Book Review – Deep Work

Deep Work is very nearly the book I thought I was picking up last week. This book makes the case that our modern, distraction-soaked environment has immense costs in terms of sundering our ability to do meaningful work. Deep work is the second of Cal Newport’s books I’ve read, and both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You were good enough that I’m going to delve further into his list at some point. Cal writes good books.

In the first section of the book Cal makes the baseline case: most of us are being trained by unfettered and unfiltered internet access into doing shallow, rote type work, that has little real value aside from making us seem “busy”. He makes a good case for it – [support from the text, comparison w/jung and other deep workers]

Given these points, it’s actually kind of surprising we’ve bought into the online-all-the-time, concentration sundering world we’ve built. Certainly the internet has many virtues and allows us to do many things that we couldn’t have before, but it is a bit strange that we’ve accepted the “internet is always good” philosophy. I’m not leaving myself out of this, either – I’ve been a big promoter of the idea that being more connected is always better.

I’ve been convinced otherwise. I’ve started putting my instant messengers on “Away” for periods of time while I work on things. I ignore new email announcements. I’ll be starting some of the other techniques in the book soon as well.

Carl Jung, Woody Allen, and Bill Gates are held up as exemplars of deep work. Jung had a retreat he would go to, with a retreat-within-a-retreat in the form of an office to which no one was allowed:

β€œIn my retiring room I am by myself,” Jung said of the space. β€œI keep the key with me all the time; no one else is allowed in there except with my permission.”

Woody Allen rejected computers for a typewriter, and wrote and directed 44 films in 44 years, taking 23 Academy Award nominations with his Olympia SM3. Bill Gates, for his part, regularly took “Think Weeks” during which he disconnected to read and think. Similarly, he pounded out BASIC for the Altair in eight weeks, often falling asleep at the keyboard in the middle of a line of code for an hour or two, then waking up and continuing from there.

Cal brings forth example after example of the value of deep work – Nate Silver’s prediction expertise, David Hansson’s Ruby on Rails, John Doerr’s venture capital success. These are the sorts of things that don’t come of writing emails and sitting in meetings all day, but from focusing, hard, on that which actually matters.

There are three prominent ways to win in the economy that pervades our current lives:

  1. Be a highly skilled worker.
  2. Be a superstar, famous widely enough to have people coming to you.
  3. Be a member of the ownership class.
    As wealth is a bit hard to come by, Cal identifies two core abilities available to anyone, in a way that wealth is not – the ability to quickly master hard things, and the ability to produce at an elite level, both quality and speed-wise. Deep work, he contends, is the path to these abilities. Anyone can take the time to focus, free of distraction, and begin to raise their skill level. Talent is dispensed with – while we love the idea of the prodigy who finds it easy to perform wondrous feats, greatness is said to come from deliberate practice and tight focus.

Why does deliberate practice work? Myelination. Deliberate practice involves exercising one neural circuit, again and again, in isolation from others. This causes the cells to wire together more tightly, and causes oligodendrocytes to wrap those neurons in myelin, causing that circuit to fire more quickly and cleanly.

Deep work also causes you to be able to produce at an elite level – here we discuss Adam Grant, a full professor at the Wharton School of Business. Grant produces papers at a rapid rate, and of high quality – in 2012 he wrote seven, all published in major journals. He does this by focusing, hard, on what he’s doing at any given time. In the fall, he teaches, getting all of his obligations in that realm cleared at once, and well enough to be the highest rated teacher at Wharton. In the spring and summer, he researches, with his teaching obligations completed and not distracting him.

There is also a chapter of part one dedicated to meaning – deep work is experienced as being more meaningful than shallow. What your life is, is made up of what you pay attention to, as supported by Winifred Gallagher’s experience with having cancer as detailed in her book, Rapt. When she received her diagnosis, she decided to focus on her life, that which she chose, rather than the forced actions induced by her cancer. Despite exhausting and terrible medical treatment, her life was often “quite pleasant”.

What you focus on is what your experience is made of, and deep work has a sense of gravity and importance lacking in sending a series of emails. Focusing, therefore, on deep work, will lead your life to be composed of meaning and worth – a claim supported by my experiences of late. I’ve certainly found my life feels more meaningful having dedicated myself to growth in difficult areas.

The bulk of the book lies in part two, in which are outlined four rules to become an expert in deep work:

First, Work Deeply. Focus yourself on the meaningful work by eliminating distractions, rather than requiring yourself to resist temptation again and again. Decide on a strategy of deep work (monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, or journalistic) and follow it. Have set times to check your email, set your instant messenger to ‘Away’, ritualize your work periods, make grand gestures (the example of JK Rowling renting a hotel room to work in away from distractions is given here), and work with a partner, if possible, so you can both drive each other forward.

Secondly, Embrace Boredom. We are used to, in moments of boredom, being able to summon immediate entertainment, a habit that weakens our ability to focus for long periods. Instant gratification is the enemy of deep work. The ability to concentrate is trained, not innate, and by distracting ourselves continuously we train the opposite – to be as focused as a pinball, being driven from amusement to amusement with no lasting impact.

Third, Quit Social Media. Social media is optimized to keep us clicking, scrolling, upvoting and liking. It’s designed to addict us, and it justifies this addiction by providing some small value – so much so that to observe that one is not on Facebook will bring on a deluge of reasons why people use the service, sounding much like they are trying to convince themselves – at least, that’s how I read the comments Cal received when he so observed in an article. They sound very much like justifications I was making a few years ago for my media use, and I was definitely trying to convince myself.

Finally, Drain the Shallows. To drain the shallows, limit the amount of your working time you spend on shallow work. Batch clearing your email inbox, and when you do respond to emails, do so in as much detail as possible, rather than in a series of short messages that invite an extended back and forth conversation. Schedule your day every morning, and if events force you to change your schedule, reschedule it. Quantify the depth of the activities you engage in, and lean towards the deeper ones. Request or set a shallow work budget, and stick to it.

As I’ve said, I quite enjoyed Deep Work, and I think I got a lot of value from it – enough that I’ll likely be referring back to it again and again quite a bit in the coming month. If you want to do something, Deep Work is a book you’ll want to add to your ‘read’ list – it’s full of useful tools and research, and well worth the time investment to read it.

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