I work in a team of helpdesk folks, among other IT departments. I find myself being pulled into constantly putting out fires rather than being able to do deep work for hours on end.
Being poked directly by users sometimes is a problem and when there’s no response from me, they often end up poking other people in my team. This has become somewhat of a pain point for us.
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Every job requires communication, but there are some jobs that are just more communication-heavy than others – PR people, support specialists, pretty much anyone with “manager” in their job title. That doesn’t mean making time for deep, focused work is any less important for folks in those roles – in fact, I’d argue it’s even more important – but it does mean it’s going to be harder. What works for a developer isn’t going to work for a project manager.
When I was a Support Specialist, I found it really challenging to make time for deep work, even at a company like Doist that already values focused productivity. But I was able to make a few small changes that helped me balance deep work with being available to our users:
Get your manager onboard with deep work. If your manager isn’t supportive of you finding ways to disconnect and focus, it’s going to be nearly impossible to do it. Demonstrate the value of that focused work time in concrete terms. In my case, I spent my daily deep work hours writing and reviewing Help Center articles and internal documentation. In the short-term, some users waited longer for responses to their questions because I wasn’t answering them. But in the long-term, that deep work time benefited the team by allowing both users and colleagues to find answers themselves without having to wait for a response at all. How can you frame your deep work time as an investment rather than an indulgence?
Find ways to cut yourself out of day-to-day tasks. You want your team to be able to solve problems that currently require your direct action. Do you have specific knowledge of a workflow or process that results in people disrupting you often? Document it so others can learn how to take over that responsibility and find answers and solutions for themselves.
Make sure your team and your customers are aware of your availability. I found a balance between being available in the morning and afternoon, with deep work in the middle worked well for me. It allowed me to handle all urgent inquiries first and keep less urgent ones for the afternoon. Customers and coworkers are often understanding of your availability as long as you make it clear to them when exactly they can reach you or expect a response.
Establish an emergency line of communication. Make sure that when you’re doing deep work, people know that they can only reach you for emergencies (hopefully a rare occurrence). For Doist, that channel is Telegram which works well for our international team. For you, that channel might be an actual phone call.
Respect your deep work time. Once you get your coworkers and team onboard, you might find that the biggest barrier to doing deep work is yourself! To ensure others respect your deep work time, you must too. Make sure you turn off or disconnect from all communication channels, except for the emergency one.
If possible, work with your team to establish a rotating Hero system. Many of our teams at Doist have a Hero role that rotates from month to month. The Hero is the first to respond to incoming questions, requests, and bug reports and triages them. During that month, they’re not assigned to work on any bigger projects so they can be available. The Hero frees everyone else on the team up to focus on their deep work for the month. Our Head of Front-end Development, Henning, wrote in more detail about the hero system a few months ago.
For your team, it might work better in reverse where most people are available to respond to requests and individuals take turns doing deep work on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Get creative and figure out how your IT support team might work together to give each other time for deep work. (One caveat: If most of your communication happens in private channels like email, this system won’t work. You’ll need a more organized and transparent communication tool that lets people ping the Hero or your team rather than just you. At Doist, we use Twist for that reason.)
Unfortunately, prioritizing deep work often comes with resistance from people higher up and even from other teammates. Creating that cultural shift in perspective isn’t easy. But if you prove to them that deep work is a proactive investment that will lead to fewer issues in the first place and clearly set expectations, you should be given the opportunity to try it out.