Review: Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Lately I’ve noticed the quality of my reading has deteriorated: it takes longer, yet it’s more shallow.

The slowness seems to result from reading on a tablet connected to the Internet. This allows me to quickly search online for more information about any random thing that pops into my head along with every detail that strikes my fancy in the text – and my fancy is easily stricken.

The shallowness comes from my lack of consistent note taking, and my tendency to abandon a book partway through so I can begin another (and then abandon that one for another, and so on). I can be an information glutton, reading more for momentary pleasure than lasting knowledge. Yet what I most truly want is deep engagement with a text that leads to understanding and application.

In part motivated by these frustrations, I picked up Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I was also looking for some backup on my long-standing love for long periods of uninterrupted concentration. See, I’m not the only one who holes up in their workspace for an entire day to work on something nonstop, Cal Newport says its OK and that I’m not crazy for wanting to go to a cabin in the woods for a week just to think.

Deep Work: “Professional activities 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.”

Cal Newport, Deep Work

Don’t be scared off by the “professional” bit. While the intended audience for this book is “white collar knowledge workers,” deep work can of course be applied outside the cubicle farm or university.

Newport begins by making the case that deep work is something we ought to care about, for three reasons:

  • It’s becoming an increasingly rare skill in high-tech economies this side of the digital divide, as we increasingly let our attention be fractured into little bits by the abundant distractions around us.
  • It’s becoming increasingly valuable because automation & AI can do a lot of our shallow work for us, and if we want to keep up with what’s in demand we need to be lifelong learners – something deep work (or deep study) can help us with.
  • It’s also an important source of meaning in human lives, contributing to quality of life and richness of experience.

The second and heftier part of the book is a how-to guide. Newport emphasizes that deep work is a skill, something we may not be able to do very well at present, and at which we can improve with practice. It’s different from something like flossing, which we already know how to do and can decide to do more often, starting today. As for deep work, even if we set aside a couple hours today, our minds might be so conditioned to chase shiny impulses and distracting squirrels that we can’t focus for long. 

Newport suggests many helpful practices for building the skill of doing deep work. He doesn’t just recommend little “hacks,” but advocates for a significant shift in how we spend our time & attention every day. It’s not enough to schedule a few deep work sessions in our week while spending the rest of the time gorging on distraction and “fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.” Giving in to distraction is not a neutral activity, but is a weakening of our attentional “muscles.” This doesn’t mean we can never scroll Instagram or chain-watch videos on YouTube. The key is that we schedule these distraction breaks ahead of time, rather than jumping onto YouTube whenever the impulse strikes. If we really must go online for some important reason outside our scheduled online block, Newport suggests that we set ourselves at least a five minute delay. This will maintain enough separation between impulse & reward that it will be a strengthening (resisting temptation) rather than a weakening of attention.

Another suggested shift in daily behavior is resisting the lifestyle of being always “on” and working during all waking hours. Newport himself doesn’t work past 5:30 pm, yet is still a “high-achiever,” working as a computer science prof, publishing journal articles, blogging, giving talks, and writing books. He accomplishes all this without working past 5:30 because while he is working, he’s focused. He’s doing deep work sessions interspersed with scheduled blocks of shallow work, not frittering the day away jumping from one distraction to another. He uses his time intentionally, not letting his impulses squander it. As a result, he can spend quality time with his family and friends in the evening, and let his diffuse-mode/unconscious mental processes do their own valuable work off-hours.

The book’s main payoff is the many actionable suggestions in the latter half, which could be very valuable for those wanting to build their strength of focus and control of attention.

Philosophical orbit

To develop internal control of attention is to increase our power relative to externals. When externals control our attention, power is being taken from without rather than guided from within, and we are (as Epictetus might put it) enslaved.

“When you relax your attention for a short while, don’t imagine that you’ll be able to recover it whenever you please, but bear this in mind, that because of the error that you’ve committed today, your affairs will necessarily proceed far worse in every respect. For to begin with, and most seriously of all, a habit of inattention will grow up in you, and then a habit of deferring any effort to pay attention.”

Epictetus, Discourses 4.12 “On attention”

It’s not the technology that is to blame. It’s our decisions concerning that technology – many small decisions to relax our attention, to give in to distraction, which lead to a worsening habit, which then becomes an addiction to distraction. Entrenched habits are hard to undo. That’s why Epictetus warns us against starting off on that road in the first place.

Why is command over our own attention so important that we ought to take such close care of it? Because it’s the master ability that protects us from all forms of slavery. Without it, things go worse for us “in every respect” because if we can’t pay attention, how can our judgments and actions be done well and with coherence to our values?

“When you receive an impression of some pleasure, take care not to get carried away by it, as with impressions in general; but rather, make it wait for you, and allow yourself some slight delay.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion 34

When Newport recommends at least a five minute delay between experiencing an impulse toward distraction and acting to satisfy that impulse, that small bit of time is a very big deal. What do we ordinarily defer? Difficult tasks, anything that makes us uncomfortable, the challenge of creating things. But if we instead defer pleasure, if we give some slight delay to consuming things (media, food, drink, whatever), we can take a moment to consciously decide what to do.

By applying deep work practices to develop our strength of attention, we can improve our ability to act from the thoughtful judgment of our ruling center, rather than merely reacting to the push and pull of externals.

Sources & recommendations:

Hard, Robin, trans. (2014) Epictetus: Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. Oxford University Press.

Newport, Cal. (2016). Deep Work. London: Piatkus.

Also check out: Cal Newport’s excellent Study Hacks blog

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