I recommend Deep Work by Cal Newport to anyone who is finding it hard to make progress towards a goal, gets distracted, and finds themselves feeling scattered. It’s a great read if you are interested in improving focus and working in a more meaningful way.
This post highlights a few ideas that resonated with me in the first part of the book and how I apply them in my personal life. In a separate post will share more about the second half of the book, focused on how to minimize distractions.
The key formula of high quality outputs
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
We all have the same amount of time in a day and overworking yourself is not sustainable. The other lever we have, then, is how much we can focus and concentrate deeply on the task at hand.
If we can train ourselves to be highly focused, we will produce a lot of high-quality work. The results will (hopefully) bring recognition and satisfaction. But even if this is not the case, you will not regret it.
What is a state of flow?
One of the best quotes in the book is from Csikszentmihalyi: “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” This particular mental state is called flow: it happens when you are engrossed in something challenging, that requires your attention
What does flow state feel like?
You are focused and you don’t feel time passing, you are completely absorbed by the activity you are doing. It is described as an energized focus, and you enjoy the task and usually this is related to a sense of accomplishment.
I find myself “in flow” when working on a difficult problem, trying to solve an issue or learning about complex topics. It requires concentration and a lot of effort, but it is intrinsically satisfying.
How long can you stay in flow?
This will depend on different factors. Generally, up to 4 hours a day can be achieved with some practice. In the beginning it will be difficult to be laser-focused for long stretches of time at once. Let’s see why.
Why is deep work challenging?
However, it is not common to find ourselves in this state. Cal Newport explains that it is partly because doing deep work requires having a clear long-term goal in mind, while it is sometimes easier to be busy with a multitude of more shallow activities.
The frequency of the distractions is another obstacle for focus
He introduces the concept of attention residue: when you switch from one task to another, you are not immediately focused on the new one, but a residue of attention is still lingering on the previous action. This is even more noticeable when you didn’t complete the first task and therefore you didn’t “close the loop”. The open topic will consume some brain power or try to resurface.
So, once you get distracted, it will take some time to regain the level of focus and concentration you had earlier, and you will not be in a continuous state of flow.
Top tips for deep work and getting in a flow state
Newport explains that it is critical to get in the habit of
- batching activities that are similar. You should group things by task and focus on them once in one session, rather than dealing with every single item on a separate occasion.
This is similar to when a production company works “in parallel”: instead of working on one car from start to finish, it’s best to create 1000 doors at the same time before moving on to the next component, only assembling all the cars together at the end
- reserving uninterrupted focus time when working on something which is a high priority.
I have been batching admin tasks for months and it really works for me. Rather than doing a few things here and there, scattered throughout the week, I will write down what I need to do and not worry about it anymore. I usually do them all in one morning on the weekend (not every week!). When I do sit down to do all these tasks, it takes less time because I am grouping similar things.
I have also started scheduling some uninterrupted time to work on high-importance tasks. It has been really amazing to notice how much deeper I am able to focus if there are no notifications.
What does a deep work session look like? How to prepare?
Cal Newport recommends doing the following things to have a productive session of deep work:
- Establish where you’ll work and for how long. He emphasizes that giving yourself a specific time frame is useful to frame the task as a challenge. Simply the act of setting a timer to do some chores makes it feel more like a game. You can try and break your record! By knowing you will only work on the task for a set amount of time, you allow yourself to fully focus, knowing you’ll have time to do other things later.
For example, I sometimes wake up one hour earlier and work on a personal project. Or dedicate one hour before dinner to making progress on a course you are interested in.
- Decide how you’ll work once you start to work.
In my case, I will not look at emails or messages on my laptop or my phone.
- Clarify how you’ll support your work. This could be something related to any books or notebooks you might need or a glass of water or making sure you have some snacks on your desk. In Deep Work, Cal Newport mentions coffee.
In my experience, making a cup of coffee before starting is very useful because it gives me a routine. This means it makes it easier for me to “know” to switch into “deep work” mode.
I also keep a notebook handy and make it a point to re-write the more challenging concepts in my own words, to memorize and understand them better. It‘s also useful to write down anything that comes to mind that I want to look into. I know I won’t forget and I’ll be able to do it later, rather than diving into it in that moment and losing focus
- Identify a small number of ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours.
This was very straightforward since I am following a course on a specific topic I want to learn more about. It is already split into different sessions, so I will just select the topics to cover in the session.
For an example related to this blog, an outcome could be writing a first draft or going through my notes for the last book I read
Lastly, it is important to be able to work on the behaviors you can directly control in the near future that will then have a positive impact on your long-term goals.
Writing this blog post reminded me of the importance of deep work and I hope it has been useful for you too!
I want to do more deep work moving forward! Just after editing this post, I bought myself a weekly planner, so I can easily schedule my deep work sessions for the week beforehand and see at a glance where/how I’m spending my time.
In next week’s post, I’ll dive into the effect distractions can have and how to improve our focusing abilities.
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