Deep Work in Practice – Applying Cal’s Concepts

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One of my goals in 2016 was to work less while, somewhat paradoxically, accomplishing more. I knew I could squeak more out of my day if I just put some better systems in place. As part of that process, I recently finished reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. Cal is a fantastic writer (I’m a huge fan of his blog Study Hacks), and he thinks deeply about the benefits and how-to’s behind working deeply, which he defines as follows:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push you cognitive capacities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Applying the principles that Cal lays out in the book is a perfect first step towards my goal.

I’ve been applying those principles for three weeks now (admittedly a short timeframe), and it’s been working really well. I finish my day by 4:30pm every night. I enjoy an hour of reading time every day. I haven’t touched my computer on the weekends. Success.

Here’s exactly what I’m doing and what those principles look like in practice.

Choosing a Deep Work Method

Cal highlights four different styles of deep work in his book:

  1. Monastic – “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” (Think seclusion somewhere)
  2. Bimodal – “This philosophy asks that you divide your time, dedicating some clearly defined stretches to deep pursuits and leaving the rest open to everything else.”
  3. Rhythmic – “This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit.”
  4. Journalistic – “in which you fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”

Knowing my personality and preferred work style, I lean towards the rhythmic method. I work best with systems and habits in place that reduce decision making.

With the rhythmic method in mind (really, you don’t have to fit in one box), I try to plan out at least two hours of deep work each day, which leads us to planning.

Spending More Time Planning Ahead

Deep Work advocates spending more time planning ahead. In fact, Cal recommends planning every minute of your day. Without a detailed plan to tackle the day, two issues are likely to spring up.

First, we’ll face the principle of least resistance, which Cal describes as:

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend towards behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

The same is true in your personal work. If you don’t have a clear path set for tackling big, hairy items, you’ll default to working on smaller, easier tasks.

Second, you’ll spend far too much time on shallow activities. We drastically underestimate the time we spend on things like email, social media, TV, etc.

Planning in advance helps to address both of these issues.

What does the planning look like? It takes two forms. First, I email myself every Friday with a plan for the following week. Cal details this strategy here, but here’s an example of what a week looked like (I work Sunday – Thurs).

Step 1: Weekly Email

Since fewer people are online today, spend 1.5 hours on personal writing projects and an hour on wp-calypso in GitHub. Prep for 1-1’s throughout the week.

A handful of meetings today. Spend an hour on Udemy and getting the Theodoro project up and running.

A few meetings today. Spend another hour on Theodoro and get started on compiling data for the user frustration project.

Today is a day of 1-1’s. Get some code time in early in the day with Udemy and continuing to work on Theodoro.

Wrap up the week and make sure everything is set. Make sure Daily Post and personal blog are good to go.

The weekly email just breaks out the larger tasks that I want to focus on for each day.

Step 2: Task Notebook

The night before each workday, I turn off the wifi on my laptop and open up the email I sent myself in Step 1. I write out specific tasks in my notebook for the given day. On the left-hand side, I have the individual tasks I want to accomplish. On the right-hand side, I have a breakdown of when I’m going to get them done. You can read more about this setup on Cal’s blog.

This step alone has helped me to become drastically more productive. I now have a better idea of exactly what each day is going to look like ahead of time and a plan to execute versus winging it.

Closing Task Loops

I have a habit of consistently thinking about work and what I should be doing next. Even when I’m lying in bed at night, I occasionally will have todos bouncing around in my head. More often than not, I’m worried about the next step in a specific project. I’m worried that I’m forgetting to do something.

Cal mentions closing loops briefly in his book when discussing email (referencing the popular GTD method). I use this method to ensure every project has:

  • A definitive deadline
  • A clear outline of next steps (including dates)

Whenever I work on a piece of a project, I make sure the appropriate next steps are set as reminders so I don’t forget.

This small little change has given me immense peace of mind. I now no longer feel like I’m forgetting something.

After you work on a particular project that has continuing pieces, spend 2 minutes detailing the next steps. Your mind will thank you.

Draining the Shallows

Despite having a popular blog, Cal isn’t on Twitter. He’s not on Facebook either. I don’t know of a social network he uses. In fact, he has a chapter in his book titled “Quit Social Media.”

His rationale is simple. For major goals in our lives (the kinds of achievements that will make a huge impact), it’s unlikely Twitter and Facebook will play a key role. They’re a distractor.

He’s not advocating everyone shut off their social accounts. Instead he’s advocating a more careful approach, which he calls “The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection”:

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your personal and professional life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

After detailing my top personal and professional goals combined with a little cost/benefit analysis, I decided to skip out on social media for awhile. I removed social apps from my phone and haven’t logged onto Twitter or Facebook in two weeks preferring to publish weekly here and bi-weekly on this newsletter.

This might come across as some high and mighty, go left when people go right sort of opinion made primarily to attract attention. I promise it’s not. I might pick up Twitter again sparringly, but for right now, I’m getting much more done sans my 140 character interactions.

Some other elements I try to limit:

  • Email – This is an obvious one. I check it two times a day and keep it closed on weekends.
  • Notifications – I turned them all off everywhere. I use a Chrome extension (Stylish) when I’m working that hides WordPress notifications (since Automattic primarily communicates through internal blogs).

Shutting Down

I’m fortunate enough to work from home. While it definitely has some amazing perks, there are also some downsides. The most prominent downside: when you work from home, well, you can work anytime and all the time. I would shut my laptop at 5pm only to sneak back on at 6pm or 7pm for a “quick checkin.”

Obviously not healthy in the long run.

Deep Work advocates creating a shutdown ritual (complete with phrasing you repeat like “Shutdown Complete”). You won’t catch me saying any magic words, but setting up a ritual has helped tremendously. I set aside 15-30 minutes at the end of each day for things like:

  • Organizing tomorrow’s todo list
  • Planning out my day for tomorrow
  • Checking email to make sure nothing is on fire (it never is)
  • Reading p2 posts I want to catch-up on (I read them in batches)

When all is complete, I close my laptop until the next morning. No “quick checkins.” No responding to notifications on my phone. Done until tomorrow.


All of these steps might sound a bit neurotic, but they work for me. I’ve found that spending 15 minutes a day planning helps me to gain an extra hour or more and limitless peace of mind.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or just looking to get more things done, I would highly recommend checking out Deep Work. It’s well worth every penny.

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