In 2016, Cal Newport invented one of the most fascinating concepts of these last years of technological evolution: deep work. The homonym book indicates deep work as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. In particular, it explains how it is convenient to master this type of focus to deal with the new economy of efficient machines and geniuses.
Newport presented the following formula to reach high-quality work and become as productive as possible.
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
From that moment, deep work became one of the most relevant pillars of self-improvement, project management, and even daily administration. Everyone fell in love with the concept of deep work, willing to give up anything to reach it.
Still, psychology tells us that deep work is not sufficient for peak performance — you also need flow. As a matter of fact, deep work is the ability to reach a state of mind in which you can work on a task without any distraction. Flow, instead, is the cognitive ability to maintain that state.
Using deep work and flow is fundamental in many situations: studying, working on big projects, or even daily planning to reach maximum efficiency. With deep work, you can master abilities, finish tasks faster, and free up time to use for your own pleasures.
Newport talked widely about deep work in his book and explained how to use it. Still, many people strive to reach this state, so I will explain how I adopted it.
Deep Work and Flow: Two types of problem
The problem of deep work and flow is dual, so it will be analyzed separately.
For deep work, the main problem is multitasking and jumping between projects. As Sophie Leroys analyzed in her study, multitasking results in attention residual, which is the inability of our mind to switch between two tasks instantly. Even if you think you can do it, your mind is not built to perform different jobs alternatively. In other words, if you have two tasks, A and B, when you try to switch from A to B, you still think about task A for some time before being able to focus on task B.
For flow instead, the problem is the mindset since it deals with the inability to track progress, define tasks, and avoiding a fear-breaks. This last problem, in particular, is the pause we take when a task is too complex.
These two problems, together with the proximity principle, are the cardinal concepts behind procrastination. If you manage to understand them and find a solution, you will break any procrastination pattern.
How to solve the impossibility of going Deep
The impossibility of maintaining a strict focus on a project results from our eagerness to achieve more and our inability to divide long and tedious tasks into shorter ones that we can finish faster.
The inability to reach deep work stands in the length of the task we want to finish. The longer is the task, the greater the possibility to develop a barrier towards it. On the contrary, the shorter is the task, the smaller is the barrier, and the faster you will reach the deep work state.
In his work, Cal Newport suggests splitting the workday into two parts. In the following points, I will present a more meticulous approach that helped me reach higher performances.
1 — Split each project into daily projects.
You may have heard this concept in many other articles, but the crucial part of any project is its planning. Without good planning, a project advances twice slower. And since the purpose is to speed up the process, divide your projects into daily macro-tasks.
At the beginning of each project, take some time to split it up and approximately plan the work, leaving some blank spaces for eventual delays. Usually, I keep one (1/2 workdays) every slot of macro-tasks (1 to 6 days).
2 — Split the day into sessions.
In any type of work it is essential to have sessions dedicated to work and rest. The subdivision of your workday depends on what you have to do. Usually, I like to keep two hours in the evening for my personal projects, because they do not stress me.
Also, during the day, I have a full-time job. Still, my work allows me to remain flexible, so I divided my workday accordingly. Two two-hour sessions in the morning, and two in the afternoon, with a main one-hour pause in the middle.
Each session contains a particular task, and usually, each of them takes at least half a session. For this reason, if you perform repetitive tasks, you need to track your time and keep statistics of how much time you spend on each of them. By doing that, you can efficiently stack it with the others and take the pauses when needed, without delay, and without taking time from other activities.
3 — Setting shorter tasks and deadlines.
When you start using these techniques, you won’t know how much time it takes you to perform a task and, for this reason, you should keep some blank spaces. Still, choose short deadlines every time you plan an activity.
Short deadlines not only make you work harder to finish faster, but they also train you to reach the deep work state constantly. Also, some new tasks may add up to the estimated ones, and for this reason, you will need those extra hours of work every now and then.
One last helpful habit is to think about every task as simple ones. Each time I have to make a work call, I convince myself it will last for a maximum of 10–15 minutes, even if it never does. In this way, I nullify any barrier my mind develops against that task.
You can download for free a template to split your projects here.
How to solve the impossibility of keeping Flow
Flow is a secondary problem, not in terms of importance but on how the two concepts interact. Flow is only an enhancing function of deep work and, without deep work, flow is useless and unreachable.
Also, notice that the attention residual here is significant because it contains a boost of motivation you can use for the following activity.
Flow helps you to stop procrastinating between projects, or tasks, or unscheduled pauses. Taking one now and then is fundamental, but taking too many is the effect of your brain avoiding focus. Whatever happens, do not move.
1 — Make clear and simple goals.
The ability to write goals, quantify, and track them is a valuable skill, but you can learn it only by training constantly. Goal-setting is personal, so there isn’t an efficient way of doing them: what works for you is best. Still, some ground rules could help.
- Make every goal traceable in terms of expected length and completion percentage. For example, write 2 out of 10 pages of a book, or run 2 out of 3 times per week.
- Do not use too many words. Mastering goal-setting abilities means also using fewer words to explain what you have to do. Once you read a goal, you should immediately understand the activity without too much effort.
2 — Use a traceable feedback system.
A reliable tracking system is fundamental to switch between one task and another, maintaining flow. The better you track your progress – even in terms of required effort – the greater is the flow you will translate in the following task.
For example, I underline the most difficult tasks of every day. Also, I start with those, so my mind is charged up after finishing it, and I can switch to the following ones with ease.
Another useful habit is to check your progress at the end of each day since it gives you the sense of progress that keeps your motivation high between days.
3 — Make your challenges match with skills.
The most relevant part of flow is the ability to match skills with the complexity of the tasks. Every time you set a task, think about making it challenging enough it doesn’t bore you, but also not so harsh you give up on it.
Also, this ability comes with constant training. In the beginning, you will set too permissive deadlines and overvalue a task. Or, contrarily, you will be too strict and undervalue an activity. In both cases, you will procrastinate. First because you have spare time to do other things, and second because you will give up on the task since it is too challenging. In this case, instead of seeing it as a failure, take notes so the next time you have to perform a similar activity, you can set it better.
4 — Choose correctly the first task of the session.
Choosing the first task of the session is a matter of confidence since there are two opposite ways of doing it.
In the beginning, it will be easier to start with the simplest task so, once finished, you can use the flow to face up harder ones. Instead, once you have trained enough and learned to match tasks with skills, you will notice it is easier to start with the hardest activity.
To explain this, think about each task as an obstacle to jump, while flow is the power that adds up to your jumping skills.
With the first technique, you can hope your jumping power is strong enough to make the obstacles fall. With the second technique instead, you will always have enough jumping power to surpass lower tasks once you collected enough flow. The only problem is the first task, but if you matched its complexity with your skill, it shouldn’t bother you.
How do I use deep work and flow
I thought about a system I could develop to use them to my advantage, so I came up with this.
This is my schedule for a day. As you can notice, I write first the hardest activity and then the easier ones. Also, there are only two difficult tasks in a day, one before midday and one before the end of the day.
Furthermore, I split my day into four sessions: one from 7 to 9 a.m, one from 9 a.m to 1 p.m, one from 2 to 6 p.m, and the last from 8 to 11 p.m. The first and last are dedicated to my personal projects, where I do research or write articles. Furthermore, from 8 to 11 p.m, I work on easy activities like making infographics, managing the site, or reading books.
The two middle sessions are dedicated to working, so I cannot say much about that. These are the most intensive sessions, and I need some boost to complete them, so I set some prizes at the end and beginning of each session. For this reason, at 9 a.m and 1 p.m, I have my coffee ritual, which helps me fall into the deep work state.
Also, since I know what I have to do each session, I check everything I noted before starting. This way, I can manage unexpected events or anticipate the following sessions, which makes me save time.
Plus, I keep track of each task on a paper post-it. Every time I finish one, I can erase it from the list, which gives me more satisfaction than using an app.
(Consider I do not have a family, and I can dedicate 100% of my life to my personal projects. Otherwise, I would have shortened the last session.)
When to schedule?
Scheduling is another problem that will make you lose a lot of time in the beginning. If you never developed a habit of scheduling, you may ask yourself when is the best time to do it.
Again, the answer is unsatisfactory because there is no right way of scheduling. Here I will show the most used trends, with their pros and cons.
1 — Before
Some people schedule each week or day in the previous time slot. This allows them to start every session knowing what they have to do, so they don’t lose time on scheduling. Also, they already know how to manage a task because they spent their free time unconsciously thinking about it.
2 — After
Other people schedule at the beginning of the working week/day. This technique is better for their mental health, but it is worse for productivity. Scheduling takes away time from the work session, as it does figuring from where to start.
Once you know that, you can decide which technique fits your lifestyle. If you have no problems with splitting work from personal life, use the first. While if you are a workaholic, use the second.
One last problem is overreaching and working too much, which leads to the destruction of the entire system. How to stop working is a vast argument we can talk about in the future. For now, focus on how to stop procrastinating.
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