The Four Disciplines of Execution and How Deep Work by Cal Newport Is Changing My Life (part 2 of 3)


How do we do deep work?

Last week I wrote about the first half of Cal Newport’s Deep Work – what deep work is and why you would care. Maybe you spent some time this week noticing your own deep and shallow work, your ability to focus intensely or your pull toward distraction and split attention. This week I’m going to review how one begins to build capacity for deep work and armor against distraction. Then I’ll share concrete examples of the changes I’m making in my own life to increase deep work and reduce distraction.

In Newport’s discussion of behavior change, he begins with an introduction to The 4 Disciplines of Execution, a set of rules I wasn’t familiar with before and found just as immensely helpful as Newport does.

Discipline 1: Focus on the Wildly Important

Become myopic in your goal, narrow down to clearly defined targets for your bursts of deep work. David Brooks says, “Try to say ‘yes’ to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else”.


Last week I asked, “What does it mean for me to be a valuable, productive psychologist or a valuable, productive author? Does it mean my practice is full of clients, I have a waiting list, everyone has heard of me, and I am busy busy busy? Does it mean that I write often, that my social media alerts ping frequently with likes and coveted retweets? Even as I play it out you can feel the emptiness, can’t you? For me, being a productive and useful psychologist means being clinically precise and being able to show with data that after people work with me their lives are *better*, richer, and fuller of value. A high bar and I think a good one.”

Here is my own ‘wildly important.’ I want to be better. I want to continue to hone my trade as a psychologist and dive into writing, a task that can paralyze me with fear. I have only two professional goals this year:

(a) As a psychologist, I want to continue to master the craft of doing Acceptance and Commitment Therapy via (1) reading and rereading of the foundational texts, (2) regular mentoring, and (3) a data-based evaluation of client outcomes. All of this is in the service of continuing to hone my own ability to provide efficient and impactful therapy to help my clients create the lives they yearn for.

(b) As a writer, I want to craft prose that is meaningful and beautiful, which has the potential to touch people’s lives.

Both these goals make me sweat through my shirt. I long for them and I am terrified by them. That tells me they are linked to great love and are worth the fight.

Discipline 2: Act on the Lead Measures

Per The 4 Disciplines of Execution, lag measures are the outcomes you are ultimately trying to improve (e.g. in my case, to make people’s lives better). Lead measures are the new behaviors you are engaged in that will drive your success toward your eventual goal (e.g. my deep work time dedicated to reading, writing, and data collection on client’s outcomes).

Newport reiterates that this focus on lead measures provides a concrete behavior you can control in this moment, right now. If my lag measure is to help my client’s meet their goals and help them create rich, valued lives, my lead measure can be the amount of deep work I do dedicated to the actions that impact these goals (specifically improving my own expertise and collecting data on how they’re doing). The presumption here is that the behaviors I engage in during this deep work (such as honing my expertise, crafting essays on the art and science of living well, and developing a systematized data center for tracking outcomes) all lead me to the eventual goals of improving my expertise and impacting the lives of the people I serve.

Discipline 3: Keep a Compelling Scoreboard

In this early stage of my own deep work, I am not tracking total hours of deep work. I point you to Newport’s rich descriptions of this practice both in the book and in his blog post describing how he tracks both hours of deep work and milestones.

Instead of a compelling scoreboard, I am focused on crafting a daily schedule that (a) groups likeminded shallow work tasks together to reduce inefficiencies and (b) prioritizes 90 to 240 minutes of deep work each week day. Each daily chunk of deep work has a specific goal. For example, in my daily planner I mark out each hour, indicated scheduled meetings with highlighter, outline in black my deep work blocks and set only one goals for each blocks (e.g. intake measures or blog post).

Discipline 4: Create a Cadence of Accountability

Newport points out that even for individuals who don’t have the benefit of peer pressure and support from a team, regularly scheduled (a) reflection backward and (b) planning forward works well to maintain focus, address barriers or road blocks, and maintain the goal of increasing the amount of deep work you do. In my own work, this pattern of accountability by reflecting backward and planning forward occur in a daily and weekly cycle:

·        At the end of each work day, I draw my daily schedule for the next day, planning what amount of time I can block for deep work and what goal I will focus on (this action is heavily influenced by Newport’s own suggestions of a ‘strict shutdown ritual’).

·        Each Friday morning, I look back over the week and note my successes and bumps. With this data in mind I plan forward. For example, I adjust how much time to schedule for email or social media based on what I learned from the week before.

·        If next week includes a trip, I examine my schedule and flex accordingly. This can include adjusting my own expectations, prioritizing deep work on the plane, or carving out a few hours on the weekend to counterbalance the gap in deep work during the workweek.

We’re beginning to talk about the uncomfortable adjustments one would need to make to create a space for deep work. And none of us are very good at change without having a clear why or purpose. As I read Deep Work, I was reminded of my year of clinical internship at University of California, San Francisco. I spent my work week at the city hospital trauma center. Given my own shallow self-care skill set, I came home most evenings exhausted then slept through nightmares. I still had a dissertation to finish, using a (new to me) advanced statistical approach to examine the way that individual, family, and environment variables in early and middle childhood impact dating violence in the teen years. This could have been a recipe for burn out and stagnation.

Luckily, I stumbled into a routine that looks very much like some of Newport’s suggestions. I focused solely on clinical work Monday through Friday. Each Saturday I woke up, shut myself in our small bedroom, and worked on my dissertation from 8 AM to 4 PM. I *never* made plans on Saturday. I didn’t see the sunshine until I put in at least 8 hours of work.

Sunday I played. I hiked and ate burritos and drank margaritas with friends. And I came back to Monday morning refreshed and ready. And you may have guessed by those letters after my name, I finished my dissertation, on time, while working Monday through Friday for the year.


Newport suggests to work deeply, you must also be lazy. Newport argues idleness aids insight and recharges the energy needed to work deeply. He also suggests evening work isn’t really that productive anyway. I would describe this as you must inhale to exhale. Any sustaining practice requires both periods of stretching to your physical and cognitive limits, then periods of rest and restoration.

There are a million examples of this inhale and exhale rhythm. I encourage you to find the ones that inspire you. For me, it is Olympic athletes describing 12 hours of sleep as just as crucial to fitness as the elaborate speed drills. It is Darwin’s and Stephen King’s regular routine of writing all morning then walking in the afternoon.

How could you use the 4 disciplines for your own goals? What would you like to try out this week? I leave you with one more quotation from Newport: “The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained…efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction”. (p157)  

Wishing you a week of peace, Kerry