Daryl L. L. Houston
Posted on April 2, 2018
Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great read if you’re looking for motivation, tips, and reassurance that might help you transcend what he characterizes as “shallow” work to do higher impact “deep” work. He defines these work types as follows:
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.
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
Shallow work is composed of tasks like answering emails and performing social media activities (e.g. for authors who feel like they ought to keep connected). Deep work is more creative and productive in sustained ways and tends to generate substantive output. Newport proposes that deep work is increasingly important in our economy but decreasingly rare, and he makes an argument for the value of deep work and shares some approaches that have helped him and others perform deep work.
Most of the things he proposes are fairly common sense. For example, you should find ways to engage less with email and other distractions that aren’t high value. Push these things to the periphery of your work and intentionally spend more focused time on high value things. Optimize your behaviors to promote this sort of prioritization. And more.
Newport describes several modes of deep work that have proven successful (you don’t necessarily have to build a tower on a remote island and cut yourself off from all distractions, it turns out), and he shares a few tactics for training yourself to be more effective at deep work. The book offers a pretty good balance of sales pitch for the concept and pragmatic suggestions for how to begin doing deep work, and it for the most part does so without seeming too smarmy about it.
Although I’ve never called it deep work, I’ve certainly proven capable of focusing pretty intensely on a given task. To help myself do so, I’ve recently made a shift that clears my Fridays of meetings and designates some scheduled time for certain types of tasks, for example. And I’ve begun to be more intentional about how I plan my week and load balance my tasks, offloading some of the cognitive burden of spinning my various plates to simple tools rather than feeling as overwhelmed by miscellany. When I know I really need to focus on something, I’ll shut down email and other distractions and go dark for two or three hours to get the task done. These are all the sorts of behaviors that Newport suggests, but I’ve arrived at them out of necessity and often out of frustration, mostly by happenstance. This book presents a bunch of underpinning ideas and a double handful of tactics all in one source, and it’ll likely shape how I continue to iterate on my own approach to deeper work.
If you’re in a similar place to the one I’m in in your current approach to work, this book may offer useful refinements to your approach. If you’re already in the 90th percentile for how effectively you structure your work to be consistently effective, the book won’t likely offer you much. If your work’s primary function is composed by design chiefly of shallow work (these terms are not intended to suggest any sort of value judgment; some sorts of shallow work make the world go around!) and that work is appropriate and satisfying, this probably isn’t the book for you. If you’re familiar with the phenomenon of getting to the end of the week and feeling like you’ve left a lot of big important things unfinished because you’ve been mired in miscellany that is lower impact within the context of your job’s mandate, you may find value in Deep Work.