Deep Focus - Is This Your Answer?

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

It’s Monday morning and you have a lengthy list of to-dos in your planner. You open your email and discover dozens of new messages waiting for your attention. Just as you’re about to begin, your phone pings. It’s a text from your boss telling you to prepare for a meeting at lunch. It’s only 9.10am and you’re already stressed, anxious and overwhelmed.

In today’s busy world, this is a familiar tale for many of us. And with so much to do and so little time, multi-tasking can seem like the only solution. But what if it is only adding to the problem, and deep focus is the way forward?

Get 'in the Zone'

‘Being in the zone’ is a state of total focus said to fully engage your cognitive abilities, helping you get more done. It’s often described as being in a state of flow and completely engrossed in the task you’re trying to complete. In other words, you pick one thing, turn off all distractions, and only focus on that one thing.

Some compare it to mindfulness, the process of being fully aware and focussed on the present moment. They feel it allows them to complete their work more effectively and efficiently.

Deep work

'Deep work' is a term coined by computer science professor Cal Newport. He describes deep work as:

“A professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

This stands in contrast to ‘shallow work’, which he states as “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed when distracted. These efforts tend not to create much value in the world and are easy to replicate”.

The four rules of deep work include such things as embracing boredom and quitting social media while you are working.

What does the science say about deep focus?

If you’ve ever jumped from one task to another and found that the more items you juggled the more overwhelmed you felt, you aren’t imagining it.

A 2019 research review concluded that our brains lack the neural and cognitive building blocks for performing two tasks at once.

Researchers said multitasking was more likely to disrupt performance and increase errors. Similarly, a 2016 paper notes that multi-tasking decreases productivity by 40 per cent.

In contrast, a 2018 research review that looked at flow states identified a positive link between flow and creativity, as well as performance.

Is 'deep work' for everyone?

No. In fact in his book 'Deep Work', Cal Newport clearly discusses how some jobs require deep work and others don’t. For example, a receptionist cannot do deep work when her job is to multitask. But if you have a big project ahead of you, it's certainly worth trying.

How to 'deep focus'

Try the following if you want to get in the zone.

1. Remove distractions.

We encounter countless distractions every day whether it’s a knock on the door, an interruption from a colleague, or a text on our phones. While it’s not possible to eliminate every distraction, we can certainly do our best to clear the path ahead.

If you’re about to start a new task and you really want to focus, you could close off the email tab on your browser so you’re not tempted to check your inbox when you see a new email roll in. If you aren’t expecting any important calls, you could switch your phone off or put it somewhere out of sight.

Depending on your working environment, you could also let colleagues know you’ll be working on something important for the next hour and aren’t available to chat until that time has passed.

2. Complete your least favourite tasks first.

Distractions aren’t always external; they can be internal too. If you have items on your to-do list that you are dreading, it might help you to complete them earlier in the day. This way they won’t take up vital headspace when you’re completing something that requires your full focus.

3. Concentrate for a set amount of time.

We aren’t built to concentrate for excessively long periods of time. While it can be tempting to labour over a task for hours on end, blocking out a set time is best.

Some studies dating back to the 1990s suggest that we can only concentrate for 90 minutes before taking a 15-minute break. Meanwhile, in recent times, the Pomodoro Method has experienced a surge in popularity. Using this technique, you set a timer for 25 minutes, work on your task, and then take a break for five minutes, before starting the process again.

4. Build your attention span.

When you’re used to splitting your focus, it can be difficult to turn things around. It may seem unnatural to give one task your undivided attention to begin with. But you can build this habit.

Find something you love to do, for example, cooking, gardening, or crosswords, and try giving it all of your focus for a short period of time. Even ten minutes. Aim to build on this over time to see how your attention span improves.

Can't focus no matter what productivity hack you try? Distraction can be caused by stress, anxiety, and adult ADHD. Book a therapist now to discuss what might be the issue.

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