How to be Productive: Deep Work Rules for High concentration and focus

Dear Ghramae,

My productivity and memory power has dramatically slumped

I am pretty intelligent, but I’m losing the spark to study and work hard. I am getting lazier and more and more distracted. What should I do?

How should one improve concentration and increase productivity?

As a teacher and researcher, I’ve been asked this question more times than I can remember. From “What diet or exercises would you suggest?” to “what book would you suggest?”.

However, I’ve probably read over 4 thousand books and listen to just as many audiobooks relating to human productivity, mental strategies and personal development, but if someone asked me to list them, there’s no way I could recall all of them, let alone their titles. Some were fun, complicated, oversimplified, easy reads, full of great tips, and exercises, and many …not that good at all. To be honest, most made no significant impact on my life and are not worth any more of my time critiquing. But the ones that I do remember have certainly left an impression on me. Some of which have even changed, not only how I approach work, but also how I think whilst doing it. One of these is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

Our world is constantly changing and moving, and with all it undergoes, only three types of people will thrive:

1. Owners of capital or people with access to it.

2. Those who can work with intelligent machines and technology.

3. Superstars in their field of work.

What is deep work?

Newport helps us to learn mental strategies allowing us access into the third category. In order to become the best of the best, you must be able, first, to master hard things quickly and, second, to quickly produce quality work at an elite level. These two abilities are brought together in Deep Work. In order to do this, important intellectual work must be consolidated and accomplished in long, uninterrupted stretches. The more you do this, the more – and the better – you produce.

mental concentration strategies
mental concentration strategies

The new law of productivity is this:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

And this is where we find with the concept of “deep work.”

“Deep work is hard and shallow work is easier and in the absence of clear goals for your job, the visible busyness that surrounds shallow work becomes self-preserving.”

What Cal Newport – and I – desire is to see your personal ability go too deep levels of development; if you do, you’ll reap greater and greater rewards. We need to realize, first, that every task on your lists can be divided into two main categories: deep work and shallow work.

Cal Newport defines deep work as:

“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Shallow work, on the other hand is:

“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Some examples of this would be things like meetings with co-workers, emails, and reports. Don’t get me wrong; these tasks are necessary, and we cannot do without them, but we absolutely should limit the time we spend on them in order to maximize the time we spend engaging in deep work, especially with all the distractions that are constantly vying for our attention. More often than not, the majority of our days is spent performing shallow work activities, and the unfortunate result is that we have less capacity to perform deep work. This skill is becoming increasingly valuable in the present age.

Deep Work is about working smarter, not harder.

how to improve focus and memory
focus improved concentration

How can I improve my concentration at work and increase productivity?

To make this guide easier to use, I’ve set up five simple steps:

  1. Choose Your Deep Work Philosophy: pick one of four strategies — monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, or journalist — to make deep work a regular practice in your life.
  2. Make Deep Work a Habit: make a schedule of when and where you do deep work, and stick to it to create rituals and routines.
  3. Execute Like a Business: to successfully implement high-level strategies, focus on the wildly important, act on the lead measures, keep a scoreboard, and create accountability.
  4. Remove Distractions: the more you switch tasks, the less you’re able to focus.
  5. Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts: our brain can operate intensely for about four hours each day, so we need to make sure our downtime is used for profitable rest. Quality rest is key.

1. Choose Your Deep Work & Concentration Philosophy

Our environment is anything but helpful in aiding us towards deep work, so we have to be intentional. Newport provides four philosophies of how to sustainably integrate it into your life daily:

  • Monastic: minimize or remove shallow obligations, and isolate yourself for long periods of time without distractions.
  • Bimodal: separate your time clearly into both devoted deep work and other, but leave at least one day a week or a few consecutive days for monastic deep work.
  • Rhythmic: create habits of deep work by setting aside a set time and place each day, about three or four hours, just to pursue it. This is, perhaps, the easiest way to make it routine.
  • Journalistic: alternate days between deep work and shallow work; this philosophy is not recommended for when you’re first starting out.

So, what philosophy fits you? Start with that, and then design your work.

2. Make Deep & Focused Work a Habit

Once you’ve chosen the philosophy that works for you, you need to plan a rigid schedule and stick to it no matter what. If you set your mind to do it in advance, it will be easier to sit down and get to deep work when it’s time.

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

You’ll make habit-building easiest on yourself if you fix regular rituals:

  • Where: somewhere quiet and not distracting that you only use for deep work.
  • How Long: set a specific time period to work towards; don’t keep it open-ended.
  • How: set rules and processes to create a structure. How can you measure your progress? Should you ban phone and internet use?
  • Support: what inspires you? Some healthy snacks nearby? A hot cup of coffee? Do what you can to maximize success and maintain your energy.

3. Execute Like a Business With 4DX

We as individuals and businesses so often focus on what to do that we spend little energy on figuring out how to do it. As we so often say, “Easier said than done.”  Execution is more difficult than strategizing.

Are you familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix? Urgent-important vs. urgent-less-important?  The 4DX framework outlined in the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX)was developed by business consultants, and it seems to echo the spirit of the Eisenhower quadrant. This book gives us some ways to implement high-level strategies:

  • Focus on the Wildly Important: during deep work, set just a few critical goals to meet – goals that have tangible benefits that boost your morale and keep you going. For writers, it’s writing that thing you’ve been dabbling in for months, maybe even years. It’s cutting out the busywork of applying to residencies, writing Tweets, tweaking your website, searching for the perfect combat boots on Zappos — any of the small gophers that pop up. Instead of constructing your house, you’re picking weeds in the patch where you should be pouring concrete.
  • Act on the Lead Measures: use two types of metrics – lag and lead measures – to measure your success. Lag measures are the end goal while lead measures are the time spent doing deep work on your way to meeting the end goal. As the saying goes, “What gets measured gets managed.”
  • Keep a Compelling Scoreboard: Newport uses a simple calendar tracking deep work hours completed each day and circles the days that produce tangible results. Keeping score makes you compete with yourself, driving you to work better. This means a visible tracking system to keep yourself honest about how much time you’re spending on your priority project. It can be as simple as a sticky note on your laptop.
  • Create a Cadence of Accountability: take time for weekly reviews to see your progress and strategize the next week. Figure out where it works best for you – weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly.

4. Focus Improved concentration: Remove Distractions

In our day and age, it’s nearly impossible to have long, uninterrupted stretches of time spent working; you’re bound to be distracted by a co-worker, a smartphone notification, the tv, or many other things working to grab your attention. As a result, our attention spans grow shorter and shorter, leaving our brain hungry for distractions.

“Interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction.”

How to avoid distractions

While consistent task switching tears down our ability to focus, deep work reinforces our neural pathways. Here are some simple ways to silence distractions and improve your focus:

  • Headphones: my Bose QuietComfort 35 is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. People avoid bothering you, and it’s much less likely you’ll be interrupted.
  • Work Remotely: start your requests small, like just a half-day for example.
  • Email: schedule times just for checking and answering emails twice in your day, like late morning and late evening, for example, and have a set beginning and ending time.
  • Disable Phone Notifications: if it’s an emergency, people can call you.
  • Schedule Internet Time: set aside specific times in advance for internet and avoid it outside of those times. Your concentration training improves as you restrict it at home.
  • Clear to Neutral: clean up at the end of the day by closing all tabs, deleting or moving files from Downloads, emptying the trash, and shutting off the computer. You’ve successfully put yourself in neutral so you’re ready to get started the next day.

5. Use Downtime to Enhance Deep Work Efforts

Our lives need to be a balance between time periods of deep work and quality rest. According to research, our brains can only fully focus for around four hours each day. Once you’ve done that, it’s a struggle to focus intensely. You cannot continue to meet goals through deep work if you do not take the time to rest. It’s crucial for success.

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning — no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.”

Be as strict with your rest as you are with your deep work. Downtime is key to success for a few reasons:

  • New Insights: your unconscious mind takes over when the conscious rests, providing fresh insights and ideas.
  • Recharge: resting fills you up again so that your deep work time is quality – just as your phone needs that time plugged into a charger.
  • Evening Work Is Usually Not Important: sometimes we have mundane tasks to accomplish at the end of a day, and that’s okay.

Spending all your downtime as a couch potato, watching Netflix or scrolling through social media brainlessly is not quality. Be intentional in spending some of your rest without the digital – maybe even do a detox! We all need rest, but the more quality it is, the more quality your work is.

deep work in group

How to Get Better at Deep Work?

It doesn’t happen overnight; developing new habits takes time and determination. A few things will make forming these habits a little easier:

  • Quit Social Media: notifications are harmful to concentration, and while social media isn’t bad in itself, it certainly creates bad habits. I have more information on how to remove Facebook as well as more about digital minimalism.
  • Practice Saying “No”: carefully select what opportunities you accept. Failing to say “no” is just saying “yes.” (I’d recommend reading Essentialism by Greg Mckeown)
  • Meditate: starting each morning with ten minutes of meditation will increase your ability to stay focused throughout the day.

The Power of Habit

Everyone is different – our personalities, our habitats, our lifestyles; do what fits best in yours. Don’t try to force a square peg into a round hole. Once you settle into a routine, you can accomplish just about anything!

Final Tip:

Pinpoint your shallow work so you know better how to avoid it. Is it checking emails? Returning phone calls? Tweaking a slide update? Specifically, shallow work is defined as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” It feels great to get these things out of the way, but, in reality, they don’t accomplish much. Instead of laying down bricks for a house, you’re just shuffling around some papers.

Newport says the trick to knowing what tasks are shallow versus deep is measuring in months how long it would take to train a smart college grad to complete it. Do what you possibly can to minimize the shallow work in your job and live. For me, that means in my creative life I need to stop spending so much time looking up places to submit my writing and spend much more time actually writing.

I can tell you from experience that while I have yet to apply everything I’ve learned from Newport, I’ve seen a tremendous increase in quality output from what I have adopted already. Aside from all that, I simply feel better and more accomplished when I spend more time doing deep work. It’s the initial starting that’s hard! But Newport even has tips for this, as well.

I hope you found this article valuable because I am soon to publish more articles that shed light and answers the questions below…

Does fasting increase concentration & focus?

How can I provide nourishment to my brain through food intake and exercise for memory improvement, concentration and faster processing?

See more

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1 Comment

  • Martin Moore


    This one is amazing. It worked for me and I want to encourage everyone to use those for relaxation and practice daily!

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