Analysis: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Cal Newport has established himself as a reputable self-help author with several books aimed primarily at students and young professionals looking for strategies to get ahead in their academic or career track. With Deep Work, he continues his trend of offering very straightforward, practical advice, but has now pivoted toward addressing creative workers.

Deep Work is aimed at people who 1) need to produce creatively and think deeply, and 2) have an environment that can facilitate that kind of work if structured properly. If you don’t meet the first criterion, you will probably still be able to get a lot out of this book, though you may find the book’s ruthless evangelizing irritating. If you don’t meet the second criterion and think this book will help you overcome distraction, you may want to look somewhere else, as this book is primarily aimed at convincing people to eliminate distraction as much as they can and giving them a plan for how to do so.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 3: What is Deep Work?

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.

“Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. We now know from decades of research in both psychology and neuroscience that the state of mental strain that accompanies deep work is also necessary to improve your abilities.”

Page 14: Deep Work is valuable, and becoming more so

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.”

Page 92: Deep Work taps positively into the human psyche

“Whether you approach the activity of going deep from the perspective of neuroscience, psychology, or lofty philosophy, these paths all seem to lead back to a connection between depth and meaning. It’s as if our species has evolved into one that flourishes in depth and wallows in shallowness, becoming what we might call Homo sapiens deepensis.”

Page 157: Deep Work must be practiced and Shallow work must be rejected

“The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters. In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your ‘mental muscles.’ […]

“[…] There is, however, an important corollary to this idea: Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.”

Page 258: Deep Work is useful, not just philosophical

“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 43: Concentration lags behind intention, so even a quick distraction can potentially take lots of time out of a fully-focused state. Remove them, too

“The concept of attention residue helps explain why the intensity formula is true and therefore helps explain Grant’s productivity. By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching, Grant minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from his other obligations, allowing him to maximize performance on this one task. […]

[…] Even if you’re unable to fully replicate Grant’s extreme isolation (we’ll tackle different strategies from scheduling depth in Part 2), the attention residue concept is still telling because it implies that the common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so… But Leroy teaches us that this is not much of an improvement. That quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished.”

Page 119: Make a plan for your Deep Work Sessions

“There’s no one correct deep work ritual—the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:

Where you’ll work and for how long. Your ritual needs to specify a location for your deep work efforts… If it’s possible to identify a location used only for depth…the positive effect can be even greater… Regardless of where you work, be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.

How you’ll work once you start to work. Your ritual needs rules and processes to keep your efforts structured. […]

[…] How you’ll support your work. Your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth. For example, the ritual might specify that you start with a cup of good coffee, or make sure you have access to enough food or the right type to maintain energy, or integrate light exercise such as walking to help keep the mind clear.”

Page 144: Establish a firm boundary between work and non-work

“At the end of the workday, shut down your consideration of work issues until the next morning—no after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you’ll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely. If you need more time, then extend your workday, but once you shut down, your mind must be left free to encounter Kreider’s buttercups, stink bugs, and stars.”

Page 170: Use activities of light engagement (e.g. walking) to meditate on problems

“The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem… As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. […]

[…] I suggest that you adopt a productive meditation practice in your own life. You don’t necessarily need a serious session every day, but your goal should be to participate in at least two or three such sessions in a typical week.”

Page 222: Schedule your workday down to the minute

“We spend much of our day on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time. This is a problem… It’s an idea that might seem extreme at first but will soon prove indispensable in your quest to take full advantage of the value of deep work: Schedule every minute of your day.

Here’s my suggestion: At the beginning of each workday, turn to a new page of lined paper in a notebook you dedicate to this purpose. Down the left-hand side of the page, mark every other line with an hour of the day, covering the full set of hours you typically work. Now comes the important part: Divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks… Not every block need be dedicated to a work task. There might be time blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. To keep things reasonable clean, the minimum length of a block of time should be thirty minutes […]

[…] When you’re done scheduling your day, every minute should be part of a block. You have, in effect, given every minute of your workday a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

Top 5 Disagreements

Connections to Other Works

Closing Thoughts

Deep Work is definitely a top-tier productivity and self-help book. Its advice is practical and well-reasoned, and it never succumbs to fluff or sentimentality. It explains why you should follow his advice, explains what the concepts behind his advice are, and explains how you can put them into practice.

The book has its flaws, however; as mentioned above, it generally assumes a level of control over your environment that many people (e.g. parents, salespeople) don’t usually have. The advice is not very flexible either; there is no “if this-then that” to it. For instance, I can imagine writers, coders, and entrepreneurs all needing to remove distraction and dive deep into their work, as they are all creative producers in some sense, but there are many differences in how their thought processes must work to accomplish their goals. Everything just gets divided between “deep work” and “shallow work” with few distinctions among the multitude of activities that fall into the former category.

However, these criticisms are more of what was left out of the book rather than of what’s actually in it, so I can’t weight them too heavily in my final evaluation. Deep Work has already provided me with many personal benefits, especially the sections pertaining to structuring your environment and scheduling your work sessions more minutely, and I think anyone who wants to create better, whatever that means for them, will take something useful away from it.

Final Score: 4/5

One thought on “Analysis: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

  1. Pingback: Miscellania: January 2018 – THE NEXT FIVE MINUTES

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