The First Rule of ‘Deep Work’

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Learn not just how to work harder, but also how to work smarter

I have finally finished making notes from ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. It has taken me much longer than I expected, probably because it contains so much useful information. I had planned to write just one more post looking at his four rules, but the first rule alone is going to take up all of this post.

If you missed my first post on ‘The Benefits of Discovering Deep Work’, then take at look at it here, otherwise let’s get started…

The philosophies of deep work

The first rule is – Work Deeply i.e. implement his recommended way of working. Cal suggests four different ways in which you can go about trying to do this, which he calls ‘philosophies’.

Monastic

Basically lock yourself away like a monk, ignore the modern world and do deep work. This is how some of the great minds of our time have written the texts that made them famous. Unfortunately this is not practical for most of us. I don’t think that my employer would be happy for me to take a couple of months off to go and live in the woods.

Bimodal

In this philosophy you spend whole days at a time, with a minimum of at least one whole day, doing deep work. Again, this may not be practical unless you have complete control over your time.

Rhythmic

Have a set time each day during which you do deep work. This may be achievable if your days follow a set format. Unfortunately for me, no two days are the same, so having to do this would make it difficult for me.

Journalistic

Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. At the beginning of the week or the end of the previous week, have a look at your calendar and see where there are gaps that you can allocate to doing deep work. This is the method that I have been trying to use and which Cal himself employs.

desk with laptop, lamp and vase of roses
If you want to do ‘Dee Work’ you will need to remove distractions from your desk
The Method

Once you have decided on when you are going to do your deep work, Cal then gives you tips on how to actually achieve it.

Where

Decide on a specific location in which to do deep work. Open plan offices are not a good place to focus. I have never understood why employers think that they are such a good idea. If you work in an open plan office and want to do deep work, I would suggest that you ask to work at home on some days. Alternatively you could try to block out noise distractions with ear plugs, but you can’t shut your eyes to cut out visual ones.

I am lucky in that I can work at home a lot. My office is at the front of the house and although I try to minimise distractions I still lose focus when someone walks past the house. I don’t want to close the curtains and sit in the dark, but I have considered buying a roller blind which would let in light, but block out the world.

Ritualise

Include various rituals as part of your routine e.g. start with a good cup of coffee, have a break part way through to take a walk and clear your mind. I suppose it’s a way of signalling to your body and mind that you are about to do some deep work. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth and putting your pyjamas on before bed. Your body knows that it’s time to wind down and think about going to sleep.

Prioritise

Decide what’s most important to you and focus on that during your deep work hours. You can’t do deep work all day every day, as it’s hard and your concentration is limited. Therefore you have to select the most important parts of your work to undertake during this time. For me this is writing reports, which is the culmination of all of my smaller tasks and what other people see.

Collaborate

This may be not be relevant to your role, but if it is you could work alongside someone else to push you both deeper in your work. You will also need to make time for your own individual deep work. An example would be if you are working in product development and want to bounce ideas off of someone else. You may be a scientist and deep discussions with a colleague may help you to make that breakthrough you so desperately want.

Be lazy

Have a set shutdown time at the end of the day and forget about work. This helps recharge the energy that you need to work deeply. It allows the conscious brain to switch off and the unconscious mind takes a turn in sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

According to Cal Newport, any work undertaken in the evening will not be ‘deep work’ and so will be less valuable. Without a break you may not be able to achieve quality deep work the following day. When later reflecting on this I realised that for those with caring responsibilities this may not be realistic. I know many women who finish work early in order to collect their children from school and be with them until they go to bed. After that they turn on the computer again and finish their working day.

Evaluate

Deep work is a new skill and from my recent experience, not easy. You need to practise regularly and hone your skills. You should routinely review what went well and what didn’t. Then change your practice accordingly. Over time you will hopefully get better at deep work.

Conclusion

In our working day there are so many interesting distractions, such as checking email or looking at our phones. It’s tempting to busy ourselves with these easier tasks, but they often bring less value to our work. It’s the more complex tasks, which take focus and commitment, that you need to master if you are going to progress. Whether it’s career advancement that you’re looking for or an ability to focus on your side hustles, both of which may help you on your road to financial independence, deep work may be the answer.

Fancy trying out ‘deep work’? I’d love to know how you get on. I’ll tell you about the three other rules next time. Until then, thanks for reading and take care.

6 Replies to “The First Rule of ‘Deep Work’”

  1. Hi Sam

    It’s great to see this post right now since I was checking my reserved books list at the library and notice that i am now at number one waiting for my message to go pick it up and deep dive in to this book. it’s the only non finance book I plan to read this year!
    You review has got me even more excited to read it

    Thank you!

    Shaun

  2. Hi Sam,
    I love this! Deep Work is on my reading list for quite some time (as are many other books, oops) and I really want to get to it asap. I am taking your advice on working from home. I am starting a new job April 1st, so I try to see in my first month whether it would be possible for me to work from home 2 days per week. It is just that these open office environments don’t do much for me, like you mentioned.

    While the easier tasks can make you feel productive, you need to do the deep work and get to the more complex tasks that will take you more concentration and focus. Looking forward to the rest of your series!

    Love, Radical

    1. Radical, great to see you and I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend getting the book as it has so much useful information. Good luck in your new job. Sam

  3. Great post Sam. I will add this book to my reading list but I really enjoyed your summary. In the new year I created a schedule for myself to get more focused on my side hustle and I think it matches the Rhythmic philosophy, although what I wish I could do is Bimodal but with my 9-5 that’s just not possible. Waking up at 5am is part of my plan which has been hit or miss so far 🙂 Prioritizing is another challenge for me. Oh and open plan offices are the devil!

    1. Glad that you enjoyed the post. I think we all just have to work within the restrictions that we have. The fact that we are aware of the distractions is a good start as so much time is wasted focused on unimportant tasks. Good luck with thee waking up at 5am. That sounds hard. I have a sunrise lamp which wakes me at 6am. I really love waking up in a room that is already light and not having that terrible moment where one second you’re in the dark and the next there’s a bright light as you turn on your bedside lamp. If you haven’t got one it may be worth a try. Sam

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