Book Review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

Men of genius themselves were great only by bringing all their power to bear on the point on which they decided to show their full measure.
– Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life, as quoted in Deep Work p.35.

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Before writing Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he wrote three books on study practices, as well as So Good They Can’t Ignore You, in which he debunks the myth that to love your job, you must follow your passion.

There are many things I like about Newport’s work, key of which is that he appears to practice what he preaches. Furthermore, his advice is practical and flexible.

In Deep Work Newport explains the eponymous term, before giving advice on how to achieve this state.

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Deep Work: 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.
– page 3

Newport argues that knowledge workers are losing the ability to perform deep work due to network tools, because they fragment their attention. Although people appear to be busy, this tends to be with shallow work, the non-demanding, logical-style tasks which do not create new value and are easy to replicate (p.6).

This shift toward shallow work creates an opportunity for those who master deep work. Deep work is a skill with great value in an information economy, because practitioners must be able to learn quickly and must be able to produce their best work. This leads to Newport’s hypothesis that deep work is scarce and valuable, and therefore “the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive” (p.14).

Many readers will be familiar with Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice, even if through the popularised version presented by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success. Newport reminds us of the core components of deliberate practice (p.35):

  • your attention is focused tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve;
  • you receive feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.

Focus is important (intense focus triggers myelination), and “to learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction” (p.37). To emphasise the importance of intense and uninterrupted focus, Newport proposes a law of productivity:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
– page 40

Newport is a proponent of digital minimalism and he draws on the work of New York University Professor Neil Postman, specifically Postman’s Technopoly, to point out the flaws with society’s obsession with technology.

“Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and non-technological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech.”
– page 69

In speaking about the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport points out that “the connection between deep work and a good like is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen” (p.74), but that it is less clear when it comes to knowledge work. However, this does not mean that the connection does not exist.

Newport sets out four rules for deep work:

Rule 1: Work Deeply. Your willpower is limited, so let your routines and rituals help you transition into deep work with a minimum use of willpower.

Rule 2: Embrace Boredom. Use productive meditation (thinking about a specific problem while you go for a walk, for example).

Rule 3: Quit Social Media. Apps are tools. Approach tool selection as a craftsman would.

Rule 4: Drain The Shallows. You should identify the shallowness in your life and minimise it.

In relation to each of these rules, Newport provides practical advice and examples to help implement them into your life.

In chess, as in work, it is not enough to plod along if you want to improve. You need to find ways to stretch yourself, and to gain new skills and knowledge. As ever, it is up to you to take charge, but Deep Work provides an outstanding route map to get you started on your way to success.


8 thoughts on “Book Review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

  • 12th February 2017 at 1:11 am

    It had been my intention to read Deep Work since I first heard about it (here?). This is great stuff. I know my own work is almost hopelessly shallow and fragmented and deep work is especially difficult for people with children but the struggle must continue lest We become trapped at the surface.

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