I work in long bursts

21 July 2020
21 Jul 2020

I’ve noticed in the last few months of complete schedule-freedom that I achieve highest average productivity over time, when I work in what I’m calling long bursts.

A long burst is a long, focused, mostly-continuous session of work where my brain is thinking about a single problem and nothing else. Sometimes I’ll go eat or sleep, but my brain is still focused on the one problem during those times. I’m able to focus on that single problem because during those times, I defer responding to all non-critical notifications and requests, and queue any other work that comes up in my todo list, so it doesn’t take up space in my brain. Some people call this deep work. I think deep work is a related idea, but not quite the same in context.

The Pareto imbalance

I’m not always working in long-burst mode. Most of the time – I’d say about 70% of my “working” time – I’m switching between different tasks frequently, going to meetings, having calls, or doing a myriad of sundry tasks that don’t require a lot of deep focus, but also don’t have a lot of value. But the other 30 % of the time, if I’m able to get to deep work or deep focus and have continuous focus, I’m able to get a lot done to make up for that 70% of being not-super-productive.

I used to think this was a problem, but now, I think this is just how I work best. It’s perfectly okay not to have a lot of creative work output most of the time, if the output that does result from the amount of deep work sessions during those long bursts is high quality. I think the important thing here is to recognize that this apparent imbalance, where I am disproportionately productive a small fraction of my work hours and under-productive the rest, is okay. It’s not a problem to fix, but just how I work best. Instead of fixing anything I should try to schedule my life and environment so that I can make the best of my long bursts that comprise a minority of my work hours but an extreme majority of my productive output.

This is strange to get used to at first. I had to be okay with one day not feeling productive at all, doing a bunch of piled-up mundane tasks, and then feeling like I got nothing done at the end of the day. But those days are soon followed by days where I easily work for 13-14 hours continuously and make big, meaningful progress on hard problems I’ve been facing. At the end of any given day, I might feel good or bad about how productive that day was. But at the end of a week, I usually find that the 2-3 days where I was extremely productive made up for the lack of meaningful output in the other days.

This is also helped by the fact that I think I need these less productive “off hours” to help fuel the kind of work I do during on “on hours”. During the times when I’m not actively outputting stuff, I’m still thinking. I’m letting ideas simmer in my brain while doing more mundane tasks or talking with people or maybe not doing anything at all – just resting or sleeping. These are the times when I get most of my epiphanies that lead to good blogs, interesting side project ideas, or unique solutions around hard problems. If I were to force myself to have output during these off hours, I would totally miss out on these ideas and thoughts, which would make me overall a less productive, less creative person.

So, the long bursts and the periods of rest are both needed, in an ideal karmic balance, to keep me at my productive best. I need long bursts to have good, high quality output, but I need to make sure that I do take those times of lull to rest, so I can let good ideas and solutions bubble up to the surface of my psyche.

When I don’t fight my bursty working style and allow myself to be not-outputting all of the time, I actually do higher quality, more creative more impactful work on the net. Accepting this and designing my schedule and incentives around this has made me both happier and more productive this summer than any other period of my life.

Throughput vs latency

One lukewarm side effect of submitting to this long-bursts-and-longer-pauses working style is that there are a minority of my working time when I’ll just be flat-out deferring most non-time-sensitive inbound communications. Need to schedule a meeting? Want to introduce someone? Have a question you want to talk about? If they reach my inbox during my long-burst hours, they’re going to sit there until I’m out of my zone unless I see that it’s urgent. I can’t control when I have those moments of motivation and creativity, so I need to take advantage of them as much as possible when I’m in those times.

This leads to what I call a high throughput, high latency style of working. In order to achieve my highest throughput over time, I also need periods of really high communication latency. When I’m in the zone, you might not hear back from me for 2-3 days unless you ask for it (and I usually ask that you don’t ask for unwarranted urgency). But during those 2-3 days, I get 80% of my creative work done.

I’ve held positions at companies where high latency is an unacceptable compromise to make for high throughput, and I was working in a “low throughput, low latency” mode. I felt awful at work, I got very little done because I never found time for extended deep work, and the only positive was that people were getting their questions about the lack of progress answered faster with non-answers. I’ve learned that this is not the way I personally work, and it’s not good for anyone.

Instead, these days, I’ve resorted to planning out my throughput-latency balance on a week by week basis. During any given week, I try to have at least 3 days of deep, uninterrupted, in-the-zone work times in the long-burst mode of working. This is when I solve big technical problems at work, build side projects, and start working on new ideas. For the other 3-4 days, I’ll put myself in the chair, but I won’t feel bad if I don’t get much done. If I want to go take a walk, I’ll do that. If I want to read, I’ll do that. I’ll make time here for myself so I can be extra productive when I am having output.

I’ve been adjusting to this kind of a balance for the last few weeks, and it’s been working surprisingly well. I’m able to get stuff done when I’m best in the mindset for it, and I feel less pressure to “be productive” when I’m not in the right mental place. In the end, I still end up doing good work I’m proud of, and I don’t feel bad about how I’ve gotten there.

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