Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Oct 22, 2018

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

In Deep Work, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Deep Work takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. Deep Work is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.

Cal has a lot of good ideas but I hate how he presented them.

I pretty much skimmed through the first section that was trying to convince me that deep work was worth it. Of course, I know it’s worth it, why else would I be reading this book? As a computer scientist, I don’t mind that the examples he spouts off are largely tech-related and usually intended for office/self-employed workers. However, there’s a lot of anecdotes in this book. There are some mentions of studies here and there but the evidence is still lacking.

When it comes to social media, he comes off as pretentious and snobby even if he is mostly right. I’ve read some of Cal’s blog posts before and I had the same impression of him back then. I am a bit defensive over the usage of my social media even though I know I’d probably be better off without. But Cal brings up the point of, think what you could be doing in your time instead. And I agree.

Regardless, there’s a lot of things I want to try out from this book.

  • Commit to a rhythmic philosophy of deep work
  • Ritualize where and how I will work
  • Follow 4DX (quick note, this largely taken from another author)
  • Focus on just the important goal
  • Measure new behaviours that drive success AKA keeping track of deep work hours (i.e. lead measures)
  • Keep a scoreboard (like a streak)
  • Create accountability with weekly reviews
  • Take breaks from focus over distractions (schedule hours dedicated to the Internet instead of hours dedicated to work)
  • Quit social media (almost)
  • Re-evaluate the social networks I’m a part of (including Goodreads)
  • Take a month-long “sabbatical” from social media and see if anyone misses me
  • Schedule every minute of my day
  • Finish work by 16:30 (in the book Cal says 17:30 but I’m assuming he starts work at 9:00 whereas I start work at 8:00)
  • Become hard to reach (e-mail and phone only, maybe Discord still?)

Yes, there are good things to try out with this book. Cal takes until the very end to say deep work is not for everybody (with his usual pretentious air). I’m going to take a crack at it. I’ve found that ever since I’ve graduated and started working, my hours are incredibly limited. After careful attention, I’ve realized that much of my day is dedicated to shallow activities. I want to get things done (yes, I’ve read David Allen’s GTD).