Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Cover of the book Deep Work by Cal NewportIn a world where recent attention has been on the wonders of individuals who have mastered multitasking comes this thoughtful book from Cal Newport, author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”  While not the only proponent of single tasking, Deep Work was a drink of cool water for this librarian.

Why Deep Work?

    • Multitasking takes away focus.  Recent research has shown that multitasking really is just single-tasking with rapid switches of attention between the various tasks before the individual.  This makes focus much more difficult for most, and impossible for some.  Newport explains that when you switch your attention, “just to quickly check email”, for example, the effect of that mind switch leaves up to 10-20 minutes of residue in your mind that serves as a kind of cognitive handicap that results in static when you try to re-focus on your topic of deep work.

What IS Deep Work?

  • 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.” (per Newport)  Newport spends a significant amount of time explaining the value of deep work to one’s productivity and success, and then presents a plan for training us to become deeper workers ourselves. More than half the book is filled with various strategies  for developing the skills needed for deep focus.
  • Caution!  Deep work is hard.  Don’t read this book if you are looking for a way to make your life easier.  Deep work takes effort and practice to attain, just like any other skill.. in fact, just as multitasking took work to achieve.  But its benefits, including the satisfaction received by simply practicing the technique, proponents argue, make the effort more than worthwhile.
  • Deep work allows  you to learn new complicated things more quickly.  When you attain the ability to focus deeply, you tend to retain more information and assimilate new skills more quickly.
  • The better you become at deep work, the more high quality work you can produce in a given unit time.  Its benefit expands as your skill at doing deep work increases.
  • Newport describes in his book how deep work allowed him to not only complete this book, but how he also wrote twice the number of peer reviewed papers during the same year.  This kind of focused achievement is impressive to say the least.
  • He also shares a case study where the Boston Consulting Group committed their employees to a deep work experiment.  Despite misgivings, all employees took one full day  identified as a “no contact day.” During this time, they did not respond to email, client calls etc, but  focused totally on deep work.  The result?  Job satisfaction went up, clients were happy, and employees were more productive too. So maybe the world would not stop spinning after-all if we unplugged from our emails and phones.  (as a note of amusement… as I write this, both of our campuses have their internal applications down… no email, no campus connectivity. And I’ve managed to get a great deal done here as a result.  Hmm.  Maybe there is a lot to this concept!)

What are some of Newport’s Tips for starting to practice deep work?

  1. Quit social media.  You must be extremely selective about the apps and tools you use.  What applications provide “substantial positive benefits” to your work?  Those are the tools that MIGHT be worth keeping.  Otherwise, be ruthless about striking out the others.
  2. Using website blockers like Leechblock (Firefox) or StayFocused (Chrome)  might help you to avoid all the attention grabbing sites as you begin to train your mind for Deep Work.
  3. Try creating a Rhythmic philosophy of work; in other words, schedule your deep work for the same time every day.
  4. If your everyday schedule doesn’t allow enough time for deep work, try a Bi-modal philosophy; in other words, choose certain days where you choose to only do deep work.
  5. As a third alternative, you might try a Journalistic philosophy; this method allows you to schedule specific blocks of deep work based on your responsibilities and meetings for the week ahead.

Deep work is a commitment just as any other change that you choose to make in your life.  The more you practice doing deep work, the better you will get at it and the longer you will be able to devote to deep work sessions and the more you will produce from the sessions.

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