In my previous article about flow, I talked about how flow is a state of deep focus and productivity that allows you to do the best work of your life. I also set out to give you some basic guidelines on how to achieve that flow state, but wanted to be careful to point out that flow isn’t something you can force: while you can do a lot of things to help harness flow, it’s not something you can control entirely.
Here’s a new approach you can try.
Cal Newport is a writer, blogger, and professor of computer science, known for his recent book Deep Work. The premise of this book is essentially that we can produce our best work when in a state that he calls deep work - a state where we minimize distractions in order to achieve deep focus. There are some obvious parallels to the concept of flow here.
For evidence, he cites stories of the work habits of a variety of influential intellectuals, who often have one thing in common: a tendency to withdraw from the world at large, minimize outside interference, and establish clear rituals and spaces for their best work.
This can include a lot of approaches. Some are known for being absent from social media, only answering emails infrequently, and being otherwise unreachable during their periods of work. Some are known for elaborate and inviolable work spaces or retreats. Others are known for precise worktime rituals designed to define clear “work” and “not work” times.
Newport goes on to talk a lot about topics that I’ve previously covered here, including the fact that more work isn’t necessarily better work. Under the deep work concept, it's highly productive and uninterrupted deep work periods that matter the most, and we should avoid multitasking in order to produce as much deep work as possible.
To this end, he recommends being extremely lazy in order to recharge the mind during other times - making a clear definition between work and leisure time. In short, you shouldn’t try to do productivity halfway.
Newport explores another aspect of deep work: setting aside large chunks of time to focus on work. He provides the example of teachers and professors who teach classes for nine months out of the year, but are then given three months off, a perfect time to focus on other projects. Likewise, he suggests that if your work allows flexible hours or vacations, you should arrange things to make large chunks of time to focus on your own projects.
He also understands that this isn’t always possible, so he recommends other, more flexible options as well, including setting aside very habitual and regular small amounts of time daily (something most people are capable of) or setting aside chunks of time on the weekend.
The parallels between the concept of deep work and the concept of flow are clear. While flow can be thought of as a name for the state that you achieve when in a particularly productive rhythm, “deep work” can be thought of as a type of work that is mostly likely to achieve that flow state: a deep unitasking state where you’ve set up habitual and ritual defenses against interruption that could derail your flow.
An isolated place. If in public, use headphones and music to drown out outside noise. If at home, close your door in your room and make plans not to be disturbed. If at work, find ways to make your workspace more isolated if possible.
A ritual. Use some kind of ritualistic process to define a clear beginning and end to your work period.
Strict adherence to work/leisure periods. Don’t work at all during leisure periods, and disconnect from email and other connections to work. Likewise, disconnect from social media and other outside distractions during your work, unless specifically required by your job. Even then, try to keep communication periods to very specific, habitual hours daily instead of allowing them to leak into your entire day.
A habit. Habitual activity becomes easier to stick to, making it easier to achieve a deep work/flow state.
I have some misgivings with parts of the book. In particular, there’s a good chunk towards the end of the book that rails against the distracting power of social media, email, and other communication tools, claiming that while they sometimes offer the ability to greatly speed up communication with coworkers and thus save time, more often than not, they become time sinks in their own right.
There’s a well-known phenomenon in which emails can sometimes take much longer to reply to than to send.
For example, a short email asking for someone’s opinions on a particular course of action may take just a few minutes to send, but require a response that takes 15-30 minutes of dedicated thought to hash out. Often, the people sending these time sink messages are completely unaware of how long it might take to reply to them, thus perpetuating a cycle which creates more of these emails.
This concept is well known and is often given as a reason why, for example, the lowest workers in a chain shouldn’t be allowed unfettered access to email the CEO of their company - because the more emails flying around, the more unintended wasted time can result.
At the same time, if emails are structured in the right way, this effect can be minimized. By crafting emails which require simple, non-open ended responses (for example, going from “what are your thoughts on this subject?” to a simple “tell me immediately whether to do A or B, and don’t bother taking more than 5 minutes to think over it or explain your reasoning to me”), we can greatly reduce the time required to respond to our emails.
This implies that email isn’t necessarily the issue - it’s a certain way of misusing emails that creates the problem. While email may accidentally or purposefully encourage inefficient methods of communication, that doesn’t mean it can’t be used in the proper way, with a bit of coaching. This is something that Newport acknowledges and touches on significantly within the book.
Likewise, I think a lot of the negative impact of social media can be alleviated by learning to use social media in the right way.
I would say that I’m effectively always on social media. I have my desktop computer running Facebook and Twitter at all times, with sound notifications ready to interrupt me at any time. I also keep my phone right next to my keyboard - any time I get an email or a notification from anything else, the screen lights up and I immediately look over to check it.
However, this usually has no impact on my ability to keep working. I look over, see the notification, quickly evaluate whether or not to pay attention (nine plus times out of ten, I don’t, but sometimes it’s an email from a client that I want to respond to quickly) and then continue my work.
I don’t think that social media is the death of productivity, and it gets tiring to hear these same arguments regurgitated endlessly. I think it simply requires the right kind of focus, practice, and approach to be able to manage your social media effectively - and the same can be said with email and instant messaging. This part of the book is easily the weakest, and the part which I find to drag on the most.
However, I still highly recommend Deep Work. It’s still an excellent piece of the puzzle in terms of unlocking productivity, and it contains a lot of great tips and tools for learning to establish a deep work/flow state. You’ll need to give some of its approaches a try - though, I don’t recommend believing every part of the book literally.
- Flow is a state of deep productivity where you feel highly connected to your work, but it's not something you can force and it's not always easy to slip into.
- Deep work is a related concept in which you remove all potential distracting influences on your work in order to more easily stay within your flow state.
- This can include ritualized behavior, isolation from others, avoiding social media and email, taking time off from normal work duties, and more. However, the approach is still highly individualized, so you need to find your own way to establish a deep work habit.
- I do take issue with some of the concepts outlined in Newport's Deep Work - in particular, I find him overly critical of social media and its distracting power, which I feel can be alleviated by using it in the right way.
- My Single Best Productivity Investment
- Flow State For Maximum Performance
- The "Easy" Way To Master Any Skill
- Winners Always Quit, and Quitters Always Win
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
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