Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work explains why the skill of working with intense focus is so important in the modern world, and promises to show us how to develop this skill.

“Rules for focused success in a distracted world”

Deep Work is a very much a productivity book, but with a twist. Like most productivity books, it includes tips and techniques for managing your time, dealing with emails, and managing expectations of colleagues.

But these are very much a means to an end: the goal is to create space for periods of intense focus which are necessary for most knowledge workers. As such, it may be less applicable for office workers whose role is to manage, coordinate, or facilitate, although it’s still worth a read if you’re collaborating with people for whom intense focus is important.

Part of the appeal of Deep Work is that the author practices what he preaches, and not only in his role as a productivity guru. Cal Newport is an Associate Professor in Computer Science. In his day job he teaches university students, and is an active researcher publishing many peer-reviewed papers each year. Yet somehow he also manages to keep a popular productivity blog, Study Hacks, and write popular books.

Deep Work was published in 2016 and has become popular and influential. I decided to finally read it after reading Cal Newport’s more recent title, Digital Minimalism, which has a more holistic focus on digital habits in every aspect of life, rather than focusing on the work environment.

You may have noticed if you’ve followed that I didn’t post for a few months at the end of last year. Moving into 2020, I wanted to get back on track and renew my efforts. Blogging is deep work: an activity that requires intense concentration, so now seemed the perfect time to read (and review) Deep Work.

Why Deep Work?

In part one, almost a hundred pages are dedicated to explaining the idea of deep work. Depending on your temperament, you may find this tedious or inspiring.

The first chapter, Deep Work is Valuable, explains why this kind of work has become so important in the modern world. This is explained through case studies of successful individuals including a statistician, a computer programmer, and a professor. For all these individuals, the ability to work deeply is key to their success.

There are also counter examples of success, including an investor and an executive, for whom working deeply is a less important factor in their success… those with large amounts of capital or in a position of power. The book argues that since these are not accessible, developing a deep work skill is important for the rest of us.

The second chapter, Deep Work is Rare, makes the case that although deep work is so important in the modern knowledge work economy, very few people have mastered this skill, so there’s a huge opportunity for those who can. The same economy that values deep work, also produces an endless stream of distractions, which makes it harder to work deeply.

The third chapter, Deep Work is Meaningful, makes the case that this kind of work gives our life meaning. A comparison is made with the satisfaction of craftwork. Since the industrial revolution, craftwork professionals are not so common, but knowledge work require a somewhat similar skill set: years of focused learning and practice is required to achieve a notable level of success.

The number of pages given to making the case for Deep Work seems to make the book less accessible: perhaps some won’t even make it this far! But so long as you do, you’ll have a better understanding of the rationale for deep work and be motivated to do it.

Tips and Techniques for Deep Work

In the second and final part of the book, each of the four chapters is named after a rule to support working deeply. The rules are fairly broad and abstract, but each chapters contains numerous tips & techniques.

Rule 1 is Work Deeply. Since working deeply it is also our goal, this is perhaps the least helpful name for a rule one could imagine. However, the chapter does contain useful discussion and tips.

It covers a number of alternative approaches for scheduling deep work: from the strict monastic approach, which is probably too anti-social for most, to the journalistic approach of switching to deep work whenever the opportunity presents itself: probably too hard for most. The more balanced approaches are bimodal (long periods of days or weeks set aside for deep work) and rhythmic (scheduling some time each day for deep work). This is a long chapter which touches a wide range of topics from rituals for deep work, to office layouts that support it.

Rule 2 is Embrace Boredom. It makes the case that feelings of boredom will be unavoidable when working deeply, and this needs to be handled without resorting to distractions, particularly online distractions such as checking email and surfing the web. Going offline where possible is recommended since it eliminates a never-ending source of distractions.

This chapter also introduces the interesting concept of a productive meditation. This is similar to regular meditation, except the object of meditation is not the breath or body, but a professional problem. This is recommended not in order to solve problems, but in order to train the mind to stay focused for deep work. Personally, I have enough trouble sticking to a regular schedule for standard meditation, so I doubt I will find time to do this regularly, but I do plan to try it a few times!

Rule 3 is Quit Social Media. Cal Newport is not a fan of social media and has never had a social media account, conveniently providing proof that it’s possible to achieve success without it. He doesn’t recommend this for everyone, but he does recommend temporarily quitting each social media service you use, then quitting permanently if it turns out to be inessential for you. He also suggests finding offline hobbies instead of going online for entertainment.

Rule 4 is Drain the Shallows. The chapter starts out with an example demonstrating that most people working 40 hours per week in office jobs are not productive for the whole 40 hours. By limiting the time worked, people will eliminate the less essential, shallow tasks. This is very much true in my experience: most of us can’t work deeply for so many hours week after week. The typical shallow tasks that many fill their time with in an office job are emails and meetings. Of course, communication is necessary and important, but we often overdo it. Writing emails and attending meetings are easier than doing Deep Work. So the chapter discusses techniques to reduce the number of emails and meetings, and also scheduling, so that the shallow tasks are batched together. This leaves free blocks of time for deep work.

Deep Work is not for everyone. In fact, the book acknowledges this in the Conclusion:

The deep life, of course, is not for everyone. It requires hard work and drastic changes to change your habits.

But if you’re a knowledge worker, or even if you have a hobby such as blogging, working deeply is key to success. Developing this skill might be the difference between being mediocre at what you do, and excelling.

The book covers many topics and techniques I haven’t had space to mention in this review.

Conclusion

I recommend Deep Work to anyone in a “knowledge work” career, or anyone who works closely with people who do this kind of work. If you’re a truck driver or a shop keeper, you probably won’t find much of interest here, although the passionate advocacy for deep work in part one could inspire you to change career or take up a new hobby that gives you the opportunity to practice deep work!

This is by no means a perfect book. It doesn’t really provide an easy to follow action plan in the manner that other books like The Distraction Trap do – chapter summaries, exercises, or a cheat sheet would have helped with this. But it is an inspiring book, so even if you only apply a few techniques from the book, it could still be very much worth your time!

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