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“Deep Work” is the Gateway Drug of Productivity Books
Author Cal Newport uses top insights from highly-respected sources to drive home the point that deep concentration is going the way of the dodo bird in a society increasingly focused on immediacy, and that harnessing and developing this ability further leads to both a personal competitive advantage and a happier life.
First, Cal identifies why we should care about deep work by stating and expanding on its advantages:
- Deep work is increasingly valuable in a society that seems to live in the shallows most of the time. It’s valuable to us as knowledge workers, and valuable to employers who want people who are able to learn difficult things quickly and apply them successfully, both of which requires the ability to focus for extended periods of time.
- Deep work is growing increasingly rare, thanks to our ever more fragmented time and attention. Nearly everyone can relate to the “squirrel” phenomenon (see the movie “Up” for that reference if you’ve been living under a rock somewhere) and that’s not a good thing. By guarding and developing our ability to stay focused, we can create our best work and be generally more satisfied as a result.
- Deep work leads to living a more meaningful life because there is something deeply satisfying, even meditative, about losing ourselves in deep work that is aligned with our strengths, abilities and preferences. To Cal, a shallow life is an unhappy life.
Having clearly explained the benefits of developing our ability to do deep work, the author then provides the tools and guidelines that can help us be successful in doing so.
Here are the rules:
- Work deeply
- Embrace boredom
- Quit social media
- Drain the shallows
#1. Work Deeply
This rule is by far the one Cal spends the most time delving into, spending nearly twice as long as any other section. (I’ll admit, at 60-pages long, that made me read it last and, in retrospect, that was a mistake because it serves as somewhat of a foundation for the other three, not to mention it’s overall importance.)
He states that we need to make a point of doing work in a deeply concentrated fashion (by focusing on what works best for us, including our work environment) and provides examples of how some very successful people go about reaching this state, which I found helpful.
He also says we can reinforce this behavior by paying attention to what outputs carry the biggest payoff toward our long-term goals, measuring the actions that are adding direct value to this work, and keeping score of the frequency and quality of these actions. For Cal, this means tracking the number of deep work hours in a given week (you can see more on this last point in Cal’s deep habits blog post).
This section, and the accompanying link, was pivotal in how I approach deep work and lead me to make some important changes, one of which was to start tracking my deep work on what I decided is my most important project this year.
Here’s a snapshot of my tracking (green indicates the days I did deep work on this particular project, and the number written in the center of each of these days are the number of hours).
One last thought from the author on this rule is that it is far easier to immerse ourselves in deep work when we pay attention to our need for regular rest and relaxation. No, we don’t have to be busy all the time. And no, we don’t have to work ridiculous hours to be successful, hence the formula, which states that the higher the intensity of our focus, the less time it takes to produce the same quality of work:
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) X (Intensity of Focus) (pg. 5)
#2. Embrace Boredom
I’ll keep this one short and sweet: there’s a lot of power in the ability to resist the pull of instant gratification. Reaching for our device or any entertainment if we have even just a few minutes of idle time reinforces our trigger/payoff loop of seeking distractions at every opportunity. By learning to resist the impulse when we’re bored, we can more easily resist this impulse when we’re trying to improve our ability to take deep dives into our work.
#3. Quit Social Media
This rule is self-explanatory and likely rather scary for most of us. I won’t dig deeper into the pros of this rule. Instead, I point you to a TEDx Tyson talk that Cal delivered in 2016. I know he’ll be more convincing in his delivery than I possibly could here. If you watch the video, you’ll see how passionate he is on the subject. And, in his book, he offers examples of other well-known authors who also eschew social media.
#4. Drain the Shallows
The final rule flips conventional wisdom on its head. Question everything. Guard your time like a hawk in an attempt to do no work that is shallow in nature. We can do this successfully by:
- scheduling your deep work before anything else
- being less accessible
- becoming better communicators
- becoming better at saying “no”
- delegating anything and everything that others could do that would free up more of our precious time for deep work.
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. (pg. 161)
If you want to stop being so easily distracted and reach greater heights in meaningful personal productivity and new depths of insight that you’ve only dreamed of, you need to read this book! The short review and summary above do not begin to do it justice.
Some of the great references used in this book that I alluded to at the beginning of this review include: “Rapt” by Winifred Gallagher, “Peak” by Anders Ericsson, “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, and “Technopoly” by Neil Postman.
Other suggested readings along the lines of various topics Cal Newport explores in “Deep Work” include: “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” by Tony Schwartz, “Eat That Frog!” by Brian Tracy, “The Power of NO” by James Altucher & Claudia Azula Altucher, and “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown.
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