'Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World' (Book Review)

©. K Martinko – Deep Work library book cover

This book explains how "one of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare."

This past summer, I read Cal Newport's book, Digital Minimalism. It made such an impression on me that it prompted me to do a month-long digital declutter and has had a lasting impact on my relationship with my smartphone. Of course, this also meant I had to read Newport's other highly acclaimed book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which he published in 2016.

In Deep Work, Newport makes the compelling argument that highly focused work is increasingly rare in the modern workplace. Everyone succumbs to distractions, whether it's surfing the Web for entertainment or wasting time on 'shallow work' tasks like email and meetings; whereas those who are able to "push their cognitive capabilities to their limit [can] create new value, improve their skills, and are hard to replicate."

In other words, training one's mind to engage in deep work not only makes one productive and generates valuable work, but it also secures one's place in a rapidly changing economy. Newport explains:

"Deep work is not an old-fashioned skill falling into irrelevance. It's instead a crucial ability for anyone looking to move ahead in a global competitive information economy that tends to chew up and spit out those who aren't earning their keep."

Part I of Newport's book explains the importance of deep work, citing psychological research and numerous examples of brilliant thinkers and people with phenomenal outputs who established daily deep work routines. Part II delves into the process of how to cultivate such a practice in one's own life by following four rules: 1) Work deeply, 2) Embrace boredom, 3) Quit social media, 4) Drain the shallows. For each rule, Newport offers a lengthy chapter with multiple steps to ensure the practice is as effective as possible.

There are a few points that stood out for me. One is scheduling the day down to the hour and creating 'task blocks' for accomplishing specific tasks. Some of these are meant for deep work, which must be scheduled for maximal benefit, not left to happen naturally because it won't. Newport also recommends scheduling the next time you'll allow yourself to look at your phone or peek at social media.

Another interesting suggestion is making oneself hard to reach, such as limiting the contact information that's made available to the general public and not responding to emails that aren't important or interesting. (I thought I was annoying for doing that already, but it turns out I'm ahead of the game!)

Newport praises the importance of daily downtime or laziness, writing, "[Inject] regular and substantial freedom from professional concerns into your day, providing you with the idleness paradoxically required to get (deep) work done." He advises doing this by shutting everything down at the end of the workday – "no after-dinner email check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge: shut down work thinking completely."

The whole philosophy is a breath of fresh air. More focus during fewer hours during the day means more hours freed up to pursue other interests and tasks, all while feeling less stressed and stretched to the limit. Since picking up the book several weeks ago, I've been adopting bits and pieces of the philosophy, such as leaving my phone on silent all day long and checking it only at predetermined times, and not allowing myself to look things up online until I've finished writing an article. Not surprisingly, my output has sped up considerably. I have also ordered a planner to help me schedule each hour of my day, which I hope will enable me to start additional projects that I've been wanting to do for a while but haven't felt like I had the time.

Deep Work is a thought-provoking and potentially revolutionary book, if enough people read it and embrace the approach. Similar to Digital Minimalism, it's packed with practical tips and tools for making meaningful change. Check it out if you want to squeeze more out of your day, while simultaneously freeing yourself from pressure.