Deep Work – A Forgotten Art in a Distracted World

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Welcome to my first book review for Body for Business. I intend to periodically review books that will be beneficial for everyone; particularly those that work in a Business/Corporate environment .

*Warning: these posts will be longer than usual. I aim to dissect the key messages and takeaways from what I’ve read so you can get a clear idea of what to expect if you choose to purchase your own copy.*

Last week I completed Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (304 pages), released on January 5th this year.

Who is Cal Newport?

A theoretical computer scientist with a doctorate from MIT and author of previous titles such as So Good They Can’t Ignore You (2012) and How to Win at College (2005), Cal Newport is no stranger to pushing back against the grain of conventional wisdom and societal thinking.

For example, in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he argues that “following your passion” is contradictory advice, suggesting instead that you should be acquiring valuable, sought after skills (“career capital”) which can traded in for a more compelling career and lifestyle.

Reading this forces you to challenge your preconceived belief system about how you should be approaching your career. Not pushing your abilities and becoming complacent under the guise of being passionate for what you’re doing is therefore an act of folly.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is split up into two distinct sections: The idea of deep work and the rules of deep work. The former introduces the concept and how it relates to us and the latter provides actionable advice for readers to follow in order to closely integrate the practice of deep work into our working lives.

The Deep Work Idea

“Deep Work”, a neologism coined by Newport himself is defined as:

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.

Having one or many skills that are hard to replicate makes one indispensable; a valuable commodity in a corporate existence quickly evolving into one of automation and outsourcing.

Three key points explaining the idea of deep work are discussed, explaining why it is valuable, rare and meaningful in our working lives.

For reference, he juxtaposes this term with its polar opposite; Shallow Work.

Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Knowledge workers (you and I) are no longer required to perform the same basic tasks each day, especially not for decades as it had come to pass in earlier generations. We’re expected to keep up with the times, cognitively remain as sharp as a tack and above all – produce to a high standard.

According to Newport, the future rock stars in their fields will involve those who can quickly master hard things and those who can continuously produce at an elite level (quality and speed). The ability to work deeply, he argues, will facilitate this.

Many of us, instead, act and appear busy as a proxy for productivity, however the bottom line is that we actually do very little. We have a penchant for the simple, mundane tasks that allow us to gratifyingly tick them off in our carefully constructed “to do” lists. Newport describes this notion as the Principle of Least Resistance, highlighting our innate ability to gravitate “toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment” such as emails, meetings and easily produced tasks that offer minimal value.

But this is often looked upon as being fine.

Why?

Shallow work is easy to measure! Number of emails sent, number of meetings attended and amount of time spent at the office. Unfortunately, this work in the grand scheme of things is not creating much new value in the world.

On the other hand, deep work is not so easy to quantify. You could spent 8-10 hours immersed in textbooks and practice, however have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end of a work day. You may also not be creating much value now, but armed with your new knowledge and experience – the ability to apply your learning to value-adding ventures may be just around the corner.

This makes deep work valuable.

In addition to being valuable, deep work is quickly becoming rare. Our ability to work deeply is becoming a lost art in an ubiquitously connected world.

Spending time developing a thorough understanding of a topic is often foregone in place of more pleasurable, gratifying stimuli such as our social media streams and instant messaging our friends.

An example is given involving Jack Dorsey (Co-founder and CEO of Twitter) and his venture into creating the “world’s largest open office space”, capable of housing up to 2800 workers for his new mobile payments company Square.

On the surface, the ability to facilitate serendipitous encounters among staff seems wonderful. Everyone has the ability to learn from each other, easily communicate when needed and engage colleagues on challenging problems simply by walking over to them in an open-work space.

However, being consistently available to anyone and everyone impedes your ability to actually go deep and really focus on your work.

According to the American Psychological Association, there is a switching cost associated with doing more than one thing at a time. This has an impact on our effectiveness at work – especially on complex tasks.

The switching cost, albeit seemingly harmless on the surface after a typical caffeinated morning, can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time throughout a typical working day.

With these distractions in place, how do you achieve the depth needed to find fulfillment in your work?

This comes down to whether you actually derive value from what you do, which leads into the final point that deep work must be meaningful.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you feel good in your current line of work? That is, are you psychologically satisfied?
  • Are you expanding your skill set, learning new things and not doing the same thing each day? That is, are you neurologically stimulated?
  • Does the work you’re doing align with your personal values? That is, does it correlate closely with your philosophical views on life? An example could be creating value to aid others or “making the world a better place.”

This section of the book ties in closely to Newport’s mantra mentioned above; don’t follow your passion, choose to acquire skills and career capital.

If your current position is preventing you from being fulfilled on the psychological, neurological and philosophical levels, it’s probably time to expand your horizon and look elsewhere.

The Deep Work Rules

Newport builds upon the explanations outlined above in the second half of the book and provides actionable content for readers to apply into their own working lives.

The four rules include:

  1. How to integrate deep work into your schedule;
  2. Learning to embrace boredom;
  3. Limiting social media time;
  4. Eliminating as much shallow work as possible.

Newport is quite apt at presenting his ideas in such a way that anyone can relate to them. Despite being a Computer Scientist, his approaches and suggestions can be applicable to most readers working in a variety of knowledge-based fields.

He suggests, first, that we add routines and rituals to our working lives instead of simply relying on a level of willpower to maintain concentration. In other words, it’s necessary that we eliminate the need to motivate ourselves and lay down a solid foundation for this new practice.

Two approaches to this are given – the monastic or bimodal methods of work scheduling.

The monastic approach involves applying a monk-like level of dedication to your time allocated to working deeply. This means, you make sure you’re off the grid completely for days, weeks or even months.

The potential output produced by adopting this approach is staggering. However, the majority of us are not writers nor university researchers who have the luxury of disappearing from our friends, family and workplaces for weeks at a time. Therefore, as interesting as this approach is in theory, I found it wildly impractical for 95% of people.

This is where the bimodal approach comes in. To put it briefly, you allot a small chunk of time (several hours as an example) to work in a monastic fashion and return to your everyday “business as usual” schedule thereafter.

For example, a popular approach is to wake up two hours earlier to do a task that, typically, tends to fall to the wayside later in the day such as studying, writing or even going to the gym. This is a hybrid approach which I found most applicable and realistic for myself.

Rule number two discussed encouraging readers to embrace boredom in their everyday life.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who concedes that at times, it may feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. This leads us to want to do more and not less! Coming from this viewpoint, welcoming boredom with open arms was certainly a novel concept to me.

This is where Newport presents a solid argument:

Improving your focus to a point where you can actually get into a deep work state will not be possible if you don’t, at first, distance yourself from an unwavering dependence on distraction.

How do you expect to consolidate your ability to focus on something that matters if you’re unable to simply sit idly on public transport or patiently wait in line with your groceries? The habitual action of reaching for your phone to kill a few seconds of dead time might be doing you more harm than good if cultivating a deep work habit is something you wish to achieve.

Instead, It’s suggested to allocate specific times throughout the day for this kind of activity instead of habitually checking news and social media during every spare moment.

Rule three talks about social media use and its effect on ability to cultivate deep work. This is something we’re all aware of, so this section didn’t present anything ground breaking. One approach included taking an “internet sabbatical”, meaning that for an amount of time you’re comfortable with, you sever all ties to the digital world. If a full digital blackout is too much, this could be dialed back to perhaps a social media or Reddit sabbatical only.

Lastly, I found the fourth rule immediately applicable to my everyday life. This involves reducing as much shallow work from your day as possible, with emails being a prime offender. Newport discusses strategies such as including more information upfront in the email and simply not taking action on matters which are not of a concern to you.

Applying nous to how you handle your inbox could mean the difference between being perpetually held hostage to what’s coming in and actually being able to work deeply.

A suggestion is also made that if you’re becoming overwhelmed with your shallow work commitments, you should simply approach your manager and discuss that you’re being held back from what you’re essentially being paid to do. I don’t believe any manager would look unfavorably upon an employee wanting to add more value adding work to their day at the cost of slightly delayed correspondence on non urgent matters via email.

My Thoughts

Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to deepen their knowledge and improve their work ethic in any line of work.

Cultivating a deep work schedule, I believe, will be immensely useful for both in terms of producing work that matters and feeling a sense of satisfaction that you’re using your time well.

And this review has only just scratched the surface of what is detailed throughout in terms of real life examples presented by Cal Newport.

For under $20 on Amazon, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World would certainly be a wise investment for a career-focused person looking to out produce his or her “shallow” working peers.

There’s also an uneasiness that surrounds any effort to produce the best things you’re capable of producing, as this forces you to confront the possibility that your best is not (yet) that good.

Do you think your best is good enough? If not, I urge you to begin the practice of deep work into your lives.

Because I’ve certainly made a start.

Rating: 5/5


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