Deep work: How to Boost Productivity and Happiness at Work

Desiree McGinn
Mar 30, 2021

When was the last time you went into a state of flow, being fully immersed by your current activity, and losing track of time while working?

Deep work — the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task — is becoming rarer. The ‘always on’ culture is heavily embedded in our working lives, and not being available at all times is often viewed unfavourably. While the open office was already making deep work a challenge, the covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent distractions that many professionals have at home have made the idea of deep work unrealistic. This forces us to do shallow work, which can compromise the quality of our output.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist and academic who studied how a highly focused mental state can be conducive to productivity, describes the flow state that occurs when we deep work as a source of happiness. When you enter a state of flow, there is not enough brain processing power left to worry about anything else than the work you’re focusing on.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist and sleep expert, explains that when we deep work, our brains might enter the ‘alpha state’. Our brain activity slows down and we move into a state that is almost meditative. We become completely focused on the task at hand. In contrast, when we are multitasking and focusing on quick decision-making work, we usually operate in beta mode.

Deliberate Deep Work Support

It is evident that lack of deep work can be detrimental to companies and employees in the short and long term. Luckily, there are measures that can be put in place to help facilitate deep work and increase productivity in teams.

Blocking out time is key, according to Dr Cath Bishop, who consults and teaches management at Judge Business School at Cambridge University. And it is important to ensure that this is done without meetings and interruptions to work schedules. But it’s also individual. “Ask others when they do their best ‘deep work’, when do they find that they feel able to think through complex issues, feel creative, feel able to think strategically – it’s different for different people.” Have measures in place to encourage them to protect this time for key pieces of work and avoid distractions.

On a company level, leaders and senior management need to be role models. Deep work time needs to be acknowledged, and not overwritten with last-minute meetings or demands. Management can offer support by facilitating conversations on how to best to deep work through asking questions, sharing tips and experiences.

Fractured Focus

Research shows that knowledge workers get interrupted or switch tasks every three to five minutes, which leads to cognitive overload and exhaustion, says Dorothy Spira, Head of Community at Evernote, a digital organisation and productivity app. If you constantly feel like you’re starting and restarting a project, continually leaving it to answer an email or check Slack or Teams, then fractured focus could be an issue.

Fractured focus is the division of our attention across multiple tasks, and it makes us less productive. If your workflow is constantly broken up by taking breaks to check emails and messages, you will permanently reduce your capacity for concentration.

Endless multitasking and distractions make us less effective, and will make us more prone to feeling overwhelmed, says Dr Cath Bishop.

The Double-Edged Sword

Sloppy agendas, unclear roles and undefined rules: meetings can be a drain on focus and time if conducted poorly.

Meetings are a useful tool if they are tightly focused, with the right people attending (if in doubt, don’t invite someone if it’s not essential that they are there) and scheduled for the length of time required (rather than always an hour, driven by the electronic calendar). But if meetings are held back-to-back, strategic thinking and meeting effectiveness diminish, and the time could be better spent elsewhere. If meetings are largely about sharing information, then think about how else this information could be more efficiently shared, says Dr Bishop.

The purpose of the meeting should be clear to all participants, not just the host. Leave a few minutes at the end of each meeting to discuss how effective it was, and how you can improve it in the future. Work on the constant learning mindset on ‘how’ we work, not just ‘what’ we do. This is an essential element of improving our work performance.

Dr Bishop draws on her own previous experience as an Olympic rower: “We would always ask, ‘will this make our boat go faster?’ – and if the answer was no, we didn’t do something. We always discussed what else would make our boat go faster, and applied it not just to physical training but everything that affects performance – mindset, recovery, communication. It always surprises me that few people in organisational life think that meetings are run optimally, yet very few ever ask or discuss how they could be improved.”

Dorothy Spira suggests scheduling all your meetings on certain days – e.g. Tuesday or Thursday, so you are free to work uninterrupted for the rest of the week.

Collaborate with Purpose

Collaboration is essential but needs to be purposeful, says Dr Cath Bishop. Understand why you will do better work by collaborating, clarify where there is interdependence and the benefits that co-creation will bring, and regularly assess whether these gains are being made, or whether the collaborative process could be further improved. Constantly work to refine ‘how’ you collaborate, not just ‘what’ you are collaborating on, and ensure there is downtime in between collaborative work, in order to reflect on and then maximise the time you have together.

How to Deep Work

Once all distractions have been minimised – i.e. phone, email and other communication channels are switched off and time in the calendar blocked out – there are additional measures that can be taken to ensure a successful deep work session. Dr Ramlakhan shares her top tips:

  • Understand your energy cycle: We all have our unique energy patterns – times when we concentrate best and times when mental energy is lower, and we might be more sluggish or sleepy. This is about self-awareness and becoming attuned to the rhythms of your energy. Deep listening enables deep work.
  • Manage your energy: This means eating, drinking, breathing, moving in ways that will enable you to optimise your energy levels. If your physical battery power is low, this will impact on your mental energy and ability to focus deeply.
  • Connect with meaning and purpose: It’s important that we connect with our ‘why’ if we want to hit that deep flow state. This means asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?”. “Why is this important to me?” We are more likely to go deep if we are able to connect the task to our value system.

Cal Newport, for many the godfather of deep work, writes in his book (Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World) how our decreasing attention span adds to the issue. To become good at deep work, you need to practise focus and attention. For a beginner, deep working for 20-30 minutes might be a big enough challenge. This can increase on a weekly basis. It is also helpful to build habits around starting a deep work session, which with repetition acts as cue for the brain, a type of conditioned stimulus.

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan puts emphasis on the importance of the ‘ultradian cycle’ of around 90 minutes, a notion made famous by training consultant and management author Tony Schwartz. This cycle oscillates throughout our daily 24-hour ‘circadian cycle’ and determines the limits of our ability to concentrate. Dr Ramlakhan describes in her TEDx talk, ‘Come to Work and Rest, that we can optimise our performance by working in cycles of around 90 minutes, taking regular breaks to eat, move, breathe mindfully and deeply, reconnect with nature or loved ones. When we work in a relentlessly linear fashion, and against the limits of our ultradian cycle, we become more prone to burnout. It takes us longer to get the job done and we work less efficiently. This is the antithesis of deep work.

With the ability not only to increase productivity and quality but happiness itself, the case is clear: it’s time to get to work. Deep work, that is.


Want to know more about how we learn at work? Read our recent report on metacognition at work here

Desiree McGinn

Content Strategy Lead at Headspring