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Book Review: Deep Work

Three years ago I reviewed So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. It was one of my favorite books that year and I continue to recommend it to people. Newport has just released his next book, Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, and it’s even better.

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport explored what he calls his “career capital” hypothesis. Essentially it breaks down like this:

  1. Develop rare and valuable skills (aka career capital), which gives you…
  2. Creative control over projects, and
  3. Control over your time (provides time for “deep work”), which will more likely have…
  4. A positive impact on the world, and result in…
  5. Working with people you enjoy

In Deep Work, Newport goes into depth as to why “deep work” is important and how you can develop this skill.

Cal Newport Book Review Deep Work

The Idea

Newport first describes what constitutes deep work:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. Their efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Contrast this with shallow work:

Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in the world and are easy to replicate.

I think if many professionals are honest with themselves, they likely spend far more time on shallow work than deep work. Largely because shallow work gives you a semblance of accomplishment. Completing small tasks, moving bits of information around, seems like you are generating accomplishments. “Busyness as a proxy for productivity.” But Newport argues, and provides examples, showing that deep work does not come from busyness, but from disconnecting and concentration. And while deep work is diminishing in much of the modern workplace, the need for it is greater than ever. Thus, the deep work hypothesis:

The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

The first half of Deep Work goes on to provide examples of deep work from jobs and professions around the world in support of this hypothesis. College professors, coders, statisticians, reporters, blacksmiths. Newport shows how people from all walks of life utilize deep work to excel in their tasks and propel themselves forwards in their career.

If you already believe the deep work hypothesis to be true (I do), then this is preaching to the choir. If you are new to the idea, it is likely to make you a convert. In the end, you’ll also echo Winifred Gallagher, “I’ll live the focused life, for it’s the best kind there is.”

The Rules

The second half of the book constitutes skills, routines, and behaviors you can utilize to develop the ability to perform deep work. Broadly speaking, Newport groups these into four rules.

Rule # 1 Work Deeply – To perform deep work, you must remove distractions. Deep work cannot come about in an environment of constant interruption. As such, it’s important to develop rituals and routines to minimize the effort it takes to transition into a state of deep work. Deep work is not a switch to be thrown. It is something that requires exertion to achieve.

Rule # 2 Embrace Boredom – “Instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction.”  You need to train yourself to concentrate. Deep work requires a level of concentration far afield from what most people regularly bring about.

Rule # 3 Quit Social Media – This one will likely initially be off-putting to many. But it’s basis is in the craftsman approach to tool selection: only adopt a tool if its positive impacts on your success and happiness outweigh its negatives. Instead of being on every social media service, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Reddit, Blogs, YouTube, Snapchat, Periscope, etc. because they might provide any benefit at some point, you should select specific services because they provide specific utility to your happiness and success. Embrace the Pareto Principle.

Rule # 4 Drain The Shallows – The shallow work that dominates the time of most knowledge workers is less vital than it often seems in the moment. To push back against the shallow work you need to aggressively schedule your entire day and quantify the depth of your activities. By taking the time to schedule your entire day, you can ensure you have extended periods of time necessary for deep work. And quantifying all of your activities will help you develop an understanding of activities in your schedule that require periods of deep work.

“The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”

If you’re already a devotee of deep work, then this book is just going to reinforce your belief in its value. If you are new to the concept, it will go a long way towards convincing you that you need to examine how you schedule your day. Regardless, Deep Work is worth reading if you want a richer understanding of the concept and actionable steps for implementing deep work in your life.

Highly recommended.

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2 comments

  1. Great review, bought the book.

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