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How to increase your productivity through deep working

Ever got to the end of a long day at work and thought, What have I even done today? Ever wondered how many times you checked your phone, looked out the window, or even walked to the kitchen to make a cup of tea? All these distractions, although not necessarily obvious, are having a negative effect on our work. That’s where deep thought comes in. It’s great for taking you away from all the hustle and bustle and showing you how to work productively. Whilst there are lots of study hacks out there that lay claim they can help improve your creativity and mindset, the only productivity hack you need is deep work – long periods of uninterrupted thinking. It’ll make you better at what you do, let you achieve more in less time and provide a sense of fulfillment. Read on!

What is deep working?

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.

Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.

Who uses deep work?

i) Mark Twain, author

Whilst writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark resided in a shed on a farm in New York. He was so far away and isolated from the main house where he was staying that summer, his family had to blow a horn to let him know when his meals were ready.

ii) Adam Grant, author and academic

The youngest professor to be awarded tenure and subsequently a full professorship at the Wharton School of Business. He produces academic articles and bestselling books at an extraordinary high rate for his field. Grant batches hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. For example, his teaching will take place in the fall semester, then he turns his attention fully to research in the spring and summer, so he can tackle these separate tasks with his full focus.

iii) J K Rowling, author

Despite owning a computer, J K Rowling was famously absent from social media during the time she penned the Harry Potter novels. When her staff set up a Twitter account in 2009, when she was working on The Casual Vacancy, for the first year and a half she posted one tweet which read: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I’m afraid, as pen and paper is my priority at the moment.” The book went on to become the second biggest adult opening of all time in the United Kingdom.

iv) Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO

Twice a year, Bill would isolate himself to do nothing but read and think big thoughts. It was during one of these “Think Weeks” that he wrote his famous Internet Tidal Wave memo.

How to establish effective deep work rituals

There’s no one correct deep work ritual — the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:

1. Where you’ll work and for how long

Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts. This location can be as simple as your normal office with the door shut and desk cleaned off (a colleague of mine likes to put a hotel-style “do not disturb” sign on his office door when he’s tackling something difficult). If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth — for instance, a conference room or quiet library — the positive effect can be even greater. If you work in an open office plan, this need to find a deep work retreat becomes particularly important. Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

2. How you’ll work once you start to work

Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use, or maintain a metric such as words produced per twenty-minute interval to keep your concentration honed. Without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard. These are unnecessary drains on your willpower reserves.

3. How you’ll support your work

Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food of the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear. (As Nietzsche said: ‘It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.’) This support might also include environmental factors, such as organizing the raw materials of your work to minimize energy-dissipating friction. To maximize your success, you need to support your efforts to go deep. At the same time, this support needs to be systematized so that you don’t waste mental energy figuring out what you need in the moment.

 

These questions will help you get started in crafting your deep work ritual. But keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it. I assure you that the effort’s worth it: Once you’ve evolved something that feels right, the impact can be significant. To work deeply is a big deal and should not be an activity undertaken lightly. Surrounding such efforts with a complicated (and perhaps, to the outside world, quite strange) ritual accepts this reality — providing your mind with the structure and commitment it needs to slip into the state of focus where you can begin to create things that matter.