In a world that seems more and more superficial, the idea of “Deep Work” is very attractive. I often have this nagging feeling that many of us are struggling to get to the heart of our work. Our focus is constantly being pulled away by a world that that is moving faster and bursting at the seams with information.
How then can we slow down and put our attention on the important activities that will help drive the success? This is exactly the question that Cal Newport explores in Deep Work.
The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive. (pg 14)
Ideas, Implications, and Questions
- Cal identifies 4 foundational pieces of the Deep Work approach:
- Work Deeply
- Embrace Boredom
- Quit Social Media
- Drain the Shallows
- Cal’s definition is closely aligned with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow. He looks at it as “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.” (pg 3)
- As someone who has built a career writing, thinking, and formulating/sharing messages, the idea of focusing on deep work is appealing and I think it’s useful. But it’s too easy to be self-aggrandizing about deep work. At the same time, my value isn’t just in writing a book, recording a video, or speaking at an event. It’s in the engagement with the audience for my work – it’s in helping them use the information to create change for themselves. Many professionals create value in their role, not by withdrawing into solipsistic world, but by reaching out. I’m glad that doctors, psychologists, and mechanics aren’t focused solely on working deeply – they have to be able to engage with others to find success.
- A powerful idea, and a simple one, “Don’t take breaks from distraction, instead take breaks from focus.” (pg 159) This will take a little time for many people to adopt because we usually think of short sprints of creative focus. But once you think of long chunks of work with specific, defined breaks, you have more time to make things happen.
- The chapter on how different professionals can approach their Deep Work shows that it’s really about being intentional when you do work. The four depth philosophies that Cal outlines: monastic, bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic cover the entire gamut or possible approaches. I think this is a positive because it points out the many different ways to do deliberate work. You don’t have to lock yourself up in a hotel or go to an island to be successful.
- Something I’ve been telling clients for years, which Cal reinforces, is the trap of treating busyness as a proxy for productivity. (page 64) The ability to separate those two things in your mind is the first step to clearing up a lot of time in your schedule for a host of activities, professional and personal. I once had a client who would keep his desk piled high with work, because he thought that it made him look important and valuable. Ironically, when he cleaned up his desk and was more intentional with what he actually did, his schedule cleared up, he got more done, and he got a promotion.
- Cal really doesn’t like social media. He actually has a TED talk on it (see below). And I can see where he’s coming from. Most people become slaves to the platforms that they are on. I’m not as ready as him to jump on the “all digital communication is bad” bandwagon. I do think that there are some powerful connection capabilities that social platforms enable. I think it would behoove most people to take a much more analytic approach and be honest about whether the benefits of connection outweigh the negatives. (See my article on how to judiciously approach your social media use).
- I agree with Cal that the “The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection” is something to stay away from (That’s when you feel justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it). (page 186)
- Always a good reminder – the 4DX framework:
- Focus on the wildly important
- Act on lead measures
- Keep a compelling scoreboard
- Create a cadence of accountability
Should you read this book? Who should read this book?
Sometimes I get the sense that authors write books because someone has told them, you are really good at x, you should write a book about it. (Wait a second, that’s why I wrote my first networking book…)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it can lead to books that are sound somewhat preachy. And I feel that Cal skirts that line a little in Deep Work. But that doesn’t take away from some valuable concepts that help anyone who is engaged in crafting creative work.
I think this is a very useful book for anyone who has a creative element in their position. If you are a writer, speaker, leader, or anyone else who is focused on producing creative and thoughtful work, it’s a good use of your time. If you are strictly focused on tactical execution in your role, there are other places to start.