Building a culture of productivity, one Wednesday at a time

Why we introduced company-wide, structured Focus Time at SOUTHWORKS.

“The single most important resource that we allocate from one day to the next is our own time.”

Andrew S. Grove, in his classic book
High Output Management

When we decided to go all-in on remote work, we knew that one of the things that would impact us the most would be time management. To help our team with that (in typical SOUTHWORKS style), we ran a quick experiment: Wednesdays for Focus Time. We hypothesized that setting aside a full day of focus time might help us sharpen our focus, become more productive, and get less stressed – and we were proven right.

There’s no doubt that when working on a software project it’s important to regularly touch base with your team – comparing notes, updating each other on progress, and making sure everyone’s OK – but sometimes, we all just need time to get our heads down. At SOUTHWORKS, that time is every Wednesday.

Why do we have this weekly “day out of time”?

Simply put, it makes us happier and more effective. While tools like Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet have revolutionized our lives, let’s face it, we’ve all become a bit fatigued with doing almost everything online lately – birthdays, game nights, yoga, even parties! Our focused Wednesdays give us a break from that within our working week, and it’s in these periods of structured deep work that most of us get a large portion of our focused work done every week.

Knowing that there’s a day set aside for focusing on deep work gives stability and leaves space for productivity, as our staff know they won’t be interrupted or expected to do anything else. It also gives them a clear structure within which to plan out their own working schedules. We don’t like to be overly prescriptive on how people work, but at SOUTHWORKS our deep-work Wednesdays are sacred. That means no recurrent meetings, no video calls, no constant distractions – just peace and quiet to devote our undivided attention to the task at hand.

There’s plenty of science to back this idea up – productivity gurus, including Cal Newport and Nir Eyal, argue that deep, profitable work requires chunks of uninterrupted time lasting at least two hours, preferably longer (sessions any shorter than two hours impose unnecessary switching costs).

When Newport looked at 25 profiles of famously prolific and creative people, he found that they spent an average of 5.25 hours per day in deep work. Most of us, Newport argues, have about four hours of deep work in us per day. Newport himself works in two 2-3 hour chunks per day.

For example, in Deep Work, Cal Newport describes how Carl Jung wrote his books in a tower with no electricity to minimize distraction. Mark Twain wrote much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in a shed in New York, so far from his family that they had to blow a horn at mealtimes.

Theoretical Physicist Peter Higgs, the namesake of the Higgs boson particle, has never sent an email, surfed the internet, or used a cellphone. He was so out of touch that journalists couldn’t contact him to tell him he’d won a Nobel Prize.

And we’ve seen for ourselves how this way of working keeps us ticking over since it’s become a part of our culture. Having our focus time on the middle day ensures that any meetings or other important communications can still take place throughout the week. It also eliminates excuses like “I didn’t have time because I had so many meetings” from our lexicon.

Of course, there must be a certain amount of flexibility. If a client needs to speak to us on a Wednesday we won’t say no, and unplanned calls are OK if everyone involved has the time. What it’s all about is keeping a free schedule for getting on with important stuff, or a buffer day for getting back on track, that won’t get clogged up with multiple appointments – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

This is the guidance we give our SOUTHIES on how to optimize their weekly day of focus time:
  • No recurrent / planned meetings on Wednesdays. We ask our SOUTHIES not to schedule planned meetings with your team on Wednesdays. This includes, but is not limited to: one-on-ones, retrospectives, and iteration reviews.
  • Check in with your team (async). Our Wednesdays aren’t a free day (in fact, they’re often our busiest day in many respects), so you must remain available on Slack and other mediums in case your team needs to reach out to you.
  • Unplanned work happens. Need to pitch something to a customer? Need to talk with a supplier? THAT'S OK. We're aiming to remove recurrence from meetings, create headspace, and free up the day to work on the most vexing problems you’re planning to tackle throughout the week.
  • No more "I didn't have time to wrap that up". It’s easy to put off the report or email you need to send when you’re in back-to-back meetings. So we’ve created the space to wrap everything up the right way.

How do you ensure everyone in your organization stays focused and on task?

Would adopting a day of the week as a focus day would work for you? Or have you already tried it and it didn’t – or perhaps you have other methods or ideas to share? This is what helps us solve our clients’ toughest dev challenges in record time – check out our Careers page for more about joining the team, or drop us a line to share your ethos, we’d love to hear about your experiences!