[book review] Deep work by Cal Newport

[book review] Deep work by Cal Newport

Cal Newport claims that “deep work” is the superpower of the 21st century. At some point in our lives, we all wanted to have a superpower. If “deep work” is a superpower that is a great reason to learn more about that concept.

Cal Newport defines “deep work” as “the professional activities performed in the state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

He also thinks that the ability to perform deep work is becoming rare, but the value of such capacity is increasing. In short, “deep work” is a valuable skill because of not so many people are capable of doing it.

Cal Newport makes an interesting distinction between what he calls “deep work” and “shallow work.” Deep work produces significantly more value than shallow work. It is the activity which has high leverage.

It is not only the state of being deeply focused on the task, but also producing something of high value. Most importantly, a person whose responsibilities consist of “deep work” cannot be easily replaced.

Cal Newport describes an interesting heuristics which we can use to figure out which of our responsibilities are “deep work.” He asks us to think about the number of months required to train an intelligent graduate to do our work. If anyone can be easily trained to do it, the work does not have a high value. Therefore it is not a “deep work.”

That may be uncomfortable for people who think that being busy means being productive. Cal Newport claims we use busyness as a proxy for productivity when there is no clear indication of what it means to be productive and valuable.

Distractions

Cal Newport writes about the problem with distractions. In his opinion willpower is not enough to overcome them. Eventually, we will run out of willpower and succumb to the temptation of mindlessly browsing the web, writing a message on Facebook or playing a video game.

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

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Fixed-schedule productivity

One of the ideas to do it is what he calls “fixed-schedule productivity.” The approach is based on the assumption that we should not work past a particular time (for example after 5pm). It is all about putting limits on our workday. It reminds me of Parkinson’s law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

According to Cal Newport, we should plan every minute of our working day. It is an extreme but tempting idea. By timeboxing productivity, we can actually accomplish more simply because of the artificial deadline and our desire to finish the task “on time.”

At the beginning of each workday, (…) divide the hours of your workday into blocks and assign activities to the blocks.

Fortunately, we are allowed to reschedule and change the plan when something unpredicted happens.

Cal says that this type of schedule isn’t about constraints, but instead, it is about thoughtfulness. It makes us think at the beginning of the workday how to spend the next 8 hours most productively.

Obviously, there is a danger of going to the extreme. We could try to replicate Elon Musk’s habit of scheduling his time in 5 minutes long chunks.

I think that for most people 30 minutes long slots are the best. After all, it allows us to use the Pomodoro technique. 30 minutes is enough to finish a work session and take a break.

Internet as a distraction

What I did not like about the book is Cal Newport’s opinion about using the Internet. For him, it is just a distraction that should be limited.

Such an approach would not work for me at all. All of the things I do at work (and in the private time spent on personal development) exist only on the Internet. For me, the Internet is my workplace, not a distraction.

In general, I recommend reading the book because the author describes some exciting ideas which may help the readers focus on the most crucial part of their responsibilities and avoid doing the work which does not bring enough value.


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Bartosz Mikulski
Bartosz Mikulski * data scientist / software/data engineer * conference speaker * organizer of School of A.I. meetups in Poznań * co-founder of Software Craftsmanship Poznan & Poznan Scala User Group