Book Review: Deep Work

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Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Grand Central Publishing, 2016. 304 p.

Cal Newport is a champion of what he calls deep work, defined as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” This is hardly a new idea or technique, but it is increasingly difficult. Constant digital communication and open-plan offices are two merciless assaults against focusing without distraction.

This book is a quick read and has good strategies for implementing more deep work into your life (while maintaining balance). He argues for focus, not just on one task at a time, but on a few important things as a guide for work. “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” (p. 62) In other words, focus on your most important objectives to the exclusion of as much else as possible.

Newport talks about office layouts and what promotes deep work (and productive collaboration) and what destroys both. I was struck that what he described as an ideal workplace sounds a lot like a monastery—individual cells gathered around corporate areas. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, giant, open-plan spaces are less expensive to build.

A few of the most transforming lessons from this book have to do with the patterns of our work. First, quit multitasking. You can’t do it, no matter what you think, so just stop. (I paraphrased that a bit, but there is a growing body of research that supports this.) Second, when you’re working on something that takes focus, stay focused—as long as possible. This takes self-discipline and the world is at war against self-discipline, but do it anyway.

Newport accurately points out how we are increasingly groomed to be distracted by digital means. The problem is that as we become distraction addicts, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to turn it off and focus when we need to. I have seen it in my own life and it is something I have to be diligent against constantly.

There is really nothing proprietary in this book. Everything he says has been said before (as his footnotes and quotes indicate). A thorough editor could cull it down to half its length with little loss in content, but it is a worthwhile introduction if the idea of focused work and avoiding distraction seem new.¹

Newport answers several objections to working deeply and illustrates various approaches to implementing it. The skills of prolonged focus can be learned, and the mental muscles necessary to shun distraction and stay on task can be built up, but it takes discipline and a compelling goal. He gives some worthwhile tips on how to go about it all, so if you like the idea but need help going from want-to to how-to, it’s a worthwhile read.

Finally, Newport does admit that deep work is not for everyone. Certain jobs do not require or even reward it. (High-level executives are one example. Sales may be another.) Still, just because your job doesn’t require it, doesn’t mean you couldn’t benefit from the ideas of focused attention in other realms. (Spiritual disciplines, anyone?)

My attraction to the concept is largely personality driven. I am an INTJ according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. That means I like to work alone, in my own space, until I have whatever I’m doing just right. If you call that deep work, then that’s what I prefer to do. (It sounds nicer than anti-social perfectionist.)


¹ It could also be useful if you are a deep work devotee trying to make your case to not be trapped in an open-concept office. The same “ooh, this is new and cool” that got you into this mess may help get you out if you can pitch deep work as even newer and better to the powers that be.

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Filed under Book Review, Discipline

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