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The Deep Work Habits of 28 Highly Productive People

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Do you struggle to get stuff done? Focus. Achieve things.

Have you installed every productivity app and extension known to man?

Yet still you spend your days in a distracted fuzz. Waiting for the inevitable finger of doom to swipe the smartphone of oblivion. 

​Do you want to do something about it? Learn new habits? Do deep work – and start living a life you're proud of?

What You'll Get from Reading This Post

  • Deep work productivity hacks from 28 world-class communicators: how do they focus and achieve.
  • My favourite seven.
  • Links out to the 10 best blog posts I've read (on getting stuff done) during five months of exhaustive research.
  • Five book recommendations.
  • My new deep work routine.
  • 9,000 words of actionable advice.

If you'd rather download a pdf of this 9,000-word post to read later, and want some bonus content (my top 51 deep work productivity tips) click this link.

Righty-ho, let's dive in.

28 deep work habit highly productive people Zude PR

Just Who Are These Highly Productive World-Class Communicators?

People I know, admire; often both.

People who produce. Regularly. And with high quality. Entrepreneurs, CEOs, authors, Professors, bloggers, PRs, SEOs, digital marketers, speakers. You might be familiar with the catch-all term influencers. That's what they are. Here's the list (click to jump to their bit).

Ana Hoffman | Andy CrestodinaBeki WinchelBelle Beth CooperBenjamin Hardy | Carrie Morgan | Cyrus Shepard | Dan Slee | David Meerman Scott | Doug Kessler | Eric Enge | Farzana Baduel | Gary PrestonGini Dietrich | Jon Westenberg | Kelvin Newman | Michael Pozdnev | Neil Patel | Paul Armstrong | Paul SuttonRachel Miller | Rob Brown | Ryan Biddulph | Sarah Pinch | Scott Guthrie | Stephen WaddingtonStuart Bruce | Ted Rubin

Three Questions

I asked them three questions. Here's the email.

I'm writing a blog post on how the best communicators "go deep" and get stuff done.

People who due to their jobs have many distractions, to which it would be easy to succumb. Expert communicators (like you) who I know have prodigious outputs. How do they focus on cognitively demanding tasks without distraction?

In 50 words per question (fewer or more is fine), please answer one/all three of these questions. Whatever piques your interest (your text will go in verbatim without the questions so feel free to enlarge on just one point if you wish).

1. What are the biggest (potential) distractions/time-suckers in your life?

2. What practical steps/habits do you take to manage these distractions so you can focus on achieving your goals?

3. Was there a point in time/formative experience/road to Damascus moment that showed YOU the way?

Best regards

P.S. This a subject that fascinates me. The idea for this post came after I was experiencing a growing sense of frustration late last year due to the distractions inherent in my job as a digital PR (distractions I would wager the majority of people reading this post will be familiar with). I resolved to do something about it. New habits were formed and reading Cal Newport's book Deep Work: Rules for Focused (sic) Success in a Distracted World (2016) crystallised my thinking. I know how I've done it; but how do others achieve it, I wondered (hence the blog post).

What is Deep Work?

It's a term coined by​ Cal Newport Ph.D, assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

He argues deep work will make you better at what you do, let you achieve more in less time, and provide the sense of true fulfilment that comes from mastery of a skill. You have to be the best because people are no longer limited by geography as to who they choose to hire. To be the best, you must be able to master hard things, quickly. And you cannot achieve this in a state of permanent distraction brought on by checking your smartphone 150 times a day.

Deep work is like a superpower​ in our increasingly competitive economy. But how can you do it? Let's dive in.

Let's Hear From Those 28 Highly Productive Communicators

#1: Ana Hoffman (San Francisco, US)

Ana is the founder of Traffic Generation Café. She is a social media, SEO, Internet marketing and blogging consultant.

Ana Hoffman pic for Zude PR's deep work productivity experts post.

My two biggest daily challenges are social media and reading.

I read a lot every day – mostly, because I compile a weekly marketing digest of all the vital marketing news of the week and publish it at Traffic Generation Café (almost) every Saturday.

Since I don't control the news (wouldn't that be nice...), my day is somewhat at the mercy of the marketing industry.

Sometimes, I feel like it would be so much easier to stop writing my Weekly Marketing Skinnies, but I can't – it's addicting to be in the know :O).

Social media is the obvious one as well. Being thoughtful takes time, but...if social media is worth doing, it's worth doing well, don't you think?

So how do I stand up to these two daily challenges? Two specific things come to mind:

1. I use OneTab Chrome extension to 'fold' all my open tabs into one111111 – that takes care of social media notifications and other distractions. Out of sight, out of mind. Then I open only what I need to get the project done. No distractions. Hopefully.

To keep myself even more in check, I use...

2. Momentum Chrome extension, which essentially replaces any new tab page I open with a personal dashboard featuring weather, inspiration, and TO-DO. That way I am always reminded of what I am (or should be) working on that day.

#2: Andy Crestodina (Chicago, US)

Andy is co-founder or Orbit Media and Chicago through and through. He's also a world-leading web strategist, content marketer, author, and speaker. An all round nice guy.

Andy Crestodina in Scotland PR David Sawyer's Be Deep Work Productivity Blog Post.

Email is killing me.

I get 150+ messages per day and although I aspire to a clean inbox, it's almost impossible unless I work 11-12 hours per day.

It flows in continuously but high tide is in the late morning.

Some emails are pure distraction. Others are potential leads and quite valuable. Some are urgent. Some are completely irrelevant.

But they are all mixed together, so it requires constant attention.

Here are a few email management tips, I've learned the hard way.

  • Do something important each morning before checking email. Don't enter the maelstrom before making progress on your long term goals.
  • Use "Multiple Inboxes" which is a Gmail plugin that makes it easy to categorise and prioritise.
  • Let go. It's ok to simply delete email requests from strangers. Not everyone has a right to demand your time.
tenosynovitis diagram for Andy Crestodina's deep work productivity contribution

I'm literally wearing an arm brace right now because I have a sore tendon in my right thumb.

This is that (Road to Damascus) moment. I need to escape from this for an actual, physical health reason.

Ever heard of De Quervain's Tenosynovitis? Neither had I until a month ago. Very painful. Such are the risks of blogging and email. Oh, this modern world!

​Photo credit: De Quervain's Tenosynovitis diagram: AidMyCTS: De Quervain's Tenosynovitis. Inflamed sheath's Extensor pollicis brevis, Abductor pollicis longus, Extensor retinaculum. MendMeShop TM ©2011

#3: Beki Winchel (Anywhere There's WiFi)

Beki is co-editor of PR Daily​. She likes (among other things) moose and tea. She recently topped a list of the 100 most influential people in PR worldwide.

Beki Winchel from PR Daily for deep work productivity post.

Social media and the amount of information at our fingertips has made us all a bit more distracted. You get distracted by a tweet or email, and the next thing you know you’re knee-deep in Reddit, Pinterest, Medium or YouTube with only a hazy recollection of what you were doing before you went down the rabbit hole.

People can be a big distractor as well, especially if you love interacting with them. Phone calls, emails, Hangouts and Facebook messages all eat up time that you could have spent completing projects and can easily get out of hand if you let it.

As an editor, I commiserate with other journalists and editors by getting too many spammy pitches and follow-up messages. These serve to clog my inbox and slow down both my progress and my patience.

I usually build an outline of my day, including a rough schedule and a list of goals and/or the most important tasks.

Prioritising is important; I can write a to-do list for the day that’s easily more than 50 items long. Though it’s good to be busy, adding too much sets you up for failure — you won’t get the list accomplished, it doesn’t give you time for other items that pop up during the day and can overwhelm you before you've begun to do anything.

I also try to break up tasks into short chunks of time and try to ignore notifications when I’m in the middle of editing or completing a project.

That helps me get through the task so I can move on to other things. Quiet time is important as well (though it doesn’t have to be silent). Don’t feel bad about telling someone to give you a few minutes (or an hour) to reply, if it’s not urgent.

#4: Belle Beth Cooper (Melbourne, Australia)​

Belle Beth Cooper is co-founder at Hello Code. She writes on Buffer, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Entrepreneur.

Belle Beth Cooper was the first content crafter at Buffer

I'm my own worst enemy (when it comes to distractions), so it's really whatever I'm most interested in at the time.

I go through phases of different interests. Right now I'm reading a book every 3-4 days, so I spend a lot of my time reading. I also spend a lot of time planning and daydreaming when I'm in the mood for procrastination.

I use a weekly to-do list, rather than a daily one. Because I work from home and set my own hours, I enjoy the flexibility of deciding what to work on each day, depending on how I feel.

A weekly to-do list suits this approach best, because I don't spend all my time deferring due dates. I choose a few big tasks (sometimes small chunks of bigger projects) to work on each week, and I use colour-coding to help me check at-a-glance that all the different projects I'm working on are moving forward in some way.

#5: Benjamin Hardy (Greenville, South Carolina, US)​

Author Ben Hardy has written some of the best tip-based blogs on productivity I've ever read. He's currently studying for a PhD in I/O Psychology.

Benjamin Hardy for deep work experts post

(On distractions) Mental fog. Just not being mentally-awake. When that's the case, everything is a distraction and I can't be present with anything. I'm either on or off. The root of the problem is always internal. So focusing on externals (e.g., social media) is misled.

(On distraction-fighting habits) Writing my goals in my journal daily. Prayer and meditation. Daily intensive exercise. Fasting from food and water 1-2 times per month. I also have stopped reading articles or watching videos online without intention. If I'm specifically interested in researching something, listening to a particular song, or watching something, I will. If not, I don't even get on the Internet.

(On that formative experience) I served a two-year mission for my church. It was during that time that I realised how short and important life is. There’s no time to waste. And who we are and become has huge implications.

#6: Carrie Morgan (Phoenix, Arizona, US)

Carrie is an author, digital PR, consultant, speaker, and blogger. She moderates monthly Twitter chat #PRprochat.​

Carrie Morgan for deep work productivity experts post

Like many of us who work in digital marketing, social media is the #1 distraction. Like a lemon meringue pie sitting beside your elbow with the smell wafting into your unsuspecting nostrils until you just can’t take it any more and you sneak a bite, it tantalises you with enticing topics and activity. Because I’m “always on,” it doesn’t take much to push me into the rabbit hole.

I also struggle with typical home office issues, such as family interruptions.

To keep social media manageable, I’ve learned to carefully manage notifications, so that they don’t pull me in if it isn’t important, and the amount of time that I spend.

I’ve created a mental timer and if I find myself pulled into something personally entertaining instead of work-related, I give myself five minutes before that mental slap on the head. If it’s work-related but not productive or immediately relevant, I copy the link and schedule it as an Outlook appointment reminder for after hours. This helps me not lose important educational articles, but manage it in my off-hours.

(On that formative experience) I wrote a book last year, titled Above the Noise with sales launching in late January. It taught me some truly valuable lessons. I had to carefully balance time building my platform online before the book launch with writing time, and both of those couldn’t infringe too heavily with client work for my consulting agency, Rock the Status Quo. I found myself massively burned out and exhausted from working around the clock, and it forced me to balance my time in a healthier manner. It’s been six months, but I’m still in recovery mode.

#7: Cyrus Shepard (​Seattle, US)

Cyrus is one of the best SEOs in the world. Ex-Moz, he now runs Fazillion.

Cyrus Shepard Moz deep work productivity post.

By far the biggest distraction in my life is my phone.

Click to Tweet

Not the apps on my phone. Not social media or email or the news. Simply, my phone in all its entirety. My phone has 1001 ways to distract me, all of them mostly useless in the larger picture of life.

To reduce phone distractions, I've started charging it away from my bedroom overnight, and leaving it at home when I go on walks or out to dinner. Strangely, the biggest benefit has been a restored sense of calm.

I think it's telling that a lot of popular fiction these days focuses on apocalyptic scenarios where the survivors inevitably live much simpler (though rougher) lives without technology. I suspect deep inside of us is a yearning to return to that sort of lifestyle, at least in some way.

#8: Dan Slee (Birmingham, UK)​

Dan runs a shared learning space for creative communications professionals. Speaker, trainer conference facilitator, and public sector comms expert.​

Dan Slee in Scotland PR David Sawyer's Deep Work Blog Post.

While we were based in Birmingham for the first 18 months of comms2point0-fulltime I was based on my dining table. This blurring of the work-life balance was hard. No-one got it. Not my children, not my wife, and not my in-laws. "Peg the washing out if you get a chance," my wife would say leaving for work. Eight hours later it would remain unpegged.

(On steps to combat distraction) In a word: "space". I'm based at co-working space Impact Hub in Birmingham. Which means I can get things done and not feel bad about pegging the washing out.

(On his Road to Damascus moment) I quickly knew space was the answer. But as a new start-up this wasn't something that was going to happen quickly.

#9: ​David Meerman Scott (Boston, US)

Strategist and keynote speaker David Meerman Scott is the author and co-author of ten books.​ Three – including the New Rules of Marketing and PR – are international bestsellers.

David Meerman Scott in Scotland PR David Sawyer's Deep Work Productivity Blog Post.

But I do not have enough time is just an excuse for inaction.

According to Nielsen, the average American spends 158 hours each month watching television(!!). That's 1,896 hours per year. Damn.

Except for when I exercise, I stopped watching TV. In that time (about 15 years) I have written 10 books. It's your choice.

#10: Doug Kessler (London, UK)

Doug is co-founder of B2B content marketing agency Velocity Partners. Raised in New Jersey, he loves Lagavulin.​

Doug Kessler in Scotland PR David Sawyer's Deep Work Productivity Blog Post.

The open plan office is probably the biggest productivity killer ever invented. It’s fun to be all together but it slaughters my ability to focus and get things done.

Also: email. Email is the plague of modern work. My inbox is a disaster. A scrolling stack of guilt and shame.

(On practical steps to beat distractions) Working from home is great. When I really need to focus and get stuff done, nothing beats a day in the home office. Break for snacks. Choose my own music. Maybe sneak in a cheeky nap...When in the Velocity office, headphones.

I’m still waiting for my Road to Damascus moment. I think I must be on the road to Paramus.

I followed the Getting Things Done system for about six months but fell back into my bad habits. My to-do list laughs at me. I am a human bottleneck. Pray for me.

#11: Eric Enge (Boston)

Eric is the founder of Stone Temple Consulting, speaker, blogger, and one of the world's leading experts on SEO. His guide – the Art of SEO – is widely considered one of the best books on SEO ever.

Eric Enge SEO expert for deep work productivity post

It's the way we live today, to be honest. You've got desk phones, Smartphones, texting, social media sites, email, and, of course, people who can simply walk into your office at any time, more or less.

So I don't see is as any one thing, unless you want to call the above the "hyper-connected lifestyle".

(On beating distractions) It comes down to having a sense of discipline. If you want to accomplish major things, you have to be able to shut everything out. Close your door, shut down the phones, ignore the email, and then focus on what you need to get done.

(On Road to Damascus moments) There have been many along the way. One critical experience I had was the entire time I spent working at Phoenix Technologies, which was 10 years in duration. While there, I had the opportunity to work with many amazing people. One of those was Ron Fisher, who taught me a lot about how to be a senior business person.

The lessons were largely "by example", but his integrity and leadership made a distinct impression on me.

#12: Farzana Baduel (London)

Farzana Baduel is the founder and managing director of Curzon PR, a global strategic communications firm with offices in London, New York, Dubai, and Delhi. ​

Farzana Baduel deep work productivity experts post.

Disorganised people who are incoherent in their thinking are often the biggest distractions and time-suckers in my life.

Due to their disorganisation, they tend to have reactive approaches instead of planned approaches and therefore are often firefighting from one chaotic episode to another distracting everyone else in their path.

I tend to try to avoid disorganised people. I avoid hiring them for a start by ensuring applicants successfully pass competence tests.

When I get involved in a project, I analyse the people I will be dealing with and try to assess the true cost of getting involved which includes the extra time and energy that disorganised people can drain from you.

There is a true cost to when dealing with disorganised people, be it staff, suppliers or clients.

#13: Gary Preston (Brighton, UK)

Gary is founder and MD of Coverage Book​. He's also the man responsible for a cracking new keyword and content ideas tool.

We launched a SaaS business last March 2015 has over 600 customers all over the world and growing. We’re a team of six (and wanting to stay small) who have never built a product business before.

Providing support online to all these people, testing new features, deciding what to build next, marketing – and basically trying to work out what a founder of a SaaS business should be doing…could all be a recipe for too much work distraction.

(On practical steps to beat distraction) I switched my working week to take every Wednesday off to hang out with my two young boys (three and one).

I’m much happier and the combination of time to switch off and the constraint of time had a huge impact to where I focus my attention. Rather than steaming ahead I have a natural break point midway to reflect.

With less time to work, you tend to get to the point in your working week.

We set up our team to work in a two-week sprint cycle.

We meet up fortnightly to demo what we’ve been working on & what we’ve learnt. We then do retrospective exercises to tease out ways we can work better together and improve the business. In between that we have daily 10-minute meetings (together, in Slack or via video calls) to share progress, learnings, and blockers.

The combination of this predictable routine and trust between the team allows for freedom and autonomy for the rest of the time.

We all work from where it feels right for us. Depending on the type of work we’re doing. So working remotely (Stella was in New York last week while Alan was building new features in Berlin) is encouraged.

Flexible working, idea sessions in the countryside, working from the office, a mountain, a café or at home is all good. We’ll always be checking in every two weeks.

I’ve had many influences along the way. The book “Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less” really got me to reconsider how I get things done.

Working alongside Jack Hubbard, who now lives in the Alps and focuses on this and shares ideas like bucket list business planning challenges you to stay curious and try new things.

Moving from agency life to running a SaaS naturally leads you to follow the lessons learnt from those who have done this successfully already. So I’m a big fan of the team at Basecamp and their books “Getting Real” and “Remote”.

#14: Gini Dietrich (Chicago)

Gini is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a digital marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR.

Gini Dietrich in Scotland PR David Sawyer's Deep Work Productivity Blog Post.

(On time-suckers) Oh man! Email, the phone, text messages, Slack, social media…those are all of the things I HAVE to turn off if I want to get anything done.

Just this morning, in fact, I turned my email to “offline mode” and worked through my inbox.

(On practical steps/habits) I stopped going to social media during the day. That was a big one for me.I also turn email off periodically throughout the day and that helps.

But the big thing I began to do a little more than a year ago is I turn off all distractions for chunks of time during the day and work on big projects that require me to really think. That helps immensely and, as it turns out, no one dies because I don’t respond in less than two seconds.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) I had a pretty big life change that required me to work less than 24/7.

What happens when you work all the time is you allow the distractions because you know you can always do the work later.

When you no longer have the ability to work like that, it’s amazing how much you can get accomplished in even less time.

#15: Jon Westenberg (Sydney, Australia)

Jon is a writer, founder, and passionate entrepreneur. You can catch his work on Time, Inc, Lifehacker, Entrepreneur, Business Insider. And, of course, Medium.​

Jon Westenberg productivity post deep work

For me, the biggest time suck is email.

Click to Tweet

I receive around 100 messages every day from readers, writers and entrepreneurs who are seeking collaboration and advice, and it can get incredibly taxing trying to stay on top of them all.

In general, I don't respond in depth as often as I'd like, but it's just not possible to do that while maintaining the other aspects of my life. When I try, it gets out of hand and I find myself drowning in emails from all and sundry!

Lately, I've been looking at setting aside half an hour every morning and half an hour every night to just focus on getting emails out of the way and managing my communication.

The rule of thumb I'm trying to stick to is that if an email doesn't get handled during one of those sessions, it's not a high enough priority for me, and it means that I subconsciously don't want to respond to it – so I won't.

The emails in this category are normally abusive, criticisms, requests for free work etc.

#16: Kelvin Newman (Brighton, UK)

Kelvin is the founder and managing director of Rough Agenda, the company behind BrightonSEO (the UK's leading Search conference).

Brighton SEO founder Kelvin Newman for deep work productivity post

Busy work is my biggest distraction.

I'll find myself researching something that's neither important nor urgent, like keynote speakers for two events time or which t-shirt people reckon is the best for getting branded up.

These sort of things feel like, they're for work but aren't anywhere near the top of my to-do list when I find myself doing them.

I've tried to be strong with myself and give all my tasks specific deadlines, so I'm doing them by order of importance rather than what I feel like doing.

I find changing my environment the single easiest way to deliver an increase in productivity. If I’ve been working from home I’ll go to the office, sometimes even an hour in a coffee shop or pub is worth three of four hours at my desk.

It's very hard to say no to good ideas, but I've learned the hard way focus delivers better results.

In 2014 we did 13 different conferences; in 2015 we did three. We made more money, more profit and delivered better events in 2015. That really gave me the kick up the behind to realise sometimes doing less and having more head-space is the way to achieve more.

#17: Michael Pozdnev (Belarus)

Mike is an SEO expert, who writes amazingly well-researched instructional blog posts.​

Michael Pozdnev blogger deep work productivity post

(On biggest distractions) I would highlight two basic aspects:

— Other people with their problems and requests. This can be phone calls, emails, SMS, a friend who just came around, or employees that ask for help or just want to talk about personal life. And voilà, it’s the end of another working day, and I haven’t done almost anything. I love helping people, and I rarely refuse to help. I guess this is the goal of my life, but I still haven’t learned how to manage it.

— TV series. When my mind is overloaded for some reason, I start watching TV series (instead of doing sports). They suffocate me. I’m a type of a person that always needs to finish what has been started. If I start reading a book I won’t cut short, I’ll read the book up to its last page. The same thing with the TV series. I want to watch the whole season at once. Meanwhile, hours, days, and weeks of my life silently disappear.

(On practical steps/habits) To be maximally concentrated I travel. As for me, it is the best way to be focussed on achieving your goals. You rarely get distracted by other people, you walk a lot, and your mind relaxes looking at beautiful sights. There’s only you and your work! In addition to this, I also set the objectives for the week in Trello, and I also monitor my time using Toggl. I dream to add sport into my life, but for some reason, I’ve always succeeded in doing only one thing. I can’t combine different spheres. It is my strength and my weakness altogether. It helps in work, but your life is not only your job.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) 1.5-2 years ago. For more than 16 years I’ve been doing different businesses, marketing, and SEO. Some time ago money was my goal, but lately, I’ve got unbelievably tired of just creating sites and promoting them for money.

I wasn’t developing, I wasn’t getting smarter, I just got stuck. I was thinking a lot about what actually makes me happy. And then I realised that I’m the happiest man on Earth when I help someone, when I share my knowledge and expertise. I decided to cut all the cords, I sold my business, and almost finished all my previous projects to focus on the new goal. On sharing my expertise.

That time I created my Twitter account and started to read experts in different spheres. I was astonished by the fact that even the most successful people share their expertise and give advice. 1.5 years ago I realised that I wanted to become a blogger. When I was conducting the research for my first post about five experts for more than two months, I saw the writing on the wall very clearly: this is really my cup of tea! I love writing. When I published my post and got positive feedback, I understood that I like reading positive comments too 🙂

#18: Neil Patel (California, US)

Neil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web.

Neil Patel in Scotland PR Did Sawyer's deep work productivity post

I've always been a firm believer that the biggest distractions are distractions of the mind. Having a weak emotional or mental state can really take you away from peak productivity. I like to minimise distractions by surrounding myself with family and like-minded individuals. I also am a firm believer in having a strict schedule. Your habits can make or break you – so choose them wisely ;).

(On practical habits to combat distractions) I like to wake up early and do pretty much the same thing every day. I typically wake up around 5am and work a bit, followed by breakfast, a workout, and more work throughout the day. Having that schedule minimises uncertainty in my day which really helps me stay focussed.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) I was spending too much time having fun and enjoying myself at a point in my mid-20s. At that time I decided to scale back and focus only on business – and the rest is history :).

#19: Paul Armstrong (London)

Paul is the founder of HERE/FORTH. He writes on technology for Forbes and others, and puts out an excellent weekly newsletter.

Paul from Hereforth for deep work productivity post

(On biggest distractions) Notifications. They are rarely useful or necessary so I turn them all off or have a short list of apps that can send minimally interrupting notifications, although this gets shorter rather than longer.

(On practical steps/habits) I turn my phone off more and more which helps 100%. If that's not possible or I forget I simply put my phone into flight mode.

(Was there a Road to Damascus moment?) Not really – I just realised how much time I was losing to seeing the screen light up and the pings go off. No-one wants to be the dogs in the Pavlov scenario.

#20: Paul Sutton (Oxfordshire, UK)

Paul is an independent digital marketing and social media consultant. He blogs, speaks, and innovates. He's the one with the flowery shirts.

To get things done when I started out in marketing communications we talked to people on the phone and, heaven forbid, sat down face-to-face. As a result, trips to the pub were commonplace and afternoons spent boozing were not unheard of. Ah yes, the good old days. But I digress.

If you wanted to cover your arse, you had to go to great lengths to do so. But as dial up gave way to broadband and email usage became more mainstream, the psychology of the working environment changed. People started to use the humble CC button to needlessly copy the world and his wife into their messages, and the volume of email increased exponentially.

Today, probably 90 per cent of the business email we receive is pointless – people copying numerous others in for little other reason than to cover their arse. Reading email is such a waste of time and money. If I had my way, I’d get rid of the CC button and I’d ban email groups. I’d make people think about who actually needs to see every single email they send.

And that’s what I try and do. I try and take responsibility for the email I send. Others might want to try Slack; a tool that’s getting some serious kudos in a bid to try and wipe this out. And I recently read about SaneBox, an email management tool that claims to help productivity.

#21: Rachel Miller (London)

Rachel is the head of All Things IC. She write, speaks, and advises on internal communication.​

Rachel Miller deep work productivity post

Social media is like a set of Russian dolls, you never know what you’ll uncover and where it will lead. I get drawn into the detail when researching a topic that interests me, so a frequent distraction is the pull to keep on reading.

(On practical distraction-beating steps) Setting alarms on my Apple Watch to nudge me to the next task, and using lists. Prioritising and planning my time is essential to ensure everything gets done. I also build in time to think, read and mind-map, as some of my best work happens when I’m in that creative mindset.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) No lightbulb moment, just an iterative process formed during 17 years of working as I know my best times of day to think. Being mum to three young children means my night owl tendencies are even stronger, and does my multi-tasking skills the world of good!

#22: Rob Brown (Manchester, UK)

Rob is founding partner at PR, communications, and digital strategies company Rule 5. He is also President of the CIPR.

PR people should be interested in news and there are a myriad of ways for news to reach you and interrupt the flow of work. They are not only difficult to avoid they can consume significant time.

I measure my productivity and outputs in many different ways. Using task management software and analysing what's you do on a day to day basis provides immediate feedback and an added incentive for keeping on track.

I use todoist, wedoist and Basecamp. I like to be aware of how many emails I'm sending or receiving. I'm currently reviewing Slack as a way of cutting down on internal mail.

No, there was no shining light moment for me. It's like most things these days I'm in permanent beta mode, measuring and optimising as I go along.

#23: Ryan Biddulph (New Jersey, US)

Ryan runs Blogging from Paradise. From his hammock​.

deep work productivity post Ryan Biddulph

The biggest time suck is: anything that you allow to take you out of the moment. Anything pulling you in 10 different directions. Like the phone or email. Which is why I talk on the phone a handful of times (maybe 1-2 times) weekly and check email sporadically.

(On taking practical steps to beat distraction) Meditating daily for 10 minutes and breathing deeply during my five-minute, hourly breaks keep me in the moment, present, and focussed. Distractions are not DOING problems, they are BEING problems.

No, I'm not a Buddhist monk. But I do regularly detach to be present, to be in the Now, as in the Now there are no distractions. You don't let anything distract you because you're not the impulse or thought. You're the watcher of the distraction-based feeling.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) I went on an eBook-writing blitz in 2015 where I wrote and self-published one bite-sized eBook daily for three months straight. Imagine writing a 6,000 word blog post for 90 days straight.

Then imagine formatting the post to make it Kindle-ready. I couldn't have done this unless I was present and relaxed and in the moment, oblivious to distractions and all the temptations that plagued me in the past.

#24: Sarah Pinch (Bristol, UK)

Sarah Pinch is MD of Pinch Point Communications, and immediate past President of the CIPR.​

Sarah pinch pr deep work productivity post

I am pretty focussed and highly organised, so I follow lists religiously and am pretty good at maximising the time when I am working on something.

But I am led astray by incoming emails, researching something on the Internet and falling into what one of my friends calls "the Google black hole of click, click, click", and posting on social media only to then fall into that black hole too.

(On distraction-beating habits) I don’t have my personal email account on my office computer – that has helped enormously. I unplug from certain social networking sites – and have none of them on the office desktop.

I now allocate slots of "research" and sometimes I start that session purposefully with the freedom to allow myself time to explore – I have found some brilliant insights into women in business recently, from allowing my "click, click" to be more intuitive than prescriptive.

When I am at work, I am at work. When I am not, I am not. It’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s not always easy to put into practice, I am getting much better at it.

(On that Road to Damascus moment) I have a well-founded reputation for being very organised, I can fit a lot into my day. But, last summer I realised I had much more to get through, with my appointment on the board at the HSE, presidency of the CIPR and my agency – so I took a whole month off from social media.

It was a revelation. I had SO much more time and energy – so I do it often now. And I do not have all outlets on all my devices.

#25: Scott Guthrie (London)

Scott Guthrie is digital director, influencer relations at Ketchum London. He writes an excellent blog here.​

Scott Guthrie deep work productivity post headshot

Know your rhythm and know the rhythm of those around you. I’m at my most creative first thing in the morning. To squeeze as much as I can out of that time I plough through the admin the evening before. It’s then I answer email and plan my day ahead.

If I’m writing an article or book chapter I’ll prepare my notes and sketch the outline. I’ll think on it overnight and get a first draft out as soon as I can in the morning. I try not to check email or social media until I’ve roughed out my first draft.

Of course, you have to fit in with those around you. I have a five-year-old daughter. When she hears me get up in the morning she hunts me out to tell me stories and have a cuddle. This daddy-daughter time is so precious to me but it kills any notion of completing work. So, recently I’ve started going to the office hyper early. Writing there before starting my work and then looking forward to reading my daughter a story in the evening.

I try to keep the first three hours of the day meeting-free. I use that protected time to plough through the work which needs the most creative thinking.

When I lived in Sydney, I'd cycle to Centennial Park. I would rough out what I planned to write before I set off. The journey took me 25 minutes. That was usually enough time to stick some flesh on the bones of the story in my mind.

When I arrived at the park I'd cycle to my spot. A table under a tree by the lake. There was no WiFi and poor phone reception there so I knew I'd be distraction-free. I'd whip out my laptop. Plough through a first draft. Then leave it. Listen to the squawk of the cockatoos while watching over the lake for 10 minutes.

Then read my copy again. The 10 minutes were usually just enough time for a mental excursion.

To consider what I was writing with a fresh pair of eyes, I'd read through again then think about the piece on my 25-minute cycle home.

At home I'd give the piece a final read through. Final edit and then publish. The round trip was usually two-and-a-half distraction-free hours. Plus built-in exercise. Plus a sanity check at managing to work in one of the world's most beautiful outdoor offices.

#26: Stephen Waddington (Northumberland, UK)

Stephen Waddington deep work productivity

Stephen is a speaker, author, enabler, and influential blogger. His day job is partner and chief engagement officer at Ketchum. He is the only person I know who rivals Neil Patel's prodigious output. You can find his blog here.

Email and social media are rabbit holes. However good your intention you’ll be carted off to an obscure corner of the Internet and end up losing an hour of your life.

We start and end our day on our mobile phones, and they are rarely more than a metre from our reach throughout the day. They’ve become our leashes to the Internet and intrude into every aspect of our lives. I'm working hard to put mine down.

(On practical steps) I log off the Internet, and turn off my tech. 

I respond to my email in bursts.

Click to Tweet

And I work hard to limit my time on social media. I’m trying to shift my workflow away from continuously grazing email and social media, so I use the phone more, I check links on Feedly and Nuzzel once a day, and communities to manage projects.

​Beyond that, a plain old daily to-do list goes a long way to help focus priorities and optimise personal productivity.

#27: Stuart Bruce (London)

Stuart is an independent modernised international PR adviser and trainer.

Stuart Bruce Zude PR deep work productivity post

Multiple interests and overlapping professional and personal lives mean that I’m never really ‘off’. The biggest distraction is when you work for yourself at home, you don’t have anyone to force or chivvy you into doing what you should be doing so you do important or urgent things you want to, rather than the ones you should do.

(On practical distraction-beating steps) I use Outlook, Wunderlist and Toggl to manage and track my time. Ticking off tasks gives a sense of accomplishment and seeing how long they took helps me learn how to be more efficient.

I also use Zapier and IFTTT to automate some activity, but need to set time aside to automate even more. It works well as a solo practitioner, but I now need a system better for teams, and nothing I’ve looked at is very good: it needs to be something reluctant tech users can embrace and most (systems) are far too ‘geeky’.

#28: Ted Rubin (New York, US)

Ted is a leading social marketing strategist, keynote speaker, and brand evangelist. He is the most followed chief marketing officer (CMO) on Twitter. You can find out more at his website.

ted rubin in David Sawyer's deep work productivity post

Distractions and time-suckers are the story of my life in this day and age.

I am connected to so many on multiple platforms, and consider responsiveness an intrinsic part of my personal brand.

It used to be just f2f time and the phone, then it expanded to email and text, and now add to that the myriad of social platforms and multiple handles on many of them.

OMG...staying focussed has become the primary name of the game, so distractions are everywhere 24/7, even turning off can now be considered a distraction.

(On practical steps to beat distraction) Now more than ever I do my very best to reply to a question, deliver requested content, and/or simply respond as soon as I receive the outreach or request.

I very often set it aside, but now, whenever possible, address immediately. In addition, since the use of software and apps, like Evernote, do not come naturally to me, I have developed many of my own personal productivity hacks over the years.

I direct everything of importance to my email where it is easier for me to track. I leave any email I have not completed a task for unopened until the task is complete.

Whenever someone wants me to do something for them, or meet, I insist they send me a meeting invite with all relevant info so it hits my calendar. When a thought comes to mind and it is something I find eye-opening, relevant in some way, or something new, I post to Twitter and save in my Favorites so I can easily find it later. I save all original content Tweets in Favorites so I can easily access anytime. There are more but we would need a few more paragraphs to cover.

(On that Road to Damascus moment/formative experience) I had a mentor during my twenties, the father of a childhood friend, who deeply imprinted in my DNA the importance of relationships, and that "the only way to have a friend was to be one" (true credit for that quote goes to Ralph Waldo Emerson).

In order to accomplish a lifetime of relationship building, and earn incredibly valuable Return on Relationship, ROR, #RonR, you quickly realise the need to stay focused and not leave things undone. There most certainly is...#NoLetUp!

The Pick of the Bunch

There are some corkers here. I count 64 bits of practical advice and hundreds of revelatory insights.

I am indebted to each and every one of these busy people for giving into distraction to contribute to this blog post.

seven magnificent nuggets of advice.

A magnificent seven.

But if I had to pick seven. Seven magnificent nuggets of advice from the experts that have helped me increase my focus. I'd choose these.

  •  "Don't enter the maelstrom": Don't check your emails as soon as you wake up. Just don't.
  •  "Deep work first thing": Get up early and get some productive work done before the day hits you (see point above).
  • "Reduce phone distractions": Spend a one-off hour or two sorting out your phone notifications. Turn your phone on to flight mode or off when you've got some important work to do. And don't charge it in your bedroom overnight. Leave it at home when you go out for dinner.
  •  "Can the open plan office": Collaboration, schmaberation. Get your own space, free from distraction. Preferably a hub-and-spoke arrangement (all the benefits of chance meetings in the kitchen but without the distraction of sharing a room with 20 people). And if you're still distracted, work in the pub, go to a coffee shop, cobble together a Heath Robinson standing desk.
  • "Take Wednesdays off": Ok, this might not work for everyone. But plan your working week to complement your life, responsibilities, and aspirations. As long as the work gets done...
  •  "Turn your emails off for chunks of the day": If you must, stick an out of office on saying you're working on a report. There is no way you can do meaningful, productive work, while checking your emails every 10 minutes.
  •  "Develop an idiosyncratic routine": Scott Guthrie used to take a 2.5-hour trip to the park in Sydney, one top businessman bought a $4,000 there-and-back business class flight to Tokyo to write a book, Maya Angelou did all her best scribing in anonymous hotel rooms, hired specifically for this purpose. All three routines have one thing in common: an absence of distraction.

Five Months of Research

I've spent five months researching this post. Inspired by Cal Newport's Deep Work book.

Aside from asking the experts, I've devoured every book on the subject of getting meaningful work done, tried and tested lots of new ways or working, spoken to loads of people about the subject, and read hundreds of blog posts

This has led to an extremely long gestation period for this how-to-get-meaningful-stuff-done-quickly post, the irony of which is not lost on me.

If you've made it this far (8,000 words) you deserve a medal (or at least a bonus or two) so here are the five best books and 10 best blog posts on the topic. I'll then finish off by telling you what I've done with all this information. Have I put it to good use?

Five Best Books​

5 best books deep work productivity

Deep Work: Rules for Focused (Sic) Success in a Distracted World​ (2016), Cal Newport, 10.49

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less​, Greg McKeown, £9.09

Rework: Change the Way You Work Forever, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson, £9.59

The Artist's Way for Parents, Julia Cameron, £6.83

Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get Work Done​, Mason Currey, £8.99

Ten Best Blog Posts​

My Organisation System (Noah Kagan)

2015 Recap, and How I Plan to Crush 2016 (Sujan Patel)

8 Things Every Person Should Do Before 8 A.M. (Benjamin Hardy)

How I Became a Morning Person, Read More Books, and Learned a Language in a Year (Belle Beth Cooper)

From Steve Jobs to Barack Obama: The Morning Routines of 8 of the World's Most Successful People (Hazel Sheffield)

11 Morning Habits That Will Change Your Life (and Make You More Creative) (Anna Guerrero)

The Daily Routines of 15 Successful Entrepreneurs (Product Hunt)

Get Sh*t Done – One Hashtag That'll 10x Your Output...It Did for Me (Jasky Singh)

7 Habits of Highly Prolific Writers (Srinivas Rao)

How I Hit 500,000 Views on Medium in 30 Days (Jon Westenberg)

Conclusion: My New Deep Work Routine

I hope this post has inspired you.

Showed the importance of battling the mental fog caused by our hyper-connected world.

And provided a few expert tips/hacks on how to get there.​

​Because if you don't have the ability to do deep work you'll never achieve your dreams, or fulfil your potential.

dreams deep work productivity post

What are your dreams?

Don't worry, you can do this around your day job, or use it to make your day job that much more productive. And no-one's expecting you to do concentrated work for 10 hours a day (Cal Newport estimates most of us are capable of between one and four hours daily, and it takes a lot of training to get to this point).

Apps and tools help focus; sure they do.

But it's the daily routines, adding up, one day after another, 365 days a year, that really count.

Click to Tweet

Habits. Here are mine:

My Morning Rituals​

  •  Early rise: Between 05:15 and 06:30 (dependent on kids/where I'm working).
  •  Morning Pages: Taking a leaf out of Julia Cameron's Artist's Way book, I write a page of whatever comes into my head, first thing, as I'm wiping the sleep out of my eyes. I always kick off with a "grateful for" and a "personal affirmation".
  •  Reading: I then read a few pages of a book.
  •  Cold shower: It's the shower next. I turn it on normally for a few seconds, then switch it to cold for a minute, then back to warm.
  •  Smoothie: I drink the berry/spinach, protein (30g), banana, flaxseed smoothie I've made the night before.
  •  750-1000 words: I drive to work (listening to Today). Then before checking my emails/diary/Facebook etc, I write 750-1000 words, with intent. This might be a report I'm doing for a client, or a blog post.

My Evening Rituals

  •  Run: I run with people or on my own.
  •  Family: I'm present during evening and weekend family time. I don't think about work, turn the volume off on my phone, and leave it charging upstairs.
  •  Plan the next day: Before I hit the sack, I check my Google Calendar and set my goals (maximum of five) for the next day. I write blocks next to the tasks showing how long I estimate each will take. I revisit every two hours during the day, and amend. 
  •  Journal: I return to my journal and identify three things that have gone well, and one that could have gone better that day. I write them down.
  •  One last read: I read a few pages of my book; more if the mood takes me. Then go to bed.

New Habits

  •  Yearly goal setting: I have work and life goals for the year. Eight of them. They flash up in my calendar every morning. I read them. And I've analysed what steps I need to take to get there.
  •  Reading: I read more books. A lot more.
  •  Saying no: I say no nowadays. I don't respond to each and every person wanting my time. And I don't faff around with long email exchanges to set up meetings. I send them my diary or put a lot of work into one email to arrange the meeting.
  •  Email inbox: Like Ted Rubin, I manage my working life from my inbox. But it was beating me. Always full of things I should be doing, marked unopened. Step forward Streak, a great free tool, anything I can't deal with immediately, I snooze for a set time later (usually 10pm) where I can fire through all those nagging things in half an hour.
  •  Sunday night accountability email: (Hat tip to Noah Kagan here) Every Sunday night I look at the week ahead, remove/reschedule from my diary any non-priority commitments, and plan what I want to achieve that week. Specifically. I then send it to myself (and my wife) ccing No hiding place Chez Sawyers. I also sit down with my wife and plan the next five days. With young kids and both working busy jobs, every hour of our working week is time-slotted.
  •  Chunks: I work in chunks of time. Usually two hours (four Pomodoros). During those chunks, I go incognito. I leave the phone on for calls but everything else is off. I often put my out of office on to set people's expectations of when I can get back to them. I find this simple act helps me focus and not feel so guilty about not being instantly available.
  •  Social media: I check Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn once around 10am in the morning, and once in the evening before I sort my to-do list for the next day. I schedule the rest. I find this habit really hard.
  •  Office and change: I moved into a new office in Glasgow last month. I have a room, which I share with a friend. There are 16 rooms spoking off a central atrium where there's a co-working space. I have the best of both worlds, plenty of company and spark, but the ability to shut myself off and do deep work. If the muse isn't striking me, I go to a coffee shop, or a hotel, or a sports centre, and sometimes home. If sitting down isn't working, I stand up. I never accept distracted mental fog.


​Do you agree with this post? Is deep work necessary? Is technology hijacking your mind, and turning you into a virtual paper-shuffler.

Two options: sit there moaning or do something about it.

I have. And I'm never looking back.​..

How do you do your deep work? Join the conversation and chip in with a comment below. I'd love to hear from you.

David Sawyer  (and 28 experts) Wrote this Post

My name's David. My wife's called Rachel, and I have two young children; Zak and Jude. My passion is marathoning and I support Liverpool Football Club. I like deep work: it helps me learn, and achieve my goals in life.





  1. Reply

    Hailey Ross

    June 7, 2016

    Glad you did the summary of top seven points at the end Dave, as I thought I would have to go through it all. I sat reading it while in the car as my 10-month old sleeps. Interesting to hear the changes you have made to how you work!

    • Reply

      David Sawyer

      June 7, 2016

      Hey Hailey, thought this one would be right up your street. If you want some additional (shorter) content, download the 51 productivity tips checklist by clicking on the big button at the top or bottom. How's that bucket list going? How many have you done now?

  2. Reply

    Michael Pozdnev

    June 7, 2016

    Thank you for including me in this list. All the best and my favorite people are on this list. You’ve done a great job! I’m sure that your recommendations will help a lot of people. I’ve already added some of the habits to my armory.

    • Reply

      David Sawyer

      June 7, 2016

      Cheers Michael, let me know how you get on. Already looking forward to your next (no doubt, epic) blog post. Best, Dave

  3. Reply

    Carrie Morgan

    June 7, 2016

    I love this, David! it's amazing how small things can creep up and sabotage our day, completely killing our productivity (and creativity, for that matter). Gaining control over our time is a big part of becoming successful. Thank you for including me with such an amazing group of rock stars.

  4. Reply


    February 9, 2020

    Fantastic post.

    Really enjoyed reading it and it held my attention all the way through! Keep it up.

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