Book review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

One of my goals for 2017 is to read 52 new non-fiction books and, most importantly, review each one after reading.

My fifth read of 2017 was Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport.

I’ve had Deep Work on my bedside table book pile for ages, but finally realised a couple of weeks ago that until I added it to my Kindle, I was unlikely to make the time to read it. So I donated the hardback copy to my dad, downloaded the Kindle edition and got stuck in.

Cal Newport is an associate professor in the department of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of five how-to books and a blog focused on academic and career success. He’s also three years my junior, which I find slightly depressing.

Deep Work is a book all about the distractions we face in the modern world, the impact these distractions have on our ability to undertake meaningful ‘knowledge work’, and suggestions for approaches we can take to deal with this issue.

Newport argues convincingly that developing and cultivating a deep work practice is one of the best decisions we can make in an increasingly distracted world.

As a ‘knowledge worker’ who is prone to technological and other distractions, I found this is a really interesting and useful read, packed full of practical suggestions for making deep work happen.

Here are a few of the passages I highlighted when reading Deep Work on my Kindle:

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.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively 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.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.
In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy The ability to quickly master hard things. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.
This brings us to the question of what deliberate practice actually requires. Its core components are usually identified as follows: (1) your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master; (2) you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
To ask a CEO to spend four hours thinking deeply about a single problem is a waste of what makes him or her valuable. It’s better to hire three smart subordinates to think deeply about the problem and then bring their solutions to the executive for a final decision.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Carstensen hypothesizes that the elderly subjects had trained the prefrontal cortex to inhibit the amygdala in the presence of negative stimuli. These elderly subjects were not happier because their life circumstances were better than those of the young subjects; they were instead happier because they had rewired their brains to ignore the negative and savor the positive.
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task.
Having a casual conversation with a friend, listening to music while making dinner, playing a game with your kids, going for a run — the types of activities that will fill your time in the evening if you enforce a work shutdown — play the same attention-restoring role as walking in nature.
If every moment of potential boredom in your life — say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives — is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where, like the “mental wrecks” in Nass’s research, it’s not ready for deep work — even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.
Professorial E-mail Sorting: Do not reply to an e-mail message if any of the following applies: It’s ambiguous or otherwise makes it hard for you to generate a reasonable response. It’s not a question or proposal that interests you. Nothing really good would happen if you did respond and nothing really bad would happen if you didn’t.

Definitely pick up and read a copy of Deep Work if you find yourself frustrated with the challenge of self-imposed or external distractions.

My next read for 2017, book number six, is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story, by Dan Harris.