Software problems require a lot of research, planning, execution, and quality assurance. All four stages require focus and deep thinking. When a software developer gets distracted at any stage, going back into "the zone" or "the flow" demands a lot of work. In socially isolated times, it is easy to find ourselves trying to catch up with every piece of information to feel more productive. There might be kids running at home while there is an IDE open on the screen. Maybe there is no one to bother during coding, but our mind is nudged to check the phone or Slack all the time so that we don't miss out on anything or feel alone.
For a while, I've been thinking, reading, and analyzing the situation I'm in. I have many things that I want to change. Yet, I also lacked how to approach these changes. That's why I've been reading Atomic Habits for a while. It taught me that learning how to change behaviors and stick to the habits that I want to have in my life. One of them is improving how I work. When I took a look at my work setup, I found myself in a Hyperactive Hive Mind, as Cal Newport explains in his latest book, A World without Email:
"The Hyperactive Hive Mind: A workflow centered around ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services."
Not having deep-focused work and having the mindset of artificial productivity create negative affectivity. This problem is not novel and not new to me as well. Some time ago, after reading Deep Work from Cal Newport, I tried changing my work to have deep working hours. It helped me work in a flow that I lacked (and complained) for a long time. As time passed and the pandemic hit, these flows faded away, and I was not sticking to them a lot.
Currently, I'm not 100% actively coding, and empty spaces in my work calendar vanish every week along with my deep working time. When I look at my statistics for March 2021, I spent 26 hours on Slack, 22 Hours on Google Meet, ~4 hours on Zoom, ~4 hours on Gmail, and ~4 hours on juggling on my calendar. These stats give me a clear sign of a Hyperactive Hive Mind that I want to get rid of.
Changing habits require a little bit of preparation. As a start, I blocked Deep Hours in my calendar. I will spend these deep hours on the computer or walking. If my work doesn't require a computer, I plan to go for deep walks to think about a subject or solve a problem. I'm starting to say "No" to ad-hoc meetings if it's not urgent. (I use the trick of asking people, "when do you need this work/talk to be done?" and it magically works.) These are just small strategies that I am adding to my routine and improving on the way.
If you want to increase your deep working hours in your workflow like me, here are some suggestions I've seen work:
- Block focus time on your calendar. Plan it, don't decide on the go. When the events are visible on your calendar, and you see them all the time, you will be more inclined to apply them. If you find recurring timeframes, you can set the calendar to repeat the events automatically. Make these events visible to everyone and reject other meetings during this timeframe.
- Turn off every notification on your phone and computer. (Put your phone upside down in another room. Take off your smartwatch if you have one) Log out from all social media websites on your computer browser. I have been living without social media notifications for a long time, and it's one of the best decisions I have made.
- Close Slack, Telegram, Discord, or whatever messaging app you use. Don't worry if your team or boss will complain. You can kindly say sorry (or not) by explaining that you were focusing on the task to produce a great result. I'm sure that they will understand. If you use the Focus feature of RescueTime and combine it with Zapier to trigger focus time when you have a calendar event. In that case, you can even automatically block distracting apps and websites thanks to RescueTime. Have a system that automatically works for you. The goal is to reduce the effort of going into deep work.
- Choose tasks that you can finish in one deep work session. If your work requires a significant amount of time, slice it down and work on them one-by-one. Don't overload yourself. At the end of each session, you should be able to have an achievement. Pick tasks you can finish in one sitting.
- Make your table tidy or put something nice on your desk before starting your deep work. Beautiful environments can help us to stick to what we're doing. The trick is to choose something that will make having the session attractive and joyful.
- Put an X on your calendar or make a stack of legos on your table. It doesn't matter what you do; the visual presentation of your progress will nudge you to do it one more time constantly. You can also use the "don't break the chain" strategy or any other similar idea. Have a system that you see the progress.
Try doing it once or twice a week in the beginning. Keep in mind that you cannot have deep work for the entire day. If you can have it three sessions (each 1-2 hours) a day, that's great.
These are all examples; find what you can do and adjust them to your needs. I hope these strategies will help you as they helped my colleagues and me. How are your deep working hours? What are your methods in your working style? Just hit reply and send them to me. I'm still improving my work and would love to hear your ideas. :)
Now, onto what happened in the last month.
I wrote seven blog posts and recorded two podcast episodes.
I previously shared my views on one-on-one meetings and how engineers should own that meeting and drive it. Adding to that, I experienced the best strategy to drive a meeting is having one shared document between my manager and me. We use the document together, which helps us structure topics and don't miss out on anything. In this blog post, I shared my template and how to use it.
I believe that timely estimations are underrated. I've seen that having no estimates or using complexity-based assessments creates more problems than decent timely estimations. Of course, if you can do them well, any strategy works. Nevertheless, adequately doing time estimates is more effortless than others.
Communication is far more critical than other technical skills. Good technical skills pay the bills; good communication skills help you grow by boosting any other skill (including technical). Writing is one of the most critical communication skills for software engineers, especially in remote work. Yet, it is one of the most overlooked ones.
In the last couple of months, I reorganized our team's documents, and I got positive feedback from my peers and other people at the company. So I shared my approach with you. The primary trick I used was separating the documentation mindset from the engineering mindset. They are different and have to be approached distinctly.
It doesn't matter if you are an engineer or manager; you make decisions all the time. Often, communicating the decisions is more important than the decision itself because it defines if the decision will be implemented successfully or not.
As we are all different than each other, we sometimes face disagreements. Avoiding confrontation looks like a strategy to prevent frictions in the first place. However, the issues add up, and it results in a significant conflict. Having more minor disagreements is natural and more healthy. But if we find ourselves in a big one -as I was in before- we need to have strategies to solve them. I shared the techniques I've seen work.
Susan Bond is the former COO of TravisCI and a leadership coach. I follow her newsletter called Observations and Annotations. In this episode, we talked about how much a leader should protect their team and how they can find their leadership style.
In the previous Mektup, I promised to write a blog post about why I moved away from having live streams. Two of the primary points were not being asynchronous and not having engagement. With the podcasting approach, I feel that I've found the right path for the content I produce. All my evaluation and decision points are in the blog post.
I have another blog called Bi' Tek Dünya, in which I write articles in Turkish. Recently, my friend Sabrican and I started a new podcast in our native language, Turkish. We're having a casual chat about the things we read and researched. In the last two episodes, we talked about Atomic Habits. As of this week, I'm editing the new recording; stay tuned!
☝Three Articles and One Book I Recommend Reading
This article is old but gold. It's one of the posts I read time-to-time. Writing code that's deletable or changeable in the first place is a mindset to have when you grow in your career. Truly understanding and accepting that the code will change or be deleted helps to approach problems differently.
In my coaching sessions, I often see that people hesitate to ask questions. Especially juniors have a difficult time when their senior colleagues have a high work backlog. Steve talks about how you should form the questions in different setups. Some questions are better to ask colleagues, but that's not all. Yet, one behavior that is required in all questions is you need to prepare before asking.
Resilience is not something you have; it's something you learn. In the middle of the pandemic, resilience is often overused, and people think that they are resilient or not. However, reflecting on the events happening at work and in personal life is learnable. The researches mentioned in the article shows that our resilience is defined by how we perceive possible traumatic events. The decisive point is how we frame them: an opportunity to learn or a threat.
I have read this book in Fall 2020. At that time, I was recovering from burnout, and I was keen on changing my work style. Being in the flow state that Csikszentmihalyi talks about was missing in my work for a long time. It's also not only work; our lives are filled with constant distractions that we cannot focus on anything anymore. The average number of mobile push notifications in the US is 46 per day, and on top, we have distractions caused by YouTube, Twitch, and Netflix. After reading Deep Work, I decided to change my life a little bit. It's a work-in-progress, but I'm way happier than before. I recommend you to think about how distracted you are and whether you want to change it or not. If you have the same feelings as me, get this book. If not, that's great; keep going!
That's it. If you have any strategies to improve the quality of your work, I'm all ears. :)
And one last thing: please share this newsletter with someone who might find it helpful.