Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Title: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Author: Cal Newport
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Star



The basic premise of this book is that as automation, outsourcing, and artificial intelligence reshape the workplace, the ability for humans to concentrate intently on cognitively demanding tasks is increasingly important. This skill is Deep Work and it allows you to master complicated information and processes to produce valuable results in less time.

We all know how easy it is to become distracted in an increasingly connected and “always on” culture, but rather than focus on distractions, Cal Newport focuses on the power of the opposite: performing Deep Work.

The book is divided into two parts. In part 1, the author makes the case for the central ideas of the book: Deep Work is Valuable, Deep Work is Rare, Deep Work is Meaningful. Most of this section will seem like common sense to anyone who has tried to perform cognitively demanding work in the middle of a distracting environment. It may seem like this case doesn’t even need to be made, but the author makes some interesting points that I had not thought of before. For example, in addition to making the case for deep work being more productive for the business, he also discusses deep work as being more satisfying for the worker, ultimately leading to a happier life. I know this is definitely true for me. The more time I can spend in deep, creative mode, the happier I am. I enjoy interacting with others, especially to teach or help people, but nothing is quite as satisfying and digging in deep and creating things.

The second part of the book outlines “The Rules”: Work Deeply, Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media, and Drain the Shallows. I picked up a lot of practical tips from this section, which I’ll outline below:

1 – Determine your deep work philosophy and set a target for how much deep work to do. I haven’t specifically set a formal philosophy, but part of this includes establishing with your manager how much deep work is appropriate for your job and actively trying to hit that target. I took a slightly different angle to start, and I actually measured how much time was being spent on some recurring tasks that I did not feel added a lot of value. It turns out I was spending 7% of my time each week on such tasks. Not all of them could be eliminated, but some of them could, and I’ve reclaimed part of my week.

2 – Schedule time for deep work. I’ve started looking at my calendar at the start of the day and trying to schedule 1-2 hour blocks when I can expect to get some uninterrupted deep work done. This has worked pretty well so far and seems to be mostly limited by my own self-discipline.

3 – Encouraging potential distractions to self-filter. Most of the examples in the book were related to digital distractions such as asking readers to check boxes or make promises before sending emails as a means of filtering their own requests. I feel that in the digital world, it is pretty easy to filter distractions by turning off notifications, setting do not disturb indicators, etc. However, in the physical world I have much more difficulty. I love to teach/help and I also love to focus on creating, but sometimes those two things are at odds with each other. Most people don’t actually want to interrupt you for non-urgent things, but generally if you are sitting in a cubicle and they can see you, they have no way to tell one type of work from another, so stopping by for a quick question seems like no big deal. And I like to help, so once I see them I generally allow myself to be distracted and I take the interruption as top priority, even if it could have waited hours, or days, or weeks.

I asked a few co-workers what they would think if I put up some kind of physical “deep work in progress” indicator and the reactions were positive. People generally want to be respectful of each other’s time and workflow. So, with that feedback, I cobbled together a (very subtle) indicator from things I had around my office:

This doesn’t stop anyone from coming in, I’m just as accessible to everyone as I was before, but it gives people an opportunity to self-filter if that is appropriate for the situation.

I didn’t put up any kind of sign explaining what it is. I actually want people to ask me about it so that I can have a conversation with them and explain it, and I can have that conversation in a way that is friendly and they can see the spirit in which I have put up this indicator.

I’ve had it up for about 3 days now, and most people have actually poked fun at me for it, because it’s so lame and subtle, but that’s actually great! It makes it kind of light-hearted, and gets them talking about it, and now they know what I’m going for. And, I think it’s working. People have actually started to self-filter in a way that keeps a friendly relationship going, rather than me just drastically disappearing or hanging up some kind of physical barrier.

It’s still early, so we’ll see how it goes, but I think it will work out OK. If I see any big pitfall looming, it’s that I must remember to manage the state of the indicator properly so that it stays reliable. If I start forgetting to flip the indicator down when I’m actually doing shallow work, it will become meaningless. So I think the success or failure is in my hands at this point.

There are a lot of good, practical tips in part 2 of the book, those are just a couple that I’ve started immediately experimenting with. Another one that I might try soon is keeping a scoreboard of how much deep work (in hours) I perform each day. I already have been wanting to get a better handle on time tracking so this might fit nicely into that overall goal.

In closing, I thought this book was extremely useful. I think it would be beneficial for anyone who feels that the current culture makes it very difficult to concentrate deeply and produce valuable, satisfying work, without working a lot of extra hours. This book shows that there might be a way to balance it without attempting to become a deep work hermit, and so far the techniques I’ve tried seem to be helping.

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