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Book Review: Deep Work
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Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Written by: Cal Newport. Grand Central Publishing: New York (2016). 303 + xv pages. US$28.00 (hardcover).
Reviewed by: Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PhD, NPDP, PMP®, PEM

Deep Work

Take a look at your calendar and consult your colleagues. Everyone is busy. Your time is booked, it seems, from the moment you step foot into the office until your head hits the pillow at night. You respond to an endless stream of emails and text messages, even after hours and on weekends. But, you just can’t ever catch up and it never seems like you can find the time to accomplish the big things that you’ve planned.

Cal Newport’s new book, “Deep Work,” helps to explain the phenomena behind our technology-driven busyness, and offers tips on how to focus and concentrate in order to achieve more in less time. The book is divided into two main parts. First, in “Part 1: The Idea,” Newport offers examples of well-known, successful individuals who have committed to the deep work philosophy. In “Part 2: The Rules,” he presents four practices to help drive focus and concentration while eliminating time-sucking tasks that don’t add value to our careers.

Deep work is defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (pg. 3). Innovators might recognize deep work as “being in the zone” or by any other term that characterizes a period of very high productivity with no outside interruptions. The author contrasts deep work with shallow work in which efforts are not creating much value and are easy to replicate. Shallow work is not cognitively demanding and involves tasks that can be performed while a person is distracted (pg. 6).

In Chapter 1, Newport makes the argument that knowledge workers, like new product development practitioners, cannot perform at the top of their field without deep work. High-skilled workers differentiate themselves by providing unique and insightful data analysis. Moreover, competition for knowledge jobs, like those in innovation, is no longer limited to a geographical area. Our ability to thrive in a global economy requires mastering difficult concepts and producing at a high level in terms of speed and quality (pg. 29).

Throughout the remainder of Part 1, the author demonstrates that busyness is costing companies and individuals in real dollars. Newport takes aim at technology, in particular. He argues that society has begun to judge anything “internet” as valuable. However, many social media and email interactions simply take time away from value-added activities while providing trivial entertainment at best.

Countering shallow work is the focus of Part 2 in which the author provides some strategies to seek deeper focus in our work. Be aware that many of these tips, tricks, and rules will initially be perceived as quite radical in today’s technology-driving communications. For practical reasons (like keeping your job and satisfying your boss’ requirements), you may not be able to convert 100% to a deep work ethic. Yet, taking steps toward deep work and minimizing shallow work (like email) will help you to find more creative solutions to problems and become a more elite product development specialist.

Rule #1 is to Work Deeply. Of course, this should go without saying. Working deeply requires scheduling and ritualizing time for deep work in a distraction-free environment. Newport advises addressing three elements to create a deep work mentality (pg. 119-120).

  • Decide where you’ll work and for how long,
  • Choose how you’ll work once you start to work, and
  • Determine how you’ll support your work.

For example, I like to write book reviews, blogs, and other material for books first thing in the morning. I spend about an hour and a half with a fresh cup of coffee in my living room writing. One of Newport’s theories is to remove yourself from temptations of shallow work in order to delve more deeply. There is no computer, radio, or TV in my living room, so it provides a quiet space for deep thinking. It takes strict discipline, however, to not check email on my phone during this period of dedicated work.

Next, Rule #2 is to Embrace Boredom. Do you ever notice that people fill every minute of time with their cell phones? Newport would argue that it saps our creativity to check Facebook while in the queue at the supermarket. Instead, he advises an “internet Sabbath” to take time (he recommends one day per week) away from technology-driven communication and social media. It is especially important to avoid blue screens before bedtime to improve our quality of sleep (Rosen, 2015), necessary to recharge our ability for deep work.

Rule #3 will be a radical recommendation for many people – Quit Social Media. In this chapter, the author argues that, at best, we gain simple, short-term entertainment from social media. Instead of shallow Tweets regarding the purchase of a new dress or sharing a funny cat video, the author advised re-investing that time in a deeper activity like having lunch with a close friend whose relationship you treasure. Try quitting social media for a month and see who contacts you indicating they miss your activity, posts, or Tweets. If no one misses it, consider whether it is value-added.

Finally, Rule #4 is Drain the Shallows. Here Newport puts email squarely in the crosshairs. In scheduling our days, he recommends time-blocking email with other trivial tasks. Furthermore, he recommends not responding to every email while carefully crafting both new messages and responses. Emails should be written specifically and concisely to assign tasks and address questions. Furthermore, Newport advises using only closed options. “Yes, I’m available to meet with you on Tuesday at 9 or Friday at 3. Please schedule one of these two times and consider this note as confirmation of my attendance at the meeting.” The structure of the email frees you from the endless cycle of back-and-forth to verify times, dates, and confirmations that fill our inboxes. The author claims to have realized a huge reduction in email load from this and other proactive strategies he shares in the chapter to minimize shallow work.

“Deep Work” is very easy to read and the stories of successful people (like Bill Gates) are interesting. Newport’s example of elite and highly successful people who have practiced deep work offers anecdotal evidence for the practices he describes. For instance, Bill Gates retreats to a lakeside cottage seeking quiet and undistracted time for deep, strategic thinking (pg. 5).

This book is recommended for all innovators and product development professionals as our success depends on our ability to go deep to solve the most complex problems. While some of the tips in the book may seem almost mutinous to expected societal behaviors, they will allow you to increase your focus and concentration to achieve great things. After all, to a new product development practitioner, it should be more important to tackle customer satisfaction than a stacked inbox!

Rosen, L. (2015, Aug 31). Relax, Turn Off Your Phone, and Go To Sleep. Retrieved June 7, 2017, from Harvard Business Review:

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