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What Is Deep Work? (And How It Boosts Productivity)

We all know about the power of decluttering and streamlining.

But when you’re at the office, it’s a different story. You’re flooded with meetings, deadlines and impossible to-do lists. It’s often a struggle to just stay afloat.

But does all this busyness actually produce better work? Or are we too distracted to really get anything done?

Deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same title) is all about setting priorities, eliminating busywork and finding efficient systems that focus on work that moves the needle.

Newport’s books have literally changed the way I work – and they’ve helped me get more done in far less time.

So how can you incorporate these deep work principles into your day, even if you’re working in a corporate office?

Deep work tips:

1) Prioritize focused work

Dee sits on a bed with a cup of coffee looking out a bright window.

The eight-hour workday was popularized by Henry Ford based on the optimal running-time for assembly lines.

It’s not a research-based model for optimal productivity. The eight-hour day is simply how factories were best run.

Studies show that most people are capable of 4 or 5 hours of focused work a day. Though in your normal office, you’re often lucky to get an hour (especially if you’re working in an open plan office with constant interruptions).

Humans work best in intervals of 90 minutes followed by a 20-30 minute break.

And the quality of your work is much more important than the number of hours you’re sitting in a chair.

How can you learn from these studies and maximize your own work day?

Organize a plan based on these productivity studies. Know that your goal is a few hours of focused work. Not the total number of hours.

Key takeaway: Carve aside an hour (at least in the beginning) to focus on one single task. And work on it without checking your emails, notifications and social media feeds.

A few hours of focused work is better than a day spent chasing emails and multitasking.

2) Free yourself from your inbox

A desk with a laptop on it stands under a bright window with two chairs.

Check your emails at the start of the work day. If there’s nothing urgent then dive into some deep work that’s focused on a meaningful goal.

There’s hardly ever an email that requires an immediate response. And just because your phone pings doesn’t mean you have to drop everything to answer.

Set yourself a timer (for an hour to start) and dive into some focused work on a priority project.

When you’re done, get back into your inbox and deal with anything that’s come in.

Key takeaway: Don’t use your inbox for distraction or procrastination. You don’t have to check your emails every few minutes.

3) Know your why

A laptop sits on a desk in front of a mirror next to a vase with greenery, a cup of coffee and a green candle.

The daily grind often prevents you from asking deeper questions like: what’s your ultimate goal and what are you trying to achieve?

When you’re not very motivated and just struggling to keep up, take some time to reevaluate your “why” and your career ambitions.

Key takeaway: Knowing your purpose helps you streamline your daily routine and moves your most essential tasks to the top of your list.

And it’s also the first step towards letting go of busywork and everything that doesn’t move you forward.

It can also mean having a difficult conversation with your boss, reshuffling your responsibilities or letting go of what’s not working.

4) Work in blocks of time

A woman's hand holding a pen and writing in a journal with a cup of coffee in the background.

Schedule all of your work into blocks of time instead of long to-do lists.

This small shift will likely double your productivity and eliminate busywork.

Key takeaway: Divide up your workday into blocks of time that are each assigned a specific task.

How to time block:

  1. Figure out your priority tasks. Then estimate how long they will take and plug them into your blocks of time in your weekly planner.
  2. Spend one block of time on a project and work on that without checking your messages. Once that time is up, take a break and move on to your next block.

Time blocking gives you a sense of accomplishment and keeps you focused instead of chasing emails and drifting into rabbit holes.

When you’re time blocking, you always know what you should be working on at any given hour. You’re not wasting your energy wondering what to do next or jumping from one task to another.

Time blocking also helps you maximize your time. You’ll quickly learn what tasks can be grouped together and what times are best to tackle your most difficult projects.

You’ll understand how long tasks actually take and you’ll be able to plan more realistically in the future.

5) Write a “got-done” list

An open notebook lays on a desk next to a laptop alongside a mug of coffee and a small jar of flowers.

Ditch your daily to-do list and replace it with a list of weekly priorities.

A to-do list often turns into an overwhelming and non-specific mess of tasks.

A list of priorities separates the essentials from the busywork and anything else that can be cancelled, delegated or postponed.

Look back at the end of the day and make a quick mental note of everything you’ve accomplished. You’ll notice that even on the most frustrating days there’s always something that moved forward.

Key takeaway: Looking back objectively on the day puts your small successes into perspective and doesn’t let the failures overcloud your mood.

6) Limit your screentime

Dee walks with a cup of coffee from a bright balcony into a room.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, take a break from scrolling social media.

Check your screen time and limit the hours you spend on different apps.

Social media is one of the worst way to relax in your free time. It makes you more anxious and gradually kills off your ability to concentrate.

Key takeaway: Limit your screentime and you’ll be amazed at the hours that free up in your day.

A digital detox goes a long way towards creating more time for the work (and the people) that really matter.

It’s not easy to log off when you’re addicted to your smartphone.

But set it aside an evening and get busy with something else you really love. You’ll be amazed at how little you miss your phone after a few hours.

7) Stop multitasking

A cup of coffee rests on a window sill overlooking a green patch of bushes.

Job seekers sometimes write “great at multitasking” on their CVs as if it’s a valuable work skill.

But studies show that groups who smoked a joint and then completed a series of tasks actually focused better than those who were multitasking.

This means multitasking is about as efficient as working while under the influence.

Multitasking lowers your focus and makes you more prone to mistakes.

Stop jumping from one thing to the next under the illusion that you’re getting more done.

Key takeaway: focus on one task at a time. Even if it feels counter-intuitive, mono-tasking vastly improves your productivity.

Work deeper in focused time blocks and you’ll be amazed at the hours you save.

8) Streamline your processes

A woman types into a laptop sitting on a bright desk next to a potted plant, a mobile phone and a cup with a red straw.

Preventing needless headaches by planning ahead and streamlining your work systems.

Instead of going back-and-forth with colleagues over email, stop by their office for a chat and form a plan of action.

Key takeaway: Ask yourself how to make your day easier tomorrow, next week and next month.

Be your own future best friend who looks out for yourself and anticipates problems.

9) Enjoy the journey

A woman wearing a denim jacket writes in a notebook that rests on a wooden desk next to a large cup of coffee.

If you’re like most people and don’t really like your job, remind yourself of the good things about it – however few.

There’s always something to appreciate even if your current role is just a stepping stone towards your dream job.

Everything is a learning experience when you shift your perspective.

10) Take meaningful breaks

A marble table holds a silver laptop, a cup of coffee and a small vase of flowers against a tiled wall.

Many people struggle to even step away from their desks for lunch.

But constantly skipping breaks is actually slowing you down.

Time away from work isn’t only good for your health but it also boosts your creativity.

In his book In Praise of Slow, Carl Honore writes about the benefits of time off – even if that’s just a coffee break in the afternoon:

“Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly, and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs.”

Living a simpler life

simple living

Simple living is all about cutting back your possessions and living a less hurried life.

Read 18 Simple Living Tips (That Will Transform Your Life) for practical tips to simplify your life.

Minimalist TED talks

minimalist lifestyle

There’s nothing like a good minimalism TED talk to inspire you to simplify your life – or just declutter your closet.

Read 16 Incredible TED Talks On Minimalism (That Will Change Your Life) for my ultimate list of inspiring speeches to change your perspective.

More resources:

8 Must-Read Slow Living & Minimalism Blogs

16 Practical Tips For Slow Living in the City

57 Simple Living Quotes (That Will Inspire You)