Book review “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

I have finished reading the book “Deep Work”, authored by Cal Newport. These are my reading notes about what is, in essence, a book about productivity. Its premise is that, to succeed in today’s information intensive economy, we need to be able to deal with, and learn about, complex subjects. As the author writes in page 91, the ability to deal with complex matters and create new value “is increasingly valuable and increasingly rare. Hence, if you cultivate this skill, you will thrive professionally”.

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To be able to do that kind of learning and work, Newport says that we need to master the ability to do ‘deep work’, which Cal Newport defines as:

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

 

That is, the main point of departure of Newport’s book vis a vis other books in its category is that Deep Work is not focused on finding a few more minutes in the day in which to get work done, and is not focused on simply getting more work done. Indeed, the book argues against using “busyness” as a proxy for creating value:

Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from it is an activity that is often at odds with busyness, not supported by it (page 65).

 

Instead, Deep Work is focused on achieving a particular type of output which is not compatible with squeezing 15 minutes here and 10 minutes there. It is the type of output that requires you to “work for extended periods of time with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction” (page 44).

 

Having spent around 70 pages (the first part of the book), making the case for this type of productivity, Newport than dedicates the second part of the book to outlining four practices for achieving it. They are:

Deep work contents

 

Rule 1. Work deeply

There is no way around it: to produce the type of ‘valuable output’ praised in this book, we need to dedicate large chunks of time, and engage fully with the task at hand, without interruptions or distractions. For some, this will be dedicating several weeks or event months at a time to this type of work; for others, it will be about blocking out large chunks of hours every week; for others, it means a couple of hours every day. Think binge working, not snacking. And give up on the idea of multi-tasking.

 

Newport states that the longest someone can sustain intense concentration for is around 4 hours per day, while most of us novices will struggle to do more than 1 hour a day. Hence, working deeply is about creating long term working practices, rather than a short-term solution.

 

Approaches that might help us to work deeply, include:

  • Following specific rituals – Rituals help us make the mental transition into deep work. For instance, get coffee, or set out the documents that we are going to need to that deep work session.
  • Making grand gestures – Giving out certain signs or making certain commitments may motivate us to make the most of the time available. For instance, staying at a very expensive hotel for a mini-writing retreat, or signing a contract with a publisher which gives us a strict deadline.
  • Selectively working with others – The emphasis here is on selective interaction with others, in a way that helps us get the work done. For instance, working with others with complementary skills to ours, or engaging in discussions about a complex problem that we are trying to solve.
  • Focusing on lead measures – We should focus on the behaviours that we can control and which will contribute meaningfully to advancing our work. For instance, how much time we spent working on the problem, and how often we do that.
  • Creating breaks – Downtime not only helps us recharge, but also creates the mental space for insight to occur, which helps productivity. For instance, give yourself a strict time to stop working every day, or interspace periods of deep work with periods of physical activity (e.g., going for a run).

 

Rule 2. Embrace boredom

If the ability to sustain intense concentration for a long period of time is the first challenge that we face, the other, associated challenge is to be able to resist distractions. Not just distractions that come our away (e.g., a colleague knocking at our door), but also the self-imposed ones (e.g., checking the e-mail). When we are bored or frustrated with the task at hand, we feel an urgent need to do something else. To succeed, we need to train ourselves to resit these urges and embrace the feeling that comes with being frustrated with a task, and push through it.

 

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained (page 157). Being able to resist the pull of the phone, or the inbox, or the shopping list, or the biscuit tin requires willpower and practice. It is like strengthening a muscle. Newport suggests:

  • Scheduling distractions – Allocating time in our diary to do all those things that keep tempting us. For instance, scheduling a couple of half-hour slots at specific times of the day to deal with e-mail.
  • Meditating productively – This means creating situations when we “are occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, driving, showering – and focus (our) attention on a single well-defined professional problem” (page 170).

 

Rule 3. Quit Social Media

Social media tools are extremely addictive, with the constant refreshing of content, and the “likes” which reward our limbic system. They are also very distracting by virtue of their design and the push notifications. Newport questions the value of social media in our lives, and urges us to give up using these tools (I questioned this suggestion, here).

 

Newport suggest that we should stop using our social media accounts for a while, without announcing it to anyone. Then, when (or even if) we really can’t find a better tool than social media to do whatever it is that we need to do (e.g., entertainment, get in touch with someone, research an issue, etc…), we can go back to using it.

 

Rule 4. Drain the shallows

To increase the time and energy spent on deep work, we should minimise the time and energy spent on its opposite: shallow work. Newport defines shallow work as

noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate” (page 228).

 

Newport outlines a number of strategies to help us focus on the important work, and reduce the time we spent on those shallow tasks that populate our diaries:

  • Reducing the amount of time available for work – e.g., having a four days work week.
  • Scheduling our day in 30-minute blocks and filling out our schedule in advance so that we know what we are going to do next, and know when to schedule the interruptions (see rule two). This habit has the added advantage of helping us realise how long our different tasks actually take to complete, how many times or how often we are interrupted, and so on.
  • Setting a fixed schedule – The example given is to decide not to work past a certain time each day, and then work backwards in terms of scheduling deep work, and declining shallow work or resisting distractions.

 

My thoughts on this book

There were many things that I like about this book. First of all, the message. The argument that we need to resist the temptation of busyness and short-term goals is a very important one. We face very complex problems, which require engaged thinking and which are not compatible with superficial solutions.

 

Second, I like that the book debunked myths around multitasking and around the need to be connected and accessible all the time in order to succeed professionally. Regarding multitasking, Newport refers to the concept of attention residue to explain how we can’t simply switch from one task to another, and how the constant switching between tasks reduces our cognitive capacity. Regarding connectivity and availability, not only does the world not end if we do not reply immediately to an e-mail or to a social media mention, but our reply may even improve if we give ourselves some time to think through the issue and leave emotions aside (with the added advantage that some matters get solved by themselves).

 

Third, I liked the message that concentration takes practice. It is not something that we have or lack, but something that we can get better at. It is something that requires consistent, concerted effort (in other words, a growth mindset), and that our organisational, technical and even social environments make it really difficult for us to achieve this. For instance, open spaces make it difficult to concentrate; many organisations reward busyness and shallow work; instant notifications make it really difficult to resist the pull of electronic distractions; the expectation that we will keep an active social media presence in the professional context gives us yet more reasons to log in when we should be focusing (e.g., being asked to tweet during a conference) or resting.

 

Fourth, I found some of the tips very useful, such as:

  • That we should be firm but vague when declining a request for shallow work. For instance, say “I can’t accept that invitation due to schedule conflicts” without going into detail regarding the specific schedule conflicts, or we may end up in a lengthy exchange of e-mails trying to deal with that specific conflict.
  • That we should find a ritual that works for us. Newport writes in page 121: “Keep in mind that finding a ritual that sticks might require experimentation, so be willing to work at it”. I’d add that we should question our current habits – e.g., check e-mails before start; or put / not put music on, etc…
  • That we should schedule tasks in blocks of 30 minutes, including scheduling blocks of time for shallow work.

 

Finally, I very much liked the writing style and the formatting of the book. It is written in large font, and there is plenty of space between sections. Moreover, it is written in plain English and all chapters within each part of the book follow a similar structure. Also, it has numerous examples, and plenty of references to related research for those wishing to learn more about this topic.

 

I have to say, though, that there are some things that I do not like about this book, too. First, the book equates value (and therefore success) with achievements that are directly beneficial to the individual. In the case of academics like Newport, for instance, value is defined as publishing papers, which gives him tenure (job security) and prestige among his peers. There is no mention of contributing to the organisation that employs him, for instance by taking up a leadership role. Also, one of the examples provided on draining the shallows (Part 2, Rule 4) is to limit the number of papers reviews, which is one of the key ways in which academics like Newport can give back to the scholar community, as it helps others get published and their work disseminated.

 

Second, this book is written from a position of privilege. Newport is a straight, white man, with a full-time job at an Ivy League university (and probably from a privileged background, too). The advice and examples that he offers reflect that. For instance:

  • choosing when to teach is not an option usually available to junior or temporary faculty;
  • putting an out of office message is unacceptable in many working cultures;
  • closing the office door is impossible for the increasing numbers working in shared or open plan offices;
  • not taking on administrative roles blocks career progression in many institutions;
  • and, of course, living within walking distance of your place of work is unaffordable for vast sections of the population.

 

Another form of privilege implicit in the advice and examples provided in this book is that these highly successful professionals have no house or child caring responsibilities. Yes, Newport talks about having dinner with this family and tucking the children in bed… but who is worrying about the nitty gritty of everyday life and actually doing the parenting? Someone has to ensure that there is food on the table for those all-important family meals; and someone needs to look after school runs, homework, piano practice, paediatrician appointments and so on. In page 112, for instance, Newport reports the case of a PhD student, who was married with a new baby and had a full-time job. We are meant to admire this student because he would get up before 5h30m am to get at least 2 hours of writing done before going to his paid job. Much to admire there, for sure. But this sort of dedication was possible, only, because he had the privilege of not having to care for that new baby.

 

And what about the example, in page 103, of the computer scientist who refused to have an e-mail address so that he would reduce the number of people reaching out to him and trying to get his attention? To get hold of this successful professor, we would have to be near him (privilege breeding privilege, here*); or invest our time (which presumably is worth less than the scientist’s) going to the post office to post a letter… which would then be handled by someone who the scientist had hired to deal with his correspondence (yet, more privilege).

 

The third thing that I do not like in this book is that the vast majority of examples of successful professionals provided in this book are of males. Only three of the numerous examples listed are of women (namely, journalist Alissa Rubin, author JK Rowling, and scientist Radhika Nagpal). This could be, of course, because of the very definition of value and success adopted in this book, and of the privilege need to achieve it (which is even rarer in the case of women). But, in my view, it is also a little bit lazy of the author.

 

The fourth and final criticism that I have concerns the writing style. In my opinion, the last two chapters are about 30% too long. They get a bit repetitive, and go on and on about the same message – namely, that social media is the enemy, and that we need to cut out distractions from our lives so that we can produce valuable work. Maybe this was in order to keep the various chapters consistent with each other in terms of length. I get it. But it did feel out of place for a book which is defending the need to focus on what matters, and to not waste time.

 

In summary, Deep Work has an important message about the need to concentrate in order to tackle big problems, and about the importance of creating the environment and the routines to enable that type of concentration. It renewed my determination to block time in my schedule for research and writing, and gave me a couple of practical tips to help me make the most of that time. However, Newport presents an “all or nothing” message that may be discouraging to some. Moreover, some of his advice may be out of reach to the many who lack the privilege (money, network, institutional security, gender, location, etc…) seeping through this book. Don’t let that discourage you or make you feel inadequate.

 

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts?

 

 

* Another example of privilege breeding privilege comes up in page 244, when Newport says that he stopped answering e-mails from students anywhere in the world reaching how to him for advice. Instead, he works ‘closely with a small number of student groups’ – presumably those privileged enough to be in an Ivy League institution and/or live in the area.

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