The Four Philosophies of Deep Work

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the case for approaching your work with more focus and higher-quality attention.

In order to make that type of work a priority and integrate it into your life in a way that sticks, you need an underlying philosophy.

Here I’d like to sketch out the four different deep work philosophies that Newport describes in his book and talk about the two that I find to be the most appealing.

First is the monastic approach, which involves the elimination or radical reduction of shallow obligations, so that all that’s left is depth. This approach works well for those who can identify a high-value professional goal, where success comes from doing one thing exceptionally well.

The monastic approach to deep work.

While I appreciate the value of focus, this one isn’t for me. I like variety in my day a little too much, and I even find that a few shallow tasks each day can provide a helpful sense of momentum.

Next we’ve got the bimodal approach, which divides your time into two modes: deep work and everything else. You create clearly-defined stretches for deep work (a few weeks or a few months), where you focus on deep work. Then you spend a few weeks or months attending to what you neglected when in deep work mode. Back and forth you go.

The bimodal approach to deep work.

I see the appeal of this one, but as a solopreneur in charge of customer support for my business, it feels a little impractical to step away for long stretches of deep work. There are too many small responsibilities that I’d be neglecting.

The third deep work philosophy is the rhythmic approach, which focuses on daily cycles, giving you the opportunity to turn deep work sessions into a regular habit that occur at consistent times each day. This approach, as Newport shares, works well with the reality of human nature.

The rhythmic approach to deep work.

This one has been my go-to for years. I’m a routine-oriented person. I’ve also had the luxury of an entire work day to myself for quite some time, which has allowed me to structure it in whatever way I see fit.

That luxury is going away soon, which is where this last one comes into play.

The journalistic approach to deep work encourages you to fit in deep work whenever and wherever you can. Like a journalist in the field, you’re always prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. This approach is not for the deep work novice.

The journalistic approach to deep work.

The journalistic approach is now on my radar because my wife is pregnant with twins. In a few months two other human beings with need my near-constant attention.

My disruption-free 9-5 will be a thing of the past, and I’m actually okay with that. As much as I’ve leaned into my daily routine ever since I started working for myself, I think I’ve become a bit too neurotic about my working conditions, and a bit too strict about how I work.

But that rhythmic approach helped me to build my deep work muscles that I now get to take with me out into the field of first-time parenthood.

I’ve already been shifting my tools and workflows to better suit that journalistic approach. More on that in an upcoming video.

Here, though, I want to explore one important difference between the rhythmic approach and the journalistic approach: the amount of time you have to ramp up to and ramp down from the work.

With the rhythmic approach you can put all of these nice routines in place that precede and follow the deep work itself. You know how much time you’ll have available, where you’ll be, and what tools you’ll have on hand. You can plan how you’ll enter the work and how you‘ll leave it.

With the journalistic approach you’ve got to make use of whatever time comes your way, and you won’t always know when that is. You’ll have to transition into and out of those deep work sessions quickly.

I’m shifting from the rhythmic approach to the journalistic approach as I prepare for first-time parenthood (with twins!).

And since creative work has the potential to stir up both thoughts and emotions, the danger I fear is that those will stick with me after the window of work has closed, that it will bleed into the time that I’d like to spend fully focused on my family.

That’s where mindfulness comes in, a practice I’ve been working on regularly. The core of a mindfulness practice involves paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that you experience in any given moment, without getting attached to those thoughts or feelings.

That practice pairs well with the internal struggles that anyone doing creative work faces. And with the journalistic approach to deep work I’ll be relying on my mindfulness skills, more-so than routines, to help me do deep work when the opportunities arise, and then leave that work behind once the window has passed.

I know that meaningful work can happen without an underlying philosophy to it, but I do think it’s more likely to happen consistently when there’s a philosophy in place.

As I continue to grow my creative work and business, it’s nice to know that I can shift my philosophy as I move from one stage of life to another.

This next one is gonna be a doozy.

I’m excited for it.

-Doug