Heroes and housekeeping days

Two essential systems we use to cut down on team-wide context switching and support deep work.

By Henning Muszynski

Heroes and housekeeping days
Illustration by Yin Weihung

At Doist, we’re big fans of “deep work”. We believe that our team is maximally productive — not to mention happy — when we’re able to block off hours at a time to focus completely on our most cognitively demanding tasks.

As a team that builds productivity apps, our culture has naturally grown around this idea. We’ve always strived to minimize meetings and collaborate asynchronously as much as possible. The goal is for our team members to have control over when they connect to respond to messages and when they disconnect to focus on their highest impact work. (We feel so strongly about this idea that we built an async messaging app to help us do it.)

But last year, we had to come to terms with the fact that our focus on deep work was creating some pretty dysfunctional situations. We were prioritizing our long-term projects (for my team of frontend developers, that primarily meant new feature development) at the expense of communicating with our support team and providing prompt bug fixes.

What do you do when your team’s “shallow work” is just as important as their “deep work”?

In theory, everyone was responsible for replying to some support issues each day, but shifting focus between heads-down, deep product work and more reactive, communication-heavy support work in the same day was hard to do. To make matters worse, no one felt ultimately responsible for making sure each support issue got a response. The whole frontend team was notified about every frontend issue, so it was easy for everyone to assume someone else would get to it.

What do you do when your team’s “shallow work” is just as important as their “deep work”? In the case of product engineering, how do you empower your team to strike a balance between small improvements, bugs fixes, and general maintenance tasks on the one hand and building new, exciting, and highly requested features on the other? On top of those core engineering tasks, how does your team make time to communicate with stakeholders, both in and outside of the company, and keep abreast of new developments in their field?

On an individual level, the prevailing answer to these questions is task batching and time blocking: Batch your shallow tasks together and block off specific chunks of time during the day to handle them all at once. That way, you minimize the amount of context switching you have to do and maximize your uninterrupted hours for deep work.

An un-timeblocked vs timeblocked schedule

We wanted to figure out a way to apply those same productivity principles at the team level. The result was two new and complementary tools that have allowed us to strike a balance between long-term projects and short-term demands: Heroes and Housekeeping Days.

The Hero Role

heroes
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