Deep Work

Author: Cal Newport
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing, non-fiction

One of the things I enjoy about reviewing books is the element of surprise in discovering books and authors I might not normally consider reading. Deep Work is one of these books.

As the title suggests the subject is work – something I, like many others, strive to avoid.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of hard work, but I quibble at a society that places the work ethic at the centre of all human endeavour, with any other activity relegated to second place.

Few of us are lucky enough to have fulfilling professional lives and it is often the time spent outside the workplace that justifies the hours put in earning money.

With these reservations in mind, I was a little apprehensive about reading Deep Work, but I discovered that it is as much a book about achieving an acceptable work-life balance as it is about working effectively.

The main thrust of Cal Newport’s argument is that the type of work many people do has fundamentally changed since the advent of the digital revolution.

While in the past it might have been possible for the majority of the workforce to leave their brains at home, while putting in hours at dull and repetitive tasks, nowadays “knowledge workers” are increasingly valued on their ability to concentrate deeply without distraction.

A simple personal example to illustrate: In one of my past lives, I ran a restaurant and played the role of head cook. I could chat with my colleagues, or sing along with the radio, or plan my next vacation while peeling potatoes or chopping onions, my mind was free to wander, and the quality of my work wasn’t necessarily affected.

Fast-forward 20 years and sitting at a computer writing this review, I have to focus intently on the task at hand. I can’t sit here composing sentences while chatting with a colleague, or if I did the result would be even more mediocre than it is at present.

I am either writing or I am not, and getting this review written – and written to the best of my ability – is determined by the depth of focus I can bring to the task at hand.

Newport postulates a 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.”

str2_marcworkR_ev_2_coverHe argues that effort (and the quality of that effort) is more valuable than talent.

While talent only brings results if applied, someone of average ability can outperform a talented person by working more consistently and assiduously.

He says a commitment to deep work is “a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done” and that the ability to focus deeply on the task at hand is something that can and indeed should be trained.

However, even when trained and applied, the ability to direct our attention is a finite resource.

Someone who needs to navigate difficult traffic before their work day begins starts at a disadvantage to someone who can walk to work, and someone who walks to work through nature will have an advantage over someone who has to deploy their attention crossing streets and dealing with crowded pavements thronging with petulant pedestrians.

Newport says that to focus deeply we need to remove or minimise the impact of distractions.

He focuses on two distractions in particular – e-mail and social media – and spends a significant portion of the book suggesting techniques on how to optimise and minimise their use.

He has some interesting ways of dealing with e-mail, including strictly limiting its use to the workplace, but his solution for dealing with the distraction of social media is more radical.

He suggests that if we are serious about being focused and productive, we should consider leaving social media completely (assuming it is non-essential to our work) and makes very compelling arguments for his case.

This is a thoughtful book, written in simple accessible language. Anyone whose work requires concentration or focus will gain some interesting insights and ideas on better structuring their work practices to achieve work of greater quality in a more efficient manner.

Personally, I would have liked to see at least some mention of exercise, diet, and sleep, all essential in terms of maintaining the ability to do deep work, but these are subjects that are explored in depth by other writers and the book doesn’t overly suffer by their omission. All in all, a surprisingly interesting, thoughtful, and enjoyable read.