Deep Work by Cal Newport: A Review

Deep Work by Cal Newport: A Review

To say that we live in a distracted world is putting it lightly, and is quite the understatement, indeed. The overwhelming majority of us find ourselves glued to our screens, and while yes, technology has the ability to increase our productivity, as we know all too well, it can sabotage our productivity just the same. I need not inundate you with statistics about screen time and distraction; simply recall your last full week of work or school, then calculate the amount of time you spent consuming mindless information via the web and social media. Compare the number of distracted hours to the amount of time you spent in what Georgetown computer science professor and author Cal Newport deems "Deep Work;" a period of intense cognitive load, free from distraction, focused intently on intellectually demanding tasks, tasks that are hard to replicate, and that produce meaningful value in a knowledge-based economy. 

If you are honest in your calculations, you will undoubtedly see room for improvement, and Cal and I are here to help you do just that. In a previous article, I wrote at length about the idea of creation vs. consumption, and how to balance the two competing forces for your precious and limited attention. I also introduced a term I named "calculated consumption," the idea being that when you consume, to do so in a calculated way that brings you closer to you defined personal and professional goals. Today, in a review of Deep Work, we will focus on the creation aspect, as Newport gives us what I consider to be one of the best guides ever written on how to win the battle of distraction vs. focus, and to ultimately succeed in an economy that puts a high value on the scarcity that is deep, focused work.

This is the first in a series of book reviews I will tackle in the coming months, and with myriad of titles to choose from in my personal library, the fact that I start with Deep Work should tell you quite a bit about how much I value this book, and how important I consider the message contained therein to be for a multitude of knowledge and professional workers today. 

Again, to say that we live in a distracted world is obviously not a new concept, and Cal is not the first to point out the reality of our distracted lives. Useless screen time runs rampant throughout professional and corporate America, and to deny the fact is to be a part of the problem. We are distracted; to debate on matters of just how much we are distracted, and what is the actual cost to the bottom line, is to miss the point entirely. We are distracted, indeed. Cal tackles the subject brilliantly in Deep Work, drawing on a mixture of modern day examples of those who practice deep, focused work, combined with lessons throughout history of those who did the same. As I studied history in college, I was delighted to see examples in the book of those throughout time who avoided distraction to focus on deep, meaningful work; distraction is not unique to modern times, and there is much we can learn from the ancients who mastered the temptation of distracted, or as Cal would call it, "shallow work." 

Cal also notes examples of deep, focused work in his own life, of which there are many. A devotee of "Deep Work," Cal is extremely productive in his own right, having published four books, earned a Ph.D. from MIT, published a plethora of peer-reviewed papers, landed a tenure-track position in Georgetown's computer science department, and did all of the above while raising a family over the past 10 years. But do not try to find him on Facebook or Twitter to ask how or say congrats; Newport does not have any social media accounts, and one should feel special if he replies to any emails sent his way - he is serious about limiting distractions, and while this may seem overboard to some, it is hard to argue with his results. 

A Few of the Major Points of the Book:  

  • Deep Work is Rare and Valuable 

As distraction becomes the norm for more and more professionals and knowledge workers, those who can master "Deep Work" and produce high-value content become rare, and ultimately more valuable. To succeed in this new economy, Cal argues that mastering "Deep Work" can give us an edge on our distracted competition.  

  • Deep Work is Fulfilling 

I talk about as much in an article about fulfillment and why the search for happiness is a lie, arguing (before I read Deep Work) that it is a sense of purpose and the accomplishment of great tasks that fuels happiness, not the neverending search for happiness itself. Cal argues for much of the same, echoing the countless studies in psychology that reference "a job well done" as a deep and lasting source of happiness. 

  • When Working, Work Deeply 

It seems simple in theory, yet ultimately complex when the rubber meets the road, so to speak. How often do we find ourselves mindlessly slogging through what should be meaningful, deep work, while breaking our concentration every 10 minutes to check email or answer the phone? How often do we find ourselves breaking our deep focus to check social media accounts or browse the web? Cal offers tips and strategies to limit distractions in this section, including a brilliant concept he labels the "Grand Gesture," a bold move intended to create just enough pressure and healthy stress to spur one to find the motivation and depth needed to finish the task. In an example of a Grand Gesture, you might rent an expensive hotel room and lock yourself inside until you finish your task, or build for yourself a writing cabin in the woods. Both are examples Cal cites in the book, but I won't spoil your surprise! 

  • Quit Social Media  

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.. While they can be powerful tools, Cal argues that for the majority of knowledge workers today, they do more harm than good, and urges his readers to quit social media altogether. This is a bold move indeed, and for the most distracted and addicted social media types, this might be the right answer. Failing out of college or quitting social media...what would be best for her future? In such a case, by all means, deactivate the accounts until graduation. For the rest of us, this is certainly an extreme suggestion, and I disagree with Cal on this point (and the only point in the book with which we disagree). I do believe social media has a place in the arsenal of tools for writers and thinkers today, and I believe that Cal could and would make a bigger impact and sell more books if he did have social media accounts. Consider as a comparison Robert Greene, one of the greatest writers of our time. Greene's "team" maintains his Twitter account, and with 75,000 followers, he has the ability to impact quite a few thousand people with little to no time of his own spent on such matters. With the prevalence of companies that manage social media accounts for the rich and famous, I would think that Cal could break even or increase sales by going this route - keep focusing and going deep, while paying someone else to manage his social media presence. If nothing else, perhaps 100 dollars a month to a Georgetown graduate student to manage the Twitter account would be a worthwhile investment. 

While obviously not rich, famous, or to the level of Greene or Newport, I go this route myself, paying five dollars a month for a company to manage my blog posts on Twitter. I invest a minimal amount of time upfront to publish the tweets; the software then reposts the tweets once a month at the optimal time based on when my followers are most likely to be online. I've calculated that through increased ad revenue and Power Tower book sales, I come out ahead of the five dollars a month investment - way ahead, and will continue to use such services. 

In Closing

While a worthwhile read for all, this book is crucial for two types of knowledge workers. First and foremost, this book is for the ultra-distracted types who find themselves procrastinating on important tasks and addicted to shallow work, social media, or mindless web browsing (this blog not included!). I would lump students in this group as well; if the use of social media or mindless web browsing (YouTube included) is affecting your grades in a negative way, this book is for you. The message for the aforementioned types is simple and compelling: embrace "Deep Work," or get left behind in this new economy, as you will surely be overtaken by those who can, and do, find ways to go deep. For college students, the reality is perhaps even more hard-hitting; the job market is competitive, indeed, and companies are looking to hire self-motivated types who can. and do, limit distractions while accomplishing deep and meaningful tasks that add value to the bottom line. College students: do not expect to simply "flip the switch" upon graduation; your distracted habits will follow you to your new job, and the implications are great for your career (not to mention your future family as well). 

Secondly, this book is for those of us who can limit distractions and go deep, and who are also looking for tips and tricks to reach a higher level still. I would consider myself a member of this category, and while not to the Newport or Greene level, I've managed to write a book, build a top Division I swimming & diving program from scratch (including the writing of nearly 12,000 full-page, hand-written letters to recruits), write 50 articles for this blog, and raise a family over the past few years. This output, while small compared to the aforementioned Newport and Greene, is growing as we speak, and the best is yet to come (though I should mention...if letters to swimming & diving recruits were converted to 300-page books, I would have written some 40 books to recruits by now). If you are looking to sharpen your current skills and go even deeper than your already high level of output, as I am, this book is a must. 

Deep Work is an important work, and that is putting it lightly. In an age of screen addiction and limitless distraction, those who can tune out the noise and "Go Deep," as Cal would say, have an edge in a knowledge-based economy, and the implications are far-reaching for those who can, and who cannot master, this rare and valuable skill. Keep up or be left behind. The choice is yours, and this brilliantly written book will show you how to master distraction, focus deeply, and produce the best work you are capable of producing. So important is this work I have two copies - a hardcover for my personal library, and the audio version for my "automobile university." While I do consider myself a "Deep Work Devotee," the two versions are ever present, and having read the book several times over, now serve more so as a reminder to tune out distractions, focus, and "Go Deep!"

To read more reviews or buy a copy on Amazon, click here: 

Crying Hypocrite is a Character Flaw

Crying Hypocrite is a Character Flaw

Thanksgiving: Attitude of Gratitude

Thanksgiving: Attitude of Gratitude