4 Deep Work Strategies: Do You Know the Best One for You?
Deep Work is the most valuable skill of the 21st century. Here are the 4 strategies to make it a habit.
Monday morning rolls in.
You’re ready to go.
Well-rested from the weekend, you hit the gym first thing in the morning.
As you’re heading to the office, you go over your week’s plans for work. You’re finally going to make progress on that important project.
You sit down.
You’re ready to go.
It’s an email from your boss. He needs help in preparing a presentation for the board.
As you’re reading your email, a colleague approaches your chair. She has some questions about a project you worked on a few months ago. You quickly go over details with her so you can get started on your project.
But as she is leaving, you get a calendar notification. It’s time for the Monday morning team stand-up meeting.
And so goes the rest of your day. Running around working on other people’s priorities. Doing tasks that should be done at all.
You are suffocating in email, meetings, and unproductive work.
You feel you’re always fire-fighting and not making progress on meaningful work.
You think to yourself:
“Work shouldn’t work like this.”
There must be a better way.
The good news?
What is Deep Work?
In his seminal book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Dr. Cal Newport describes Deep Work as:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In other words:
Deep Work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
On the other spectrum lives shallow work:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
These are the tasks filling your schedule instead of meaningful work. It’s replying to emails, filing paperwork, or attending (some) meetings.
So this is the better way to work:
How to Make Deep Work a Habit: The 4 Deep Work Strategies
Doing Deep Work is the key to work on your high-output efforts. It’s a powerful tool to include in your arsenal.
But you must be mindful of how you do it. It is a very delicate activity that will be crushed in a normal schedule if left unattended.
Because here’s the truth:
Your environment is working against you. Without a clear plan of action, the busyness of shallow work will rise above working on your most important tasks.
In other words:
Unless you turn Deep Work into a habit, it’s never going to happen. To work deeply every day, you need to integrate it into your schedule.
Don’t rely on your willpower. Count on your habits and routines.
And there are 4 ways to do just that.
1. The Monastic Strategy
The Monastic philosophy has one basic principle: cut all shallow activities to focus on deep work.
“This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations”
People who follow the Monastic strategy abolish any extra work not related to their main projects. This means weeks or months without answering emails or doing paperwork.
In other words:
You won’t be seeing them posting on social media anytime soon.
Donal Knuth, professor emeritus at Stanford University and award-winning computer scientist, is a prime example of this philosophy.
He is unreachable. Having deleted all his email accounts in 1990, the only way to reach him is by mail (which he opens once every 3 months or so).
Knuth prioritized long periods of uninterrupted concentration, enabling him to become a superstar in his field. By completely eliminating shallow work, he was able to produce at an award-winning rate during his 50+ year career.
Who Should Use the Monastic Deep Work Strategy?
People who work in fields in which success is strictly tied to the quality and quantity of the output.
Thus, scientists and authors are the ones who use this strategy the most. To be successful in their fields, they need to complete peer-reviewed papers and books. And to complete this type of work, you need long periods of uninterrupted work.
- Best for maximizing output
- Removes work that brings small results
- Not an option for most careers
- Neglects new opportunities that may arise
Schedule Example of the Monastic Strategy
The main rule of this strategy is to eliminate unnecessary shallow work.
When it comes to schedule, there are no rules or guidelines. You may tackle your deep work and remaining shallow work as you want.
You can take a day per month to respond to important emails. Or spend an afternoon every week to deal with minor responsibilities. It is up to you.
The ultimate goal is to spend as much time in a state of deep focus on your most meaningful projects.
2. The Bimodal Strategy
Followers of the Bimodal philosophy split their schedule according to the depth of work.
They plan large, uninterrupted time blocks of deep work where they work like a monastic. When this period is over, they only deal with shallow work.
“This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
The size of the Deep Work blocks can range from months to days. However, one day per week is the minimum.
Carl Jung, the acclaimed psychologist, recognized the power of long periods of uninterrupted focus on his work. Yet, his lifestyle was not compatible with a monastic deep work philosophy.
To spend his time between the city of Zurich and the small town of Bollingen.
When in Zurich, he did not reject distractions but encouraged them. Jung was a regular in coffeehouses and lectures all over the city.
But when he traveled to Bollingen, he sought intense and uninterrupted concentration.
This commitment to long periods of deep work enabled him to produce generational results.
Who Should Use the Bimodal Deep Work Strategy?
Individuals with well-defined and valuable goals are the most common users of the strategy. Yet, many other people can thrive using this deep work strategy.
There’s no need to spend months in total reclusion. You can commit some days a week to uninterrupted focus and leave your shallow work for the remaining days.
The key is to stay extra responsive whenever you are not in a Deep Work day. Doing this ensures your co-workers will respect the time you’re away.
- Large quantities of deep work with schedule flexibility
- Great for projects that need long days of uninterrupted concentration
- Not as productive as the monastic philosophy
- Still difficult to integrate with most knowledge jobs
Schedule Example of the Bimodal Strategy
The bimodal philosophy can be implemented on a monthly or a weekly basis.
When writing a book, many authors block 2–3 months to have their undivided attention. Afterward, they take time to decompress and deal with minor obligations.
On a weekly basis, you can block Mondays and Fridays to solely focus on deep work. If possible, try to include more days.
3. The Rhythmic Strategy
“This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
The Rhythmic strategy is based on two fundamental truths:
- Humans are creatures of habits
- Deep work is rarely performed if not schedule
This strategy guarantees results by turning Deep Work efforts into a daily habit.
3 to 4 hours is the recommended amount and the time of day they are performed does not matter.
It is important to stress that this strategy only works if you turn it into a habit. Whatever schedule you commit to, you need to deliver. Once you get going, your objective is to never skip a day.
Jerry Seinfeld has preached the rhythmic strategy for joke writing (and it’s great to fight laziness too). He calls it the “chain method”.
This is because every day he works (in his case, writes a joke), he marks an X on a calendar. After a few days, a chain of X's starts to form on the calendar.
His only goal then is to never break the chain.
Who Should Use the Rhythmic Deep Work Strategy?
The flexibility of this strategy allows for most knowledge workers to use it. Some examples include university professors, consultants, and lawyers.
You only need consistent and uninterrupted time blocks each day to use the rhythmic strategy.
In most jobs, you are able to take 3 to 4 hours of your day to tackle your main projects.
If that is not possible, early mornings or evenings are also great times to dedicate to Deep Work.
- Very easy to implement in a normal schedule
- Habit-based, increasing the chance of Deep Work completion
- Not optimal for tackling big projects quickly
- Takes time and mental energy to switch from shallow work to Deep Work
Schedule Example of the Rhythmic Strategy
The Rhythmic schedule example is the easiest to understand and the most adaptable.
Take either the mornings or the afternoons to complete your deep work.
9 AM to 1 PM or 2 PM to 6 PM.
If your projects are outside of the scope of your day job, consider blocking 2 hours before or after work.
4. The Journalistic Strategy
The main idea of the journalistic philosophy is to fit Deep Work whenever possible.
If you do not have any obligations to meet at the moment, use the extra time to tackle Deep Work. Instead of glazing over your emails, make progress in your projects.
This strategy requires you to change from low-intensity tasks to Deep Work on a dime. And while very simple in theory, putting it into practice is very hard.
In the early 1980s, Walter Isaacson was tackling his most ambitious projects yet-an 800+ pages book about the Cold War titled “The Wise Man”.
In Cal Newport’s book, he reveals that Isaacson would work on this book even during summer vacations. Whenever he had the time, he would sneak into his room to write some paragraphs. After an hour of intense work, he would come back relaxed and ready to enjoy his holidays.
Every time he was available, he took the time to write a bit. That was how Isaacson was able to accommodate his enormous side project with a day job in Time magazine.
How to Use Journalistic Deep Work Strategy
This strategy is reserved for people with lots of experience in Deep Work.
Users of this strategy need two crucial attributes:
- The ability to switch between shallow work and Deep Work quickly
- Confidence in their abilities
The ability to switch between projects has everything to do with experience. You will be dealing with your most challenging projects minutes after responding to low-level emails. The more you do it, the better you get at it.
Secondly, you will need confidence in your ability to generate output. You will get stuck and experience setbacks. And when that happens, it will be easy to quit without that confidence.
- Great for unpredictable schedules
- Very difficult to replicate
- Requires a lot of deep work experience
Schedule Example of the Journalistic Strategy
Given that it is the most unpredictable, the example is also the least insightful.
Try to figure out beforehand when you will have more than 30 minutes free from any commitment.
Additionally, prepare your workstation to quickly change between projects.
Whenever the time comes, shift gears and tackle your deep work.
What is the Right Deep Work Strategy for You?
In “ Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule “, Paul Graham argues there are two types of workers:
Makers usually have clear goals that are very valuable. Think about programmers, architects, and writers. Their projects are very tangible and their output measurable.
But that is not the case for most managers. Their objectives are much more subjective and difficult to measure. On top of that, they usually have many smaller tasks.
A “Maker” works best in long, uninterrupted chunks. A “Manager” typically works in one hour blocks, changing subjects frequently.
So there is no one-size-fits-all schedule.
To Makers, the monastic and bimodal deep work strategies give them the freedom to work deeply on their projects. To make before managing. Without bigger blocks of time for Deep Work, their productivity drops sharply.
If you are operating in a Manager schedule, your best bet is using the rhythmic philosophy. This deep work strategy is the best at fitting into any schedule. On top of that, it is easy to pick up and create beneficial Deep Work habits.
What about the journalistic strategy?
Here’s the truth:
The journalistic strategy is difficult to implement at first. You need to be a pro at Deep Work to have success with this approach.
And so-for now-you are better off using one of the other strategies.
So go ahead and pick a Deep Work strategy that works best for you.
Integrate Deep Work into your schedule and start producing high-output work as a habit.
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Originally published at https://dansilvestre.com on October 21, 2020.