Six steps to successful ‘deep work’ in a world of distractions

woman travelling working on a desk and laptop in a forest at sunset

Top tips for achieving extended periods of quiet, focused work without constant interruptions

Whether you’re at home, the office or a buzzing co-working space, do you ever feel as if there are days when you don’t actually get anything done? By the time you have got through your emails, posted some tweets, responded to LinkedIn messages, had a couple of Zoom calls and held a lunch meeting with a client, it’s already the end of the day… And you haven’t made headway with any of the meatier tasks on your to-do list.

In a world of distraction – especially digital ones that seem to come at us from every angle – how is it possible to be truly productive? When you only have 168 hours a week to fit everything in, including sleeping, it’s no wonder we feel as if there is never enough time. So how can we make it count? Business guru Cal Newport is the authority on productivity, having written a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

According to Newport: “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task… It is like a super power in our increasingly competitive 21st-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep – spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realising there’s a better way.”

Bringing together advice from the experts, here are six expert strategies to upgrade your work ethic and build concentration, while managing rather than eliminating distractions…

1. Don’t fetishise isolation

Although many of us might dream of working in a silent cabin by a lake, that probably isn’t realistic. Reassuringly, Cal Newport argues that the “monastic philosophy of deep work” is just one approach – you can also set aside a few days at a time for deep work (a “bimodal” approach to the week), schedule a few hours a day (“rhythmic”) or grab moments as they arise (“journalistic”).

The hybrid model supports this approach because it gives people the flexibility to work at home quietly, at an office HQ for collaborative sessions and meetings, or in a local coworking or flexspace where they can experience a professional working environment close to home (with the added bonus of a good coffee).

2. Work more efficiently

In his book Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More, Chris Bailey outlines various ways to manage your attention. Working fewer hours is a clever strategy to force you to use the time you have to be as productive as possible – often, the more time we have, the more opportunity there is for procrastination. Interestingly, he also says that we do our best work when we are most tired.

3. Redesign your morning

When your alarm goes off, what do you do? Laura Vanderkam is the author of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Mornings – and Life. This book explains that starting the day in the right way will make a huge difference to our productivity and mental wellbeing. Getting up early to fit in some exercise, clear your inbox and make a healthy breakfast (and even prepare dinner) is key, because this is when your willpower is at its strongest. It also means you have a head start on everyone else.

4. Be ruthless about your priorities

Sometimes less is more. In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown proposes a “systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.” It’s only by investing your time and energy in the things that matter that you will achieve anything great.

5. Create a strategy

In his book Free to Focus, Michael Hyatt presents a simple three-step system for being more productive. First you need to “stop” and think about what’s not working and what is possible. Then you need to “cut” tasks that don’t contribute to your long-term vision. Finally, you need to “act” – and execute your plan.

6. Focus on results

Thinking about an eight-hour working day might be a mistake. In Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, Harvard Business professor Robert Pozen says that you need to focus on results, not on the hours you are putting in. Learn what to say “no” to, decline invitations and delete unnecessary emails. Having a laser focus on key goals that have maximum benefit is the best approach.

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