Book Review: Deep Work

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Cal Newport gives us a very specific definition for the “Deep Work” in his title. Here it is.

“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: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is based on what the Cal Newport calls his 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.”

Why do the hard work of deep work?

Newport believes that the ability to do deep work will help you master hard things quickly and perform at an elite level. And he thinks that those skills are key to success in the coming decades. This book is about wringing the most value you can out of your time by spending some of it on deep work.

Not a new idea, but an important one

People have been writing about working in long, uninterrupted stretches of time for quite a while. You’ll find it in Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive, written in the 1960s. Then it might make you more successful. Today, Newport thinks it’s a survival skill. He thinks that the world will be divided into two kinds of performers in the future. One group will not master deep work and will slide down the performance curve. The other group will master deep work and will be more successful and more satisfied.

An important idea that pushes back against our work culture

What Newport is calling for in terms of concentration and effort goes against the grain of the current work culture. Today we think that being connected 24 hours a day and 7 days a week is normal. We don’t see anything strange about a person stopping in the middle of a dinner conversation to check email. Yet, that’s exactly the opposite of the behavior that Newport recommends.

How to get the deep work done

The author suggests six strategies for getting the deep work done. I found those interesting reading but not particularly helpful, with one exception. That’s the advice to: “Decide on your in-depth philosophy.”

That will be particularly helpful for you because it gives you different ways to approach the idea of doing deep work, no matter what kind of situation you’re in. My only quibble here is that I don’t think you just decide and do it. I think you’ll try things out, find what works, and maybe combine the philosophies so that they work best for you.

After going through some of the basics, Newport defines the problem accurately by noting that it is a problem of execution, not a problem of understanding. Knowing that deep work is important and understanding how it works won’t make a pinch of difference without an execution strategy.

He recommends the strategy from a 2012 book called The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. That book lays out four specific disciplines that Newport applies one after another to the process of doing deep work.

Focus on the wildly important. Not just “important,” “wildly important.” Pick one or two things that will make the biggest difference for you and work on those. As many authors have said, you will accomplish more with a few goals that you concentrate on rather than with many goals that distract you and suck up your energy.

Act on the lead measures. Measure what you need to do to get the results you want. Do that and the results will take care of themselves.

Keep a compelling scoreboard. Keeping score and keeping records keeps you honest and helps you make more progress.

Create a cadence of accountability. This is a lot like scrum. Don’t just do deep work. Have someone or a team that you’re accountable to and to whom you report regularly.

Is this book for you?

This is a good book, especially if you are new to the idea of what deep work represents: long, uninterrupted stretches of work that push you to your limits. The material on execution includes ways to work in teams and to mix creativity and innovation to produce more and better work.

There are some things that you should be aware of before you consider buying the book. The first part of the book seems very helpful, but then effectiveness tails off. That’s not unusual in business books, which tend to start strong and then peter out. This one keeps going, but the second half of the book is not nearly as sharp or as helpful as the first.

There are lots of powerful insights in the book. Even if you don’t buy the entire process, or if you buy it but don’t entirely put it to work, you’ll pick up some tips and tricks that will make you more productive. There’s one, for example, about not taking breaks from the distractions, i.e. checking your email. Instead, take breaks from your deep work. You work, you take a break and you do the distractions then.

There was another one that was particularly helpful for me about developing a shut-down ritual at the end of the day. I’ve been working on things in a kind of deep work way for years, it’s what writers do. What I had not mastered was the ability to shift from my work day to home without a fairly long transition period. The close-out ritual has helped with that, though I’m still struggling to master it. The problem is with me, not the concept.

On a personal note, I would have liked the book better if there were more business examples as opposed to academic examples of ways to make this work. In fact, I’d have preferred more examples from someone other than Cal Newport.

Bottom line

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World will be a good book for you if you want to improve the amount and quality of your personal work. It will help you get things done with teams. It will give you a number of productivity tips, whether you go for the whole book or not.

On the downside, the book is probably longer than it needs to be. The most important “downside” has nothing to do with the book. If you don’t put what you learn to work, it will have no value for you. In the case of deep work, that means making changes to your work routines and habits. It will take you months or years, not days or weeks, to get the value that’s here for the taking.


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