Thoughts on “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

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With the wonderful whirlwind my life has been the past couple of years, I haven’t found quite as much time for reading as I used to. Now that things have settled, I look forward to getting into more books this year. The first on my list is Deep Work by Cal Newport, an associate professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University.

As someone whose work can often involve designing solutions to problems, I find the notion of “flow” and “deep work” intriguing. However, I am also someone who works on a team inside of a fast-paced business where serving customers’ needs is paramount to continuing our growth. These two forces can often be at odds, as Newport frequently reminds the reader.

He begins by pointing out the distracted nature of our society, and the workplace in general, which I think is obvious to most. The modern office isn’t structured for long periods of focused concentration, and especially the “open office” floor plan which is popular among tech companies. (The author displays a not-so-subtle disdain for open floor plans throughout the book.) He doesn’t spend too much time raising awareness of the problem, however. He quickly jumps to making his point by defining deep work: “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.”

So far, so good. We all want to push ourselves and create valuable things. Soon after this, the author takes some quick turns which nearly lose me as a reader.

First he gives examples of those who have gone to extreme lengths to make space for deep work. Psychologist Karl Jung would retreat to a custom-built cabin in the woods for days at a time. Nietzsche would take extended walks each afternoon while mulling over his philosophy. Academics of today place a “do not disturb” sign on their door to keep away any distractions. Suddenly, achieving deep work does not seem realistic for my situation, and indeed for the vast majority of people.

The second statement I disagree with is that “shallow work” has no value. While I understand the heart of the statement, I think it is short-sighted. I cannot say that no value is produced when I give a quick answer to our support team to help placate a frustrated customer. Nor is it value-less to stop what I’m doing and assist a coworker in clearing a technical hurdle. All such actions provide value to the business I support, if not the economy as a whole. While I concede that a lot of time is misspent on simple tasks in offices everywhere, I won’t go so far as to paint all human interaction at work a waste of my time.

There is a turning point, however, when Newport begins to soften his stance, albeit slightly. He writes, “You need your own philosophy for integrating deep work into your professional life.” After this, he goes on to describe several different methods which someone may more realistically employ to achieve deep work in today’s environment. While the first few are still impractical for most (setting aside days at a time), he finally comes to what he reveals is the method that he regularly uses himself. “The journalist philosophy” involves fitting deep work into one’s schedule wherever possible as opposed to scheduling everything else around it. Indeed, it is how the author produced this very book while also churning out academic research papers.

From this point, the book makes much more sense to me. When I know that it’s realistic and beneficial to put on headphones for an hour, ignore my email, and focus on a problem, it suddenly becomes attainable, unlike making myself unreachable for one day each week. He goes on to detail specific methods which many have found helpful, and even cites the psychological research and reasoning behind them. From my perspective, these are the most useful pieces of the whole book. Even so, his view social media is particularly harsh here, and I think a more tempered view could be helpful. If it’s something you enjoy, I say “all things in moderation,” and have the self-control to set it aside, particularly when facing an intellectually challenging task.

Overall, I did enjoy Newport’s perspective and style, even if it seems extreme at places. I’m not sure why he chose to structure the book as he did – making such a hard stance for the value of deep work upfront, then backing into a more practical approach. (He is a computer science guy like me, so I suppose I can see the allure of starting with the theoretical and working down to the concrete.) He seldom presents a fact without citing a source, and the most practical and insightful pieces are all well-researched, which I thoroughly appreciate.

Ultimately, I think his position as an academic may have colored his perspective in regard to the subject. I understand that new ground won’t be broken in theoretical physics if the scientists are responding to tweets every five minutes, but few knowledge workers are in such a position. For the vast majority of people, setting their phones aside for a couple of hours will be a great benefit to their productivity at work, and that’s not a surprise to anyone. It’s actually doing it that’s the trick, and this book provides some helpful tools.

Deep Work is available on Amazon.com in both physical and Kindle editions, but don’t bother searching for it on social media.

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