The 4 Styles of Accomplishing Deep Work

First off, what the hell is “deep work?”  Deep Work is considered a brain-demanding task that requires your full attention – not interruptions. Something you give all your brain-power to for as much time as possible without letting the outside world (aka your smartphone) pull you away.


Cal Newport shares his research, the importance, and the how-to of deep work in his book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.


As a single, working mom, carving out time for Deep Work is tricky. I spent years trying to perfect this. Once I read Deep Work, it all clicked for me – I also read the book at a very synchronistic time in my life as I had finally decided what this deep work is that I want to do. The right book at the right time. Read on to see which TWO styles I apply in my everyday life and what style might fit your lifestyle.


“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”


The first step to determining what routine will work for you is to understand what will fit into your lifestyle.  It’s vital to choose the right one or else you run the risk of never really putting a habitual routine into place – derailing any deep work you need to complete.

The Monastic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The figure used to explain the monastic approach to deep work is Donald Knuth. Knuth is well known for really paving the way in computer programming and was a professor at Stanford University. To learn computer science exhaustively, he needed to minimize all unnecessary tasks as much as possible. Most developers would say, The Art of Computer Programming by Knuth is required reading.


So how does someone like Knuth pioneer something as complicated as algorithms? For starters, you have to have a defined, highly valued goal so you can understand what is crucial for you to spend your time on.
“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”
From there, you do everything in your power to radically eliminate tasks that could potentially take you away from completing your life’s work. Knuth, for example, does not have an email address. He does not allow himself to be that accessible. Instead, he provides a mailing address if you must reach him. Then, his mail is sorted through by his assistant who can define which letters are essential for him to read because they support his deep work. If the notes do not help Knuth’s deep work, they likely will not be looked at or addressed for months.


Another notable icon who uses a monastic philosophy is the acclaimed science fiction writer, Neal Stephenson.


“Stephenson sees two mutually exclusive options: He can write good novels at a regular rate, or he can answer a lot of individual e-mails and attend conferences, and as a result produce lower-quality novels at a slower rate. He chose the former option, and this choice requires him to avoid as much as possible an source of shallow work in his professional life.”


Pure dedication to their craft.

The Bimodal Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The bimodal philosophy is one of two that I have begun applying in my life. This style of deep work requires that you dedicate longer stretches of time to working. Bimodal allows you to have still freedom of using email or use of social media, but not during the time devoted to deep work.


Many people who work in academics do this. They can dedicate a whole season (i.e. summer) to focusing on their deep work without attending meetings, appointments with students, teaching class, and other demanding faculty tasks.


One season can be extreme for most though who work year round. For a breakthrough to occur though, it is essential to allow at least ONE FULL DAY dedicated to deep work. For me, on the off weekends where I do not have my children at home, I commit 3-4 days a month on just focusing on my deep work. That means not allowing myself to attend to work emails, household chores, or spending time with friends. I write in 90-minute stretches, then take breaks 30-60 minutes, work another 90 minutes, and so on. During my breaks, I am free to eat, do a mindless household chore, check social media, etc. I do squeeze in a hike or something nature related to think through my thoughts. I prefer to use my breaks for lazy time to let my mind unwind. Preferably sit on my porch swing and watch the hummingbirds come and eat from the feeders I set up.


Notable people who apply this mode of deep work: Carl Jung and Adam Grant. The one and only J.K. Rowling use this method of deep work to complete the last book in the Harry Potter series!

The Rhythmic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

The rhythmic philosophy is the one that most people can apply in their lives, including me! Rhythmic is the second mode of deep work that I utilize.


The example used in the book is advice famously given by Jerry Seinfeld. A young comic had the opportunity to ask Jerry for some advice, Jerry responded with, “The way to be a better coming was to create better jokes,” and then explained that the way to create better jokes is to write every day.


The section goes on to explain that deep work needs to happen in chunks of 90-minutes. Now, I had to work up to this, and you likely will need too as well. The first time I started doing this, all I could think about was things I wanted to check on my phone or things to add to my shopping list or to-do list. I had to keep my phone in another room to keep me from unconsciously just picking it up to look at it over time I got stuck on a thought or bored with what I was doing. After a few weeks though, I was able to work up to 90-minutes which then starts to go by fast, but I realized working past that – say 120 minutes, what I produce in those last 30-minutes usually isn’t that great.


I set aside two stretches in my day to do this. Before the kids wake each morning and after they go to bed. It’s become a time of deep reflection for me to write each day and it gets me excited about getting out of bed now (I’m not a morning person) and is the perfect way for me to unwind before I go to sleep. Getting everything out of my head and onto paper (by paper I mean Evernote, but that sounds weird), I’ve noticed I sleep better. My mind doesn’t race with thoughts as I try to fall asleep, or I don’t wake up in the middle of the night remembering something that I need to do.

The Journalistic Philosophy of Deep Work Scheduling

I consider the journalistic mode of deep work, one for the superhuman. A great friend of mine and someone who gave me a job at 17 years old and let me tag along to California with him ten years ago works like this, and I am always left scratching my head after I see him wondering how he accomplishes so much more than the average human each day. My brain would turn to mush.


The idea here is that any free time possible, whether it’s 30-minutes here or two hours there, you squeeze in deep work. Like a flip of a switch. The ability for one person to switch their mind from a mind-numbing task such as answer emails to then something such as thoughtful as writing a book does not come easy nor typical to most.


The example in the book as someone who utilized the journalistic approach is Walter Isaacson, noted as one of the best magazine journalists in America and a co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made.


**What is your working style or which working style do you think will fit into your lifestyle?**

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