Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

My friend Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World comes out on January 5, 2016, and I highly recommend it.

As Cal defines it, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Deep work is a superpower in the modern economy, Cal argues, as fewer and fewer people possess the ability of going deep. Instead they get lost in a blur of social media and email and other infosnack addictions.

I’m sold on the diagnosis. Deep work — producing the sort of valuable accomplishments that only happen with hard focus over a long period of time — is critical in many industries. It’s an increasingly rare skill, which makes it all the more valuable in those environments that demand it.

Cal’s solution — the “what do you do about this?” section in the book — is bold. Plan your days diligently week-by-week. Go cold turkey on social media. Embrace boredom and train your mind to not require constant stimulation. Among other ideas.

Cal’s strategy benefits from at least two work patterns, which are not universal to all professionals. First, you know what you want to do and what your priorities are. Clarity around a personal mission drives structured work processes. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Second, you have a relatively structured, not-especially-externally-facing job in which pre-planning is possible, social media absence not detrimental (i.e. you don’t have a boss that insists upon it in order to talk to customers), and so on.

In my long review of The Age of the Infovore, I describe the advantages of a life filled with diverse, “distracting” information inputs, and push back a bit against claims that all distractions are bad distractions. To this end, I won’t be abandoning social media anytime soon.

That said, as social media has expanded deeper and deeper into our lives, I’ve become more and more concerned about my own ability to focus and do deep sea thinking for long periods of time. (How many times have I opened new browser tabs and gotten distracted while even writing this blog post? I’m too embarrassed to say.) What’s more, when I reflect on my accomplishments, I find myself deriving more satisfaction and pride from the things that took a long time to complete and are demonstrably “harder” than average to execute. Publishing books, for example, or building out teams inside organizations. So I find myself more and more drawn to Cal’s thinking. And, even if you don’t accept his prescription wholesale, there are various practical nuggets that anyone can and probably should adopt to be a more effective professional.

Over the years, Cal and I have talked about the thesis for Deep Work many times on walks, over drinks, and on phone calls. To see his thinking evolve and sharpen into this book — the latest in a series of winners — has been a real pleasure. I hope my 2016 involves more deep work.

10 comments on “Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • Read his earlier book “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” which still remains my number one recommendation for people who are lost in the world of finding passion ahead. I love his writing style and the way he explains things in depth. Cal made us aware about deep work through his series of blog posts. Now is it really necessary to read the whole book where he presents arguments to support his idea?

    • Sudan, finished this book last night, and my answer would be “yes.” With his blog posts, Cal points to a problem, makes us wonder about our own habits, etc. With his book, however, he hand-holds us through the entire process it takes for us to actually change our behavior and adopt some of his ideas. The difference between reading his blog posts with reading his book is that you’ll go past the “agreeing” stage and into the “strategy and execution” stage.

      • Hello Carlos,

        Thanks for your feedback. I got it! It makes sense to buy his book. I can trust Carl as the source to talk about this topic.

  • My main difficulty in accomplishing deep work is how to take breaks without getting distracted. Facebook is lovely for a five-minute break except it turns into twenty minutes and defocuses the mind. I have experimented with a few things but none have really worked yet. Certainly going for a hike or even a few days in the wilderness slows your mind down, but it is difficult to be productive beyond having some good thoughts – you still have to sit down and write/type/calculate/whatever to actually get the work done, and it’s usually a lot more than just “input of what you figured out.”

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