altDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

This is now the third Cal Newport book I've read. If you'd asked me, I'd have said it's the second, but while looking up the link for my review of Digital Minimalism, I noticed that 'way back in 2011 I had also reviewed How to Be a High School Superstar, which I had found to be incredibly important.

It's been a long time since I read How to be a High School Superstar, but if my memory is at all good, I think Deep Work may be the adult equivalent, with Digital Minimalism a natural consequence of those ideas.

Of the three books, Deep Work hits me more where I live at the moment. Not completely; as with Digital Minimalism, it is primarily about the business world, the world of outside-of-the-home careers. I'm certain Newport's ideas are just as important in our private lives; it's just a bit tricky to transfer them to the world of a busy young mother, say. Yet who better than a mother understands the importance (and difficulty) of finding time for concentrated thought?

Sadly, I'm going to disappoint some of my readers with the quotation section, but that just tells you how important I think the book is. Before I was two thirds of the way through Deep Work, I had more than 50 sticky notes marking places I wanted to quote. And more often than not it was several paragraphs rather than a nice, pithy couple of sentences. So basically, I gave up. I didn't mark nearly as many places in the last third of the book, because I knew I couldn't type them all out, and even if I could, my readers' eyes would glaze over early on.

As it turns out, you are going to get more quotations than I had originally thought (though they still don't begin to mine the value of Deep Work), because...


Amazon is currently selling the Kindle version of Deep Work for $2.99!

I had already decided I wanted a copy of the book, but the Kindle version, and even the used paperbacks, were out of my price range. It's a popular book. I was struggling to finish reading the book in time—let alone write this review—because it is so popular at the library that I couldn't get it renewed. But while I was busy racking up fines, suddenly eReaderIQ (which I highly recommend) popped up with the news of Amazon's price drop "for a limited time."

I don't know how long that limited time will be, but $2.99 is good enough for me for almost any book that sounds interesting, and for this book it was a very timely godsend.

With the Kindle version I can copy and paste instead of laboriously typing out quotations. (I painstakingly converted all my sticky notes to Kindle highlights.) But the material simply does not lend itself to short quotes and easy summarizing. You really should read the whole book and allow it time to digest.

Here is Newport's definition of deep work:

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. (p. 3).

I would argue that these activities hardly need to be "professional," but this is part of the career-world orientation of the book. I'm certain it's adaptable.

And here is his definition of shallow work:

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. (p. 6)

The ability (and time) to accomplish deep work has become critical in today's economy—at least if one doesn't want to make minimum wage (or less) in the hospitality industry. (Newport doesn't mention the hospitality industry; that's my observation having seen, both as one who lives in "Mickey's Backyard" and as a traveller.)

To remain valuable in our economy ... you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances. (p. 13)

The growing necessity of deep work is new. In an industrial economy, there was a small skilled labor and professional class for which deep work was crucial, but most workers could do just fine without ever cultivating an ability to concentrate without distraction. ... But as we shift to an information economy, more and more of our population are knowledge workers, and deep work is becoming a key currency—even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality. (pp. 13-14).

However, deep work is disappearing at an alarming rate.

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. (p. 14). 

This—and strategies for achieving deep work despite a society of ever-present distractions that actively fights against it—is what the book is all about.

As I mentioned above, mothers could tell Newport a thing or two about the difficulty of putting two coherent thoughts together when one's "office" is a household full of young children. What has changed in the business and academic worlds is that the demands of e-mail, virtual meetings, and other forms of rapid messaging and constant connectivity have brought the world of incessant interruption into the heretofore relatively quiet world of outside-the-home work. Add in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even the business-oriented social media sites like LinkedIn, and our opportunities for deep thinking have become virtually nil.

I was interested to note that the "working retreats" devised by our daughters (young, homeschooling mothers of large families, with cooperative husbands) to carve out time and space for deep work fit in perfectly with Newport's ideas. Not that they could go to the extremes of some of his examples:

[J. K.] Rowling’s decision to check into a luxurious hotel suite near Edinburgh Castle is an example of a curious but effective strategy in the world of deep work: the grand gesture. The concept is simple: By leveraging a radical change to your normal environment, coupled perhaps with a significant investment of effort or money, all dedicated toward supporting a deep work task, you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces your mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy.

Writing a chapter of a Harry Potter novel, for example, is hard work and will require a lot of mental energy—regardless of where you do it. But when paying more than $1,000 a day to write the chapter in a suite of an old hotel down the street from a Hogwarts-style castle, mustering the energy to begin and sustain this work is easier than if you were instead in a distracting home office. (pp. 122-123)

Then there's this one:

An even more extreme example of a onetime grand gesture yielding results is a story involving Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and social media pioneer. As a popular speaker, Shankman spends much of his time flying. He eventually realized that thirty thousand feet was an ideal environment for him to focus. As he explained in a blog post, “Locked in a seat with nothing in front of me, nothing to distract me, nothing to set off my ‘Ooh! Shiny!’ DNA, I have nothing to do but be at one with my thoughts.” It was sometime after this realization that Shankman signed a book contract that gave him only two weeks to finish the entire manuscript. Meeting this deadline would require incredible concentration. To achieve this state, Shankman did something unconventional. He booked a round-trip business-class ticket to Tokyo. He wrote during the whole flight to Japan, drank an espresso in the business class lounge once he arrived in Japan, then turned around and flew back, once again writing the whole way—arriving back in the States only thirty hours after he first left with a completed manuscript now in hand. “The trip cost $4,000 and was worth every penny,” he explained. (p. 125).

There is so, so much in this book, but I will only include two more quotations, both from footnotes:

The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products—especially in schools—somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for a high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics. (Kindle p. 287, footnote to p. 30, emphasis mine)

The following footnote I include simply because it mentions The Art of Manliness, which keeps popping up in all sorts of surprising places, and holds a special place in my heart because it is a long-time client of Lime Daley, which feeds, clothes, houses, and educates a good number of our grandchildren.

The specific article by White from which I draw the steps presented here can be found online: Ron White, “How to Memorize a Deck of Cards with Superhuman Speed,” guest post, The Art of Manliness, June 1, 2012, (Kindle p. 287, footnote to p. 177)

One thing I especially appreciate about this book is that Newport lays out the problem, and offers suggestions for combating it, but is not dogmatic about the solutions: he knows that once people (and companies) are aware of what is going on, they will be able to craft battle plans that work best in their individual situations.

I can tell the author is young, for he focusses on the contributions of the internet and social media to our splintered attention, and mostly gives earlier forms of distraction a pass. Neil Postman, Marie Winn, and others pointed out back in the 1970's and 80's the addictive nature of television, its deliberate shortening of our attention spans, and the changes it makes to the human brain. And although books and reading are generally indiscriminately lauded by those trying to battle the functional illiteracy of our times (does it matter that someone can read if he doesn't?), the design of much of today's reading material contributes its fair share to the diminution of our ability to concentrate. No doubt the internet, social media, and smart phones are the greatest problem, but it doesn't start or stop there.

As usual, I don't agree with everything Cal Newport says, but there's so much important here it's really worth your $2.99. If you miss the sale, it's certain to be in your public library, though probably with a waiting list.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 16, 2021 at 6:19 am | Edit
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You might like the idea of Scholè, which as defined by the authors of is deep work for the opposite purpose: it must NOT be for professional gain, but simply for enjoying the Living God.

Thanks for the encouragement about devices in education. I sometimes worry we are behind the public schools, but behind in consuption is not the same as behind in understanding. The current favorite App is Excel - where the kids keep track of their reading and invented games.

Posted by Janet on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 at 8:53 am

8/28/22 Deep Work is once again $2.99 for Kindle.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, August 28, 2022 at 7:15 pm
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