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We started experimenting with Deep Work Wednesdays in January 2020. From Sam, here’s the background on why we’re doing it:
Deep Work Wednesdays
I don’t remember where I read this but the concept stuck with me: modern car races are won and lost based on pit stop speeds. At this point in the evolution of racing all the efficiency humans can gain from engineering race cars has been found, and any new gains will be something like Here's a sample pit stop video - play it with the sound on for full effect.
In our work, pit stops are when we switch gears between projects. We can spend hours workshopping ways to make our work more efficient - cleaner task management layouts, project management automation, integrated communications between Slack and our project management platform, etc. - but I think that would only lead to 5-10% gains in efficiency. I hear over and over again from our team that what really drains mental energy is switching gears, especially when it happens multiple times in one day. Back to back meetings with different clients. Digging into a big task for one client only to get an urgent email from another. Crafting a Google Doc for an internal asset only to get a Slack tag from a teammate.
As Knowledge Workers - people who are paid mostly for what we know how to do - the way we manage our mental energy is the single most important professional action we can take each day at work. Doing whatever we need to do to maximize our productive mental energy is not a personal indulgence - it is one of the most powerful things we can do to serve our clients the best we can. In certain fields it could be seen as negligent to take a 30-minute break walking outside when you felt you needed it. In our work, it's negligent to not take a break when our brains or bodies need it. However long the backlog may be, however many "High Priority" tasks our clients throw at us, none of it is as important as our own mental health and ability to leverage our attention and focus on the task at hand.
As we increase our project team sizes, and as we take on more and more clients, calming down our work environment has become a business-wide imperative. One of those ways is to decrease gear switching, or at least create safe windows when gear switching is not required.
Several other companies have approached this by implementing No Meeting Wednesdays, and given the number of meetings we now have on our calendars, we decided it was time we implement this idea as well. "No Meeting Wednesdays" has the same linguistic failing as "nonprofits": it describes what the thing is not, rather than what it is. At OpenTent, we call this time Deep Work Wednesdays.
Deep Work Wednesdays are our weekly time for diving into "the cave." They are meant to be a refuge from gear switching. They will be dedicated to making progress on larger tasks in the backlog, the ones that take 2-4 hours of focus rather than 30-60 minutes. It's a day for constructing your work however you like, a day in which your gear switching is in your control.
Meetings are discouraged, not prohibited. This time is not meant to be an absolute prohibition from meetings - it's meant to foster a shared understanding across our team and with our clients. "I'd rather schedule that on Tuesday or Thursday so that I can keep Wednesday set aside for deep work" is an expected and normal response. Meetings can and do happen on Wednesdays, but they never have to.
Slack, Chatter, and email: Team members decide what role these play in their Deep Work Wednesdays . Some people check in on all three periodically, maybe 2-3 times across the day. Some people might prefer to have them open, some might prefer to have them closed with a status reminder or autoresponder for the rest of the team.
Some of the foundational thinking around this concept comes from Paul Graham, a Silicon Valley pioneer who founded the elite startup accelerator Y Combinator. In 2009, Paul wrote an article called "Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule" which describes how programmers and "makers" prefer large uninterrupted blocks of time, while managers prefer several shorter meetings. Paul describes how managers who run companies typically structure schedules the way they prefer, not realizing that when they ask programmers to join meetings they can throw off that programmer's focus for a full half of a day because of the transition time needed to settle into deep work. He opens the article with a quote from Dickens which feels very relevant to the nature of our work: "...the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day." Our work can require a lot of responsiveness, coordination and inevitable gear-switching. Deep Work Wednesdays help us rebalance the week to allow for the other essential mode of our work: creativity, exploration, and focus.
Does your team have a time-blocking practice like this? Would you like to adopt Deep Work Wednesdays? Drop us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org