Back in the day, when I worked on-site and in open plan offices, I always felt unproductive despite being always busy. It was a paradox that I couldn’t understand. How come I’m rushing to do a lot of things all the time but still feel like I’m producing nothing that is truly valuable? Why do I get more work done in my “work from home day” that I only get every two weeks, than I do in the office?
After joining GitLab and reading a couple of books on workplaces and productivity, I now understand why this was the case. Cal Newport’s Deep Work was the most illuminating book that I read on productivity. He breaks the types of work into two categories:
Shallow work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Deep work: The ability to focus, be uninterrupted for long stretches of time and fall into a state of flow.
In his Deep Work Hypothesis, he claims that the ability to focus separates the top performers from the rest:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it’s increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill and then make it the core of their working life will thrive.
While I was doing a lot of different things at the same time, it was mostly reactive work instead of valuable, proactive work. Replying to emails, attending meetings, chatting on Slack, and similar work demands a lot of energy but returns very little, if any, value. Taking this all into account, I decided to go back to working remotely because I knew I could control my working environment better and be more productive. That’s why I ended up joining GitLab.
Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister is another book that is popular with GitLab team members. In the book, the authors introduce a concept called the E-factor. To put it simply, the E-factor is about measuring brain time versus body time – so how much time a person is working at their full potential versus how much time they’re present at the office. The formula to calculate it is the following:
E-factor = uninterrupted hours / body-present hours
So when I worked in open plan offices, I was present for about eight hours, but had a maximum of about one or two hours of uninterrupted time. That means that my E-factor ranged from 0.125 to 0.25. It’s impossible to produce valuable work with such a low E-factor. Switching to working remotely at an all-remote company immediately improved this but I recently decided to take it even further. I measured how I spent my time for two weeks while working at GitLab. The first week was to document how I had already been spending my time and then the second week with the introduction of improvements that would increase my uninterrupted time. Research suggests that intense concentration is only possible for up to four hours per day so I was aiming to get to four hours of uninterrupted time altogether, but ideally in a single block. Here’s how I spent time before the improvements:
I tracked my time by dividing days into 15-minutes blocks. Light grey is sleep, light blue is family time, and dark blue is work time. Red colors are for shallow work, meetings and email time. The more of the dark blue blocks and the more connected the better.
Get the Google Spreadsheet template for tracking time. Go to File > Make a copy to get an editable version.
Before introducing the improvements, this is how my usual day looked like:
- I checked my email first thing in the morning, which could cause me to spend up to one hour just replying to other people.
- I used to study a book or take course lessons in the morning as a part of professional self-improvement. This was usually half an hour. By the time I actually started working it’d be 9:30.
- I’d work for a couple of hours and stop for a quick snack at 11:30. This was the first stretch of uninterrupted time.
- After the snack I’d have another similar stretch of time but that was usually just an hour (mostly because I’d get distracted with shallow work).
So if I put all this together, I had about three hours of uninterrupted time every day. It’s not that bad (and it’s definitely better than what I experienced in on-site roles in the past) but I wanted to do better. I especially wanted to increase the amount of uninterrupted time in a single stretch. So I decided to make the following improvements:
- I started checking my email in the afternoon, after lunch (that’s 3pm for me).
- I moved the self-improvement activities until after the first snack at 11:30am.
- I realized I spent an hour and a half showering and eating breakfast in the morning, which was way too much. I reduced this to one hour so I could start working 30 minutes earlier (8am instead of 8:30am).
A lot more dark blue, and a lot more of connected dark blue blocks after improvements.
With these improvements, I was able to increase the first stretch of uninterrupted time from two hours to three and a half hours. With an additional one to two hours of uninterrupted time after the snack that can sum up to four and a half to five and a half hours of uninterrupted time each day. My E-factor increased to 0.6875, that’s a 275% increase compared to my times in the office! These changes to my workflow help me perform deep work and fall into a state of flow twice a day, and I noticed drastic improvements in my productivity and in my psychological state as well.
Things that enabled me to introduce these improvements
Separate room for work
I have a study at home where I can be alone and focus. I think this is a very important thing for all remote workers.
Strong working routine
At GitLab, working remotely and asynchronously gives us the freedom to shape our working schedule as we please but a strong working routine has lots of benefits. Starting work at the same time in the morning helps with creating more uninterrupted time and productivity.
I’m based in Europe and most of my colleagues are based in the U.S. This means that I can easily block out time for focused work and eliminate all distractions, including Slack.
My Slack and email policy
Even when I’m not in my focus time, I have Slack notifications disabled. I even disabled the small red dots on the app icon in the dock so that nothing has the possibility of distracting me. As for email, I’ll only check my inbox after lunch, that’s well after I had my two blocks of uninterrupted time.
Writing down tasks
I always write down the things that I need to work on. I have a small notebook on my desk and at the end of each day, I write down the things I need to work on the next day. This way, I can go straight to work in the morning.
Keeping a journal of tasks
Recently, I also started keeping track of all the things I need to work on in my “tasks journal”. It’s just a project on GitLab where I keep a couple of Markdown files for current tasks that I’m working on and an archive of tasks that I worked on in the past. They’re all divided by weeks. For example, at the time of writing this paragraph, it’s week 33 of this year so my current tasks are things that I want to work on in this week. At the end of the week, I’ll check the progress and archive it so I can always check back later.
Keeping a task journal adds a stronger sense of continuity and sharp focus to my work. In the spirit of transparency, I share this publicly with all my co-workers so everyone can see what I’m working on and check my availability.
One of the greatest benefits of working at GitLab is being encouraged to work asynchronously. Because our team isn't tied to the same working hours, I can block out time for focus without feeling guilty that I’m not available to everyone all the time. It’s interesting how working like this makes you realize that most interruptions aren’t as urgent as we tend to believe.
Advice for non-remote workers
If you’re required to work in an office – possibly a working environment full of distractions – implementing these strategies can be a lot more challenging. My advice for non-remote workers is to ask your manager for “work from home” days. Maybe start with one day per week and see how it goes. If your manager doesn't agree, try tracking your time when you work in the office like I did. Present the chart to them and tell them about the deep work and the E-factor. Explain to your manager that you want to increase your uninterrupted time which will help you complete more valuable work. Tell them how working from home will help you achieve this, and how you will change your workflow to be more productive (look for inspiration from my improvements I described in this article). Be committed to producing more meaningful work and be clear that working from home is only a means to an end. Offer to track your time at home to compare with your time spent your in the office, especially if your manager doesn’t seem to be in favor of these changes.
If working from home is still not an option, consider finding a quiet spot in the office where you’ll be uninterrupted: Perhaps the lounge, the garden, or even the reception area. Try moving to an area away from your teammates and sit with people you don’t know as well. They’re much less likely to disturb you. When I was working from a busy office in central London, I loved going to a coffee shop for an hour or two. I managed to get some work done and enjoyed the short trip to the shop and back. The walk and getting out of the office helped me relax a bit as well.
These changes to how we work are all about improving productivity and quality of work. In an ideal working environment, everyone would measure their E-factors and they’d brag about their uninterrupted time instead of complaining about how many meetings they have to attend in an effort to perform busyness to their colleagues.