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Tag: deep-work

Learn how to focus more – from Deep Work

This is the second post on Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. The first one, about flow state and deep work sessions, is here. I share the main takeaways and how I apply them in my personal life.

Can the ability to focus and concentrate intensely be trained?

Newport states that the ability to focus and concentrate intensely can be trained and that in doing so we must also focus on our capacity to resist distraction.

Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it”

Probably the most common distraction is our phone or the internet, in some way.

We often take out our phones as soon as we are bored or if we are facing something that is just slightly challenging, since we look for a distraction to the discomfort.


Why are distractions when you are working on something challenging bad?

Having a “free for all card” might feel good in the moment, but you are teaching your brain that you cannot tackle these tough situations. Overcoming challenges through hard work and grit is, instead, what makes us feel accomplished, satisfied, and, overall, happy.

What can you do?

Cal Newport suggests a series of things:

  1. Scheduling your internet time in advance. He insists that you should not use it outside these designated slots. Of course, most of us use the internet at work, so disconnecting for a full day would be impossible.

    You can probably carve out some time in which you are not online if you let people know in advance and explain that you need uninterrupted focused time to complete a task efficiently. For example, you can check your emails and messages every hour, reply to anything urgent and then log off for another hour

  1. Be mindful of this distraction pitfall in our free time, i.e. outside of work. If we train our ability to focus and resist distraction while doing our job but then are constantly on our smartphones in the evenings, we are likely wasting a lot of the effort we put in hours before.

    This is because we are attempting to rewire our brains, and this will be extremely more difficult if we regularly end up following old patterns.

    He suggests applying the same internet-scheduling strategy doing our leisure time, too. We can be a bit more flexible, but the idea is to not use social media as a quick distraction as soon as we feel bored. “It weakens your mind’s general ability to resist distraction, making deep work difficult later when you really want to concentrate.”

  1. The easiest and most rewarding solution is to think ahead and plan some quality and fun activities in your free time. You will be happier for having done something you really enjoy, rather than mindlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you pick up a new hobby, for example, you will be excited to learn something new and you will see quick improvements.

But my situation is different!

In the book, the author also addresses the main objections to the approach he proposes:

  1. “Social media makes me happy, I use it to connect with friends”.

The main thing to ask yourself is if spending your time on social media is the best way to connect with friends. Why not call a friend, or go out for coffee or for a walk at the park? Of course, this might not apply to everyone: if you are abroad, for example, or you just moved to a new city, social media can have an overall positive impact.

What we must be careful about is to not fall into the “any benefit” trap, when we justify using a tool because it has any small benefit.

We should instead use what he calls The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts”

I deleted my Instagram account months ago and I have never looked back. I remember sending a message to a few friends of mine, telling them about my decision and asking them to keep me updated on side projects they were working on since I would no longer see posts and stories on the progress made. Apart from that, I don’t really care about what my friends ate for lunch or dinner, and if a close friend has an important update to share they would simply tell me directly, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.


  1. “In the evenings and weekends I am too tired to do anything”.

Generally, what we need is change, rather than passive scrolling. Or sleep, if we are completely exhausted. Usually, a change in activity will make us not feel more tired, but refreshed and overall more fulfilled with our day.

I fully agree with this idea that we need change more than passive and mindless activities.

Something that has really worked for me is to have a hobby that I do with other people. This means I have to schedule it in and know I will be dedicating an evening or two to that specific activity. If your hobbies are not something you do in a pair or group, you will still benefit from the structure they can offer.

In the evenings or weekends, I sometimes don’t feel like working on side projects or engaging in activities that require a certain level of concentration. However, if I can get myself to start, I am always happy I did and the satisfaction is really high.

Of course, this doesn’t apply in every circumstance. I am aware I am in a privileged position since I don’t have many barriers that others might have. Sometimes mindless activities are exactly what we need.

Overall, reframing “rest” as a change in activity that will re-energize me has really worked for me and I want to remember this more often.

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Flow state – from Deep Work by Cal Newport

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.

“The more such flow experiences that occur in a given week, the higher the subject’s life satisfaction. Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging”

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.

If you liked this post, follow @lauraslearningsblog on Instagram and subscribe to the newsletter!
I send out emails with a wrap-up of the latest posts and interesting and fun things I came across recently.
There is a “Newsletter” tab in the menu at the top of the page. Thank you!

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