Deep Work by Cal Newport

25980294Nonfiction – Kindle edition. Grand Central Publishing, 2016. 287 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Newport’s book lays out how individuals who master the concept of “deep work” will be successful in an economy to increasingly demands more output. In Newport’s mind, deep work consists of “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.”

Increasingly, though, people are caught in a cycle of distraction – notifications on their phones, emails at work, social media – and unable to produce anything other than “shallow work”. In contrast to deep work, shallow work consists of activities that are typically performed while distracted, require little mental energy, and do not create new value in the world.

Think, for example, of responding to a Slack message, pulling a revenue total out of Excel, or creating a PowerPoint. None of these activities require much thought, but they tend to stretch out the work day and make a person appear to be busy. Or, worse, they interrupt the truly important work of creating a new algorithm or finishing a product for market.

“In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.”

I was first exposed to Newport’s concept of “deep work” when he was interviewed on a podcast I listen to. While being anti-social media seems to be the du jour mentality, Newport was one of the first people I heard make a strong connection between immediate access to information and social validation and the collapse of a person’s worth ethic.

To offer up my own anecdotal evidence, I used to be well known among my friends as someone who did not procrastinate. Because I went to school so far from home, it was impractical and expensive for me to fly home for Thanksgiving break.

Instead, I’d take advantage of having an empty calendar and an empty dorm room to complete all my term papers and study for my final examinations. I’d be so productive that I’d often be twiddling my thumbs while my classmates were scrambling to complete their work in the two “reading days” the school scheduled between classes ending and the start of final exams.

In hindsight, though, I recognize this period of deep work in my life was aided by the fact that I had neither a smart phone nor social media accounts outside of Facebook. And even that wasn’t much of a distraction because the FarmVille craze had ended and my friends were all busy with their families for the holidays.

Today, I have a smart phone, multiple social media accounts, and a work environment that requires I sit in front of a computer with Slack installed and Outlook constantly opened. And while my manager hasn’t complained about a decline in productivity on my part, I definitely feel more distracted.

Enter Newport’s book. In it, Newport offers evidence to support his assertion that we are increasingly distracted and how such distractions are affecting our productivity. He offers advice on how to train your brain to start practicing deep work again, which includes deleting social media accounts and disabling email notifications on smart phones and work computers.

Unfortunately, Newport writes his advice from a position within a very unique work environment. As a professor, Newport can load the work requiring more immediate interactions with people – mainly, teaching – to one portion of the year and dedicate the rest to working.

He admits that this is not an option to most people, and he offers two other ways people have carved out time for deep work in their lives. In the example of Bill Gates and Henry David Thoreau, an individual could carve away periods of time for isolation in order to practice “deep work”. Or, after a number of years of retraining their brain, an individual can create a hybrid schedule where they complete their deep work, reconnect with society, and then disconnect within a single day.

This third type appears closest to my own practice of coming into work early in the morning before everyone else, although I end up spending most of that time responding to emails I stopped answering after I left work for the evening. (A no-work after 5pm philosophy that Newport champions.) It doesn’t end up being the time for deep work as Newport advises.

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.”

Thus, it was hard not to respond “yes, but…” to much of Newport’s advice and assertions. A number of his antidotal examples come from professors and writers, but his target audience is supposed to be the “knowledge worker”, a nicer way of saying programmers and white-collar tech workers.

I felt like his advice fails to understand and respond to the working conditions these “knowledge workers” toils under. He talks about how open floor plans hinder deep work, but that’s not something a typical knowledge worker can control other than asking to work from home more often. He advises workers to talk to their boss about carving time out for deep work, but how does someone who is client facing have that conversation without sounding like they don’t want to interact with people?

I’m not completely dismissing what he says; listening to the podcast interview with him already led me to change some of my behaviors. At the start of the year, after much resistance, I deleted social media off my phone and changed my Twitter passwords to ones I have to look up each time I want to log in. Since then, my time after work has been spent reading and watching quality TV instead of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram accounts or getting mad over tweets from people I don’t know.

But I’m still not entirely sure how to put the wisdom he imparts into practice in my life as a “knowledge worker”. While I found this book thought-provoking and easy to read, I ultimately felt like I got as much out its roughly 290 pages as I did out the 85-minute podcast interview with him that I listened to back in mid-2017.

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