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“A state of flow can be achieved by deep work” (robinwieruch.de)
244 points by robschia on Feb 23, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Reposting my comment regarding deep work and how I achieved it:

Imagine your mind like your desk. Every morning it's empty. (Usually) You wake up you load it up with all sorts of crap to entertain yourself, social media, Reddit, hacker news etc, etc.

By the time you get to work, there is no place to put work stuff on that desk. You try to put work stuff on it, but pretty much the whole desk is filled with Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook shit. So even if you make some space for the work stuff, sooner or later you focus on Tumblr again. Work stuff gets pushed out.

Generally in my case, by 2PM I manage to clear out all the distracting stuff and get focused. The solution was this: BORE YOURSELF at every available opportunity.

When I start my morning, I refused to pick up my phone and check out social media (usually I would take a 45 minute dump just catching up on stuff posted last night). Sure my morning chores became a bit boring, but I also became more efficient (I started getting to work sooner).

Basically, by the time I get to my desk, I am so bored that the most interesting thing I can do is work. And my work (programming) is a very interesting task, it used to keep me engaged for hours and hours, it's just that Social Media defeated it.

I do check social media. I check it around 2PM after my standup. That 'impulsive' desire to constantly check it is gone. I catch up on all the social media in the evening or at night (but it doesn't create that compulsive pattern anymore.

End result: My productivity has gone up by 5-6 times. I have a performance enhancement story to work on and I managed to fix 6-7 bugs I found during my work, and it turns out that it was a whole team's sprint's work.

This is awesome. I recently started banning all news websites and Twitter until 4pm and that's worked well. Telling yourself you can't use these things ever again is one thing, telling yourself you can use them, but only after 4pm is a lot easier to manage.

Thanks for (re)posting this--the clear desk analogy was very communicative.

For a while, I found myself waking up and spending a good 20-30 minutes in bed just reading news, then I'd open up the laptop and browse HN while eating breakfast, and before you knew it, it was 10:30 and I still haven't left the house. Gotta spring clean again.


This is an interesting concept, but it still requires self control. I could browse all day if I wanted but I WANT to get more work done, but I cant help it. But when I get into that state of flow it seems like nothing can tear me away from my work.

I'll try this.

You can use something like StayFocusd to force yourself off it. It won't allow you to reach the distracting websites no matter what you do. Forced boredom.

Though personally I've found if I just log out of facebook and my personal email, that helps. I can't open a tab and have rewards in less than 2 seconds. The extra few seconds to type in a password slows me down enough to just close the tab again and get back to work.

Yep couldn't agree more. It's actually embarrasing how many times I end up seeing the Focus App blocking screen during a very distracted day.

> This is an interesting concept, but it still requires self control. I could browse all day if I wanted but I WANT to get more work done, but I cant help it.

It doesn't require that much self-control as you may think. The important part is to control that 'first' desire of looking at your phone or opening up distracting sites.

What I found is that if I can curb that first desire to get distracted, then the rest of everything is super easy. But if I can't curb that first desire (which usually happens on Mondays), then I have to write that day off to non-productivity.

I started this project last November, and coincided with shutting down Facebook notifications (which helped me a lot). Two weeks ago I uninstalled Facebook mobile app and now I only check facebook by logging into the web version.

> The important part is to control that 'first' desire of looking at your phone or opening up distracting sites.

Yeah, this is always key. If you don't get that initial dopamine hit from the first potato chip, or that first cigarette, it's a lot easier to ignore the urge.

I agree. Self-control is terribly unreliable.

I have tried this 100 times and it eventually falls apart.

You have to make structural changes in your social media consumption.

Facebook and Twitter are the big killers for me. There'll be others for everyone else but the principles remain—delete everyone you can; block the rest.

The best way I've found to do this is to unfollow like crazy.

The best tips I've found so far:

- Only follow friends and family on Facebook—unfollow literally everybody else - Unfollow 50% of people on Twitter. If there are friends you don't want to offend, mute their tweets.

I still find that I go to Facebook and Twitter regularly, but I stay there for radically less time.

Twitter was difficult because I had this underlying assumption which told me it was useful for work. It isn't. You won't miss it. Trust yourself to find important information when you actually need it.

This sounds like you're going after similar things as mindfulness meditation.

Thank you for posting this. This is a very significant, specific, and actionable way of thinking about productivity.

Thanks for posting this, it definitely synthesizes something I've been struggling with. I did have a question on your method though:

Do you count radio, music audio books and podcasts as social media / something to stay away from, even during your commute?

I have found podcasts and audio books to be very interesting and draining so I can see those probably need to be eliminated for sure. But for music I'd be very interested in your take. My commute would be quite dry without it (although maybe that's the point haha)

I just wanna prefix this by saying that I am still trying to figure things out, all I am sure of is that I am onto something big.

That being said, here are my observations:

a) The days when I work from home, I focus better than the days when I work in the office. I believe the reason behind this is the fact that during WFH days I just make myself coffee and breakfast, and then start working. On WFO days, I have to go through a commute which increases my chances of getting distracted.

b) During my commute, literally anything would trigger 'distractive thoughts' because my mind is so bored. Subway ads would do the same, seeing someone's book would do the same. The difference is, because now my mind is more focused, the distraction would simply be a long chain of thought rather than a pitstop in me hopping around from thought to thought.

c) The fundamental idea why this process works is that you prevent your rain from 'getting excited'. Social Media makes your brain excited, a podcast, or an audiobook or a book is not as 'exciting' as 20 links on reddit /r/funny.

So I believe that theoretically podcast, music, audiobooks should work (though nothing would work as well as doing nothing and getting bored, but as I mentioned, that might be hard), as long as it meets following two criteria: 1. The book, podcast, audiobook you're into is a relatively calm story, if the podcast is about last year's elections, or it's a real page turner novel or music is the latest album you just discovered by your favorite music artist then it might not be as effective. 2. The activity you're doing, should be long enough to last your commute. If you're reading newspaper, then you're reading 15 different stories, with their own dopamine spikes in your mind.

d) Over long period I believe your brain will go through neuroplasticity and become calmer. I have already experienced that. There are some 'other' effects I observe because of this, but my productivity is so high. Not to mention I'm finally working on my dream side project and I stopped procrastinating regarding nearly everything.

I hope this helps.

This is great additional context Splintercell. I'll have to toy around with music and podcasts and maybe try going cold turkey for a few days.

I'd be very interested in a full write up, not just in the method but also in your results and observations (once your side project is done of course!).

Thanks for the great tips!

I've never consciously done this but looking back I've definitely been the most productive when I didn't have anything better to do. Thanks for spelling it out!

How long have you practiced this?

I admit that I haven't been doing this for really long, (started around the week of the election, so around 3-4 months).

But the more important thing is that it worked from the day 1. I rarely see things which work from the first day.

Tell me more about your morning dump!

Surely thats where the best thinking gets done...

Or where you find the best "you'll never believe what she did next"

I'm sure many programmers would have experienced deepwork. Ironically, my best experiences with deep work were when I had broken legs and had limited physical movements.

One disadvantage of deepwork is - your brain sometimes gets stuck into a local minima/maxima when solving problems. As a programmer, I've written code in the flow and then ended up refactoring a couple of weeks later.

I've also experienced dream-learning (and dream-solving) when working or learning in this manner. However, deepwork and staying in the flow for too long can make one feel socially insane.

Deep work - works best when things are planned in detail before you fall in the flow. Any planning activities in between will just break the flow.

I agree. Really, standing up from a desk (should you be so fortunate as to be able to, that is) and taking a walk feels like piercing through the ocean's surface and taking a breath of fresh air. From certain submerged angles, the refractive index of the water makes its boundary a silvery mirror, easy to be mesmerized by.

I'm going to be straight, a lot of this just seems like, at best, general advice for getting things done that may or may not work for any given person. At worst, some pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo that references disproven concepts. It's a red flag to me when paragraphs start with "Research shows..." with no context/evidence in sight.

>You need to be aware of your finite amount of willpower.

Didn't willpower depletion fail to replicate last year?

> Research shows that a trained memory improves your ability to concentrate...There are many strategies you can apply to train your memory.

I was under the impression that working memory is one of the most difficult (if not impossible) things to train or improve.

> I was under the impression that working memory is one of the most difficult (if not impossible) things to train or improve.

I'm not a psychologist, but the way I understand "improving your working memory" is that it's not the number of units in working memory that increases, but the conceptual complexity of each unit.

So, lets say that I practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and have only 3 slots of working memory.

If I'm a beginner, each slot may contain such elements as "pull his arm across my midline", "pull his head towards me", and "post my leg on his hip". These units are only a few of the steps you need to perform a successful armbar from guard.

If I'm more experienced in the domain, each slot in working memory may contain such elements as "perform an armbar", "if that fails do a pendulum sweep", and "when I'm in mount perform an Ezekiel choke."

In each case, only three slots occupy the working memory. But the conceptual complexity of each unit is an order of magnitude greater in the experienced person's case. And the effect of the working memory is correspondingly "improved".

A consequence of this is that the power of your memory is domain specific (your memory is better in domains where you have more experience and interest).

I was more talking about dual n-back style training, that tries to improve your generalized memory ability. Of course you're right there's another way to look at it, but it's basically the difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence. You know more about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but you wouldn't say your IQ has increased due to that.

Now that I'm rereading the passage, it seems the author was proposing a method of loci type approach, which is great for memorizing specific things. But not so much for general working memory OR for gaining domain-specific contextual knowledge that makes your current working memory more effective. And not sure how it relates to concentration. Sort of a fuzzy paragraph, much like the rest of the piece.

I believe what you are describing is what they call "chunking."

Any references to what "they" say about it?

(I'm investigating various questions including of STWM, ideas, and networks or clusters of ideas.)

This isn't bad:


It's like a grocery bag for ideas. The more familiar they are the more you can represent them with a single abstract concept in your working memory that basically acts as a pointer to the various items contained in the concrete implementation.

Here's another reference you may enjoy:


What is STWM?


STWM: short-term working memory. A fascinating presentation by Sander van der Leeuw on the interactions of that and anthropology: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=80dR9Q2glgY

The concept of chunking is covered in Learning How To Learn. I think the provide references as well.


I'm skeptical about willpower, too.. but what about "cognitive resources"? I bookmarked this because while I don't know if it's the whole and full truth (how could it be?), it certainly seems interesting, the whole talk is but here's the start of the relevant bit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKTxC9pl-WM&t=8m23s

I find that things that prevent me from getting into deep work (as I understand from the comments here, didn't read the book) is the crap involved with 'getting to work' these days. Not a day goes by were I do not have to spend a strange % of my time screwing around with settings, setup, libraries, fixing libraries, (re)installing libraries etc. This is why I would like to do embedded coding or game coding (it applies less and less there, but it applies to the games I like writing) all the time; stuff is just there and I do not have to fiddle around with 'stuff'. I still do see a good place for IDE's like Delphi & Livecode or closed source systems like q/kdb+; install and just start working, no messing around with whatever badly built 3rd party stuff. Even with containers it's not perfect; too many things are just deterring from what I am hired for or, more importantly, what I want to be doing, which is writing code. If I need something (trivial or complex) and open nuget search or (more so) npm search, I know that now I will lose a lot of time installing and learning all kinds of mess I don't want to deal with as I was in the flow.

I am teaching a few people programming so they might have a better life (they asked me for that reason; I recommended to them to open a pizza restaurant in a small mountain village and be happy but he) and they keep asking me things like; 'why does Postgresql not contain a full search engine like elastic search, why elastic search? why do I need to install a queue, why is that not in Postgresql? why does this language library not have x, why not y? (also, why do I need to install a webserver, why is that not included? Mailserver? DNS server? etc)'. I know the answers and I know why it all is like that as I lived through the years when it was, then wasn't, then was, then wasn't but it does take me out of the flow and it makes me, sometimes, long for just switching on a computer and just having basic + assembly and that's it.

That's why the author, Cal Newport, can get deep work done easily; he's an academic.

I can sort of get into deep work except my office is loud, cramped, and full of distractions :/

I have read the whole book, it was a waste of time.

Mainly because Newport keeps contradicting himself. I remember a few paragraphs before the end of the book, he was saying how he didnt want to make a philosophical or moral point and just after said "having a deep life is the best way of living". The full book is like this.

It's also a waste of time because it's a book. Deep Work, along with many other non-fiction "self help" books HN loves, could just be a couple of long blog posts. As a book it gets repetitive and tiring after the first half.

> Deep Work, along with many other non-fiction "self help" books HN loves, could just be a couple of long blog posts.

Sure, they could be, but I would argue there is benefit to expanding them into longer books.

I haven't read this specific book, but have read several other "self-help" books and while the majority of them have shown repetitive themes, that same repetition is what ingrained the overall message the author is trying to disseminate. Reading a book over the course of weeks has a much more lasting effect on me, than probably any blog posts I've read.

Fair enough. Maybe I just don't like self-help books as much as others do.

I agree that many books could be distilled into small fractions of their total length. I also agree that these books are sometimes repetitive and tiring. That said, I think it's often still sensible to write (and read) such books.

I read Deep Work and didn't find anything Newport says in the book to be that profound, counterintuitive, eye-opening, etc. But it's a good book and I'm glad I read it because it's, idk, 2-300 pages of ideas, however mundane, that are simultaneously good to think about and easy to accidentally ignore. As a direct result to reading Deep Work, I made a few small changes that have had a positive impact on my life since. Now, did I _learn_ anything new from Deep Work? I don't think so, but it helped me focus on things that I think I already knew.

Books aren't all about information content.

Yes, full of contradictions, like the journalists are good at making deep work in pieces of 10 minutes where just before this is the definition of multitasking reducing the quality of deep work.

Every single page is contradicting another in the book. This is because he tries to write a book from a single idea. A bit like if the top comment on this thread about "boring yourself to do deep work" would be converted into a 200 page book. Of course at the end, you eat yourself like a snake and you cannot find any more ideas to fill the pages.

Wake up -> Go To the Gym (No Starbucks) -> Workout -> Shower -> Go to Work -> Start working right away (no email, social media or distractions)

That's it. Simple as that.

In a few hours your brain will be "fried". At that point checking email and messing around a little in social media might actually help you relax and get back into it after an hour so so.

Oh, yeah. Eat.

No coffee. Ever.

I did the same, just the Gym came after work and it was home "Gym". I can't work if I'm physically tired.

The same thing with coffee. It doesn't help me at all. If I'm sleepy, I sleep. You can not win fighting your body just like you can not win fighting nature.

Tell me more about this coffee idea.

I drink coffee.

I heard it said like this: "Drinking coffee is borrowing time from later today. Drinking alcohol is borrowing time from tomorrow."

I did go for many months without coffee because if headaches. So I know it is doable.

Eh, if drinking coffee is to be considered a loan on time at all, it's a very, very low interest loan. For me at least. Never have understood people who "crash" on coffee. Maybe it's because I drink it black, no sugar, no cream. shrugs

> Never have understood people who "crash" on coffee

Are you willing to put this to the test?

Try one week without coffee.

Then the second week replace it with water.

Record how you feel.

Humans did not evolve needing these stimulants. I think coffee is a habit far more than a necessity.

Sure- for me it's a ritual to take a break work. And it works really well.

>Humans did not evolve needing these stimulants.

We have had no time do adapt evolutionally to the different requirements of civilization. So I think this point is moot (we are built to hunt and gather I understand).

Your could argue that for almost all modern food.

Gotta reboot the system.


"Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you'll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap." - quote from William Bennett

My favorite book on the subject is "Free Play : Improvisation in Life and Art" by Stephen Nachmanovitch. https://www.amazon.com/Free-Play-Improvisation-Life-Art/dp/0...

His description of the necessary fight with the "inner critic" more or less lurking in everyone's mind - and especially in OCD/perfectionists - is really interesting and got to me much more than Flow (haven't read Deep Work tho).

I used to have no trouble concentrating on one thing. Now, it seems nobody can work (or let anyone else work) without "multitasking". So, now I find it hard to concentrate even when I am allowed to focus on one thing[0]. The single biggest thing that helps with that is a timer and commitment to the timer.

[0] I guess I am so used to being distracted that I find I distract myself.

I'm the same boat. I am now very rarely in any kind of state of flow (maybe once every few months) and it feels more shallow than it used to be.

Isn't surfing the web or Googling, flow ? you can be totally focused on it that you forget everything else , and times passes really quickly.

Good one! Checking HN/fb for hours must be some kind of flow indeed.

Have you become competent? I.e., are you doing different work than you used to when you felt like you were often in a "state of flow"? Or do you just need less concentration to do the same work?

I was feeling terrible for a while and then I noticed I was doing strictly more difficult work, and faster, but that work had become routine and trivial by now, so the deep focus wasn't needed.

My solution is a variant of the pomodoro where I work in 50-15-50-15- blocks of time. In the 50 minutes i use coldturkey which blocks all access to social media though i hardly ever use it.

I think 15 minute break is necessary because it helps you to refocus and also prevents backache.

I observed that after 2 glasses of wine I'm more resistant to all kind of distractions. I don't have tendency to open dozens of tabs in browser, switch among unsolved things, check mails, smartphone etc.

Disadvantages are that I'm tired sooner and it's not sustainable drink alcohol if I need to do something.

All-in-all, no practical solution....just interesting self-observation :)

Smoking a very small dose of weed has the same effect on me. However it's difficult to get the dosage right (if it's too much I'm basically unable to do anything) and it's not really working for difficult programming. However for organizing stuff, writing down something already clear or for tasks in the flat or just plain cleaning or mundane tasks it keeps me focused.

Smoking sativas is a hidden performance hack. Easier to recover from cannabis than from drinking.

The Ballmer Peak: https://www.xkcd.com/323/

How do you explain to your boss a glass of chianti classico on your desk in the morning? /s

Distraction requires cognitive overhead to remain "skillful" at something, especially if you are expected to create content with those skills.

Some jobs don't require as much cognitive overhead as others. Some jobs require creative skills. If you look closely at labor laws, the distinction is made between exempt employees and non-exempt employees. One type has volition to determine how the job they are to do is to be done, the other has others tell them what job they are to do and how they are to do it. One gets overtime (the ones doing) and one does not (the ones observing).

It's important more people learn to achieve flow and create content by while doing direct observing. Creating content comes "effortlessly" when in the flow because the judgement of the observation doesn't get in the way. The judgement is where all the work is.

> "The state of flow can be caused by various events. It can be, like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, “hearing to a song of a bird in the forest” or “sharing a crust of bread with a friend”."

Huh? I think we're getting a little too abstract here. Getting into a state of "flow" requires three things for me:

1. Work that doesn't suck. I gave my IDE the finger today. Double middle fingers right at my screen. What I was working on really sucked. I need to be working on something interesting.

2. Decent amount of caffeine

3. A song I can loop and listen to all day without it distracting me. Usually something electronic. Brain.fm's "Focus" setting also works.

Headphones in, caffeine consumed, and the hours can move by quickly. Without other interruptions of course.

Deep work seems to be a derivative of Flow. Flow is a classic...it's about finding joy..pure joy...no superlatives. Just joy.

While Flow was eye opening as a book..where I really experienced 'Flow' irl was when I started reading Godel Escher and Bach by Douglas Hofstader. I think it's a book I can pick up today or ten years from now and still experience 'Flow' as I did when I read it for the first time. What a gift!

I once seen this [1] lecture by Swami Sarvapriyananda on Flow. I found it very interesting and easy to understand.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BGswR0tMqCM

In landscape on mobile, 2/5 of the screen is taken up by social media icons.

I have been struggling to get into the flow for the same reason that I have trouble getting into meditation: I have bulging disks and chronic pain.

I can never completely focus on anything these days because I am constantly focusing on the pain.

Does anyone else with chronic pain have advice for getting into a flow state without being interrupted by pain?

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