Derek Sivers on Head-Down Time: Is This the Secret to His Success?

Remember that children’s game, Heads Up, 7-Up?

What if that game contained a powerful lesson about time management?

Head-Down Time - Derek Sivers


What Is Head-Down Time?

As detailed in Fast Company, software product manager Justin Jackson is writing a book called Build & Launch about the creation of successful products. To write the book, Jackson interviewed many creative people, including authors, entrepreneurs, and software builders.

One interview he couldn’t get? Derek Sivers, the founder of CDBaby and entrepreneurial superstar. Here’s how Sivers responded when Jackson contacted him to do an interview:

I’d love to do an interview! But could we wait just a few months?

I’m deep in the middle of my programming. Very head-down. Not much to say. I’d be a pretty bad interview right now.

But if you don’t mind waiting a few months, I’ll be more head-up with a lot of new stuff to talk about.

Is that OK? Ask me again after July or so?

From that clipped and concise response, Jackson drew a powerful lesson: a focused mind produces great work.

Guarding your most productive times is important. In the age of work anywhere, anytime, we’re always a click away from distraction. Answering emails and meeting requests, responding to fires, and opening new tabs to do “research” are all forms of distraction. “Head-up” distractions pull from your mental focus and concentration, leading to inferior work when you should be “head-down.”

Jackson recommends a 6-step approach to doing head-down work. Let me crunch it down to three steps, using some concepts we’ve already discussed here at Agile Lifestyle:

  1. Start with your head up. Use the Rule of 3 to figure out what your top priorities are for the day.
  2. Find a place to work that’s free from distractions. Close any windows, pop-ups, or notifications that might interrupt you. Shut your door. Work during your Peak Productivity Times and guard them zealously.
  3. Work in head-down mode until you finish. According to Jackson, the 10% done and 90% done hurdles are the hardest to overcome. Use the Pomodoro Technique to hyper-focus for 25 minute intervals until you finish.

Sivers’ habit of going into head-down mode might seem extreme, but it’s effective for doing great work. However, even Jackson admits that you can’t stay in head-down mode all the time. How do you make sure your head-up time is as effective as your head-down time?

How to Balance Head-Up Time

Head-up time–doing administrative tasks, making small decisions, hand-holding partners, and putting out fires–doesn’t seem like a fantastic use of time. Especially not in comparison to the vortex of focus that is head-down time.

It’s become fashionable in recent years to hate on administrative tasks, with some going so far as to outsource their entire lives. But some head-up time is a crucial component of successful time management.

In a McKinsey Quarterly survey of 1500 executives, researchers found that only 9 percent were “very satisfied” with how they spent their time. Less than half were “somewhat satisfied.” And about one-third were “actively dissatisfied.”

These are the most important and well-paid people in the corporation, by the way. You can imagine how the 9 to 5 slaves at the bottom must be faring.

What McKinsey found was that the 9% of execs who enjoyed how they spent their time had eerily balanced schedules:

On average, executives in the satisfied group spend 34 percent of their time interacting with external stakeholders (including boards, customers, and investors), 39 percent in internal meetings (evenly split between one on ones with direct reports, leadership-team gatherings, and other meetings with employees), and 24 percent working alone.

Here’s how the time breakdown looks by activity, by situation, and by mode of communication:

McKinsey Executive Survey Results

Image copyright McKinsey & Company


It’s difficult to know how a manager would rate the various activities here. For instance, “managing short-term/unexpected issues” might be head-up activity or it might be head-down activity, depending on the nature of the work.

But what’s clear is that balance is at the heart of managing head-down/head-up time.

In an interview with, Aaron De Smet, one of the researchers of the study, concluded that the 91% of executives who were unhappy with their time management were simply less disciplined and less thoughtful about how they spent their time:

The comparison I make is to capital. Leaders put in so much time and analysis and thought and discussion when deciding where to invest their money, which is a finite resource. Time is also a finite resource. But when deciding where to invest time they just use their guts.

My question is, is that good enough?

Time is your most precious, valuable resource. How you spend it is an expression of how you value your life.

For Derek Sivers, there’s a clear line between head-down time and head-up time. Head-down time requires so much focus that basic things like giving an interview become difficult because so much of your heart and your head is pouring into the project at hand.

On the other hand, the McKinsey survey reveals that executives who manage their time the best also have the most balanced approaches. Head-up time is important for managing and motivating team members and reacting to new information and circumstances.

What’s the right balance of head-up and head-down time? Is it a good idea to devote as much of your time as possible to head-down time?

Top image by betsyweber.

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