Deep work – what is deep work and how to do it?

Elisa Heikura

On 16.10. at the Waffle Wednesday event Elisa Heikura talked to us about deep work. During the morning we learned how deep work helps us to focus better and boost productivity. 

Elisa Heikura herself is an entrepreneur, lecturer and teacher. She roots for better teamwork, more empathetic work life and collective intelligence. She helps people face each other as humans and communicate better. Elisa is passionate about organizing, planning and keeping her to do lists on point.

Like many of us, Elisa found herself constantly overwhelmed by the amount of things to do. Then she discovered deep work and turned her life around. Her productivity doubled and the balance in her life was reinstated.

Let’s dive in with a little test.

First think of your email. And then add on the post-it notes between your calendar. Think about all the lists, future projects, unanswered calls, messages and your social media. Crab on to that feeling, how stressed do you feel about opening your laptop or phone and starting your day?

Close your eyes and think about it for couple of minutes before continuing.

According to your feeling, rate it between 1-10 (1 being free of stress and 10 being a huge mountain of stress). If your score is below 5 then great, your work is well balanced. If the score is between 5-8 your life is balanced ok. A score over 8 is alarming. If you will continue working in the same way, you are in a danger of burning out.


It’s not only the work we do that stresses us out. All the planning and preparing to do the actual work stresses us more. That is the part where deep work comes in.

Your field of business and own interests define what is the thing you need deep work for. Creative people usually get in the flow easily but when it’s time to open emails and answer people, they’ll push it until the foreseeable future and end up scrolling through Facebook instead. Other people might again feel satisfaction when their email is organized and everything is sent and done, but creative work requires special effort.

There are two types of thinking. The first is fast thinking that we do without realizing it. Second one is slow thinking that requires extra effort and energy. Slow thinking is actually physically uncomfortable. It rises the blood pressure and heart beat, widens pupils and consumers glucose storage from the brain.

Research tell us that regular person can focus only 1-2 hours a day. Human brain can focus only short time to hard thinking.  Rest is important, for example answering emails late in the evening isn’t recommend, because it eats away energy from the next day. Even professional musicians can’t focus more than 4 hours a day and their brain is trained to focus. So don’t even think that you could get you flow on for full 8 hours every day, it’s just impossible. 

Often when we have a lot of things to do, we’ll put it aside until the very last evening to perform the task. Under pressure we feel adrenaline rushing in and very proud that the work is accomplished. But the studies show, that work made under pressure isn’t as high quality as work made in flow state of mind. Cortisol and adrenaline are hormones, that help us complete tasks just before the deadline. Dopamine and endorphin are hormones that we use when we are on flow state. If you do all your work in the last minute and use only stress hormones, it will burden you on the long run. Working in flow actually works in your benefit. To reach flow state might take even 20 minutes, depending on a person.

3 steps how to reach flow state and start deep work:

1. Cut it to peaces

If your task takes more than 2 hours or is a long project, cut it to peaces. When a tasks is too big, your brain can’t comprehend it all at ones and it will refuse to handle it. This is why you probably will postpone starting the work. Cutting the task in peaces will help your brain to comprehend future workload and get it done.

Let’s make another practise.

Do a list of things that you feel like you have to concentrate on. Then choose one of them, what you feel is the most important to you or produces most value to your employer.

If a task takes more that 2 hours, cut it to 1 hour peaces. If project isn’t clear or the finish line isn’t visible yet, think about a tasks that takes one hour, what will get you started.

2. Decide on the time and place and do not negotiate with yourself

Negotiating with yourself isn’t helping anyone. 20% of people are evening types and 16% morning types. Morning types the most productive time of the day is between 6-8 in the morning. Rest of the people are somewhere in between. You need to think about it, what type of person you are? What is the most productive time of the day for You?If you are a morning person, you can focus on deep work early in the morning and leave all creative stuff to later. Evening persons can do creative work in the morning hours and focus on hard thinking in the evening time. Afternoon is bad time to focus on deep work to everyone. Everyone’s energy takes a bend in the afternoon, and no one can focus deep work then.

Think about your working style, when is a good time for You to take an hour and focus on deep work.Some people feel like the most productive time of the day is in the morning when everybody else is still sleeping. Some feel like it’s the time when children are in bed and the house is quiet.

Time is important, but so is place. Open office is not necessarily the best place to focus on deep work. Flow will be interrupted just with someone walking by. It can take again 15 minutes to get back into the flow. Think about a place in your office on in your home, where you can be alone for an hour to focus on deep work. It can be a phone booth, meeting room or even a basement, if it feels good for you.

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the bigger one first. -Mark Twain

3. Have your own ritual

Leave your phone away when you want to focus on deep work. If you take your phone with you and it’s in the reaching distance, you will soon notice that you are in Facebook, by accident! Turn notices off in your mail and close the curtains. If you own noise cancelling headphones, put them one. Find your own way to focus and repeat it. Repeating the same thing all over again, you’ll teach your brain to a ritual and reach flow state faster. Messaging your brain that it’s time to focus on deep work, your brain will learn to focus faster.

Deep work can be tricky , so be patient with yourself. The feeling you get after the deep work hour is magnificent. Elisa herself works often in a office, but deep work is done at home in the mornings.  

You can think also if there is some price that you can reward yourself after successful deep work hour. If it’s a hugging your significant other or having a second cup of coffee, for example. It will motivate you to get back to deep work more likely.

First it might feel like it’s weird to close off from rest of the world. You might even feel quilt about it. This is because our brain is programmed to produce dopamine and feel good, when we are constantly available in slack and Facebook.

Here is couple of things to wait, when you start deep work:

1. Get ready to feel uncomfortable

2. Try to remove things around you, that can distract your journey to the flow

3.  Be patient with yourself: if you can’t focus every single time, it’s not the end of the world

4. Be prepared to tell others, why you can’t be reached for an hour.

Some book recommendations from Elisa:

Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport