It's Tuesday afternoon and Sam has finally carved out a few hours to work on some tricky parts of the code he's been developing.
He settles into his home office, puts on his noise-cancelling headphones, and cracks his knuckles, ready to dive in.
But before he can even open his IDE, the barrage begins!
Slack notifications are pinging, his email inbox is flooding with messages, and a coworker is instant messaging him a question.
Sam's anticipated focused coding time is soon fractured into a million little pieces 🤯.
I am Sam, and Sam might even be you.
We've all been there before.
As programmers, we aim to achieve flow states where we can apply sustained focus to our code.
But constant communications and disruptions make something a rarity - deep work.
Deep work refers to lengthy, uninterrupted periods of intense concentration on cognitively demanding tasks.
When it comes to programming, deep work allows us to tackle tricky problems, gain insights, and produce high-quality code.
Without nurturing our ability to do deep work, we miss out on achieving true mastery as developers.
In this article, we’ll explore how to overcome barriers and create the right conditions for deep work in programming.
Programming is an intellectually demanding task.
The work taxes our cognitive abilities (in other words our brain power!) and cannot be completed well in a quick or shallow manner.
Unlike simple administrative tasks or emails, programming problems do not have easy answers.
Tricky bugs, performance issues, and designing elegant solutions take patience and deep focus to work through methodically.
This type of challenging work requires long periods of uninterrupted concentration and attention to detail.
Deep work allows programmers to get into a state of flow where real productivity and creativity flourishes 🌿.
In this state, as developers, we can apply laser focus to our craft and produce high-quality solutions.
The alternative is a fragmented, rushed mode where code is churned out haphazardly just to meet deadlines.
Prioritising deep work results in creating robust, well-tested code that takes into account edge cases and future needs.
Taking shortcuts leads to buggy code that requires significant rework down the road.
Sustained focus results in insights and problem-solving abilities that otherwise go unnoticed.
In essence, deep work separates the master programmers from the amateurs.
Developing the capacity for deep work leads to a sense of craftsmanship and capabilities that are otherwise unattainable.
For programmers seeking deep work, two of the biggest barriers are context switching and communication overload.
Constant interruptions and rushes of information make sustaining deep focus incredibly difficult.
Context switching refers to stopping one task to start another and then switching back again.
This breaks up work and introduces high cognitive costs each time we change contexts.
Studies show it can take over 20 minutes to fully re-engage after even brief interruptions.
As programmers, we often face frequent context switching as we toggle between coding, meetings, communications, and other administrative work.
This fractures our work into pieces too small to achieve any meaningful focus and flow.
It also leads to higher stress and mental fatigue.
Communication overload via emails, instant messages, and notifications also hinders deep work.
Being constantly available and responsive to others makes it impossible to maintain uninterrupted concentration spans long enough to work deeply on coding tasks.
The more we try to multitask communication and work in parallel, the worse the effects.
Research shows multitasking significantly lowers productivity, increases mistakes, and degrades mental performance.
To engage in deep work, we need extended periods of isolation from these disruptions and distractions.
Setting communication boundaries and minimising context switching is key to overcoming these barriers.
With more focus and fewer distractions, we can achieve greater flow as programmers.
So how do we do deep work?
There have been many things written and studied about deep work. One of my favourite books is by Cal Newport, aptly titled Deep Work.
I won’t go through everything he says here but essentially, to overcome barriers and achieve deep work, you’ll need to optimise both your environment and mindset.
With the right preparations, you can train your brain and body to more easily slip into a state of intense focus.
Having a distraction-free physical workspace removes environmental stimuli that may break your deep work sessions.
Dedicate an office, room, or desk solely to heads-down coding work.
Keep the space clean and decluttered with only the essential tools and resources for the task at hand.
Also, optimise your virtual space by utilising technology to limit distractions.
Browser extensions can block distracting websites and apps during certain times.
Enable do-not-disturb modes on communication channels like email, and chat and disable notifications.
Use time management tactics like the Pomodoro technique to enhance your ability to focus deeply for set time periods.
This involves working in short bursts of 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break before resuming work.
Breaks give your mind needed rest while preventing burnout.
Time blocking is another calendar-based tactic that works well.
Block off large chunks of time solely for focused coding work, then protect that time at all costs - the same way you would for a meeting.
Starting with blocks as small as 60-90 minutes can help build focus stamina gradually.
Programming requires extreme mental exertion, so proper warm-up routines prep your mind to go deep.
Starting rituals like meditation or visualisation can signal to your brain that focused work is beginning.
Mindfulness and meditation help strengthen attention and awareness.
Regular practice has been shown to reduce distractions and improve concentration.
Meditation need not be long - even 5-10 minutes can set you up nicely for deep work.
With the right environment, habits and mental readiness, you'll find yourself more easily slipping into flow states contributing to gaining mastery in programming.
Be patient as you build your deep work skills - the long-term benefits are well worth the investment.
Once you implement deep work practices, it is important to measure their impact.
Tracking certain metrics can reveal how deep work is benefiting your programming skills and value to yourself or your organisation.
Look for improvements in areas like:
- Quality - Are your solutions more elegant? Do they contain fewer bugs and edge case issues? Examine code review feedback and tester reports for evidence of superior code quality.
- Productivity - Are you completing more user stories or tasks? How has your velocity improved over time?
- Speed - Are you solving problems faster? How have solution delivery times changed?
- Focus - Calculate what percentage of your day you spend doing deep work versus shallow work. Aim for a higher deep work ratio.
- Job Satisfaction - Do you feel more engaged in your work? Is programming becoming more fulfilling?
- Learning - Have your technical skills grown? Are you overcoming challenges previously out of reach?
Measure against your own personal baseline rather than external averages.
The goal is to quantify your own improvements as you devote more time and energy to deep work.
Consider tracking deep work hours and logging metrics in a journal or spreadsheet 📝.
Visualising your progress will provide motivation to sustain and expand your deep work habits.
While deep work takes significant effort, data on your improvements will validate that the investment is paying dividends in your skills and capabilities as a programmer.
The long-term benefits make it well worth the required tenacity and discipline.
In summary, deep work is an essential practice for taking your programming skills to the next level.
The focused concentration and uninterrupted time it requires enables you to truly master complex topics and produce high-quality code.
While deep work presents some challenges, there are tangible steps you can take to overcome barriers and create an environment optimised for intense focus.
Dedicate space, utilise productivity techniques, and prepare your mindset to get into flow.
Measuring deep work's impact on your productivity, quality, and learning will validate the benefits of adopting deep focus as a habit.
Though difficult at first, the long-term gains for your programming abilities make deep work incredibly worthwhile.
Rather than being frustrated by constant distractions, take back control and double down on deep work.
Start applying just one technique from this article during your daily routine.
Over time, you’ll transform yourself into a master programmer through diligent deep work sessions.
The results will amaze you, as you discover abilities you did not know were possible.
Stop tolerating shallow work and realise your full potential through the power of deep work.
Go deep and get in the zone!
From your fellow ever-growing dev,
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