Collective Strategies for Deep Work

In a previous post reviewing Cal Newport’s book Deep Work I promised I would write a post sharing more collective strategies for enabling deep work, in particular for people with heavy care-loads. I suggested that sometimes the consequences are different for women trying to draw a line around their deep work time, and I imagine for other groups facing discrimination in the workplace.

While I critique Newport’s perspective as somewhat individualist and masculinst, I also admire his focus and drive and find the concept of deep work immensely helpful. Indeed, I actually think that a future edition of Deep Work could be improved by swapping out at least 50% of the stories about men to stories about women. But that might force some changes in thinking, since in my line of work, we find evidence that women’s thinking and intellectual practices can sometimes be different. [I also wonder if I feel compelled to include a paragraph like this because when women critique men, the backlash can be #notallmen or why do you need to talk about women and not just all humans? (See Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for a good response to this).]

In any case, here are five strategies for enabling collective deep work in academia. Some may be relevant elsewhere, but academia is the position from which I write, and I have little experience of other industries (perhaps, like Newport).

Strategy 1: Take a collaborative and collective approach to necessary administrative tasks.

Don’t flog your share of administrative duties off to someone else, unless they are hired specifically for that job. In which case, shower them with appreciation! The reality is, your h-index is not any more or less important than anyone else’s, and indeed your h-index actually partially depends on having a viable department and job, and potentially, a bunch of up and coming students who read and cite your work from now into the future.

Making the a viable department depends on sharing out tasks necessary to make it work well. In an academic department in New Zealand and Australia, this might include organising seminar series, being Head of Department ‘nominee’ for various things including coordinating year levels, coordinating postgraduates, chairing learning and teaching committees, being department representative on college level committees for research or funding, being college level representative on university level committees for ethics and more. If you can work out as a collective which of these jobs are truly necessary, and work to share the load out equitably, everyone gets access to research time.

It seems to me that this is more common in Australian and New Zealand universities than in the US. Both universities I’ve had full time jobs at have had workload models which estimate times for these tasks and try to keep administrative tasks to under 20% of the work week. Both have had various mechanisms for making these available in the department so it is clear to everyone where everyone else is at. When everyone is at 20% there is a real incentive to cut back any unnecessary administrative tasks, including pushing back to the higher levels. When a few people appear to be doing much larger administrative loads, there is incentive to share it out more evenly.

#BonusPoints: Try and do this collaboratively without sending large amounts of email, or scheduling excessive meetings!

2. Respect each other’s research time, and work towards a culture of deep work.

Most of the university departments I’ve been part of are pretty flexible about people working from home or elsewhere. Many people I know have one or even two off campus ‘research days’ where they are not available for quick responses. Because, let’s face it, there are very few things in academia that need quick responses. Being vocally supportive of this culture is vital, even when our university Vice Chancellor publicly criticised his staff for being in their private cupboards discouraging interruption. Don’t slag off your colleagues (or staff!) who try to keep some space around their research, and certainly don’t assume they are slacking off. I don’t think I’ve ever met an academic who is a slacker! But even this is a bit of a position of privilege — you have to have space at home to focus (i.e. probably not a 2 year old) and be able to afford to sit somewhere else (e.g. cafes require you to purchase coffee; working at home requires you to heat it, etc.). With one income and a family of five, working in the office makes more economic sense for me.

It was in light of this that recently my colleague and I discussed trying a ‘golden hour’ of non-interruption, where the whole department would refrain from email or door-knocking or meetings for a certain period each week, and collectively focus on writing. We haven’t yet implemented this, but the idea came from the ‘Shut up and write’ sessions I used to run when I was doing my PhD. (Check it out on The Thesis Whisperer. Usually requires a cafe and coffee…).

Our department has a bit of a code: door open means working on what Newport might call Shallow Work, open to interruption; door closed means trying to concentrate on something, only interrupt if necessary. I have found for the most part, people respect this. We also have shared outlook calendars available, and our Skype for Business shows if someone is in a meeting or not. So technically you could check before you drop by to see if someone is busy or not (a red dot for busy; or a calendar appointment blocked out). Having a sign on your door for times when you really cannot be interrupted is also useful.

Since we do a lot of co-teaching, it’s worth having a culture of ‘office hours’ for different courses. I do this so when I get an overload of student emails, I can ask them to come and see me in my office hours dedicated to that course, instead of individually answering emails. You do need to discuss this with your colleagues, however, as otherwise you might get into a situation where one of you is constantly answering the emails and the other is deflecting them to office hours (and you can guess who the students will start hounding!).

3. Outside Collaborations: The power of retreat

It is not only your own department that you need to work with to create a culture of deep work. My own work in the Community Economies Collective has been inspired by the work ethic of J.K. Gibson-Graham, which is collaborative and focused on deep thinking and writing. For my collaborations within the collective, we rely on a mixture of frequent Skype or Zoom meetings and infrequent writing retreats. A recent book chapter was written over four retreats, and was the basis of establishing a shared intellectual trajectory with two co-authoring colleagues.

Members of the Community Economies Collective and Community Economies Research Network on writing retreat in an Italian monastery.

Recently, the collaborators on the Cultivating Urban Wellbeing project have instituted a number of collaborative strategies for deep work:

  • Zoom/Skype shut up and write sessions. Yes, we actually have online meetings where we we don’t talk and just write. We normally use the pomodoro method, with 25 minutes writing to 15 minutes reflection (talking, traditionally it is supposed to be 5 minutes). We set a timer, and work on a google doc together, then read each other’s writing and provide feedback. We normally book in two hours sessions, and I put a ‘do not disturb, Skype meeting’ sign on my door. I think this works because we are relatively comfortable with each other and can enter straight into the deep work of thinking we are sharing in.
  • One week sprints. We schedule our data collection in one week sprints, and the external people travel to Christchurch. Last time we booked an apartment as our base and combined interviews and workshops with thinking and writing sessions.
  • One day sprints. Two of us recently did a one day sprint finishing off a report, combining pomodoro method with dictation style collaboration (one asks questions and types, the other answers aloud). I’ve also done this for writing grants for other collaborations. We’ve done other ones, at my house, surrounded by kids, finishing of ethics applications or grant applications.

Collaborative retreats are a great way to get into deep work, especially if you are worried about wasting time by yourself. There is also less ‘mama guilt’ if you are leaving your family, since it balances out with a sense of felt obligation towards the colleagues you have planned it with. While many of us are comfortable and self-disciplined in solitude, some of us are not! I would be inclined to cancel the whole thing if a child is sad, or it seems too hard. This is a developing area for me, and I have found now I am used to the retreat and sprint method of enabling deep work, I am more comfortable doing it alone. Planning retreats that cost something also helps, even if it just having rented a car to drive to a free bach, or booked an intercity bus ticket. Then I am less likely to bail due to feeling bad! Which leads me to my next point.

4. Support each other in personal growth and development

This is related to working towards a culture of deep work, but is mostly relevant for me to collaborative work outside the physical department I work in. My ongoing collaborations with colleagues have taught me a lot about myself and what prevents me from deep work. One of the things that I’ve realised is that I prioritise other people’s deadlines and priorities above my own without even thinking about it. I will move around my schedule to accommodate someone else, skip a yoga class if a conversation goes on too long, finish a co-written article before a sole-authored as a matter of course. Being exposed to other people’s ways of organising their time, and having other people ask me about my priorities and needs has meant that I have come to notice this tendency and to become more comfortable with stating my own needs. My colleague Katharine McKinnon makes a point of ‘checking in’ at the beginning of any meeting, in order to get a sense of where everyone is at, while also being very clear about what she can and cannot do and why (this involves being open with her schedule and childcare arrangements and more). My colleague Stephen Healy says he learned the following from our three-way collaborations:

  1. Being clear about one’s own needs
  2. Being clear about what one has to offer
  3. And accepting that one’s needs will not always be met and others do not always need what one has to offer.

This mutual understanding has been immensely helpful in getting the help we need to do deep work (close reading of each other’s work or collaborative drafts for example, and the provision of thoughtful feedback), being reciprocal with this help, and having the grace to not expect it to always go our way. We might call this a feminist ethic of care. If this is not yet a feature of your work relationships, make it a priority to try and make these kinds of relationships if you can! For mothers in academia, I recommend the Australian based Lead Mama Lead and the New Zealand based Fieldwork with kids groups, or start your own with a few cool people.


Well, I’m sure there is plenty more that could be said here, but that’s enough for today. As I said in my previous post, if you have kids, deep uninterrupted work depends on someone caring for them for you. This means that any deep work is necessarily collaborative and requires negotiation. I have found my own family pretty understanding here, as long as I continue to communicate my needs and push back against overcommittment and overwork (then they start getting testy about it!).

Finally, if you are interested in how collaborative strategies might happen throughout your doctoral work, check out my collaborative article with 11 others on collectivising care work:

Dombroski, K., A. F. Watkins, H. Fitt, J. Frater, K. Banwell, K. Mackenzie, L. Mutambo, K. Hawke, F. Persendt, J. Turković, S. Y. Ko & D. Hart (2017) Journeying from “I” to “we”: assembling hybrid caring collectives of geography doctoral scholars. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 1-14. Free version:

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