Book review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

As a fully remote company, all of our team members work from home, many with children underfoot. Juggling children and work makes focused deep work a challenge. But there are also opportunities to create distraction-free periods when we can get more done in less time.

As my reading list will attest, I’m a productivity junky. I was intrigued by Cal Newport’s Deep Work because it goes beyond standard time management principles. Newport explores how our brains work and how we can get not just more work, but better work, done.

Newport’s assertion that our lives are full of distractions—from the ping of new emails and constant phone notifications to the siren call of social media and interactions with coworkers—won’t be a surprise to anyone. But eliminating distractions is just a small portion of the advice offered in this book.

Deep work versus shallow work

Before we get into the principle of deep work, let’s back up and start with some definitions. Newport describes deep work this way:

“Professional activity 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.” 

Because our world is so full of distractions, deep work is becoming increasingly rare. That makes it increasingly valuable as well and that’s because this focused, intense work often leads to the very best work. Newport points to art masterpieces and scientific breakthroughs in general. He also lists specific names like Beyonce, Bill Gates, and JK Rowling as examples of this principle at work.

For most of us, deep work is rare. We more commonly find ourselves doing shallow work, which Newport defines as:

Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”

Shallow work thrives on busyness as a proxy for productivity. We focus on getting more things done so we can check them off our lists. But those things aren’t actually moving us toward our goals. Unfortunately, this type of shallow work also trains our brains for distraction and multitasking, making it harder to switch to deep work when necessary.

The perils of task switching

Despite the assertions of pop culture, anyone who’s spent any time studying productivity knows that most multitasking is detrimental to getting things done. There is a type of multitasking that’s valuable, namely combining a low-cognitive, physical task (walking, folding laundry, etc.) with a cognitive task. I do this all the time!

But most multitasking involves rapid task switching rather than doing multiple things simultaneously. Task switching leads to attention residue—your brain is still processing the previous task even as you attempt to switch your attention to the new one. This impacts the attention you’re able to give to each task.

How to get started with deep work

1. Identify your most valuable activities

What is deep work for you? This will vary depending on your job description and role. But your most valuable activities are those that will produce the best work you’re capable of and move you toward your long-term goals. They also include those that couldn’t be easily taught or delegated to someone else.

Pulling from the principles taught in The Four Disciplines of Execution, Newport recommends that you focus on the wildly important. A wildly important goal is one that will impact your business in profound ways. To do this, you must cut out shallow work altogether and treat your work like a craft.

2. Make deep work a ritual

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to identify your highest value activities. (Oh, that it were!) In order to successfully transition from the shallow work we’ve become accustomed to into true deep work, you have to schedule it in and practice it regularly.

Newport recommends creating a ritual around deep work that signals your brain to make this transition. That could be shutting down certain programs and devices, lighting a candle, or making a cup of tea or coffee.

While it’s possible to achieve the deep work state for up to four hours, you probably won’t be able to do that at first. Instead, start with as little as 20 minutes. Set a timer and commit to focusing on only what’s in front of you until the timer goes off. (Fans of the Pomodoro Method will recognize this technique.) Once that starts to feel easy, you can begin to extend the time.

3. Eliminate distractions during deep work

It’s not enough to plan to work deeply; you also need to set yourself up for success by controlling the distractions in your environment. For those of us who work with kids at home, that doesn’t mean locking them out of the house 🙂 But it might mean working in the early morning, using a designated “quiet time,” or putting up a “do not disturb” sign, depending on the ages of your kids.

With or without kids, it also helps to have a space designated as a distraction-free zone. (In noisy places, you can achieve this with headphones and focus music.) Make sure your space is a comfortable temperature and you’re not overly thirsty or hungry as well.

4. Have a shutdown routine

Just as you have a schedule and routine when you sit down for deep work, it’s important to have a shutdown routine at the end of your workday as well. By establishing a cut-off time for your deep work, you give your brain a chance to rest and recharge. This routine can include skimming your inbox one last time, writing your to-do list for the next day, and physically shutting down your computer.

Train your brain

While practicing deep work is the most important thing you can do to make this a regular part of your work life, there are other activities that will help strengthen your brain as well:

1. Embrace boredom

Instead of pulling out your phone while standing in line or stuck in a traffic jam, embrace the boredom of the moment. Many times, we seek out mindless distractions to stave off the boredom. Unfortunately, this trains our brains to seek out those distractions rather than to sit comfortably with your own thoughts.

2. Practice thinking through complex problems

Similarly, when you find yourself with downtime (while walking, commuting, in the shower, etc), practice thinking through complex problems rather than filling the silence with music, podcasts, or audiobooks. Newport calls this productive meditation. It’s useful not only for solving problems but also for training your brain to break down problems into smaller chunks and work through prospective solutions.

3. Use intense study and memorization to train your brain toward focused attention 

Memorization and intense study also helps train your brain away from shallow work and toward deep work. This is true even when the subject is outside of your professional subject area.

Of course, most of us still have logistical-style, repetitive tasks we need to get done. There will still be email and meetings and interruptions. Newport’s thesis isn’t that all work should be deep work. Instead, it’s that we need to intentionally plan and practice this type of work so that we can work to our maximum potential.

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