Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre; Deliberate Practice, Deep Work & Flow

An attempt to settle the useless debate between productivity pundits.

I’m obsessed with increasing productivity and living a better life. In my efforts to do that, I’m always on the look-out for new tricks and tips that can help me work better.

But when it comes to productivity, master, and achievement, deliberate practice, deep work, and Flow are the three most popular concepts I’ve come across.

Yet, I’ve always been confused between the three. I could never zero-in on one of them. When I chose one, the other two seemed ‘sexier’ and seemingly offered better results.

And so, I got to researching them in a bit more detail and think hard about what I should do with my life.

First, let’s understand them in simple and plain language.

Deliberate Practice

It was first given by Anders Erricson in his book [Peak](https://www.amazon.com/Peak-Secrets-New-Science-Expertise-ebook/dp/B011H56MKS).

Deliberate practice is a mindful repetition of your weaknesses. Instead of mindless repetitions where you do a certain (relatively easy) activity time and again, deliberate practice has a specific goal of improving performance.

In other words, it works backward — figure out what you want to improve and work on that. As opposed to the common method of repeating a skill in hopes of reaching perfection.

For example, if you’re already good at jump shots in basketball, and weak at lay-ups, you practice the lay-ups more. Just playing a game, on the other hand, hoping things would correct themselves, isn’t going to cut it.

Yes, in the beginning, showing up is important. But over time, we overlook the small errors that ultimately lead to mediocrity.

Deep Work

Deep Work, as coined by Cal Newport in his book by the same name, defines it as “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

Cal argues that deep work is key for knowledge workers looking to gain an edge in a world of distracting homo sapiens. Further, it leads to deep levels of satisfaction and happiness in one’s life.

Have you ever had moments of deep concentration, perhaps learning a hard concept at work or school? You probably felt exhausted and drained afterward, but the joy of cognitive strain put to understanding the concept seemed worth it.

That’s what Cal is talking about.


Flow was first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book [Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience](amazon.com/Flow-Psychology-Experience-Perennial-Classics/dp/0061339202/).

In an interview with Wired magazine, he describes flow as:

“…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

Flow makes executives 500% more productive according to Steven Kotler, who’s a staunch proponent of using flow to optimize productivity.

The state isn’t completely different from what monks may experience during meditation and other spiritual activities — the prefrontal cortex shuts down, the sense of time vanishes (it passes either too slow or too fast) and creativity and productivity go through the roof.

The Relation

On the face of it, all three philosophies, promise the same set of benefits — increased productivity, mastery, and satisfaction.

But they’re not the same.

In an article published in 2007 in the journal* Current Directions in Psychological Science*, Anders Ericcson talks about deliberate practice and Flow states:

It is clear that skilled individuals can sometimes experience highly enjoyable states (‘‘flow’’ as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) during their performance. These states are, however, incompatible with deliberate practice, in which individuals engage in a (typically planned) training activity aimed at reaching a level just beyond the currently attainable level of performance by engaging in full concentration, analysis after feedback, and repetitions with refinement.

So it’s clear that flow and deliberate practice are not the same. Yet, deliberate practice and deep work are close cousins.

First, let’s take the similarities — both deliberate practice and deep work advocate cognitive strain, concentration, and focus as the primary way to achieve success.

Look at it this way. A person working by the philosophy of deliberate practice would seek challenges and tough problems to solve. She’ll find weaknesses in her own craft and work actively to correct them.

A person who chases flow, on the other hand, would naturally do what comes easy or at least a task that isn’t way beyond his comfort zone. Why? See the graph below.


An important flow trigger is a challenge-to-skill ratio. As you can see above, if the skill level almost matches the challenge level, then you’re in Flow. In any other segment, you’re either too relaxed or too excited (negative or positive)

By definition, if you’re doing something close to your comfort zone, you aren’t learning or getting better. Sure, you might be happy and you might get things done. That is a different argument though.

For the purposes of comparison, let’s use the example of a basketball player.

Consider two players — A and B. Both are practicing free throws for one hour.

Player A is alone. He shoots the ball, leisurely comes back to the shooting line, and takes two minutes here and there to chit-chat with others. He then plays a game with his friends to ‘practice’.

During the game, Player A forgets about everything, and time flies — he’s in Flow. Perfect.

Player B on the other hand has two colleagues. He stands on the free-throw line and shoots. The first person collects the ball and gives it back to him. The second person notes down if the shot was missed and why — too long, too short, left, right, etc. After every 10 minutes, Player B reviews the notes and identifies his weak points to adjust.

During his session, Player B is never in Flow. He’s talking to his colleagues every ten minutes, he’s thinking hard about his shots and trying to fix his mistakes in every iteration.

Would you say that both players practiced equally? No.

Player A though in Flow, would accomplish less than Player B. At the end of the day, both of them would be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied, having put in an intense one hour into training.

The results, however, would clearly tell you the winner.

What Should You Do?

Chasing flow, in my opinion, would be a bad idea. Too many flow junkies become bliss junkies. In the race towards heightened states of consciousness and feelings of euphoria, results are often left behind.

As great a philosophy as Flow is, I’d much rather go by deep work or deliberate practice. Ironically, both of them may end up inducing flow at certain points.

If you’re serious about deep work, for example, you’ll work in a distraction-free environment on a task that is cognitively straining. By definition, there wouldn’t be a lot more on your mind apart from the problem you’re trying to solve or the task you’re trying to finish.

The intense awareness of the present moment and complete concentration itself is a flow trigger. Remember flow is when all attention comes back to the present moment.

And so while these philosophies are quite different, chasing one can lead to another. But again, if you’ve to pick one, don’t go for flow.

The Only Strategy Worth Pursuing

Readers may argue that “work should be fun.” After all, if you’re not having fun with it, how can you do it?

I understand where this can come from. Although it may seem otherwise, I’m not saying work should create suffering. But it shouldn’t feel like play either.

There are tons of different ways you can include deep work and deliberate practice in your life. But after months of effort on this, I’ve realized there’s only one process to help you get through life:

  • Get your butt in the chair and do the work without distractions for as long as possible. (It will be hard, that doesn’t mean you don’t love it or you’ve not found your ‘passion’)

  • Keep increasing the time you can focus as you start to feel comfortable.

  • Structure your life to suit your deep life

The good thing is if you really work deeply, you’ll get more done in less time. This gives you time to relax and recharge batteries. Compare this with shallow workers or bliss junkies who “work” all day, drain themselves out, and have nothing to show for it.

Do less to do more. Do it with the utmost focus. And master your craft. There are no tricks.

Are you serious about becoming the best version of yourself? Get your free 5-day email course to Master The Art Of Personal Transformation

Written on October 28, 2020