I must admit, I have a predisposition towards liking the concept of Cal Newport’s works. As a mass-media (versus academic-media) writer he has pitched himself towards the niche of one of my favourite concepts, depth and concentration and their impact on the world itself. At a visceral level, I find this type of writing appealing to me which probably explains why this was my second read through of his work “Deep Work”. Reading a work for the second time is always an interesting experience and I often find that my perception is radically altered as compared to my first read. I’m unsure why, perhaps it has less novelty the second time around or potentially I’m the metaphorical river that you can never gaze on twice.
The book itself has a lot of similarities to his later work, Digital Minimalism. Indeed, I believe he could likely condense the two into a book that would only be slightly larger than either of the books on a stand alone basis. To me, Digital Minimalism stands as a “how to guide” and a call to action for a less digitally connected life. Deep Work on the other hand is more a celebration and investigation into what is possible when you bring the powers of human concentration in their full force on to a subject. To distinguish them I would say that many of the strategies that are a pre-requisite for conducting deep work are digital minimalist strategies. Whereas, you can still be a digital minimalist without embracing deep work.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is deep work? Newport describes it as follows:
Deep Work: 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.
Newport contrasts this to his definition of shallow work as
Shallow Work: Non cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Or, to put it another way. Shallow work are the little tasks that are required to move the world around whereas Deep Work is the knowledge worker form of Flow (in the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi form of the definition).
I quite like these definitions and in particular I resonated with the “while distracted” aspect of Shallow Work which I have definitely noticed. What is interesting to note is that for me personally I actually consider Shallow Work to be the more cognitively exhausting of the two states. You would think this would be Deep Work with it’s emphasis on cognitively demanding tasks but I actually find this to be the opposite. Deep Work tends to invigorate me, I come away from it feeling fresh and excited about life. Shallow Work brings out the worst in me, it makes me distracted, irritable and depressed. This is probably a thread that I need to pull on in how I structure my life.
My three main criticisms of the work are that;
- Newport writes from the vantage of an American academic and not from a standard knowledge worker. This gives him a different perspective but, in my personal experience, some of his observations are not universal and do not translate to other industries or working cultures.
- There is a reliance in some parts on the psychological literature which is suboptimal given the Replication Crisis that the psychological literature is currently experiencing. Given this replication crisis I found that the allusions to small, limited power, studies from economics and psychological had the aspect of weakening his argument. I would have preferred an approach which focussed more on case studies throughout history and literature as an explanatory thread.
- In some chapters it felt as though Newport was padding towards a desired word count as opposed to offering true insight or strategies.
From the book itself I took away the following practical ideas to introduce into my life. Some of these I have tried successfully over the past week or two and seen the benefits first hand. Some of these I am yet to implement or attempt. Some are reminders to myself.
Turn off Email and Instant Messaging: The theory here is to reduce the number of distractions that are available to you. Email and IM are fantastic communication tools which are technical marvels. However, giving any person on earth the ability to interrupt your focus on a whim is almost criminal in terms of the harm that it does.
I’ve personally implemented this one into my work life with some great success. In particular, setting a two hour block to focus on deep work has led to me delivering three fantastic pieces of critical thinking and work which I would not have been able to do otherwise. Something I hope to continue doing.
The key here is realising that almost nothing that anybody is after is actually that urgent, particularly if I’m tackling my highest value work for the day. I need to remember that I shouldn’t let someone else’s lowest value work impact my personal highest value.
We don’t need rest, we need a change: This one is counter intuitive but I’ve found it to be incredibly accurate so far. It turns out, after a long day I’m not actually worn out from work. I’m worn out from doing the same type of work. I often still have energy to work on side projects, to design using Inkscape or to read literature or other books.
This is fascinating when you think about it. It states that you don’t need rest, instead, you need to change your scenery and what type of work you’re currently doing. Your mind has a lot of capacity but it can get worn out by too much of the same.
Create Deep Work Blocks: This is particularly beneficial when combined with turning off email and instant messaging. I’ve been trying to schedule myself between 1 and 2 “deep work” sessions each day to focus on a specific project. During that time I’m not allowed to do anything else except the project in question. This approach is incredibly beneficial as it’s time limited and therefore almost guilt free from my perspective in terms of the work. I feel incredibly comfortable disengaging from the world for a bit as I know that I’m creating a lot of value. This is also quite similar to the Pomodoro technique which I’ve found to be a useful technique for getting work done.
Create overriding goals and strategies: This train of thought was fleshed out more by Newport in Digital Minimalism but in essence it goes as follows. Don’t accept things into your life if they create any benefit at all. Instead, the benefit that they create must be weighed against their costs in the context of your overriding objectives. It’s okay to turn down some opportunities and benefits in pursuit of higher order ones.
This is a big one for me personally, it’s ultimately about conquering FOMO and recognising that while you can do anything, you can’t do everything. Instead, it’s important to put everything into context of what you’re trying to achieve to assess whether you are truly missing out on anything. I’ve already taken a preliminary step here in trying to write some of these down.
Don’t use the Internet for Entertainment: This is something that I personally struggle with sometimes, particularly when tired and stressed. The Internet has for all practical intents and purposes an infinite amount of either pure entertainment or entertainment proxies on it. People like to celebrate this fact, but should we? Is life about entertaining ourselves through glowing screens or is it about the pursuit of love? Of romance? Of creating a meaningful difference in others lives and being the best you can be. I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the pursuit of continuous entertainment through the screen often gets in the way of those other pursuits.
This is something I’ll need to think about more in the future. How much entertainment do I need and where do I get it from? Should I be getting this from the internet? Am I really being entertained while doing this or am I just staving off boredom? Maybe I’m just tired? Perhaps I just need to rest. This is something I need to work on more.
Take Proper Breaks: Go walking more without a phone. This is something that many many people seem to agree on. Something I will try to do more.
Track Concentration Hours: Need to keep myself honest, is the work I’m doing actually valuable or am I acting like a human router and moving information around? Something I should do more.
Deep Work is a good book not because it’s particularly ground breaking or that it has inspiring prose. In some ways it doesn’t hold up to a lot of re-reading and its inclusion of some sections I suspect will not age well. Deep Work is a good book because it is well placed within the current cultural zeitgeist. The harms of our digitally oriented society are beginning to come to the forefront and Newport has positioned himself well to offer useful commentary on it. As we discover more and more of the harms of an always on, always connected society I think that the concepts of Deep Work and understanding how to harness it will remain valuable. A 3.5/5 which I would recommend to anyone looking for support as to why concentration is important.