Many productivity books focus on the evils of distraction. In his new book, Deep Work, Cal Newport takes a different approach. Rather than re-argue that point, he instead advances the idea that the ability to focus for extended periods of time on important work is a valuable skill. Few people develop this skill. Therefore, people who can master doing “deep work” will have a competitive advantage. It is not necessary for every job, and we do not have to be fundamentalist about it, but if you want to build a thriving career without working around the clock, it is probably a good idea.
To illustrate this point, he calls upon examples from Carl Jung (who took days off from his busy psychiatry practice to muse upon countering Freud), to Adam Grant (who puts an Out-of-office email on sometimes when he is clearly in the office). Then there is Newport himself, who has managed to publish a wide variety of papers in his field (computer science), while maintaining a blog, writing several popular books, exercising, and raising two small children with his wife.
I enjoyed this book for a few reasons. First, Newport refuses to adopt the structure of either/or arguments. In order to believe that deep work is good, one need not believe that the internet, or email, is bad. Newport blogs. Many of his readers find him via the internet. His point is not that you should not be online. It is just that you are better off limiting time spent on these things, and confining that time to lower-productivity moments.
I also love his rubric on whether to use social media. The question is not whether there is any benefit to any given tool. Of course there are upsides to being on Facebook. There are downsides too. He would argue that for many people, the downsides outweigh the upsides. I find social media is effective for reaching my readers, but I also have help on the marketing side of things so it minimizes the time I personally spend in “the shallows” as Newport calls it.
He also argues that we should embrace boredom. Having a phone handy means we always have something to do. That is not necessarily a good thing. The intelligent brain can come up with amazing insights when it is not constantly mollified with cat videos. I know I have personally been trying to turn my phone off for certain chunks of time so I can let my mind wander.
Of course, any insight does not work for everyone. Newport argues against the “split shift.” Shut down at 5:30 or so, and be done for the night. In theory, there should be enough time to work during the day. However, Newport does at least one split shift (he works on his blog one night a week). And also, I think the need for a split shift may depend on how many during-the-day family responsibilities you have. My need to work at night largely arises because my day gets chopped up by things like a pediatrician appointment (for the 1-year-old today) or volunteering for the drama club for the 8-year-old (tomorrow – all families have to do it once). Even if I am diligent about beating back online distractions, when I have 40 hours of childcare a week, and that often encompasses some school event or the like, and most of the running I need to do, I need to work at night to make up the time.
After reading this book, I have been pondering how to increase the deep work in my life. Last week I was quite good about scheduling writing during the morning and early afternoon, and confining phone calls and email to the space when my brain was less focused (late morning, mid-afternoon). Ideally I should be able to get 3.5-4 hours of deep work per work day. Then again, I only get 4 work days per week right now, so I am a bit short.
When do you do deep work? What does deep work look like in your field?