Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, moonlights as an author of advice books. (Actually, “moonlights” is the very wrong word because he keeps his evenings work free.) In addition to three books for students—How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Win at College, and How to Become a Straight-A Student, he wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Now he is out with Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016).
Although I admit that reading a book about deep work may itself be a distraction from actually doing deep work, it’s a worthwhile distraction. Newport’s book is a quick, inspiring read, although consistently implementing its rules is much, much tougher to do. Because, let’s face it, most of us spend the bulk of our time in the shallows, a word Nicholas Carr memorialized in his 2010 book. When I read Carr’s book I vowed to do something about my penchant for being distracted. Instead, five years later I may be even more distracted. And so, like a yo-yo dieter, here I go again, with good intentions and a new guidebook to turn those intentions into best practices.
Newport defines deep work as “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.” (p. 11) By contrast, shallow work refers to “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” (p. 13)
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By and large, to thrive in the new economy a person must have the ability to quickly master hard things as well as the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. (p. 28) And these abilities depend on the person’s ability to perform deep work.
Routines and rituals help foster a deep work habit. These routines and rituals must fit the individual’s circumstances, personality, and type of project being pursued. The author himself adapted the 4DX framework from the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution to his personal work habits. The four disciplines he embraced were: focus on the wildly important, act on the lead measures (as opposed to lag measures), keep a compelling scorecard, and create a cadence of accountability. And his own fifth habit, regularly rest your brain. “When you work, work hard. When you’re done, be done.” (p. 107)
To avoid the siren call of email or Google searches, Newport recommends that people schedule Internet blocks, both at work and at home. It is important to learn to resist switching to an online distraction at the slightest hint of boredom. The author also recommends that people give up time-consuming social media. Instead, he suggests they put more thought into their leisure time, offering themselves a quality alternative. Like reading a book.
Scheduling is a recurrent theme in this book. In fact, Newport recommends that people schedule every minute of their day. Well, not minute by minute of course, but in blocks.
And the reward for following this path? “A deep life is a good life, any way you look at it.” (p. 69)