How I Structure My Day for Deep Work

Three weeks ago I quit social media.

That left me with some newfound time and attention that I didn’t want to squander. So I pulled the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, which I’d read years earlier, off the shelf.

I have no doubt that my first reading of that book planted the seed that eventually grew into the action of deleting my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, but I’d forgotten many of the details about how to do deep work well.

As I revisited the book, I used my underlines and margin notes to create one-page sketchnote summaries for each chapter:

My chapter sketchnotes of the book Deep Work by Cal Newport

While there are many ideas in that book worth exploring, here I’d like to focus on the specific philosophy of depth that I’ve chosen to work from, along with the daily schedule that creates the space for consistent deep work sessions.

Let me start by illustrating the four depth philosophies that Newport describes.

The Four Depth Philosophies

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

Newport describes four of them:

The four philosophies of deep work, as described by Cal Newport.

The monastic approach to deep work 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 bimodal approach 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 rhythmic approach 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, Newport points out, works well with the reality of human nature.

Finally, the journalistic approach encourages you to fit in deep work whenever and wherever you can. It is not for the deep work novice.

Since the moment I began working for myself, I’ve paid a lot of attention to my daily routine, often sharing the latest iteration in an annual review video at the start of each year. If you’ve seen those, you won’t be surprised to hear that I prefer the rhythmic approach to deep work.

And even though my most recent routine allowed for deep work, I wouldn’t say that it prioritized it.

That’s the goal of my new daily routine: to prioritize and maximize — sustainably — deep work.

Deep Work Sessions

Before I share my new daily routine, let me first talk about individual deep work sessions.

I decided to shoot for three sessions of deep work a day, each 90 minutes long, based on Newport’s recommendations. He has observed (in himself and others) an upper limit to the amount of deep work that can be done in a day, due to our daily biological allotment of focused attention. That limit is about four and a half hours. Three 90-minute sessions get me there.

That time of 90 minutes is both daunting and exciting — daunting because I’m not used to working in stretches that long and exciting because of the openness that exists when given a large chunk of time to focus on a single task.

Single-tasking is a foundation of deep work. The whole point is to not waste energy switching tasks every few minutes. But in addition to eliminating that loss of energy, single-tasking also creates a space for enjoyable, difficult work.

Hard work that’s forced to completion in small chunks of time is dreadful.

Hard work that has space to breathe can be quite pleasant.

With space and focus, you can approach your work in the way that Neil Gaiman approaches his writing:

Neil Gaiman on his writing process, from his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss.

The most memorable takeaway from Gaiman’s conversation on The Tim Ferriss Show was the rules he creates for his daily writing sessions. He gives himself permission not to write. But he can’t do anything else. He can either do nothing, or write. Those are the only two options.

That’s how I’ve been approaching my 90-minute deep work sessions. I can either do nothing, or I can work on the task I’ve set for myself. I can’t do anything else, not even read a book for inspiration (unless reading the book is itself the task).

I’ve already noticed a pattern to my deep work sessions. At about 45 minutes or an hour into the session, I need to stop and do nothing. I need to sit up straight, stair at the wall, and take some deep breaths. Once I’ve done that for a minute or two, the prospect of getting back to work becomes more appealing than the prospect of continuing to do nothing.

So back to work it is.

A New Daily Routine

With a fuller appreciation for the structure and purpose of those deep work sessions, here’s how I fit them into my day.

A few weeks prior to quitting social media and focusing on deep work, I changed how I spend the first hour of my day.

I used to eat breakfast right away and then immediately start drinking coffee.

Two things made me think I could start my day better. The first was an email from Dan Pink (whose newsletter is great) suggesting that you wait an hour or two after waking before you start drinking coffee so that your body has the chance to release the chemicals that will wake you naturally. The second was a podcast episode from Rachel Rodgers (whose show Hello 7 is also great) mentioning the benefits of intermittent fasting.

Now, I have no desire to take intermittent fasting to its extreme, nor do I want to stop drinking coffee.

I just don’t want to be dependent on immediate food and coffee in order to feel human.

So here’s how I decided to start my day instead:

The moment I get up, I check the weather, put on the appropriate amount of clothing, and go take a walk around the block.

That little bit of fresh air and mild exercise does more to wake me up than my first cup of coffee did. I don’t take anything with me. I just focus on my breath, take in the environment around me, and try to keep my brain from planning the day or rehashing yesterday.

When I get back to the house I head straight down to my basement office, read a novel for about ten minutes, and follow a morning journaling routine that I learned about from Todd Henry’s podcast interview with Neil Pasricha.

The three journaling prompts I respond to each morning, from Neil Pasricha’s conversation with Todd Henry on The Accidental Creative podcast.

That journaling routine has been consistent for almost a year now, and I still enjoy it.

By that time it’s about 7:15 or 7:30, and I’m ready for my first deep work session.

The specific time that I have set aside for my first deep work session is 7:30am to 9:00am.

As you’ll see, I have a unique drink that accompanies each of my three work sessions. That might seem irrelevant, but I’ve actually found it to be important.

For this first deep work session, it’s water.

That drink choice for this first session supports my desire to push caffeine consumption back to a few hours after I’ve woken up.

Since water is good for the brain, it does almost as good a job as coffee in terms of making me feel alert and ready to work. When I first switched to drinking only water for the first few hours of the day, I thought that it would be a painful transition. It was easy.

When it comes to the specific work that I do in that session, I made that choice the day before. As you’ll see, that’s how I end my work day — I pick the three things that I’ll focus on, and I assign each to one deep work session. I write those three things on an index card that I place in the top drawer of my desk. Since it’s only three things, I rarely need to reference that card, but the act of making the decision about what I’ll work on (and committing that decision to paper) keeps me from wasting time and energy on that decision the day of.

Like I said before, I’m not interested in delaying breakfast for as long as possible or cutting my caffeine intake to zero.

I just want to push those things back far enough to let my body wake up naturally and get my first work session in without dependence on any substance other than water.

With that said, when 9:00am rolls around I’m damn excited to go eat breakfast and have some coffee. I also feel satisfied because of the solid 90 minutes of good work that I just completed.

While eating breakfast upstairs, I return to my novel. I then carry my fresh cup of coffee to my office, take those first few delicious sips, and continue reading.

The fact that I’m reading a novel and not a non-fiction book is important to me. I spend my entire work day in the realm of non-fiction. As much as I love that (this) world, there’s just something about a good novel that’s so much more fun to dive into. And because I like what reading in general does to my brain, I choose to start my day with the reading that’s the most enjoyable.

Bring on the caffeine!

That’s the theme of my second deep work session, which officially runs from 9:45am to 11:15am.

(Unofficially, all of these times are just guide posts. They provide the structure to my day that I need and enjoy, but ten or twenty or thirty minutes in one direction or the other is not something that bothers me.)

As you might guess, this is my most energized work session, and I pick the task for it accordingly. If I’m recording new video lessons, for example, I’ll do that in this work session.

My first full cup of coffee, and then about half of my second (and final) cup, get me through the session just fine.

That means I’ve got half a cup left as I transition to the next part of my work day, during which I tackle lots of little things.

This is when I’ll work through my email all the way to inbox zero and check on the latest posts inside of Verbal to Visual, the membership site where I teach sketchnoting skills.

Once I finish that second cup of coffee, that’s my queue to meditate.

Is it cheating that I meditate when I’m highly caffeinated? Maybe…but the benefit of being less likely to doze off is balanced by the challenge of fast-moving thoughts.

If there are any other small tasks on my plate for the day, this is when I take care of them.

At around 1:00pm I’m ready for another break from work, which gives me the opportunity to exercise.

I have a three-day exercise rotation that I really enjoy: run, yoga, and strength training. After that I take a shower and then eat lunch while watching YouTube (which is the only time I allow myself to watch throughout the day).

That break sets me up for my third and final deep work session of the day, which runs from 3:00pm to 4:30pm.

My drink of choice during that work session is tea (Bengal Spice from Celestial Seasoning is my favorite), though sometimes I’ll treat myself to some decaf coffee instead (the decaf part is a hard rule that I refuse to break).

Because this session lands at the end of the work day and after exercise, I’m often a little bit tired here, but that usually triggers a mood of relaxed creativity that I enjoy.

Whenever possible I keep my work analog in this session, planning and writing on blank copy paper or index cards. Keeping screens away helps contribute to that mood of relaxed, slow-paced creativity that I enjoy about this work session.

To end my work day I close everything down, clean up my desk, and decide on the three things I’ll focus on in the next day’s deep work sessions. I write those down on the index card that lives in the top drawer, a ready reminder if needed.

My full day, then, looks like this:

I don’t yet have an end-the-work-day ritual, but I’m on the lookout for one.

I recently heard from a friend within Verbal to Visual who closes her work-at-home days by ringing a bell on her way out the door. It’s one of those loud DING bells you use to get someone’s attention when you walk up to an empty counter.

I like that.

Old Ways vs New

In my old way of working, I would often reward myself with a check of social media after each 20-minute work session.

Now that I’ve removed that source of distraction and entertainment, I’m a little surprised to find that I don’t miss it.

In many ways, my current 90-minute work sessions are easier and more pleasant than those 20-minute work sessions were. That’s because I’m creating the conditions for my brain to bring its full attention to the task at hand, rather than slicing off a part of it that’s just waiting for the next social media break.

As Newport argues early on in his book, long stretches of deep work yield meaning and fulfillment. Those byproducts of deep work are more enjoyable and last longer than the quick dopamine hits of social media.

While I have no doubt that some aspects of my daily routine will change over time, I think that an emphasis on deep work is here to stay.

Sketchnoter, solopreneur, twin dad. Founder of Verbal to Visual, where I teach sketchnoting skills:

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