How to do 'deep work' and be your most productive self

How to do 'deep work' and be your most productive self

What’s your style when it comes to work?

Are you a slow starter, or do you dwindle in the afternoons? Do you endlessly put off the difficult tasks, or get so stuck on one thing that your day runs away from you?

However you approach it, productivity at work is a difficult thing to achieve and can be even harder to maintain.

With the constant stream of emails and meetings, distractions on Slack, and pandering to the whims of your superiors, your actual workload can mount up quickly and leave you drowning in tasks.

But if you feel like you’re forever chipping away at the surface of your to-do list without making any real headway – there are techniques you can try.

‘Deep work’ could be the solution.

This innovative working practice focuses on blocking out distractions and creating a space for you to power through the most daunting tasks on your list. And devoting some time to deep working every day could seriously ramp up your productivity, self-confidence, and you’ll likely impress your bosses too.

Since the pandemic, 38% of workers say lockdown has had a negative impact on their productivity, so now is the perfect time to try something that might boost your focus.

What is ‘deep work’?

Alicia Navarro is the founder and CEO of FLOWN, creating ‘deep work’ resources for knowledge workers. She says your capacity to produce genuinely meaningful work rides on your ability to spend time focusing on the important stuff on your to-do list.

‘The term was coined by computer scientist and author Cal Newport, who used it to describe the practice of focusing on complex tasks, without distraction, for sustained intervals of time,’ Alicia tells

‘In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport defines deep work as: “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

‘So, whether you’re writing a book, coding a website, or (God forbid) working on a PowerPoint deck to an unreasonable deadline, your success depends on your ability to block out distraction and focus on the task at hand.’

But we all know that this skill is a tricky one to acquire. Most of us can’t even make it through a 50-minute Netflix show without also scrolling through Twitter and checking our emails. Distractions are woven into the fabric of modern life.

Alicia says it’s actually not feasible to expect people to tune out all distractions through sheer will power. But, she says, we will only be successful if we find techniques to help us achieve this.

‘We’re prone to distraction and a bias towards low-effort, high-volume tasks, such as responding to emails,’ says Alicia. ‘Where does this leave your career? In the shallows.

‘The pull of distraction is real, so it’s about setting yourself up for success and not beating yourself up every time you accidentally find yourself searching for the perfect gif for your latest WhatsApp banterthon.’

How to do ‘deep work’

Alicia is certain that it is possible to create a work environment that allows you to stress less, achieve more and improves your wellbeing.

Here’s what she recommends to help you get started with deep work:

Timebox your tasks

‘Why do you always end up scrabbling to finish a task right up to the deadline, regardless of how reasonable that deadline was?

‘It sounds simple, but set aside distraction-free time to do specific tasks.’

Alicia says to aim for 30 minutes with all distractions turned off and a single task in mind.

‘Gradually work your way up to longer periods of time,’ she says. ‘Committing time to work on meaty tasks in this way has been shown to boost productivity by 40%.’

Be accountable

‘According to research, stating to another human what you intend to do increases your chances of following through on that task to 65%,’ says Alicia.

‘Having a specific accountability appointment with someone ramps your chances of doing what you’ve stated up to a whopping 95%.’

Practice regularly

Alicia explains that the more you do deep work, the better you will become at it.

‘When you concentrate, your brain slurps a fatty protein called myelin around the cells that are doing the work,’ she says. ‘Myelin means those cells can fire faster. The result? Your brain is learning to concentrate and deep work gets easier over time.’

Could ‘deep work’ change everything?

Moving beyond our individual to-do lists, is there an argument that deep work could help to re-shape the wider working landscape in the UK?

Deep work is actually a central argument for many who favour a four-day working week, or contracted working hours. With many businesses trying out shorter hours and reporting a jump in productivity, this suggests that deep-work for a shorter amount of time could help us all to use our tie more wisely.

‘It’s about placing deep work at the centre of the business’s culture,’ says Alicia. ‘Prioritising time to focus means workers have to make decisions.

‘Which meetings are really necessary? Do I need to send this email? What is the work that’s going to make the most difference? What task or project can I file in the little round filing cabinet in the corner of the room? And how can I focus on the important work and drown out the surrounding noise?

‘It’s essentially extrapolating individual deep working practice across a whole workforce, via culture. And a three-day weekend. Don’t forget the three-day weekend.’

On the hunt for more ways to hack your productivity and get more done? Why not try scheduling a ‘scary hour’?

This is a concept created by advertising copywriter Laur Wheeler, and it’s a simple idea. Every day, you set a timer for 60 minutes (at any time that works for you), and only do the ‘scary’ things you’ve been avoiding.

All that’s left is the satisfaction of crossing things of your list. There’s no better feeling.

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