Working flat out and flagging: describing how we work

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by Kate Woodford

How was your day at work or college? Was it useful (=giving positive results)? Did you get a lot done? Perhaps you had a lot of work to do but, for some reason, found it hard to get down to it (=start working with effort). Some days, we work effectively, finding it easy to concentrate. Sadly, not all days are like this! In this post we look at the language that we use to describe good days at work and bad.

Starting with a positive phrasal verb, if you get on with a task, you work on it, making good progress:

If I give Maisie a piece of work to do, I know she’ll just get on with it.

Staying with the positive, we often use the adjective productive to describe a day – or a part of a day – in which we achieve a lot:

I had a very productive morning.

We had a really productive meeting.

The opposite word – unproductive – is used for times when we achieve less than we would like:

I had a rather unproductive afternoon in which I failed to make any progress on either project.

There are times when we work especially hard for a long period, not stopping for breaks. To describe this, we might say that we work flat out:

He’s been working flat out all week to finish this piece of work.

We may succeed in giving all our attention to a task, working effectively to achieve a particular thing. For this, we use the adjective focused:

He’s been much more focused at work these past few months.

There’s a nice idiom in this area too. If you keep your nose to the grindstone, you work very hard for a long time:

She’ll need to keep her nose to the grindstone to get good grades.

Of course, we can’t work flat out all the time. Sometimes we work hard for several hours but then run out of steam. To run out of steam is to lose the energy or interest to continue working:

I worked well until lunch but then ran out of steam. 

Another way of saying this is to say you are flagging:

I’ve been studying for six hours and I’m flagging a little. Perhaps it’s time for a coffee?

Sometimes we work less effectively because our attention is on something else – perhaps something worrying or exciting. For this, we might talk about our mind being on something:

I’m sorry, I can’t quite focus today. My mind is on other things.

I’m going on holiday tomorrow and I’m finding it hard to keep my mind on work!

Whether you’re working or studying at the moment, I hope you have a productive week.


14 thoughts on “Working flat out and flagging: describing how we work

  1. Maryem Salama

    I am really happy to know all these useful expressions about a significant part of my day. Thank you, dear Kate.

  2. Luis Miguel Blanco

    Thank you Kate for thid new post about the language of work After reading it I have the following question: a person is focused “at work “ or he/she is focused “on work” I thought the preposition with the verb to focus was “on” and this is how is shown in the Cambridge dictionary and others Would you be so kind to clarify this question
    Thanks in advanced and congratulations for your well-done work!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Luis! Thanks for the inquiry. I think I understand the cause of the confusion. You are absolutely right that we focus *on* a subject/problem etc. I was using the word ‘focused’ adjectivally. A longer version of my sentence would be ‘She’s much more focused while she’s at work.’ Does that make sense? I hope so! all the best to you.

  3. Kleber

    I liked your post.
    Im flat out all this week, maybe I´ll do something like flagging tomorrow.
    We need a rest sometimes

  4. Thank you, Cambridge for your efforts to help people learn a lot! 👍 I work as a Hindi translator. I enjoy my work a lot. But, to be transparent, sometimes I run out of steam after keeping my nose to the grindstone for a couple of hours 🥵

  5. Ayush

    It was good enough but I think some grammatical knowledge should provided for whom do not learn sentences structure .

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