"I'll leave the focused life, because it's the best kind there is" W. Gallagher

The secret to productivity isn't getting more things done; it's getting the right things done.

While writing dissertation and preparing for Masters exams last year I enjoyed the most productive times of my life. What made it productive was the ability to concentrate on thinking for long periods of time aided by the routine I set for myself and minimising distractions.

Later on I noticed a striking contrast with my day-to-day job, where I get distracted every other minute by calls, people passing by, email or instant messaging popping up, etc. It felt like I'm losing my ability to concentrate and think, though I'm a big advocate of concentration and focus. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, found that office workers are interrupted, or self-interrupt about every 10.5 minutes, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. The bad news is that when you are switching contexts every 11 minutes you are getting stressed and you can't possibly be thinking deeply. There's no way you can achieve flow and there is no way you can be productive.

Therefore I was so glad that I found this book: "Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world". I'll offer the summary of this book here as well as main principles of operating in a state of deep thinking and its importance for your own satisfaction and business success.

Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, defines deep work as "the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task". He argues, that deep work will not only allow you to engage your brain fully, but make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true meaning and fulfilment in opposite to shallow work – skimming the surface of workload and never getting to the important part. He himself is a living example of a person who managed to increase dramatically his personal productivity through hard work and drastic changes to his habits!

Getting to deep work requires certain rules, especially in the business world full of distractions. I have outlined the most important strategies from my perspective and you can definitely read more in Newport's book.

He outlines four rules for increasing personal productivity:

Rule 1. Work Deeply

Ritualise. Routine and rituals you set for yourself might require some experimentation, however there are certain suggestions for engaging with deep work you can try now.

- Define where you will work, when you will work and for how long - finding deep work place in the office or at home - e.g. shut the door, pit sign "Don't disturb", retreat to the quiet meeting room… The author suggests to spend at least 3 separate sessions on deep task, approximately 90 min each during the day.

- Decide how you'll work once you start working - ban on Internet use, ban on emails checking, ban on phone calls and other distractions

- Define the ritual of how you'll support your work - start with coffee, access to right food, what materials you might require.

Rule 2. Embrace Boredom

Engage in concentration training and strengthen your 'mental muscle'. At the same time allow yourself periods free from professional concerns. Downtime recharges the energy and adds insights as you make your unconscious mind work (you can read more on Unconscious Thought Theory here)

- Schedule offline work and online work intervals consciously. If you are in your offline mode, you concentrate on your deep work. Online breaks would allow you to check emails and search for information needed, but only allowed when you planned for them.

- Practice with intensity for short period of times – set yourself stricter deadlines for completing a piece of work. Strict deadline would allow you to forget about distractions.

- Use 'productive meditation' – when walking, running or engaging in physical exercise use one problem to think through. Thinking should be structured though avoiding loops and going to deeper levels.

Rule 3: Quit social media

This might sound too drastic for some of us, however Newport justifies this rule by re-evaluating the tools you've been using and for which purpose. If Facebook is your working tool, you do connect. However if you get drawn into it and spend hours just surfing, it should be a worry sign. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Rule 4. Drain the Shallows

The author suggests starting every day with planning – introducing different topics you need to cover during the day and then – split them into different more precise activities. Of course you get distracted on the way or meetings might move, so you might rearrange during the day.

- Introduce fixed schedule routine - impose a time constraint of when you finish your work. Work backwards to make everything fit. For some of us fixed schedules are defined by family and children obligations and I would gladly hear from those whose productivity hasn't suffered but improved with baby born.

- Introduce email hygiene. Do more work when you send email. Rather than sending something like "Thoughts?" at the end of an email, take a process-centric approach and make sure to include next steps, who is responsible for those next steps, and a next step deadline.

I hope you enjoyed reading this and I would gladly welcome your thoughts and experience on the topic in comments.

Some useful resources for increasing focus and concentration


The Science Behind Daydreaming And How You Can Retrain Your Brain To Focus (Fast Company)

Workplace distractions: here's why you won't finish this article (Wall Street Journal)

How to be the most productive person in the office and still get home by 5.30pm


One Second Ahead: Enhance Your Performance at Work with Mindfulness

Online courses:

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects


Cal Newport blog – Study Hacks

Roy Baumeister experiment on concentration

His new book, "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength," co-authored with journalist John Tierney and released in September, describes surprising evidence that willpower is a limited resource subject to being used up.

Monastic approach

Bimodal approach - Jung

Rhythmic philosophy - do the work every day and visually reflect it or set starting time that you use every day for deep work

Journalist philosophy - fit deep work whenever you can into your schedule

Routine and importance of organisation & rituals might require experimentation. For example leveraging a radical change to normal environment

Decision Fatique

Shutdown Ritual

Leadership links