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

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. 304 pp. $28 (hardcover).

In a discussion of the nature of reason, Ayn Rand observed that, with regard to the choice to think, man has two fundamental alternatives:

Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.1

While reading this passage of hers recently, I was taken aback. That unfocused state of consciousness sounded very much like my own brain online—going off in one direction in response to a tweet, then in another in response to a Facebook photo, perhaps in many others as I check my email, and on and on, until after a tornado of such activity I finally click the red “x” that closes my browser.

This kind of state is all too easy to fall into, and many people I know never extricate themselves from the frantic blur of online activity that surrounds their souls.

Thankfully, there is hope for us all.

It comes in the form of a yellow book whose title is written in black letters so large that, presumably, people taking a quick scan of where they are in a bookstore might notice it before returning to their phones. The title is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The author is Cal Newport.

Newport defines “deep work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit,” and as activities that “create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate” (p. 3). The contrast to them is “shallow work,” which Newport defines as activities that are “noncognitively demanding,” “easy to replicate,” “often performed while distracted,” and do “not create much new value in the world” (p. 6).

The difference between the two is the difference between entering data into a computer program, which can be done while surfing the Web; and writing that computer program, which requires intense focus as well as an arsenal of hard-won skills.

In the first part of Deep Work, Newport seeks to convince readers that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable”—and that, as a consequence, “the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive” (p. 14).

Newport observes, for example, that “the ability to quickly master hard things” and “the ability to produce at an elite level” are crucial to thriving today (p. 29). He shows how the market highly rewards these skills, now more than ever, and he points out how both of them depend “on your ability to perform deep work”—because, for starters, “to learn requires intense concentration” (pp. 32, 34).

Newport also argues that deep work is crucial to thriving spiritually. In doing so, he shares stories of craftsman and coders who find deep satisfaction in their trades, observing that there’s “a gravity and sense of importance inherent in deep work—whether you’re . . . smithing a sword or . . . optimizing an algorithm” (p. 79). He cites research from authors such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who concluded after years of research into how people feel about their daily lives that “The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (p. 84). And he shares a philosophic argument that, although sketchy, seeks to explain something true: that there is sacredness in doing a worthwhile job in an earnest, all-consuming way.

The question is how to get this kind of work done in an ever more distracting world, and that is the subject that Newport tackles in the second part of Deep Work. In this section, Newport shares specific actions, routines, and strategies that help readers to systematically improve their ability to go deep. Many are based on the following idea:

The ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained. This idea might sound obvious once it’s pointed out, but it represents a departure from how most people understand such matters. In my experience, it’s common to treat undistracted concentration as a habit like flossing—something that you know how to do and know is good for you, but that you’ve been neglecting due to a lack of motivation. This mind-set is appealing because it implies you can transform your working life from distracted to focused overnight if you can simply muster enough motivation. But this understanding ignores the difficulty of focus and the hours of practice necessary to strengthen your “mental muscle.” (p. 157)

Other actions, routines, and strategies are based on a corollary to the above idea:

Efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom. (p. 157)

Here, for example, is one of Newport’s recommendations, a recommendation that I have since tried and can vouch for personally:

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times. I suggest that you keep a notepad near your computer at work. On this pad, record the next time you’re allowed to use the Internet. Until you arrive at that time, absolutely no network connectivity is allowed—no matter how tempting.

The idea motivating this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. This constant switching can be understood analogously as weakening the mental muscles responsible for organizing the many sources vying for your attention. By segregating Internet use (and therefore segregating distractions) you’re minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these attention-selecting muscles strengthen.

For example, if you’ve scheduled your next Internet block thirty minutes from the current moment, and you’re beginning to feel bored and crave distraction, the next thirty minutes of resistance become a session of concentration calisthenics. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training. (pp. 161–162)

This is hardly the most powerful of Newport’s recommendations; it is, in fact, one of his less powerful ones. But it is easy to convey in a brief review, useful, and representative of his entire approach.

Newport elaborates this strategy later, and includes three points for putting it into practice, showing how readers can apply it in differing contexts, including those with jobs that require them to be online for long durations. His approach is measured. He does not argue for quitting the Internet, or even for taking an Internet Sabbath—which he likens to eating healthy one day of the week and gorging the rest. Instead, he gives readers a practicable strategy and asks them to think differently, and with more care, about what they are doing.

The result of such thinking, routines, and strategies is a book with deep value. It is a book that is almost sure to contribute to a more productive career and to a life more focused on what truly matters. As such, it is a perfect follow-up to Newport’s previous book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I recommend it as highly as I did that one.

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