Deep Work

by Cal Newport

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Publisher: Grand Central
Copyright: January 2016
ISBN: 1-4555-8666-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 287

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If you follow popular psychology at all, you are probably aware of the ongoing debate over multitasking, social media, smartphones, and distraction. Usually, and unfortunately, this comes tainted by generational stereotyping: the kids these days who spend too much time with their phones and not enough time getting off their elders' lawns, thus explaining their inability to get steady, high-paying jobs in an economy designed to avoid steady, high-paying jobs. However, there is some real science under the endless anti-millennial think-pieces. Human brains are remarkably bad at multitasking, and it causes significant degredation of performance. Worse, that performance degredation goes unnoticed by the people affected, who continue to think they're performing tasks at their normal proficiency. This comes into harsh conflict with modern workplaces heavy on email and chat systems, and even harsher conflict with open plan offices.

Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University with a long-standing side profession of writing self-help books, initially focused on study habits. In this book, he argues that the ability to do deep work — focused, concentrated work that pushes the boundaries of what one understands and is capable of — is a valuable but diminishing skill. If one can develop both the habit and the capability for it (more on that in a moment), it can be extremely rewarding and a way of differentiating oneself from others in the same field.

Deep Work is divided into two halves. The first half is Newport's argument that deep work is something you should consider trying. The second, somewhat longer half is his techniques for getting into and sustaining the focus required.

In making his case for this approach, Newport puts a lot of effort into avoiding broader societal prescriptions, political stances, or even general recommendations and tries to keep his point narrow and focused: the ability to do deep, focused work is valuable and becoming rarer. If you develop that ability, you will have an edge. There's nothing exactly wrong with this, but much of it is obvious and he belabors it longer than he needed to. (That said, I'm probably more familiar with research on concentration and multitasking than some.)

That said, I did like his analysis of busyness as a proxy for productivity in many workplaces. The metrics and communication methods most commonly used in office jobs are great at measuring responsiveness and regular work on shallow tasks in the moment, and bad at measuring progress towards deeper, long-term goals, particularly ones requiring research or innovation. The latter is recognized and rewarded once it finally pays off, but often treated as a mysterious capability some people have and others don't. Meanwhile, the day-to-day working environment is set up to make it nearly impossible, in Newport's analysis, to develop and sustain the habits required to achieve those long-term goals. It's hard to read this passage and not be painfully aware of how much time one spends shallowly processing email, and how that's rewarded in the workplace even though it rarely leads to significant accomplishments.

The heart of this book is the second half, which is where Deep Work starts looking more like a traditional time management book. Newport lays out four large areas of focus to increase one's capacity for deep work: create space to work deeply on a regular basis, embrace boredom, quit social media, and cut shallow work out of your life. Inside those areas, he provides a rich array of techniques, some rather counter-intuitive, that have worked for him. This is in line with traditional time management guidance: focus on a few important things at a time, get better at saying no, put some effort into planning your day and reviewing that plan, and measure what you're trying to improve. But Newport has less of a focus on any specific system and more of a focus on what one should try to cut out of one's life as much as possible to create space for thinking deeply about problems.

Newport's guidance is constructed around the premise (which seems to have some grounding in psychological research) that focused, concentrated work is less a habit that one needs to maintain than a muscle that one needs to develop. His contention is that multitasking and interrupt-driven work isn't just a distraction that can be independently indulged or avoided each day, but instead degrades one's ability to concentrate over time. People who regularly jump between tasks lose the ability to not jump between tasks. If they want to shift to more focused work, they have to regain that ability with regular, mindful practice. So, when Newport says to embrace boredom, it's not just due to the value of quiet and unstructured moments. He argues that reaching for one's phone to scroll through social media in each moment of threatened boredom undermines one's ability to focus in other areas of life.

I'm not sure I'm as convinced as Newport is, but I've been watching my own behavior closely since I read this book and I think there's some truth here. I picked this book up because I've been feeling vaguely dissatisfied with my ability to apply concentrated attention to larger projects, and because I have a tendency to return to a comfort zone of unchallenging tasks that I already know how to do. Newport would connect that to a job with an open plan office, a very interrupt-driven communications culture, and my personal habits, outside of work hours, of multitasking between TV, on-line chat, and some project I'm working on.

I'm not particularly happy about that diagnosis. I don't like being bored, I greatly appreciate the ability to pull out my phone and occupy my mind while I'm waiting in line, and I have several very enjoyable hobbies that only take "half a brain," which I neither want to devote time to exclusively nor want to stop doing entirely. But it's hard to argue with the feeling that my brain skitters away from concentrating on one thing for extended periods of time, and it does feel like an underexercised muscle.

Some of Newport's approach seems clearly correct: block out time in your schedule for uninterrupted work, find places to work that minimize distractions, and batch things like email and work chat instead of letting yourself be constantly interrupted by them. I've already noticed how dramatically more productive I am when working from home than working in an open plan office, even though the office doesn't bother me in the moment. The problems with an open plan office are real, and the benefits seem largely imaginary. (Newport dismantles the myth of open office creativity and contrasts it with famously creative workplaces like MIT and Bell Labs that used a hub and spoke model, where people would encounter each other to exchange ideas and then retreat into quiet and isolated spaces to do actual work.) And Newport's critique of social media seemed on point to me: it's not that it offers no benefits, but it is carefully designed to attract time and attention entirely out of proportion to the benefits that it offers, because that's the business model of social media companies.

Like any time management book, some of his other advice is less convincing. He makes a strong enough argument for blocking out every hour of your day (and then revising the schedule repeatedly through the day as needed) that I want to try it again, but I've attempted that in the past and it didn't go well at all. I'm similarly dubious of my ability to think through a problem while walking, since most of the problems I work on rely on the ability to do research, take notes, or start writing code while I work through the problem. But Newport presents all of this as examples drawn from his personal habits, and cares less about presenting a system than about convincing the reader that it's both valuable and possible to carve out thinking space for oneself and improve one's capacity for sustained concentration.

This book is explicitly focused on people with office jobs who are rewarded for tackling somewhat open-ended problems and finding creative solutions. It may not resonate with people in other lines of work, particularly people whose jobs are the interrupts (customer service jobs, for example). But its target profile fits me and a lot of others in the tech industry. If you're in that group, I think you'll find this thought-provoking.

Recommended, particularly if you're feeling harried, have the itch to do something deeper or more interesting, and feel like you're being constantly pulled away by minutia.

You can get a sample of Newport's writing in his Study Habits blog, although be warned that some of the current moral panic about excessive smartphone and social media use creeps into his writing there. (He's currently working on a book on digital minimalism, so if you're allergic to people who have caught the minimalism bug, his blog will be more irritating than this book.) I appreciated him keeping the moral panic out of this book and instead focusing on more concrete and measurable benefits.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-05-12

Last modified and spun 2018-05-13