Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

We live in a digital age getting notifications anywhere between 71 to 689 times a day. The idea of deep work emerges as a period of intense focus to level up our game.

Title: Deep Work

Author: Cal Newport

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Pages: 296

My rating: ⭐⭐

Who will like it? Productivity gurus.

Peter Shankman booked a round-trip flight, business-class, to Tokyo and back, totalling him around $4,000 and 30 hours. When he arrived, he didn’t even step outside the airport, but instead sat in the business class lounge in Tokyo, sipping coffee, as he completed his book’s manuscript, resuming from his progress on the flight. This was his “grand gesture” to make himself unavailable for a singular focus on his career, and he concluded that the experience was worth every penny.

So Dr. Newport comes to tell you that grand gestures do something for you. They psychologically push the goal of deep work to become a mental priority. This is one of the suggestions that I 100% disagree with. A “grand gesture” is by Newport’s definition “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.” See? This is the crux of faulty logic that self-help books try to sell you. Building wealth and success, so perfect in ideation, so problematic in execution.

This coupling of “work” with “consumerism” is overrated. How many people purchase gym memberships to the most trendy gyms but end up going once or twice a month? How many people transform their wardrobe environment into piles of workout clothes or clothes that are one size too small, thinking that will help them lose weight, but never end up doing so? The problem here isn’t the grand gesture, it is the steady motivation for change that comes in the first place, with a grand gesture or not. The grand gesture is secondary, trivial, merely correlation and nothing causative. But that wouldn’t be fun to write about in a book, would it? People like to purchase a cure, a facade, an ideation, because it feels like money is spent somewhere worthwhile.

Going out of you way to read this book on “deep work” is similar to a grand gesture of deciding that you’re going to work harder. The concept of deep work is so unbearably simple, and I’d argue has been used since we’ve been cognitively conscious.

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.

Dr. Newport comes in and coins it as “deep work”. And when he converses with other exemplars in fields, he puts quotations when anyone else mentions this concept, indicating that it is a notion he developed.

“Deep work” is essential. This part I agree with Dr. Newport. I think we should be finding dedicated time to buckle down and dive as deep as possible, strengthening neuronal connections and building on myelin sheaths, challenging one’s understanding through a growth mindset, eliminating distractions and unplugging momentarily. Working deeply instead of shallowly is vital for producing short-term and long-term growth. Newport offers a few practical tips to apply concentration and focus into the quotidian, but the essence of this book could fit in a short and sweet Forbes article, slotted into the morning coffee when Wall Street investors take on the day’s headlines. This rambling book brings light to some elements that our society is missing out on, with pinging notifications and the urge to become constantly available, but that is where the book ends. Life is more than one singular focus like Dr. Newport suggests, an arms race to see which colleague publishes more papers in a single year. There is no singular peak to ascend, or a metric to measure life by. Maybe for the desperate, shutting yourself into a faraway cabin for years at a time produces substantial work, but then you would also miss out on the subtle things in life.

The takeaway here is the title itself. Work deeply when you do.

Work hard, play hard. All there is to it.

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