The Complete Guide to Deep Work & Flow States

Jonah Larkin

The Complete Guide to Deep Work & Flow States

A war is raging for your attention and you’re losing.

You’re losing it to apps on your phone, text messages, social media and screens galore.

You’re losing it to meetings that pop up on your calendar.

You’re losing it because everyone and everything is vying for it so they can sell it to the highest bidder.

But to  make the type of  positive impact you’d like,  it’s important that you reclaim the power of your focus and attention.

Unfortunately, most people are working in the literal shallows of their potential, stuck in beta brain waves that perpetuate stress and anxiety.

Too many meetings, too much email, too many slack notifications, too much social media and your own brain going a million miles an hour scrambling for its next dopamine hit create a sense of being overwhelmed.

This distraction is literally rewiring your brain away from the ability to focus and do deep, meaningful work to looking for the next quick fix.

But with a modicum of effort you can reclaim your focus and win the war for your attention.

If you’d like to be incredibly productive, calmer, and create deep levels of clarity then the answer is to give yourself the time and space to get into a flow state and perform deep, meaningful and productive work.

I’ll draw on two incredible thinkers to help us understand how you can start to consistently perform the best work of your life.  

The first is Cal Newport, and the second is Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.

Cal Newport, who is a computer science professor at Georgetown, defined the problem of the modern work environment as one of constant distraction in this blog post from  2012, and expanded on the concept with his classic book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World.

If anything is true, deep, focused work has become even more important and more rare since the book came out.

Much of what I’ve seen in my work with executives and business people is that they are stuck in lots of low impact behavior like meetings all day, responding to slack messages, teams, email and are left doing the important work late at night or between meetings.

This doesn’t leave much room to be truly productive, insightful and prolific.

The antidote to this is deep and focused work time.

Newport’s defines deep work as:

“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.”

Why is this so important?

It should be self explanatory, but in a world where there is an overabundance of content, truly insightful work that very few are able to perform is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.  

If you’re stuck in Beta (normal waking state brain waves) you’re not likely to get into a state of massive productivity or deep insight.

But when you’re focused, relaxed and in flow, your brain waves begin to move from beta to alpha.

Alpha brain waves are tied to high performance, relaxation, productivity and insight.

That is where the work of  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who wrote the classic book “Flow,” comes into play.

Flow is loosely defined as:

“A highly focused mental state that is conducive to high performance because there is an intrinsic reward in the action being performed.”

Can you see the similarities between Newport and Csikszentmihalyi?

When you combine both systems, you’ll be able to create super productivity and focus on demand.

I call it Focus & Flow and I’ve been teaching my clients to work like this on a regular basis.

It’s been even more effective when applied to teams as there is incredible momentum when everyone on the team begins to utilize flow and deep work individually and together.

So let me ask how you are working?

Are you able to carve out blocks of time with no distractions where you’re able to focus on your highest leverage tasks?

If not, and you’re simply jumping from task to task hoping to get to those big, impactful things in the future, you’ll want to understand how to perform deep work.

I promise you, you’ll thank me later.

Let’s take a deep dive into deep work and understand some different approaches to get you started.

The Four Methods  and Strategies to accomplish Deep Work

Newport outlines four main strategies for deep work.

The method you use will likely depend on what kind of work you do and what your work culture is.  

It doesn’t matter so much which method you use as long as you perform it consistently.

Just like learning to play the base, you won’t make much progress if you only read about it and watch videos.

It’s the same with deep work.

The system works if you work the system.

Experiment with each type and find the one that you like the best and most importantly is easiest to implement.

Monastic Deep Work

In monastic deep work you spend nearly all your time on one high impact task and spend little to no time doing anything else.  

You won’t be answering emails or going to meetings.

When you’re working you’re truly focused on that one task.

This can work if you’re an artist, an author, a musician or even a coder but can be difficult for a knowledge worker who by definition needs to interact and coordinate with many other people.

Nonetheless, there are workarounds even if you have to collaborate with a large number of people.

Bill Gates does periodic “Think Weeks,” where he reads books that have been on his list and has time to think deeply about important subjects.

Matthew Mcconaughey went to the desert and exiled himself  in a small cabin with no electricity for 52 days without Internet access so he could be unusually focused and write his book.

Personally I’ve taken 2-5 days off at a time and designed my own retreat.

I’ve also worked with clients and had them take  1-3 days off for deep thinking and strategic planning.

I like to take the last weekend of the quarter off and go to a place that is not my home where I can be alone and really focus.

It’s been a wonderful habit to integrate and continues to pay dividends in spades.

If you’re part of a team, you can turn into monks together for a day or more to focus on a high leverage task.  

However, I believe it’s best that before you dive into it as a team, each team member should practice at least one day of deep work on their own to gain at least a little experience in its power.

Bi-Modal Deep Work

Bi-modal is about dividing your time between deep work and shallow work.  

Newport somewhat says you could do this on a weekly or monthly or yearly basis.

So you could divide up your week, dedicating 1-3 days for the deep stuff and the shallow in 1-2 days.

You might deal with administrative business, emails and meetings on a Monday, then take Tuesday and Wednesday to focus on your important work and then Thursday and Friday for the rest of it.

The social media influencer Jay Shetty  takes one week per month to create all his content for the next month.

The corporate development “sprint,” if done correctly can also be a form of bi-modal deep work as long as there aren’t too many extraneous distractions.

The main point with bi-modal deep work is that you have intentional deep work times and times for everything else.

Rhythmic Deep Work

Rhythmic deep work is habitual performance of deep work where you make it a daily habit.  

Using your mornings for deep focus and your afternoons for the shallower less cognitively demanding tasks are a good example of this.

If you pay attention to how your energy and focus operates you may find that there are particular times where you have high energy and high focus.  

These are ideal times for deep work.

I like to focus earlier in the day where I can really go deep and go hard.

Afternoons, I feel more expansive and as it turns out, are a great time for meetings.

I take virtually all of my client appointments in the afternoon.

If you’re truly a night owl then working late into the night might be your time to focus.

When you do the work is less of an issue than being in tune with your energy and focus so you can do your deep work when you have the juice for it.

Integrating the rhythm of deep work into an everyday activity will also prime your brain and body to perform this type of work on demand.

Journalistic Deep Work

The journalistic method is where  you simply get deep work whenever and wherever you can.

Newport says this method is for the advanced deep work practitioner and probably difficult for most folks.

While studying for my acupuncture licensing exam I worked in a very journalistic style.

When I wasn’t in front of my computer or working with my study partner I was doing flash cards or identifying herbs on my phone.

Any time I could get even a few minutes of studying in, I did.  

I was obsessed with passing that exam.

While this can work well,  I believe the journalistic technique is best used when you find yourself in particular life situations where you are unusually focused on one and only one particular topic or outcome.

Action Item: Write down the method of deep work that you’d like to try first.

Hitting the Gas Pedal by Incorporating the Science of Flow

Deep work is powerful, but to maximize your potential, utilizing  the science of flow will help you get the most out of your deep work sessions.

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi whom I mentioned above and more recently popularized by Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler in their book “Stealing Fire” have all done extensive research into how everyone from Navy Seals, extreme athletes and silicon valley executives have used flow to create positive outcomes.

Virtually everyone has had the experience of being in “the zone,” that magical state where you are fully absorbed in the task at hand whether it’s skiing, writing, sex, playing or listening to music,  or anything else that you find particularly compelling.

The zone, or flow as I’m referring to it, is actually a particular brain state where the perfect combination of neurotransmitters, hormones and brain waves interact to create that special feeling.

But how do you create it when you want to?

Once you experientially understand the flow cycle you can understand exactly how to design it into your way of working.

The flow cycle has four distinct phases, (see flow cycle below).

The flow cycleAt each stage of the flow cycle different neurotransmitters are released along with corresponding brain waves/states.  Every cycle generally begins with struggle.

A quick word of warning.

When flow experts discuss how flow works, they often make  it sound like it’s a straightforward process of going through each part of the cycle.

They often say things like “flow on demand,” like you’re ordering your favorite Thai food from uber eats.

In my personal experience and the experience of many others who I’ve had the privilege of working with, it’s not usually so cut and dry.

I’ve experienced high levels of flow for minutes at a time to a few hours or even days at a time depending on what I’m doing.  

But I’ve found that getting into flow is rarely the linear process that authors like Kotler and so many others make it out to be.

Flow Triggers

Flow triggers are specific activities, foods or chemicals  that can help you at each stage of the flow cycle.

You’re probably already using one or many of these already in your day to day life so they won’t be too unfamiliar to you.  

You’ll want to use the chart below to help you build out your personal Flow & Deep Work Checklist.

Each item under the various phases is an option that you should experiment with to get the most out of your flow session.

Over time, you’ll likely notice that certain triggers are better suited to certain activities.

For instance what works well when you need to give a speech might not be as well suited to working on a group project or doing some deep thinking.

You’ll also notice that many of the triggers can be used in different phases of the cycle.

Breathing for instance can be used in many different ways in different cycles depending on whether you want to stimulate or calm your nervous system.

Flow Triggers for each stage of The Flow Cycle to help inducement.

Step 1: The STRUGGLE  phase of the flow cycle

All flow generally begins with STRUGGLE.

It can be challenging to get going on something and especially when it is hard.  

Beta waves which dominate your brain in your normal waking state power your mind to jump from thought to thought while cortisol and norepinephrine can create a sense of bodily tension.

That’s why it’s important to set up structure to help you move through the struggle phase as quickly as possible.

By imposing structure you’ll have a repeatable system that ensures you don’t fall off the wagon before you’ve gotten started.

Set up your structure with flow triggers

Let’s say  you’re heading up for a day of snowboarding.

In the morning you’ll be getting your equipment ready, double checking to make sure you haven’t forgotten your gloves or goggles, and trying to do it all so you get there before the first lift opens.

There’s a good chance you’ll feel  some light tension either expressed through the emotion of excitement or even anxiety.

That first ski run you might simply be working out the kinks, feeling the soreness in your legs from the day before, struggling with the first mogul or two.

It’s not until after a few runs, when your heart has been beating at an elevated rate for a while, where your body starts to release nitric oxide from deep nasal breathing, that you start to progress on the cycle and things start to feel easier.

Flow Triggers

As I mentioned previously, you’ll want to to build out your own Flow Checklist that will help you internalize the flow cycle through the 4 phases of learning.

Next you’ll want to set appropriate and clear goals.

An appropriate goal is one which is a challenge just at the upper edge of your skill level.

When I’m skiing I might choose a line down a mogul field and my goal is to ski it without stopping from top to bottom at a fast clip without stopping.

If I’m writing I might shoot to write a 1000 words.

If you’re working with your team on a strategic plan you may want to set a goal based

Step 2: the RELEASE phase of the flow cycle

You are now entering the state of RELEASE.

Things are starting to loosen up and move.

If you’re writing you would have made it through the struggle phase by clearing  your desk, turning off your phone and making your coffee.

It can be difficult at the beginning as you may not even know what to write.

But as you turn yourself over to the process of writing and simply begin to put words together things start to get easier, you start to release and let go into the present moment.

Your brain waves begin to relax into alpha, which is the creative state and your breathing becomes deeper and more regular.

If you’re skiing you start to connect turns and if you’re writing you the sentences may begin to come easier.

You are now at the  gateway to flow.

If you’re working on a strategic plan, or ideating with your team members, you’ll experience a similar state of difficulty at first, then a sensation of beginning to slide into the rhythm of the task.

Step 3: The FLOW phase of the flow cycle

The FLOW STATE is where your brain really starts to turn on.

This is a period of intense focus.

Feelings of control and mastery arise.

It is truly a wonderful experience.

The neuro-chemical cocktail of endorphins and dopamine make you feel energized and rewarded simply by being present in the moment.

Your brain may even slip into Theta or Gamma.

Gamma waves are incredibly powerful, high frequency and usually go along with deep insights, the melting of a subjective self and are most often the domain of highly experienced meditators.

In this state performance and productivity can reach superhuman levels.

According to research done by Mckinsey, executives who were able to work in flow were 500% more productive than they were in their normal working state.

Yes, you read that right.  

Your performance can increase by 5x when you’re in the flow state.

But there is one key aspect that you need to make sure to get right and it’s called the Challenge/Skills Balance.

To get the challenge/skills balance right your goal should be just barely above what you would feel very confident doing.

If you feel like you can write 500 words in 20 minutes with a high degree of confidence you might shoot for 550 words.

If you’re doing something athletic, your challenge should be on the upper end of your confidence and skill range.

Performing at the upper end of your skill range will bring your awareness into perfect presence and focus.

Whether you’re surfing, leading a workshop, in a deep conversation, writing your book, coding or anything else that requires intense focus you’ll feel a sense of control and wonder at being so present.

It’s truly a wonderful feeling.

Step 4: The RECOVERY phase of the flow cycle

Alas, at some point you will begin to fall out of flow.

It might be after 20 minutes, two hours or 20 hours,  but you’ll feel that feeling of “coming down.”

It can almost feel a little sad, boring or a little depressing.

That’s perfectly normal.

You’ll want to pay close attention to this signal as it is telling you that all those tasty, feel good neurotransmitters are beginning to decrease in your brain.

Norepinephrine and dopamine are on a downward trajectory.

You’ll want to stay mindful of this as it’s an easy time to start looking for stimulants like caffeine, sugar or other substances.

This is the cue to step into recovery mode.

There is no peak performance without recovery mode.

The myth of “limitless” performance is exactly that, a myth.

As long as you have a physical body, you’re going to have to rest it.

Recovery activities like naps, listening to music (especially binaural beats), going for a walk in nature, or some cuddle time with pets or loved ones will all serve to engage the serotonin response.

Serotonin gives you that feeling of calm relaxation that everything is all good and okay just as it is.

This is a time to honor the work you’ve done up to this point and really give yourself the gift of recovery.

Whatever you do, as hard as it is, do not get on your phone.

Your phone stimulates the dopaminergic system and will further deplete you instead of refresh you.

Once you’ve completed your recovery session which could be as short as five minutes or as long a day or even several if you’re completed something like an ironman, then you get to hop back on the struggle bus and begin the entire process again.

Using Flow For Deep Work

Since you now have an understanding of the flow cycle and each stage of it, you’ll want to use it to make your deep work sessions more satisfying, productive and effective.

Depending on what type of deep work you’re planning to do, you’ll know how to best prepare.

If you’re planning a high impact activity like the one day month, (which is a 15 hour process in total) you’ll want to make sure you are extremely well rested the day before.

Unless your Nims Purja It’s a good idea when you’re prepping for a day of flow that you get at least 8 hours of sleep and don’t stress yourself too much cognitively or physically the day before.

Absolutely DO NOT DRINK alcohol if you’re serious about 5x-ing your performance.

Now that we’ve explored the aspects of getting into flow let’s see how it applies to deep work.

A Structure for Deep Work

Deep Work Checklist

  1. Choose a day to do your deep work and block it on the calendar.
  2. Choose your Highest Leverage Task.
  3. Choose your location for your day.
  4. Inform colleagues, family, friends and make arrangements for your dependents if you have them.
  5. Set up an email autoresponder if need be to let people know you’ll be out all day.
  6. If possible get an accountability buddy so you don’t back out at the last minute.
  7. Plan for your food, water, snacks and refreshments
  8. Plan for your supplies you may need such as whiteboard, post it notes, pens, paper, music and anything else you can think of.
  9. Get a good night of sleep the day before so you are fully recovered.
  10. Turn off your phone (duh).
  11. Recover
  12. Debrief

Step 1: Choose a day to do your deep work and block it on the calendar.

It’s not easy but the amount that you will accomplish in this one day cannot be overstated.  

That's why I recommend that you start with a full day or what Newport calls a “grand gesture.”

You’ll need to block off from 5am to 8pm for the entire day.

Go ahead and do that right now.  Choose the day!

If you don’t schedule it now, you’ll finish this post with the best of intentions and then simply get overwhelmed, sidetracked or distracted by the next thing and this entire deep work concept will be gone.

This is where that old Nike ad comes into play.

Just do it.

If you’re doing the One Day Month, you’ll be waking up at 5am and jumping straight into work.  

When you go directly into work from sleep in a short time you should still have some alpha waves going in your brain which will help to get you into flow faster.

Below is the schedule for the One Day Month-Focus and Flow Deep Work Day

Focus and Flow Deep Work Day Schedule (One Day Month)

5am-8am Focus Block 1

  • This is an example of a possible focus block.  You might shorten or lengthen depending on the time you’ve allocated to your deep work session.
  • 5:00-5:45 Focus
  • 5:45-5:50 Break
  • 5:50-6:35 Focus
  • 6:35-6:50 Break
  • 6:50-7:30 Focus
  • 7:30-7:35 Break
  • 7:35-8:00 Focus

8am-9am Recovery (examples of possible activities)

  • Drink a hot beverage
  • Have some breakfast
  • Exercise
  • Meditate
  • Read
  • Go for walk
  • Dance

9am-12pm Focus Block 2 (examples-shorten or lengthen yourself)

  • 9am-10am Focus
  • 10:00-10:10 Break
  • 10:10-11:00 Focus
  • 11:00-11:20 Break
  • 11:20-12 Focus

12pm-1pm Recovery

  • Lunch
  • Walk
  • Swim
  • Ice bath/Sauna/hot tub
  • Exercise
  • Breathing practices

1pm-3pm Focus Block 3

  • 1:00-1:25 Focus
  • 1:25-1:30 Break
  • 1:30-1:55 Focus
  • 1:55-2:00 Break
  • 2:00-2:25 Focus
  • 2:25-2:30 Break
  • 2:30-2:55 Focus
  • Finish 5 minutes early

3pm-5pm Recovery (examples you could try)

  • Dinner
  • Snack
  • Beverage
  • Walk
  • Yoga

5pm-8pm Focus Block 4

  • 5:00-5:35 Focus
  • 5:35-5:45 Break
  • 5:45-6:25 Focus
  • 6:25-6:35 Break
  • 6:35-7:00 Focus
  • 7:00-7:05 Break
  • 7:05-7:30 Focus
  • 7:30-7:35 Break
  • 7:35-8:00 Focus


Step 2: Choose your highest leverage task

I wrote an entire post on how to choose your highest leverage task but you’ll essentially answer these five questions and make your choice.

  • What is something that if I were to do would make other tasks un-necessary?
  • What task if I complete would increase my unit of output per unit of input?  
  • If I could be world class at one thing, what would it be?
  • What is the meat of what I get paid for?
  • What is something that I’ve been procrastinating at or putting off that if I completed would free up a bunch of brain space?

Once you’ve chosen your highest leverage task, do your best to plan out each focus block with this template.

The more detailed you can be for each block the better prepared you will be.

Remember that having clear goals is one of the most important flow triggers.

If you’re writing you might choose a specific word count goal.

Step 3: Choose your location

Where you do your focus and flow day or even where you choose to do one focus block can have a profound effect on how well you perform.

Whether you’re doing a full day or a simple block you’ll want to choose a place that has minimal distractions from people and things.

You might choose a conference room if you work in an office.

If you’re working from home I would recommend getting out of your house where you don’t have things around you that can pull on your attention.

I’ve even rented an AirBnB for an entire weekend when I really wanted to go deep.

The point is to consider where you’ll best be able to avoid distractions.

Step 4: Inform colleagues, family, friends and make arrangements for your dependents if you have them.

Send out an email to your work colleagues letting them know what you’ll be doing and ask them for their support by waiting to contact you until you’ve completed your day.

If you work with others where you need to be available, connect with them personally to explain what you’re doing.

This is a very different way of working and it can be shocking for some people who are used to emailing or slacking at any time.

You’ll also want to inform your family and any friends that might be expecting to hear from you if they reach out, as you don’t want anybody sending a search and rescue party for you ;)

If you have kids, pets or other dependents that require attention, do your best to make arrangements so someone else can caretake them when you’re not available.

Step 5: Set up an email and text autoresponder if need be to let people know you’ll be out all day.

One thing that I’ve seen get in the way of my own focus is my need to constantly be checking either my text messages or my email.

You can easily set up an auto-responder for both which will allow you to work in peace knowing that anyone who reaches out to you will at least get notified.

You can set up text autoresponders for Iphone or Android.

Step 6: Get an accountability buddy so you don’t back out at the last minute.

I’ve held many web based Focus & Flow days where I’ve had almost 70 people sign up.

Yet, much of the time very few people actually show up.

When I talk to people as to why they weren’t able to show up they say “something came up.

Most of the time that something is urgent but ultimately not that important.  

“I had to pick up my kids at school.”

“My boss put a meeting on my calendar.”

“I had to finish a last minute project.”

With your accountability buddy go over all the things that could potentially come up that could sink your best laid plans.

Step 7: Plan for your food, water, snacks and refreshments

Whether you’re at home and certainly if you’re somewhere else you’ll want to prep food and snacks for yourself.

You won’t want to be super hungry halfway through the day and have to leave your deep work state to grab something.

Think about the food and drinks that help you stay energized and focused.

My go to’s are yerba mate tea, Pellegrino sparkling water, Epic bison bars, apples with parmesan cheese and some dark chocolate as a reward for finishing each block.

If you’re at the office or somewhere else and you’re ordering out, decide what you’ll order before your deep work day so you waste no brain energy figuring out what you want.

For meals I stick to high protein with some vegetables with plenty of olive or mct oil for the brain.

In general, higher protein and lower carbohydrate meals will keep you feeling satiated.

I’ve made the mistake of going on a snack bender of potato chips and other less ideal foods halfway through a deep work block and ended up taking a nap on my couch.

Stick with protein.

You won’t regret it.  

Step 8: Plan for your supplies you may need such as whiteboard, post it notes, pens, paper, music and anything else you can think of.

I like listening to deep house music when I work.

It helps me get into the flow and I even dance around a bit during my recovery time.

I also like to use sticky notes and a white board.

I’ve had friends who swear by using essential oils and/or incense to stimulate all the senses.

Whatever you think might be helpful, get it ready.

Step 9: Get a good night of sleep the day before so you are fully recovered

A full day of deep work can take a good bit of energy and I can’t overstate the importance of being well rested.

It’s a good idea to spend a full 8 hours in bed.

Stay away from alcohol the day before and don’t do any caffeine after 12pm as both can negatively affect your sleep.

It’s also a good idea to have an alarm clock rather than your phone wake you up so you won't be tempted to jump on it.

Step 10: Turn off your phone (duh).

Your phone is your chief distraction mechanism so it’s best to keep it out of your environment when you’re doing your deep work day.

I recommend turning it off the night before and not turning it on until after you’ve finished your last deep work block.

The importance of this cannot be overstated.

Having your phone around you, even if it is on airplane mode or even turned off, increases your cognitive load and decreases your ability for learning and recall.

Step 11: Recover

It’s super important to NOT skip your recovery.

This can be really difficult if you’ve been incommunicado over the last day and the world with its demands comes rushing back in.

But if you skip this step, you’re liable to crash and burn.  

If you look back at the flow cycle graphic you’ll see that recovery is as important as any other part of the cycle.

But in today’s hustle and bustle, always on world recovery is one of the easiest things to sacrifice because it’s low demand time.

Recovery looks like taking the next day off, exercising, spending time with your friends, family and lovers.

It looks like getting out into nature, reading or listening to music.

What you're doing in the recovery stage is you’re allowing your neurotransmitters to replenish themselves.

That’s why doing a full focus and flow day on a Friday is great because Saturday isn’t a work day.

After you’ve been highly focused for a long period of time, you will have used up (so to speak) your store of dopamine and endorphins.

Think of it like a pool of water fed by a lightly flowing spring.  

If you use all the water one day, it takes time for the spring to refill.

Give yourself that same grace and honor and I promise you, you’ll feel even better than you did when you started.

Step 12: Debrief

After you’ve had a day to recover you’ll want to take a half hour or so to go over what worked and what didn’t so you can be more prepared the next time.

Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself.

  1. What worked? What didn’t?
  2. What would have made the day easier?
  3. Could I have planned my focus better or differently?
  4. How did I get interrupted?  What will I do next time to mitigate those interruptions?

Capture your learnings in whatever system you use for your personal learning library.

I use a combination of Evernote combined with Notion but a regular old notebook works well too.

Finally, choose your next deep work day and put it on the calendar.

Rinse and repeat.

If you begin to work like this on a regular basis you’ll experience new levels of performance and productivity that can move the needle on your most important priorities.

Even more importantly though, you’ll really enjoy these deep work sessions and you’ll be amazed at how good it actually feels.

Feel free to leave a comment here,  on twitter or linkedin.