Refocussing on Deep Work

Checking for updates on my phone

I grew up spending a lot of time reading. Entire days could disappear in a book, I found it engaging and inspiring. Having many hours of quiet and time to myself was an important factor in the quality of my study as well as my hobbies. Years on, after going through University and building an ecommerce agency, I think I’ve come to under appreciate that fact.

My entry into owning a business was much like many others in the web industry. It started due to my passion for the work and grew to a point where I no longer spend my days buried in code.

What I have been able to do, instead, is pair my domain knowledge, my skill at analysing businesses and identifying where we can add value with my determination to get shit done, and I’d say we’ve done pretty good.

This hasn’t been a process without its side-effects. Wearing so many hats as a business owner and personally having fear of missing out (on knowledge) means that over the years I have trained myself to “multi-task”. This has meant that I am now often am looking for the next interruption. The next problem to solve. The next tidbit of information that I can file away for later.

The digital world has evolved in such a way that it needs to commandeer our attention to provide a return on investment without having to answer for the real costs.

I became aware of my decreasing attention span and I found it frustrating and dissatisfying. I would find myself drifting and that I had opened a tab to check my emails, or my news feed, or messages. Sometimes I would find myself repeatedly doing this after already catching myself in the act.

I recognised that it had not previously been a problem so I must trained myself to act this way. This gave me confidence that there would be steps I could take to retrain myself.

First Step

My initial responses were simple and the common recommendations. I started off by disabling many of the mobile and desktop notifications, particularly email and social networks. Anything with a damn notification count.

When I was still frustrated with not being able to work on the business rather than in it, I experimented with popular management hack of booking calendar entries for “GSD” or “Getting Shit Done”. These time slots could then be used to reserve time for proactive business development tasks.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found much success with this technique so far. My organisation devolves to chaos as priority items are thrown up that one of my hats needs to attend to which leads to be calendar entries being moved back.

It’s at this point it hits home. Maybe the problem exists between the keyboard and chair.

While I had reflected and acknowledged my bad habits, I’d only make weak attempts at rectifying them and wasn’t thinking critically enough about my thought process.

So, I re-evaluated my goals and identified the following two which are tied closely together:

  1. Reduce time spent spinning the refresh wheel and task switching.
  2. Increase uninterrupted time for self-initiated projects.

Towards the end of last year when I was reconsidering my approach, I came across Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Disclaimer: affiliate link). I immediately identified with what he was saying. He gave me the motivation along with actionable advice on how to better reflect and be more intentional about my use of time.

Bye Facebook and Twitter

One chapter is critical of our use of social networks and asks us to be mindful of what we wish to achieve through them. I found that evaluating this was an eye-opening process.

I knew that the small hit of Dopamine and Serotonin released when checking for updates on twitter, facebook, email and slack was reinforcing my actions without providing significant satisfaction.

So at the beginning of December I logged out and deleted the apps from my phone.

I would have previously described myself as self-controlled and would have scoffed at the idea of needing to completely cut out things. However, after multiple failed attempts I realised that I needed to go cold turkey. In order to break the muscle memory I also resorted to blocking sites:


Notice that BBC News and Reddit are in this list as well. Other crutches that I leant on more once I took a break from social.

Two months have passed and I’m proud to say I stuck with it and I’m happy with the effect this has had.

What you don’t know you’ve missed can’t hurt you, but I once I stopped checking I didn’t have any anxieties or a feeling of being disconnected. I set up email notifications for twitter so I didn’t miss out on if people tried to get in touch directly. If they did, I responded via email where possible.

One of the fears of disconnecting from social was dropping out of the community that I enjoy being part of. After two months apart, it has validated my belief that I don’t have to be plugged in 24/7 to remain connected. If anything, I can engage more directly which provides more valuable relationships anyway.

Over time, I hope to be able to contribute to the community in a more substantial basis than 140 characters bursts. This post was drafted on my phone while waiting for a delayed flight home. An environment that in the past I was much more likely to be sitting on my phone checking twitter to pass the time.

Lastly, what I found when I logged into Facebook after the gap to post some ads for our php developer job was telling of their relationship with me. The notifications bubble was full of other people’s news events. Highlights of my news feed had moved to the notifications feed which made it hard to see was relevant to me. A feature that I’m sure was designed to provide “value” to those that don’t log in regularly. My cynicism however recognised it as a last ditch attempt by Facebook to remain relevant and only served to push me further away.

Bye Bedside Phone

Not too dissimilar to my issue with social networks and emails was the need to check my phone. I used to boot up in the morning by checking emails and reading the news to see what he’d said this time. I no longer let myself check my phone in the morning and removing this potential for anxiety or anger has been a definite plus.

Avoiding picking up my phone to check for notifications is something that I’m more conscious of during the day so I’ve also been trying to keep that in check.


While my workaholic approach to life have been much improved over the last couple of years, I do still have a tendency to feel like I should be doing something productive.

What I have been able to introduce is more of an appreciation for recovery. Controversially for some, I’m come to be a firm believer in life balance and working over a certain number of hours a week provides no additional benefit, to you or the business.

Previously, if I was pushing myself hard, I may have broken and found myself checking Twitter anyway. By cutting social and being more generous with my time for hobbies, when I am working I’m much more engaged and effective.

Finding Quiet

For years I’ve been in the habit of going into work early to find that space that was so satisfying during my more formative years. However, as the company has grown this has become less effective because of other team members starting earlier and me coming in later (not a bad thing!).

Therefore, I’m cautious now of finding alternative ways for periods of solitary work. One way that I’m doing this is by setting up a home office which I’m fortunate to have. My plan is to change my morning routine to make use of it before heading into the Meanbee office.

Being completely cut off will encourage the first tasks of the day to be proactive rather than reactive. I think this is especially important as Managing Director.

The irony, however, is not lost on me though: I would like to have time away from a place where I expect others to be able to work effectively.

I admit that it has been a few years since we installed an open office plan and I definitely have changed my opinion of them. I hope that we’re a small enough team that the negative effect isn’t huge but we have had to spend time managing interruptions and negotiating on social norms. I’d consider an entire post on this topic but at this point developer frustrations with open office is probably well received.

And the journey continues

I share this to set a marker in my journey to help me recognise decisions and progress I make and in the hope that it speaks to someone else as well.

Once again, if you haven’t already, I really recommend reading Cal Newport’s book on the subject. It certainly made me reflect on the negative effects of culture change through new technology.

I am still early in the process of creating more space for deep work but I’m confident that it has already helped me more productive and, rather counter-intuitively, more relaxed as well.

One thing that I’d love to work on next is breaking the email habit. Cold turkey and logging out of services may be the way of doing this as well. One idea I had was to find a way to limit so Gmail only showed new emails, say, 3 times a day. “Sorry, the postman hasn’t arrived yet.”

After some research, the only thing I really found out there was the Inbox Pause Chrome extension from Boomerang but it didn’t work for me. There are a number of reviews along the same lines so this might be something that I work on in my own time to satiate my desire to solve my own needs.

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