Book review: Deep Work

Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

I first heard Cal Newport on Srinivas Rao’s UnmistakableCreative podcast. He struck me as an interesting character — maybe a little curmudgeonly, but undeniably smart.

He really caught my attention when he talked about the damage you inflict while checking your phone in line at the grocery store.

He said even a quick check while you’re bored trains your brain to seek distraction and stimuli at all times. So then when you do have to buckle down on something hard and not particularly appealing, your brain wants to bolt to something entertaining and can’t sustain focus.

That blew my mind. I ALWAYS check my phone while waiting in a line, stopped at a red light, walking down the hallway, etc. Doesn’t everyone? I thought I was being productive in my job as social media director, if a little OCD. But Newport’s book completely changed my view about the negative trade-offs of that type of connectivity.

I’ll share what I gained from this book, but first let me share a few quibbles with Deep Work.

First, I think there’s a danger in these self-help books that create an oversimplified narrative that sounds something like this: Devote yourself to X, and you’ll be successful! Life is more complicated than that. Newport makes some concessions that deep work isn’t appropriate for everyone at all times, like executives who have to constantly switch tasks and make decisions rather than work in long blocks of uninterrupted “deep work.” But it feels tacked-on like his editor forced him to add that as an aside so he doesn’t sound like a fanatic.

Second, I think he underestimates the value of productive interruptions and collaboration with other people. Yes, creativity does arise out of deep individual focus, but sometimes you need others to bounce off ideas or help with creative collisions (the theme of Creativity Inc, another book I’m reading). Newport is proud of being hard to reach and sounds like he’d avoid people entirely if he could, which is a fine personal preference but isn’t the only way to get results.

And finally, at times Newport almost comes off as a bit of a robot. He likes to talk about the value of deep work to help him achieve tenure, write academic papers and read a bunch of books. It’s only at the very end of the book that he admits that he can be obsessive. You sometimes want to take him out for a beer and tell him to loosen up.

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That said, I’m very thankful for Newport’s point of view and the tactics he shares for eliminating distraction and unproductive busy work. As a culture, we are prone to distraction, and I know this because I am exhibit A. I mean, duh. But I always rolled my eyes at the articles that talk about putting down the phone and “being in the moment.” What does that even mean? How do you do that?

I don’t think we don’t need more moral scolds that tell us to put down our phones. But we DO need people like Newport who can share a system that provides actionable advice for how to cut down on email, find more time to focus, and train your brain to produce difficult cognitive work.

My job is in social media, so it may be ironic that I found so much value from an author who says repeatedly in no uncertain terms “quit social media.” But using some of Newport’s techniques I feel like I’m actually using social media more mindfully (even if that sounds like an oxymoron) and achieving better results, not just there but in other areas of my life.

Lately I’ve been more focused on reading and writing. I feel more centered and calm. I don’t feel stressed out by work projects and other cognitive demands. For that, I feel like I can thank a meditation practice along with Newport’s philosophy and advice.

And if you catch me checking my phone in the grocery store line, feel free to call me on it.

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