. Only towards the end of the session will I pull out my laptop, if I have specific projects to work on deeply that require a computer, like some sort of coding project.

Anecdotally at least, so far this feels incredibly successful—I get a lot done during these deep work sessions and always come away feeling accomplished and energized. The thing that feels especially good is that I’m not just getting a large amount of stuff done, but I’m getting important, difficult stuff done.

Another related practice I have recently adopted is that I do not read or write any email before 4pm. I have literally blocked myself from accessing email on my computers and phone between midnight and 4pm. Perhaps this sounds heretical, but that’s just the point—“because doing otherwise would be heresy” is a terrible reason for doing anything, and the fact is that not many of us really stop to consider and consciously choose the way we make use of technologies like email and social media. It’s taken some getting used to, but by now I don’t think I am ever going back. At 4pm I triage my inbox—respond to things that need a quick response, archive or delete stuff I don’t care about, and forward other things to my personal bug tracker for dealing with later. I am typically able to totally clear out my inbox before going home for the day. Over the course of the day I keep a list of emails I want to write later, and I write those at the same time that I triage my inbox, or sometimes later in the evening before going to bed. It feels way more efficient to batch most of my email processing into a focused session like this, and freeing to not be distracted by it the rest of the day. But do I ever miss it? Yes, all the time—and that’s exactly the point! Left to my natural tendencies I distract myself silly checking my email constantly.

Time will tell how much of this sticks and how my approach might change over time—I’ve scheduled a reminder for myself to write a followup post six months from now. As always, I’m happy to hear and respond to thoughts, reactions, questions, etc. in the comments.

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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5 Responses to Deep work and email habits

  1. I’m reading this too. I like your “sacred 4 hour block” practice and an intrigued by the email one. Interesting post, thank you!

  2. Sean Leather says:

    What do you use for your personal bug tracker?

  3. Curt Sampson says:

    I too have found that being able to several-hour periods of intense, distraction-free concentration on something to be very productive. But I go about it a different way: pair programming.

    Pair programming is excellent for avoiding distractions, both internal and external.

    When someone else is sitting beside you working with you on something, simple politeness will stop most people from going off and checking email or doing something else unrelated to the work at hand. If that doesn’t work, typically your partner will request a halt to unrelated or time-wasting activities pretty quickly.

    External distractions (such as someone coming over to ask a question) can be dealt with by one partner while the other partner continues working and stays “in the groove.” In my experience, returning from such a distraction, I can get back up to speed again a lot faster because I’m with someone who has everything still at the forefront of his mind.

    There’s actually a third kind of “distraction” I encounter frequently when programming, which is when I’m still working on what I’m supposed to be working on, but I get stuck for a period of time chasing down a bad idea (often something more complex than I really need). Working with a partner tends to get you out of those situations and back to productive work a lot sooner than when you’re working alone.

    Pair-programming with a developer at or around your own level is, in my experience, extremely intense work; I generally can do it for about six hours per day before I’m tired. But I always come out feeling that I’ve gotten a lot done, not always (in fact, not usually) because I’ve implemented more features than I would have otherwise, but because the code quality is significantly better both in needing less rework later and because the design is better suited to build future work on.

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