Some Thoughts on Deep Work

Marc on 2020-10-14

If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.

- Deep Work

A few days ago I finished reading Cal Newport's latest book Deep Work and wanted to jot down some thoughts about it as I think there's something really special here. I will say this isn't the first time I've read one of Newports works; I'd previously been somewhat unimpressed with Digital Minimalism (where Cal bestows advice on using technology in a more meaningful manner) as I felt some of the supposed breakthroughs were things I was already doing naturally. Despite this I decided to give him a second shot and was pleased to find that my opinion on Cal was changed after reading So Good They Can't Ignore You which offered a more unique approach to career planning and advancement by advocating against following your passion. Although every book I've read by Newport may not have been life-changing, he certainly is an author for whom I keep my eye out for new works.

As such that brings us to Deep Work, Cals' latest book at the time of writing that aims to examine - and propose a solution to - the attention epidemic that Cal, and other notable thinkers, claim is actively slowing the rate of human progress. This epidemic arises from the onslaught of 'shallow work', a term Cal uses to refer to the plague of round-the-clock office chat-apps, banal emails, and ceaseless social media presence that many employees and professionals feel they must excessively engage with - often to the detriment of their real work. It is this distracted means of working where our attention is constantly being pulled towards incessantly checking our inbox, being unable to control the urge to check our phone, and performing menial tasks in the name of simply appearing busy that Cal feels we can remedy by implementing, and religiously following, a practice of deep work.

To summarise what Deep Work actually is, I'll quote Cal directly:

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.

Cal Newport - Deep Work

My initial reaction after reading that definition in the opening pages of the book was concern, concern that what lay ahead might just be another book praising the 'astounding' work-ethic of those who had discovered the Do-Not-Disturb setting on their phone however, I was incredibly pleased to find those concerns were quickly assuaged. Deep Work is a concise yet thorough deconstruction and analysis of the shared delusion that the more "things" we spend our time on (email, social media, meetings etc.), the more productive we must be. It is this incorrect notion that has creeped into both the workplace and our personal lives that, if untreated, will eventually lead to a lifetime and career with nothing to reflect on but meaningless busy-work.

The first quarter of the book concerns itself with reviewing the practices and processes of notable people, both contemporary and historical, with Cal using Carl Jung and his Bollingen Tower as the gateway into his argument. For those unaware of the significance of the Bollingen Tower, as I certainly was: the Bollingen Tower was a custom-built retreat constructed by Jung as a dedicated place to work with uninterrupted focus, far from the distractions and other commitments of his main psychiatric practice. It was here that Jung could work for extended periods of time, often months, putting together what would ultimately become his crowning addition to the field in the form of Analytical psychology.

Although not all of us may be fortunate enough to be able to build a bespoke tower in the wilderness of Switzerland, Cal argues that we can still take steps to impliment a place, practice, or routine in our daily lives that allows us to achieve a similar level of intense focus, a similar level of deep work. It is the search for meaningful ways to impliment deep work that concerns the true body of the book as Cal pulls from not only his own experiences practicing deep work, but also a host of other figures who, despite a seemingly insurmountable number of other commitments, are able to exceed the output of their colleagues several times over. From the youngest Professor at a notable University surpassing the output of his more senior peers; to the Academics who, despite setting strict work curfews for themselves and as such working shorter hours, exceed the number of published research papers of that of their coworkers who are effectively work-a-holics. Although several individuals discussed in the book hail from Academia (Cal himself being an Associate Professor at Georgetown University), the book expertly covers and interweaves numerous other individuals from a host of backdrops, all the while imparting advice that is easily applicable to the reader.

As excellent as Deep Work is, I won't be divulging the strategies and techniques that Cal suggests as doing so would be a disservice to the considerable research and refinement Cal obviously went through to arrive at such insights. Should you still be on the fence however about this book, I will say that as I turned the final page, I had accumulated over 85 individual highlights and notes on the various tips, interviews, and other information contained within which I hope will shed some light on the sheer volume of food-for-thought that is presented and that the application of which I will hopefully discuss in a future post.