5 Barriers to Deep Work (And How to Overcome Them)
Crossover

By: Crossover on June 23rd, 2016

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5 Barriers to Deep Work (And How to Overcome Them)

Whether you're a freelance web developer or a person who manages remote web developers and other project team members, the concept of deep work can have a profound and lasting effect on your productivity, your overall sense of satisfaction, and your work/life balance.


The traditional modern office is riddled with distractions of all kinds.

Defining the Concept of Deep Work

Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and best-selling author, defines the concept of deep work in this way: "Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate."


In his most recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport notes that deep work is a rarity, given the distractions of modern life. He observes: "Big trends in business today actively decrease people's ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow from a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level."

The concept of deep work is a highly valuable one for remote workers and their managers. Crossover is completely committed to the foundational principle of deep work because of the benefits that accrue both professionally and personally to remote teams and managers who employ the principles of deep work consistently.

Deep work done remotely, however, does have its complexities. Crossover's "Taking Deep Work Remote"observes: "Deep Work is both easier and more difficult when you're remote. There are no ready-made physical distractions to suction your attention, but there's also no need to get out of bed, or work with focus. The temptation and perceived need to answer notifications gets ever stronger, fueled by the idea that responding to group chat will show your boss you're really working."

In order to perform deep work, then, you must remove barriers to the process. If you are a manager of remote workers, removing these barriers should be a priority, if you want genuine productivity from your remote team.

Here, then, are some common barriers to deep work, along with some practical tips for removing them:

1) The Concept of Constant Collaboration

On the surface, it might appear that discouraging constant collaboration is counterintuitive to the process of managing a remote team effectively. However, the reality is that collaborating constantly with others does not allow you to concentrate effectively on your own specific tasks and goals.

While it is true that you want all your team members to work collaboratively in general, each team member must have time to complete his or her designated tasks with focus and concentration. This might mean that you, as a manager, will need to set limits as to team chats and help team members to block out spaces of time when their work will be undisturbed by other team members or by you as the manager.


Encourage your remote workers to say no to distractions.

2) The Prevailing Preference for Connectedness

Without modern technology, managing a remote workforce would be impossible. However, that same technology provides abundant distraction. For instance, according to Forbes' "How to Boost Productivity as a Remote Employee", the average American spends over three hours each day on social media platforms. The article suggests: "Save the social posts, video clips, news, surfing Reddit and browsing Pinterest for the short little 5-10 minute brain breaks you sprinkle 2 or 3 times throughout your day. When it's not a scheduled break to give your mind a rest, keep those sites shut down. If you have the social apps and notifications set up on your mobile device, shut those down as well to remove any added temptation."

As a manager, set the right tone for your remote workers by modeling deep work behaviors. Block out hours of each day that will be spent in deep work without the distraction of mobile devices and phone calls. To keep things moving smoothly, give your team a heads-up about your scheduled deep work hours.

3) The Thought that Multitasking Is Expected and Effective

With the hectic pace of modern society, it has become generally accepted that the ability to multitask is essential to business success. The reality is, however, that research just does not back up that notion. The Forbes article observes: "Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London studied over 1,000 workers and found that multitasking with electronic media caused a significant decrease in IQ - as high as 10 points. According to the study, this essentially equates to losing a full night of sleep. If you want to maximize your productivity, focus and bang out one task at a time. It's that simple."

Sophie Leroy's "Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?: The Challenge of Attention Residue when Switching Between Work Tasks" notes: "As revealed by two experiments, people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers."

You can help your remote team avoid the trap of multitasking by scheduling tasks reasonably and setting appropriate deadlines for work completion.

4) The Lack of a Designated Work Space that Fosters Deep Work Behaviors

While you may have little say about the work spaces used by your remote team members, you can encourage them to maintain a work space that is conducive to deep work. Ask your remote workers for a virtual tour of their offices, and note carefully areas that may contribute to mental clutter.

Model an appropriate work space environment in your own office, and give remote workers a virtual tour of your space, commenting on ways that an uncluttered space has raised your own productivity.


An office free of unnecessary clutter helps remote workers focus on the tasks at hand.

5) The Lack of a Work Ritual that Signals the Beginning and End of the Work Day

For remote workers, a huge challenge to deep work is the constant drive to continue working past the mind's ability to focus effectively. Because remote workers do not receive the same cues that most workers receive such as co-workers closing up shop for the day or office building lights being turned low, it is easy for them to work beyond reasonable hours.

You can discourage this type of behavior by helping your remote team understand what the project actually requires. In many cases, a gentle reminder will help remote workers learn to stop working when productivity wanes.

Encourage remote workers to establish a start and stop ritual each day to help them transition into and out of deep work mode. The mechanics of the ritual do not matter, and can vary widely from one remote worker to another. The important thing is to encourage team members to have such a ritual in place.

Using the Correct Tools to Promote a Deep Work Mentality

Crossover's "Time and the Remote Worker" discusses what the Crossover staff found when implementing the principles of deep work for one quarter. Over three months of implementing deep work principles at Crossover, 12 of their 14 teams increased their productivity by 50 percent or more. It is safe to say that is statistically significant.

To help facilitate deep work, the Crossover teams use WorkSmart, Crossover's own productivity tool. WorkSmart creates a 100 percent transparent environment and tracks all activities that take place on the job, including metrics, productivity, goals, communication, progress and timesheets.

WorkSmart gives managers a way to see how remote workers are utilizing their time and spot areas where deep work principles may contribute to productivity. WorkSmart also enables remote workers to see how their time is being spent, allowing them to make tweaks to up their productivity on their own as well.


Deep work is focused, productive, and infinitely satisfying.

At Crossover, we are committed to the concepts of deep work as the best and most productive use of time. Done well, it results in increased productivity, a deeper sense of satisfaction, and a better life/work balance for managers and the remote teams with whom they work.

To find out more about the principles of deep work and how they apply to managing a remote workforce,subscribe to our blog today.