Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport

In Deep Work, Newport details why “deep work” is so important and shows how anyone can develop this skill. In the introduction Newport describes:

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.

We live in an age of constant distraction and where busyness is regularly confused with productivity.  Knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative – constantly sending and receiving email messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Newport argues that larger efforts would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.

Part one of Deep Work seeks to convince us (I am already) that the hypothesis is true.  Newport provides numerous examples of people who use deep work to excel at what they do and argues that the following two core abilities are critical for thriving in the New Economy

      1. The ability to master hard things.
      1. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And that the two core abilities just described depend on our ability to perform deep work.

Part two seeks to teach us how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.  These are grouped into four rules.

The Rules

Rule #1: Work Deeply – to perform deep work you must remove the distractions. Develop routines and rituals to help transition into a state of deep work.  Trying to do deep work in an ad hoc way is not an effective method of managing your time or indeed your limited willpower.

Rule # 2:  Embrace Boredom – instead of scheduling the occasional break from distraction so you can focus, you should instead schedule the occasional break from focus to give in to distraction. Many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction to one of concentration as needed, but Newport argues that this assumption is optimistic: Once you are wired for distraction, you crave it.

Rule # 3: Quit Social Media – Really? Was my first reaction to this rule but actually Newport references The Law of the Vital Few otherwise known as the Pareto Principle here – (or High Payoff Activities in LMI speak) and says we should be specific in selecting the right tools to support our goals.

Rule # 4: Drain the Shallows – Newport asks us to treat shallow work (low payoff activities in LMI speak) with suspicion because its damage is vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.

If you’re already a believer in deep work (Planning) then this book will reinforce all of the values. If you’re new to the idea then Deep Work will open up your mind to new possibilities and the benefits of scheduling every minute of the day.

Roisin Joyce

March 2017