Rule #1: Work Deeply

In this perhaps the most important section (certainly lengthy) Cal is making the point that your willpower is limited, and people spend their days fighting desires. To circumvent this, he suggests six strategies and goes on to answer some general questions for the implementation. The goal of the rule is to reduce the conflicts between deep work and distractions, by providing you with tools.

Step 1: Decide on Your Depth Philosophy

Different people approach deep work differently. Donald Knuth is famed for his ability to cut off all communications, while Brian Chappell spends only fixed hours doing focused work. It may also be the case that certain philosophy may work for you at one time and a different one at another. It is important that you choose a philosophy that suits your specific circumstances.

There are 4 philosophies to choose from:

  1. Monastic
    • In this comparatively ruthless approach, you minimise or remove as many shallow activities as possible.
    • You spend as much time as possible focusing deeply, deploying ways to fend off shallow work.
    • The thought process is to evaluate how much deep work means to you, and that focusing on shallow work will not let you produce extremely high-quality work.
  2. Bimodal
    • People like Carl Jung, Bill Gates etc take vacations for a few months where they cut off completely from the world, go to a cabin and focus on deep work.
    • Rest of the time is open to anything at all.
    • You may change the duration of the breaks to a week or at minimum one entire day.
  3. Rhythmic
    • Dedicate fixed periods of your day to deep work. For example, every morning from 7am to 10am you work deeply without any distractions at all, after which the day opens up to everything and anything.
    • These periods are much shorter and dispersed over a long period, hence the name rhythmic.
    • This philosophy is basically that of habit building and all the relevant tools apply.
    • This approach is one of the most common because it fits very well with our information economy where you are allowed to deeply focus as long as you don’t miss highly important communications.
  4. Journalistic
    • Journalists have to focus amidst chaos. They may get 30min of focused time at random intervals throughout the day.
    • Walter Isaacson used to write a few pages whenever he got time - while sitting with friends on the patio, for example. He wrote a >800 pages non-fiction book this way.
    • In this approach, you try to fit deep work wherever you can, for however long you can.
    • It is tough especially without practise to bring the mind to focus intensely in the moment.

Step 2: Ritualise

It is important to create strict rituals to help you get into the deep work state. Many important thinkers such as Darwin, Robert Caro etc adhered to their routines.

Cal is not suggesting strictness in the sense of “do nothing except deep work”. This is clarified by the example of Darwin. While writing “On the Origin of Species”, his son said, Darwin used to wake up at 7am, take a short walk, eat breakfast and then work deeply for 1.5 hours, then he would spend 1-hour doing shallow activities such as responding to letters, have lunch, take one more walk and call it a day by 5pm.

To implement the rituals, you should answer a few general questions:

  1. Where you will work and for how long
    • Specify a location where you will do your deep work such as your office, library, conference room.
    • Next, decide on a time limit for each session and keep a discrete goal in mind.
  2. How you will work once you start
    • Create a set of rules and a structure to guide your work during the sessions.
    • These rules are supposed to help you stay focused. Some examples are: ban internet use, count number of words written per half hour etc.
  3. How you will support your work
    • Brain needs to be supported
    • Keep enough food, have coffee, integrate exercise etc.
    • Create a system that works for you, so that you don’t have to waste time thinking about how to support the brain over and over again.

Step 3: Make Grand Gestures

J.K. Rowling had rented a suite in Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh with a huge castle nearby, Spending $1000/day to write The Deathly Hallows. Bill Gates used to retreat to a cabin in the woods for his “Think Weeks” with a stack of papers and books. Alan Lightman retreats to a secret tiny island in Maine. Peter Shankman had booked a round-trip ticket to Japan costing $4000 to write the major part of his book.

Such grand gestures are not about the cabins or the hotels, they’re about what the cabins, hotels and trips represent. Their sole purpose of writing, working deeply helps enforce the environment.

Step 4: Don’t Work Alone

To explore the relationship between deep work and collaboration, Cal presents “The Theory of Serendipitous Creativity”:


When you bump into each other, smart collaboration and new ideas emerge.

Places such as Bell Labs and Building 20 at MIT prove that the theory of serendipitous creativity is not only true but essential to creating highly valuable things. Frank Gehry had constructed Bell Labs offices such that offices were around common spaces, stairwells were kept open between floors. This allowed faculties to go deep in their offices when needed, and create opportunities for serendipitous encounters in the common spaces.

When a collaboration sparks up, it is recommended to take the collaborative effort into the offices where people work together, deeply. When this approach is mixed with thinking alone, it allows the ideas to shape up and mature rapidly and in unexpected ways.

Step 5: Execute Like a Business

Clayton Christensen describes The 4 Disciplines of Execution for businesses:

  1. Focus on the wildly important
    • Christensen says “the more you try to do, the less you accomplish”.
    • Instead of trying to do more, teams should focus on what are considered “wildly important” goals.
    • Instead of saying “no” to trivial things, saying “yes” to important things and allowing important things to take over trivial things completely is a better approach for the brain to train and prioritise properly.
  2. Act on the lead measures
    • Lag Measures: the things you’re ultimately trying to optimise for.
    • Lead Measures: behaviours that will drive the success of your lag measures.
    • As examples, a lag measure would be to increase customer satisfaction and lead measure would be the time taken to pick up support calls.
    • Acting on lead measures help you stay on track of achieving the wildly important goals. Lag measures are good to track long-term goals, lead measures tell you the day-to-day story.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard
    • A public scoreboard of the performance of the teams on their lead measures helps create a sense of competition and focus.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability
    • Holding frequent meetings with the agenda of discussing the progress of teams on their wildly important goals where they have to report on their current scoreboards, coming up with ways to improve the performance and discussing what happened with the talking points from the last meeting helps create a sense of accountability for teams.

These 4 rules can be easily adapter for individuals.

Step 6: Be Lazy

Tim Kreider:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically necessary to getting any work done”


Being lazy made Kreider better at his job. As discussed previously, willpower is a limited resource, and leisure time is necessary to replenish your reserves.

Cal suggests you declare your workday over at a specific time, accompanied by a verbal acknowledgement such as “shutdown complete” - accepting the gesture to be seemingly cheesy - as an effective way to order your brain to stop thinking about professional obligations and “wind-down”. After completing your workday, you will not check your emails, think about what happened during the work hours or what you are going to do the next day. The workday is supposed to be complete.

There are three reasons for such a ritual:

  1. Downtime aids insights
    • Unconscious Thought Theory suggests that the brain keeps working on the tasks in the background if it is allowed some time off from active deep engagements.
    • Though your conscious brain is required to solve math problems, it has been shown by Dijksterhuis et al that the unconscious brain is better at handling problems with multiple vague and conflicting information.
  2. Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
    • Attention Restoration Theory suggests that spending time in nature improves your ability to concentrate. Even in adverse situations of extreme heat or cold while being in nature, participants of a study showed increased ability to focus as compared to the participants who were not allowed to take walks outside.
    • It has also been shown that people go through “attention fatigue” where the person is too tired to focus intensely as required by deep work after working intensely for a certain number of hours.
    • For the untrained, 1 hour a day seems to be the limit of deep work; for skilled, it is 4 hours a day and rarely more.
  3. The work replaced is usually not that important
    • If you structure your day carefully, at the end of the day the remaining activities will not be important enough to sacrifice your ability to focus again the next day.

To succeed at these strategies, you need to learn to call it a day and come to terms with the fact that there will always be a task remaining, always a seemingly important email to be answered and problems to be solved. Keep in mind that regularly resting your brain is extremely important to keep and improve your ability to work deeply.

Previous issue: Deep Work Summary Part 3 (Deep Work Is Meaningful)

Follow up: Deep Work Summary Part 5 (Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media)




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