Deep Work: A Review

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By now you may have heard of the book, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.  It’s a fascinating and fun read and my favorite non-fiction book of the past few years.  Since finishing it, I’ve recommended it to dozens of clients, colleagues and friends. A part of me is reluctant to write anything about it other than, IMMEDIATELY BUY THIS BOOK IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!! Seriously, do it now. I’ll wait. If my use of ALL CAPS and exclamation points didn’t convince you, here’s a recap that I hope will.

Perhaps you already know Cal Newport from his popular TED Talk called Quit Social Media. This book expands on the talk and contains his very convincing argument about the strategies, tactics and benefits of doing deep work. It’s organized into two parts. The first part describes deep work and why it’s important.  In it he defines deep work as the “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”.

He states that deep work is rare and becoming even more so in our highly distracted world.  As a result, workers who embrace deep work are more valuable and their ability to do deep work is a huge point of differentiation. Additionally, deep work leads to flow states, periods where we’re fully engaged and lose track of time. Much has been written about flow and how deeply satisfying it is.  

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His argument is convincing.  There’s plenty of evidence to support that we’ve moved to more shallow work – reading and replying to email, participating in meetings, instant messaging, etc. And for many, our work is done in open floor plan offices with no privacy and little opportunity for uninterrupted time. Newport suggests “Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to do deep work.”  That’s troubling to say the least.

With dozens of references (he has 22 pages of notes at the back of the book) to research supporting his argument including K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State’s work on deliberate practice, Adam Grant of Wharton’s approach to work by batching and Sophie Leroy of The University of Minnesota’s work on attention residue, the book makes such a compelling argument for deep work, you may come away feeling like a convert.

Newport posits that the discipline to do deep work will ultimately bring us more happiness and professional success. He’s extremely credible, given that he’s a PhD professor at Georgetown, writes academic papers and blogs and has published 5 books. He also has a rich life outside of work as a husband and involved parent of 2 kids. He rarely works past 5-6pm and generally doesn’t check email after work. He does this by scheduling and committing to 3-4 hours of focused time each day to do his best deep work, while doing the less important shallow work of email, meetings, etc. in short bursts in his remaining time.  

The second part of the book outlines very specific strategies and tactics for bringing a deep work practice into our own lives.  He outlines 4 rules:

  1. Work Deeply

  2. Embrace Boredom

  3. Quit Social Media

  4. Drain the Shallows – in other words, reduce the amount of shallow (not deep) work that is done and the time you spend on it.

To support the first rule, Work Deeply, Newport outlines the 4 Disciplines for Execution (4DX for short) based on the work of Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen in the late 90’s. This approach underscores the importance of knowing what work is most important to your job success, developing a lead measure for it, keeping a scorecard, and then monitoring this scorecard regularly to ensure you’re on track.

You’ll need to be relentless to successfully follow this approach and you’ll have to establish some new habits and routines. It reminded me of when I was marathon training and I had to plan my schedule around getting my mileage in. Basically the long runs (the deep work equivalent) were scheduled first, were non-negotiable and everything else (shallow work) was secondary.

Some additional tactics include scheduling every minute of your day, the critical importance of downtime to allow you to recharge and work through problems in a different way, and how to be more effective (and spend less time) on email. The shutdown ritual he shares that allows him to not check email after work is worth the price of the book alone!

Newport also makes a very convincing case for dramatically reducing time on social media (this was the focus of that Ted talk mentioned earlier). He encourages us to consider social media as a tool, not a default thing that we have to be part of. And while he recognizes that most of us aren’t going to get off social media completely, he outlines and encourages us to consider things such as an Internet Sabbatical (where you take a break for an extended period of time) or a 1 day a week Internet Sabbath, as well as reducing the number of social media sites that you are on.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Newport that sums it up to me: To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing is a transformative experience.

Buy the book.

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