Deep Work



I’d like to start with a little caveat.  Cal Newport is a machine.  It is incredibly difficult to glean any other opinion from reading his book.  His accomplishments, Masters from MIT to start, allude to this hypothesis, and his ability to fabricate an atmosphere where he can practice Deep Work also involve some robot like tendencies.

The book is fantastic.  For anyone in the growing knowledge sector looking to galvanize their work, it offers tips on how to maximize output throughout your day, the book juxtaposes between the latest statistics and various anecdotes to provide a vivid picture of the best way to make yourself invaluable in an information economy.  He offers tips on what kind of deep work will best accentuate the demands of each individual.  He also offers tricks on mental exercises, such as memorizing a deck of cards, to train your mind to work longer in a deep state.  Even if you are not in the knowledge sector, there is much to be gained for anyone.

First (in order of valuable themes, not chronology) he makes the uncomfortable, yet timely, observation that none of us are as integral to social media as we fashion ourselves.  The virtual world, it turns out, does not revolve around that delicious seared Ahi Tuna that I had the other night.  He suggests taking a sabbatical from social media, if not deleting your account altogether, to help his reader understand this uncomfortable reality.  Coincidentally, I had largely divorced myself from Facebook and Twitter about a month before reading the book.  I had suddenly seen myself like Sisyphus, ever scrolling down with no end in sight and nothing to validate the loss of time.  For me, the decision had immediately improved my home life as well as offered me more opportunity to read and ponder.  As Cal points out in the book, the same architects responsible for making the casinos next to impossible to walk away from are responsible for Twitter’s addictive nature.  Hence why it is so hard to stop scrolling.  He focuses specifically on how it damages our capacity to think and work deeply, but as much of life in general, good and bad habits ripple outward.  So while my presence on Facebook is not as important as I might have wished to think, the time I spend with my daughters under the basketball hoop matters a great deal.

He reminds the reader that incessantly checking email also thwarts our capacity to focus more intently on the tasks at hand.  This idea is more complicated for most of us because it has been assumed in culture that hyperconnectivity is a net good.  So while deep down we may recognize responding to an email within minutes of its reception is futile, we are still battling the gods of culture who suggest that any connectivity is good connectivity.  But while he rightly maintains the idea that employees should press their employers on their beliefs regarding email response, his logical conclusion on this point reveals much about his industry by suggesting that any employer who does not unshackle you from your obligations to deep work may not be the right employer.  This seems, from my perspective, to be the musings of an MIT scholar whose specific set of skills are incredibly valuable in our current economy, and therefore could basically work wherever he chose.  The rest of us must ever compromise.

The last point that resounded for me is that structure matters.  Practicing the principles of Deep work will eventually have the Pavlovian effect of triggering the mind to go deep in pre-scheduled blocks of time.  He admits this is not a new concept, the same ideas can be seen in monasticism by the way they structure their days around a regimented schedule of prayer.  For me, again, structuring my day, and my chidren’s evenings make processes like bedtime seemingly effortless.  For me, this book has been a well received call to structure even more of my time.  But as Stephen King so eloquently surmised, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  With that, it seems important to acknowledge that room for spontaneity also matters.

A few relevant sub points that I found useful:

There are dual types of problems that the mind wrestles with, one is the type that requires active thinking and the other is passive thinking.  Solving a math problem requires active thinking.  Many philosophical problems can be attacked either actively or passively.  Walking in the city requires more active engagement, think avoiding being run over, while hiking requires more passive engagement.  The passive processes can bear as much fruit to deep work as active ones.  He quotes Nietzsche who suggested anything of worth was discovered while walking.  Or in Cal’s estimation, hiking.

The founders of most of the major tech giants, such as Steve Jobs, would not let their children own smartphones or tablets.  That is something to consider, the next time an acquaintance insists their children (implying that your children) need to know how to operate all of the latest technology.  Think about it, most of us -children included- have an iphone mastered within hours of removing its packaging.  Cal compares this thought process to a parent purchasing her child hot wheels because he has expressed interest in being an auto mechanic.  When it comes to any deep activity, from work to thought, there is little more eternally distracting than these little feats of human ingenuity.

The most appealing idea about this book is its general theme.  We live in a time of great comfort and technological breakthrough.  With each great innovation comes an equally great distraction.  Those who benefit the most from the world we now inhabit are the ones who are able to employ temperance in an environment that, on the surface level, seems to disincentivize those qualities.

While I think some of his hard lined overtones, like deliberately making yourself difficult to be contacted or scheduling your day down to the minute may only be reasonable in the work of a scholar, I think there is much to be learned from anyone who takes the time to read it.  If for no other reason than to remind us that those little distractions that often consume our day are not as important as we are often inclined to treat them.