"Deep work" is a term coined by the author Cal Newport defined as "activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits." For an early stage founder, it's within the space of deep work that your product is built.
If building your product (alongside speaking to customers) is among the most important responsibilities for founders, and building is best supported by long periods of deep work, shouldn't all pre-seed and seed stage startups be prioritizing it? Shouldn't a culture of deep work be viewed as a major competitive advantage and enabler of the high quality work? The reality is that very few startups think about deep work this way, and instead adopt what Cal refers to as the "hyperactive hivemind".
The hyperactive hive mind mode of work is characterized by freeflowing, unrestricted ad-hoc communication rhythms that run counter to producing deep work. You spend the day responding to Slack messages within minutes, take calls on short notice, and "focus" on multiple tasks at a time. Yet when the day ends, it feels like you've just consumed the work equivalent of empty calories. You were busy but not productive.
If you feel this way, chances are your startup is following at least some of these operating rhythms:
Treating non-urgent tasks as urgent tasks: Immediate calls are frequently scheduled amongst team members to resolve issues with no immediate consequence. Similarly, Slack messages are sent on an ad-hoc basis to raise nonurgent issues as they arise.
Socializing within Slack: Slack is seen as the primary social space for socializing with frequent back-and-forth messaging, meme postings, and other non-essential chatter.
Taking external meetings on short notice: Meetings with external parties are scheduled into the earliest time blocks possible.
While each of these rhythms may have some benefit at particular times, all of them erode the foundations of a deep work culture. Each of them either create new reasons for team members to break their focus from deep work and/or reduce the total amount of deep work time available in a given week.
Deep work rhythms are characterized by their efficacy in reducing the amount of times a team member needs to context switch. Your day is structured around large blocks of deep work time, usually 2-4 hours in length.
During these periods you focus exclusively on 1-2 high-value tasks, with zero time spent checking either Slack or email. You batch-process Slack messages and emails 2-4 times per day, after completing deep work periods. You're able to end the day feeling like you've pushed yourself to your cognitive limits with the work to show for it.
Creating a culture of deep work requires founders to make some deliberate choices when it comes to communication norms and work culture. Here are the three rhythms we've found most most effective in preserving a culture of deep work:
Batch process non-urgent tasks: Each team member has 1-1 weekly calls scheduled with team members they frequently interact with. Any non-urgent items are dumped into this document and processed on a weekly basis during that call.
Limited socializing within Slack: Slack is not thought of as the primary space to get to know your teammates. Instead, you do that over 1-1s with key team members and through team lunches every 2-4 weeks. These lunches are focused on discussing everything not related to work. See more about this in the 'Building Close Relationships' section below.
External meetings are punted into the following week: Any non-urgent meetings are not scheduled into the current week. Instead, they're punted into the following week and scheduled into 1-2 days of the week that are specifically reserved for meetings. This prevents sudden disruptions for the team, and creates a sense of predictability around what a given week will hold.
It's worth noting that these rhythms aren't perfect. You'll sometimes need to take a call in the same week, deal with non-urgent items being brought up urgently, etc. However, the point of creating these rhythms is to make these sorts of situations exceptions, rather than the rule. Most startups still have these distractions as the rule, rather than the exception.
One common objection to implementing deep work rhythms is that it dampens the ability for team members to bond. A lot of founders are particularly hesitant to discourage Slack as a space for bantering. This is a valid concern, because you can get to know your co-workers over Slack.
That said, there's a high cost to it (attention fragmentation) and most importantly, I don't think the most meaningful relationships are built on Slack.