Time Blocking and Deep Work: The Key to More Meaningful Productivity

With a massive shift to remote employment, more people than ever are experiencing the effects of longer hours, more meetings, and keeping up multiple communication channels. While working from home may sound more relaxing, research shows that nearly 70% of remote employees work over the weekend and 45% report clocking in more than 8 hours per day during the week.[1]https://rh-us.mediaroom.com/2020-11-23-Working-Weekends-a-Reality-for-Nearly-7-in-10-Remote-Professionals-Robert-Half-Research-Shows And productivity is suffering.

In fact, a considerable body of research suggests that overwork doesn’t result in more output. In a study from Boston University’s Restroom School of Business, managers couldn’t tell the difference in output between employees who worked 80 hours and ones who pretended to.[2]https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.2015.0975 Other studies suggest that productivity per hour dips significantly when you work more than 50 hours per week, ironically making more work a huge barrier to success.[3]http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf

Is it time to stop glorifying long hours behind the computer and experience true productivity? A concept called “deep work” is infiltrating the tech and startup world. And it turns out, the benefits of deep work are more than just increased productivity.

Deep work also appears to have cognitive and emotional benefits like an increased ability to focus and more connection to your work. Cal Newport, author of the book on deep work (and the man who coined the term) calls it a superpower. But is distraction-free work even possible in a world that’s always vying for your attention?

What Is Deep Work?

Cal Newport is a Georgetown professor and author of seven books, including Deep Work, which summarizes deep work as “focusing intensely without distraction for a long period on a cognitively demanding task.”

According to Newport, you can apply deep work to almost any task, from writing to crafting a piece of furniture. When you’re doing deep work, you feel like you’re in the zone. You’re able to zero in on your task at hand, and you probably feel great while you’re doing it.

In the 1970s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called this a “flow state.”[4]https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/flow-theory His research suggests that when you’re in flow, your focus is at its peak, and so is your happiness.[5]https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2000-12701-000

Deep work is interesting in this way — it allows you to be more productive, but it also allows you to enjoy your time and your work more. Deep work is all about infusing your days with intention rather than letting distractions and interruptions control your time and destroy your productivity.

Although, deep work may feel challenging at first — especially if you find yourself constantly checking updates on your phone or scrolling social media.

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Deep Work Vs. Shallow Work

The flipside to deep work is shallow work. You’re probably familiar with this type of task. It’s easy, it doesn’t require too much focus, and you can do it while you’re distracted or there’s a podcast on in the background.

Some shallow work is a welcome distraction from bigger projects. But for most people, it’s the kind of reactive work you get stuck with day in and day out. Constant requests, interruptions, answering emails and texts —this constant influx of information and continuous task switching leaves you feeling exhausted and also like you got nothing done.

Shallow work can also be a form of procrastination. While checking mindless tasks off your list may feel productive, it’s easy to use them as an excuse to avoid more significant projects.

What Are The Benefits Of Deep Work?

There are mental, emotional, and practical benefits to deep work. But most people begin this practice because it can double or triple productivity, while producing quality work.

Deep work may also:

  • Help you make the most of your time
  • Compartmentalize in a way that frees up mental energy
  • Take advantage of more free time or time for passion projects
  • Decrease anxiety and work addiction

Furthermore, deep work appears to stimulate your brain. When people are in a flow state, their brains are more active.[6]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00300/full And the flow state appears to increase self-esteem, as well.[7]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26924995/[8]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5138413/ When flow state is activated in creative endeavors, researchers found it even lowered heart rate and increased deep breathing.[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20515220/ Practicing deep work regularly may also increase your ability to focus.[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551835/

Deep Work And Digital Minimalism

At its heart, deep work is linked to digital minimalism, which is the application of a minimalist philosophy to the role technology plays in your life. Think: people who still use flip phones or turn the notifications off on their computers during work hours.

The fact is — you simply can’t perform deep work if you’re constantly checking your tech. But how can you become a digital minimalist and embrace the benefits of deep work?

Newport claims it starts with intention and becomes ingrained with habit. First, you have to evaluate what technologies and apps allow you to focus on what matters. Then, choose what improves your life, connects you to the people you love, and completely let go of the ultra distracting. This doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all technology, either. After all, studies show kids can often find their flow state while playing video games.[11]https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23545521_Adolescence_and_the_Changing_Context_of_Optimal_Experience_in_Time_Italy_1986-2000 And plenty of people find flow while creating digital art, writing, or coding.

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How To Induce A Flow State

Restructure Your Environment

Finding your deep work state may require some dedication at first.

The first step is creating an environment that’s conducive to concentration. For many, the problem is a familiar workplace filled with distractions. Removing yourself from this environment may be the key to getting your deep work done.

You can try:

  • Booking a hotel around the corner from home for a weekend
  • Head into a library, coffee shop, or bookstore to work for the day
  • Taking a working vacation — retreating to a place of solitude and poor cell signal may be the key to unlocking deep work for you
  • Bringing the team into a conference room for a brainstorming session with no devices or interruptions

Restructure Your Time

One of Newport’s most profound pieces of advice is to create deep work time blocks. Blocking out time to turn off your tech and get into a flowstate is the key to productivity and creative output.

While this can require extreme willpower, there are ways to set yourself up for success. Create your own “time blocking schedule” and be patient. It can take some time to reprogram your brain to work differently and embrace the benefits of deep work.

Time Blocking Schedule

You may already block time for meetings, lunches with friends, and even the gym. But time blocking for deep work takes this practice a step further.

Time blocking is just what it sounds like. You create a schedule incorporating the things you want to achieve, and do your best to stick to it, turning off all tech and notifications you won’t need for the task at hand.

The idea is to keep your deep work time sacred — no emails, no texts, and no “busy work” or shallow work.

While it may seem rigid at first, your increased ability to focus on one thing at a time will lead to increased productivity — and, ultimately, more freedom.

You choose to devote separate blocks of time to:

  • Leisure
  • Exercise
  • Shallow work
  • Creative pursuits
  • Answering emails
  • Completing your work
  • Collaborate with others
  • Responding to direct messages

The idea is to build a realistic schedule that works for you and helps you use your time intentionally. This creates a habit of working deeply and being in the flow over time.

Time blocking is that secret weapon that allows you to end your day feeling fulfilled and accomplished instead of anxious about what you didn’t get done — or worse, wondering where your time went. It’s really the ultimate mindfulness hack.

And it’s not new! Even Benjamin Franklin embraced its benefits. But in today’s world, where digital distractions are constant, it’s more important than ever.

Try time blocking and scheduling time for deep work throughout your week. You’ll likely see the benefits of more focus, creativity, and energy throughout your day. After a while, you won’t want to go back to the half-hearted, distracted workdays that left you feeling exhausted and drained.

Targeted supplementation can also make distractions a thing of the past. Take this quiz to find out which ones will get you in the zone.

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