Going Deep: Follow-Up Pt. 1
15 min read | May 24 2021
Right at the end of December 2020 I wrote a post on this blog called ”Going Deep”. That post was a number of things. First, it was my inquisition and exploration of depth. I’d read the book(s), I’d heard the pitches, and I was indeed curious to try the ‘world of deep’. Second, it was a public declaration on what I was doing: a useful and informative shield for my friends and family to understand why I was no longer responsive on Facebook. And third, it was a mechanism for keeping me honest and ensuring that I’d execute on my desires to isolate rather than falling to the continued will of the social-media machine. It’s hard to turn back and say you decided not to do something when you posted a large manifesto on your public website about it 😉.
Adding fuel to the fire, I was just about to start a new role at Agent Pronto and, while my prior team was remote, moving to Agent Pronto presented me with the opportunity to work for a fully remote company rather than a temporarily remote one for the first time. The job change helped drive the desire for depth in a few ways. For starters, I was transitioning to a bit more of a senior role — I’m now one of two Rails engineers (on an engineering team that totals three) and I hold a lot of back-end responsibility. I’m essentially the ‘Rails and performance guy’. If there’s ever a time where I want to be doing deep, A+ level work, it’s now. In addition to that, Agent Pronto nails the asynchronous workflow methodology. We really do follow a remote + async process as a business (and especially as our three-person dev team). To me, that meant there was no better time to make a paradigm shift in my style of thinking and working — the team I was joining was already doing it!
So I did it. I switched from the “give me every notification immediately”, “handle every issue the moment it comes up”, “all messages all the time” person to the very-isolated ‘wanting to do deep work’ person. I turned off essentially all notifications in my life except for phone calls (from known numbers) (which are rare) and direct tags on my company’s Slack (which are also rare). I get almost zero notifications pulling at my attention on any given day. All day long. And that’s not stated for the sake of flaunting, it’s for the end-goal: to create great things… and as I later realized on the personal-life side: to grow great relationships.
So I’m writing this post to document my experience: what went well, what didn’t, what I’m still working on, where I’ll go from here, and other musings I’ve found important along the way. I’m breaking it up into two major parts: Pt. 1 covers the background, the logistics, how I set everything up, and what standards I’ve chosen to hold myself to. Pt. 2 will cover the impact on my life — the good, the bad, and the things I’m still learning!
‘Going deep’ turned out to be a pretty wide-ranging task that touched a lot of different facets of my life. Related to how I describe Deep Work as the “going deep for professional / career work” and Digital Minimalism as the “going deep for personal life / relationships”, doing both covers just about everything in life. For me it started with crafting a notification plan and a communication SLA. Once those were in place and my hardware was configured, I set out to leave my phone behind…
I knew I had to start with a notification plan. I needed to break down the concept of notifications and determine for myself exactly which notifications were/are important enough to warrant breaking my focus — whether my focus was toward a complex coding challenge or toward a deep conversation with a friend. What should be allowed to pop up on my screen that could break my focus on my current task, take my attention for an unknown amount of time, and/or potentially add cognitive load to my mind in the midst of the things I’m already working on? That’s a hard question. And it’s not one I was able to answer without some real time and experimentation.
What I can say for certain is that auditing notifications means auditing values. Figuring out how to setup my notifications meant really figuring out what I value. On the ‘work’ side, as much as I had previously valued being “the guy you can call on” or “the guy that’ll make things happen when you need him to”, I’d experienced too many days where I felt like even though I was well connected / communicating all day (slack, email, etc.) I didn’t feel like I’d actually produced any real value for the company. I didn’t feel like I’d actually done anything. That’s not a good feeling. I wanted to produce great things. To build great things. Ultimately if I pitted the two against each other, I’d choose being a great value-producer over being a great always-real-time communicator. People aren’t found and hired to build software because of their excellent Slack response times.
On the personal-life side, over the last few years I’ve really grown to hate the feeling of a phone being pulled out mid-conversation with someone else. Whether I brought the phone out or the other person did, it always felt like the direct A-to-B connection now had a distraction — an unknown player C entering the A-to-B conversation and planning to take it somewhere else. I didn’t want that anymore. I also couldn’t help but feeling the priorities on display. I think we all feel this but sort of let it go — when you’re in a conversation with someone and they get a notification (on their phone, watch, etc.) then glance at it. Is it a big deal? No, probably not. But I can’t help but feel that glance as just a small recognition that the notification is more important than the conversation at hand. I don’t want to participate in that anymore. That’s not how I value my friends. I want my friends to have my full attention when I’m with them. I want to explore the hard topics of life with them, not the latest and greatest posts on Face-Gram. I want to be present with them, fully disconnected from the vast, unending digital world for that time — unreachable, or maybe indistractable, from them.
So the thought experiment I used to determine whether or not a notification is warranted revolved around two situations: being deep into a complex coding project or being deep in a conversation with a friend at a coffee-shop. The choice then became simple: for each notification that might pop up on my screen (be it computer screen or phone screen), is that notification so important that it should break my focus on the coding project or the friends’ conversation? In most cases, the answer is no. Should an email divert my attention from my friend telling me their life story? No. Should a new comment on a Strava ride divert my attention from a complex SQL query? No. Most things are a no 😜. Almost all notifications from third-party apps are no’s.
Here’s where I landed on the interrupt-ability of ‘core’ communications toward me:
- Emails should never interrupt me
- Checking email should be an intentional action I take: choosing to open my email client, check my inbox for new messages, then handle and respond to them as needed. Any time I check my email inbox without the full cognitive space and ability to handle whatever might be in there, I’m not giving my emails the attention they deserve. I’m also probably taking attention and cognitive space away from whatever I was doing before I decided to check email in that moment. So no email notifications. I’ll check my email when I have the time and space to check it and handle it with my full attention. (A very HEY! approach)
- Text messages should never interrupt me
- I’ve had iMessage / text message notifications enabled since the dawn of texting and my earliest flip-phones but I decided it’s time for them to go. I’ve chosen to take a different perspective on how I think about texting for the my attention’s sake. I now treat texting very similarly to email: something I intentionally choose to open and triage all of the messages in at an appropriate time. There could be tension with this outlook if I had friends or colleagues that choose to convey high-urgency information through text messages, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I’m not sure how many people really use text messages for truly high-urgency information. People still call other people when something’s important — when someone’s hurt or in danger. Similarly to email, I’ll check text messages when I have the time and space to fully handle them with my full attention.
- Slack messages should only interrupt me if I’m tagged or DM’d
- The goal here is a balanced approach. While this idea (“DM’s or Tags only”) is commonly used, I think it strikes a good balance that allows colleagues to choose whether or not to notify me depending on whether or not they tag me — it’s on them. As long as the team understands my workflow and how I have my Slack notifications setup (I believe we all use DMs/Tags only), it makes notifications an opt-in system that we’re all cognizant of. We do have to be responsive to our jobs when they need us urgently, after all 😛. But in the same light, we all value our ‘deep time’ so there’s a mutual respect and understanding of the gravity that comes with tags.
- Phone calls from known numbers should interrupt me
- This one may sound strange since phone calls are arguably significantly more distracting from work or relationships than the other methods above, but there’s a bit of nuance here. For starters, I don’t actually get many phone calls. The odds of getting one while meeting with another friend are fairly low. Even still, this more-so relates back to the single-focus principle. If I’m meeting with a friend and glance at my phone, I’m splitting my focus between the friend and the distraction/phone. Conversely, if I’m meeting with the same friend and my phone rings, I’ll actually answer it — fully pausing my friend and I’s conversation. I’ll likely tell the caller that I’m in the middle of something and will call them back soon then end the call, but there’s a lot more clarity to my friend in this small exchange than when I was distracted by a phone notification. In the phone call situation, my full focus has shifted from the friend’s conversation to the phone call, and that’s very clear to my friend. My hot take here is that people strongly prefer having either your full focus or no focus to having a gray-area partial-focus. Being on the receiving end of a partially-focused conversation is a bummer. So yes, I want calls to notify me in real-time across the board and will leave texts, emails, and general Slacks out of it.
It’s important to note the distinction here between my take on the interrupt-ability of ‘core’ communications and something like a communication SLA. The latter I’ll get to in a moment. The former is purely about what circumstances constitute technology interrupting whatever I’m currently focused on.
So, given the above framework for how I’m interruptable and my noted lack of notifications from things like text messages and emails, the other side of the coin is setting forth expectations for how much, how often, and how fast others should expect to hear back from me. It’s really important to separate the concept of “when something interrupts me” from “how fast I’ll get back to you”. If you don’t everything will be “it interrupts me now and I need to get back to you now”. That’s not deep, that’s frantic. This ‘Communication SLA’ essentially serves to be a known response-time expectation when communicating with me:
- For emails, I aim to respond within 24 hours in most cases
- For text messages, I aim to respond within 24 hours
- For non-tag/non-DM Slack messages, I aim to respond within a few business hours
- For tagged/DM’d Slack messages, I aim to respond in real time
- For phone calls, I aim to receive and answer in real time
Ultimately this is a sort of priority funnel. If you need to reach me for something important, urgent, or with otherwise due speed, just call. Phone calls aren’t a big deal, can be short, and make me happier in hearing my friends’ voices than just quick text messages back and forth. Conversely, if nothing is really pressing or on fire, I can expect to spend time working on deep things or deep in conversations with friends totally uninterrupted. That’s awesome!
With all the mentality / strategy in place, the first major step was to actually implement all of the above on my devices. For starters, I removed just about every notification from my computer and phone. Almost no apps have the permissions to pop up notifications or use the little red app-icon badges — everything is quiet. It takes a little time, but this is mostly just an exploration of your device’s notification settings, basically turning each app’s permissions fully off. No email tings🎵, no text message pop ups, no daily alerts.
On the social media front I deleted my Twitter and Instagram then promptly left Facebook. I didn’t delete my Facebook account outright since I’ll need it as we approach RAGBRAI later this summer (group communication is hard), but I did change the password to an unknown sequence, logged out, and removed all of the apps and etc. from my devices. While not strictly related to ‘deep work’, leaving social media is another worthwhile journey I’m glad to have been on and I think it pairs nicely with the desire to spend more focused time with individuals. My goal is not to have a tribe of 1500 ‘friends’ I’m digitally connected to, it’s to have a small tribe of real people around me that I intentionally spend focused time with consistently. I don’t need to see their ‘stories’ on Instagram; I’d rather they tell me in person with all their real-life excitement and emotion. After all, which is better: To be friends with someone on Facebook and see their life updates from afar, never actually talking to them as the years pass? Or to not be digitally connected with someone at all but catch up once every few months over lunch for a couple hours? I’m voting the latter. Anyway, I digress..
The last thing, which actually proved to be the trickiest, was the phone calls. By giving a 24-hour SLA for emails and texts and guarding Slack messages to within business hours, I realized that I could be completely phone-free outside of work-hours. Well, except that I wouldn’t be living up to my desire of being accessible by phone calls! No phone == no phone calls, right? This was tricky. I loved being without my phone, but I also didn’t like that phone calls couldn’t reach me. I thought about this tension for weeks. I really enjoyed living life without all of the functionality and history of an iPhone in my pocket (a device we’ve trained ourselves to compulsively pick up and use for 15 years) — but at the same time I wanted to be callable. I considered buying a second phone — a ‘dumb’ flip-phone or otherwise that could only do phone calls… but that would be a second phone number and would add complexity to my friends’ contact-books. I still like using iMessage, especially on my computer! I just don’t want to carry around an iPhone when I’m not at my home desk. But I also don’t want a second number — I want my friends to be able to continue using the same phone number they’ve always known for me.
Long story short, I realized the solution that would work really well for me is a cellular-enabled Apple Watch. I know, I know. “Really Jon? Another Apple product?? That’s your solution?!” Well.. yes. It’s a really nice balance between not having a ton of functionality and being just functional enough for me. It uses my same phone number for inbound and outbound calls from the watch, follows all of the notification settings I’d previously configured on my phone (basically don’t notify me of anything), and has a screen prohibitively small for any kind of text messages or email. It’s a tiny little phone-call machine on my wrist that can give me maps if I’m in a pinch! Its got no browser, I don’t open the Mail or Messages apps on it, and I leave the watch face very simple without any bells or whistles. It’s about as ‘dumb’ of an Apple Watch as you can make. It’s perfect.
Now I leave my phone with my computer at my desk. If I leave somewhere, I’ll still be callable thanks to the watch, but I don’t carry a phone. At all. I don’t get notifications — I live to enjoy the moments I’m in — and I relax knowing that if someone needs me, I’m always a phone call away.
I’ll write more on how this new approach has impacted my life, perspective, and performance in a Pt. 2 coming soon 🙂.