How I Halved My Work Time Using Cal Newport’s Deep Work

I have a new system that’s completely revolutionised the way I work. It’s pulled me out of burnout and has HALVED the time it takes me to get things done.

Allow me to introduce you to “deep work”.

(Next stop: world domination.)


Cal Newport's "Deep Work" - what is it and does it work?

Let me set the scene of what my life was like beforehand.

My Life Before Deep Work

I’d wake up and lie in bed scrolling through social media on my phone. When the second, OK-now-it’s-REALLY-time-to-get-your-arse-outta-bed alarm went off, I’d drag myself up and out, and get ready.

After that it was a flurry of making breakfast and lunch for my daughter, packing her bag and getting her out the door for the school bus. Then I’d have my own breakfast in peace, with a side of more scrolling.

About 9.30am I would sit at my desk and get started on work.

And by ‘get started’, I of course mean glancing at my inbox, looking at my to-do list, fighting the urge to crawl back into bed, wondering what I could put off…

Clean & tidy office desk & workspace | Reset your space

When I finally got down to it, I’d set a timer and work in 45 minute blocks, followed by 15 minute breaks. That system had been my bread and butter for several years and I never thought I’d improve on it.

Unfortunately, the 45 minutes were increasingly distracted, and I’d regularly carry on a text message conversation at the same time.

The 15 minutes were designed to get me up and moving on a regular basis but, more recently, would see me still sitting in front of a screen getting sucked into something that would last significantly longer than 15 minutes. (Think YouTube videos and yet more social media.)

When my daughter got back about 4.15pm it was helping with homework and playing outside, then dinner, and then a jumbled mess of small bits of work, some more scrolling, more YouTube videos, etc.

Inevitably, things from that day’s to-do list would get bumped forward or canceled completely.

Kikki.K planner – mint with gold dots, notepaper

Somewhere between 9 and 10pm I’d stumble to bed to read a few pages of a book (and check my phone 4 billion more times), and then it was lights out about 11, promising myself I’d do better the next day.

Aaaaand… rinse and repeat.

The Downsides Of Not Doing Deep Work

I was still getting a lot done but only in bits and pieces. I didn’t want to squeeze more into my day, I just wanted fewer distractions so I could actually focus on, and finish, something. 

My screen stats at the time showed I was spending between 5 and 8 hours a day on my phone, the vast majority of which was spent on social media… and that’s excluding the scrolling I was also intermittently doing on my laptop.

I guess ‘fractured’ is the best way to describe my days back then.

Enter: Cal Newport’s bestselling book, “Deep Work”.

I had the eBook on hold on my local library's app for quite a while and, when it finally became available, it just so happened to coincide with a viral bug. So, laid up in bed for a day, I dove in.

"Deep Work" by Cal Newport

In truth, even while I was reading the book I didn’t think too much of it. It was definitely interesting (though Part 1 was a slog) but I never imagined it would have as many benefits as promised.

Things rarely do.

Still, when the virus finally vacated my body, I decided to try it out. Burnout had been the bane of my life for a year at that point and I was living most of my days without feeling motivated or inspired. As an ambitious person, and one who’s previously suffered from depression, that can be worrying.

I was genuinely afraid it was my new default and that I’d never get my mojo back.

Imagine my utter relief and unbridled joy, then, when I found that deep work allowed me to focus again and get all my work done in half the time!

So what’s it all about and how does it work?

In essence, deep work is about eliminating all distractions and focusing in on one particular task for a prolonged period of time.

While much of it seems to be based on anecdotal evidence rather than science-backed research, it does make sense to me that, to really get sh*t done, you’d do well to lock yourself away for several hours and just get on with it.

After all, isn’t that what all the best writers and researchers do?

How long you can do it depends on your circumstances – most of us can’t take ourselves off to a cabin in the woods for weeks on end.  And Newport reckons 4 hours is about the max amount of time you can spend doing deep work per day before your brain hits its limit.

So for those of us with regular lives and jobs, the book suggests working for 90 minute stretches, ideally breaking for about 90 minutes in between.

Feet Up At The Saguaro Hotel, Palm Springs

Now, 90 minutes is double what I was used to so I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to last that long. And, with the modern day diminished capacity to concentrate (something I’ve increasingly noticed in my own life) I was skeptical.

Still, I sucked it up, put my phone on silent, and got stuck in… and was surprised to find I was still going when the timer went off an hour and a half later.

Any time I felt my mind straying, I simple repeated the words “deep work” to myself and dove back in.

And just like that, a job that would normally take about 6 hours was done in 3.

When To Do It

Now, Newport knows that deep work isn’t always necessary or even possible – open-plan offices aren’t conducive to getting sh*t done, nor is the home environment if you have young kids running around. (My own interrupted me several times while writing this post.) So you should still have plenty of space in your schedule for breaks and the “shallow” stuff – phone calls, meetings, small chores, etc.

Baby in Target shopping cart

But when the chips are down and you need to crank out a report, a thesis, a Powerpoint presentation, the next chapter of your book, a tax return, or a research paper, isolating yourself with only the tools you need for the task at hand and then wading right into the thick of things is the way to go.

Only come up for air when you feel yourself fading fast.

(Or you need a bathroom break. Mother Nature waits for no workflow.)

What It's Not

It’s important to note that it’s not about cramming more work into your day. The long periods of deep focus also require long breaks. The benefit is in ticking tasks off your to-do list as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s in actually finishing things that might otherwise outstay their welcome.

Instead of doing jobs in dribs and drabs with every spare second you can snatch, you’re giving it your full attention for as long as you can so you can finally say it’s done.

It also doesn’t necessarily require sitting lest you’re concerned, as I was, about the lack of movement for such a long period of time. Newport cites various examples of people who got some of their best work done while walking and exploring.

Exploring the woods

The Benefits

I’ve gone from still feeling the effects of last year’s burnout and barely being able to churn out one blog post and one video a month, to getting back on track with weekly uploads, increased social media presence (without mindless scrolling), long strategising and forward planning sessions, working on several side projects, and – best of all – more time to relax and unwind.

I’ve more than halved the amount of time I spend on social media AND the amount of time it takes me to get work done.

And, as an added bonus, the longer periods of focus mean I’m doing a lot less mindless snacking, so my health is improving too!

My new routine looks like this:

My Life After Deep Work

I wake at 6.30am and quickly check emails before hopping out of bed. (No social media at all during this time.) I get myself and my daughter ready at a nice leisurely pace, often being able to fit in some small pieces of shallow work like responding to emails.

Once she’s gone, I have my breakfast and allow myself to scroll through Instagram only.

Then it’s down to work, putting my phone and laptop on silent, setting a timer for 90 minutes, and only coming up for air when it’s done.

That time alone is enough to clear a huge chunk off my to-do list.

After that I usually break for at least an hour, eating, doing some chores, texting friends and family, etc. (Still no social media, though.) Then I dive back into another deep work session.

My evening usually involves an hour-long session of shallow work, including spending some time scheduling social posts through a third party app.

I go to bed at about 8pm. There, I allow myself to check social media for about an hour BUT I don’t scroll my Facebook or Twitter feeds (I haven’t done that in weeks). Instead, I simply check my notifications and respond to comments.

Then I read for an hour or two and it’s usually lights out between 10.30 and 11pm.

How To Make The Most Of Your Life & Take Charge Of Your Future | Take Control Of Your Life | Morning Sidekick Journal - Phase 1 Conquered

So if, like me, you find you’re starting to lose your levels of concentration and you want to claw them back, as well as finally getting things completely ticked off your to-do list, I’d highly recommend doing some deep work.

Eliminate distractions, set up everything you need to complete the task at hand, and then be single-minded of purpose as you start work. Set your sights on the finish line and work for as long as you can to get yourself there (or at least as close as possible).

And then take a long, well-deserved break. (All the better if it involves many pats on the back for a job well done.)

You’ll soon be completing tasks you thought would never leave your list. 

What on your to-do list right now requires the most amount of focus? You know what to do. 😉

Click one of these posts for even more tips on turning yourself into a time management ninja:

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  1. I need to give this a try… a serious try. I find myself getting lost on social media and my time disappearing. Thank you for this workable plan.

  2. Hi Laura – really appreciate your One Minute Monday musings. Regarding today’s nuggets of wisdom, realise the idea is to schedule deep-dive work around own commitments, but there seems to be a big chunk of time unaccounted for during your afternoon … and does everyone go to bed at 8 to wind down?

    • Hi Carol. I probably should have made it a bit more clear but I just repeat the work and chore chunks (with a break for lunch) until it’s time to collect my daughter.

      It’s just my daughter and I who go to bed at 8pm. She stays up playing, reading, or colouring until 9pm and then it’s lights out. I read. My husband will usually come to bed at about 11pm.

  3. Oh my, your mornings just looked like mine, except I don’t wake up before 8am (blame it on my latitude, it’s still dark where I live). But I work at home and find myself doing exactly what you were doing, working a bit, watching a YOuTube video, working a bit, time for coffee, oops I forgot to put a load of laundry and so on…. And my blog has been really not active for a while, every post seems to take forever even though I have plenty of ideas. I really need to get this book and try it out. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • It’s been incredibly helpful for me. I can now draft a blog post in one sitting instead of trying to do it in bits and pieces here and there. So I’d definitely recommend it if that’s a particular struggle of yours.

      As for waking before 8am, I probably wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to get my daughter ready for school. 😉 I allow myself to wake naturally on weekends (if I can), which is usually about 8.30am.

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