Book Review: Deep Work

Cal Newport‘s writing on productivity and focus has been on my reading list for a while. Each post is a thought provoking read. When I read that he was publishing a new book, I requested a review copy through Net Galley, but was denied early access. After the book’s release day in January, I requested that my library license a copy of the ebook; my hold request finally came through and I had a chance to read it this past week. In the hours after finishing it, I’ve begged many friends and my husband, who spends more hours working deeply than anyone I know, to find a copy and prioritize reading it.

While one could potentially argue that Newport’s book about why deep work is valuable, meaningful, and increasingly rare (and how shallow work harms knowledge workers) is simply a rehash of plain common sense, I counter that it is a valuable read. He makes the case in a compelling and clear manner that left me questioning each of my daily actions and if they helped me contribute to the goal of helping my clients truly solve their technology (or yarn) problems. The book is divided into two parts, the first is to convince you of the validity of the deep work hypothesis and the second teaches you how to transform your habits so you can work deeply.

For me, the most compelling part of the first section was about how busyness is a proxy for productivity. If we aren’t clear on how to show or prove what we do as knowledge work, it’s easy to return to an industrial indicator of productivity: do lots of stuff visibly. I’ve seen myself fall into this trap by responding to a flurry of emails or focusing on tasks where my clients can easily see that I did something, instead of working on the deeper code that I really should pay attention to. Yes, some client work is shallow work, however, as Newport agrees, I won’t give all of it up as it’s not possible to be all-deep all the time.

Newport then states four rules: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media, and drain the shallows. First, begin to train yourself to work deeply by setting routines and making a ritual of your work habits. Embrace boredom, instead of taking an internet break, schedule into your day when you’ll respond to email and social media (perhaps with time blocks), and when you’ll have some productive meditation and structured deep thinking. This next rule is hard: quit social media/networking tools. Newport suggests a cold turkey 30 day quit. Don’t tell people you’re taking the break, just do it. After the 30 days review your social media needs. Does it add true value to your professional goals and was there real loss in your not participating? If so, resume using it but with caution toward its addictive tendencies and false sense of true value. Finally, drain the shallows. Deep work value is by-and-large greater than shallow work, but don’t completely eliminate the shallow, some of it is necessary! Schedule every minute with time blocks and roll with the interruptions and disruptions.

It’s been a while since there was a book I’ve begged people to read and think about. Don’t turn into someone who has become so used to shallow work that when a deep work project comes along, there is no ability to think deeply and lead to a successful project.

deep-work-cal-newport-lrgDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
By Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Book Group)
January 2016.