My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In Deep Work, Cal Newport synthesizes a set of tested hacks for helping people accomplish tasks requiring significant amounts of focused intellectual energy, which he calls “deep work.” The first part of the book lays out the argument for why we would want to pursue deep work and enhance our ability to do it. Newport constructs a compelling narrative using biography, autobiography, philosophy, and psychology to make his case. The backdrop to his argument is the economic imperative that knowledge workers need to distinguish themselves from the growing automation of white collar work.
The second part of the book categorizes his hacks for deep work into four “rules”: Work Deeply, Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media, and Drain the Shallows. Work Deeply helps the reader consider how they want to bring deep work into their lives and schedules. Embrace Boredom suggests ways to think about the intensity of work as well as the intensity of non-work or leisure time and how these both need to be taken seriously. Quit Social Media is about limiting the distractions the internet poses to deep work. And Drain the Shallows addresses ways to prioritize your work so that your day to day emphasis remains on deep rather than “shallow work,” like email, meetings, and logistics.
As someone who studies social media, I must point out how the section on quitting social media comes across as a little old-fashioned and curmudgeonly, to which Newport has no problem admitting. His point that these are new and insidious distractions from work are well taken. The journalists and authors he idolizes are those that are particularly down on things like Twitter. Because social media has changed the nature of many types of work, it’s hard to say how escapable they are. The suggestions the book has for deciding whether or not they are important to you may help some people but may not offer the answers knowledge workers deeply tied to social media through their work need. Once again though, the point is well taken.
Altogether, I found the book a compelling program for developing the capacity to do work that you find meaningful, that brings you professional success, and that ensures that you have work/life balance. In fact, it does a nice job of arguing that work/life balance is critical to accomplishing meaningful work. The examples of deep work are heavily biased on writing, which makes sense given the autobiographical aspects are from an academic and author. Newport does touch 0n the broader idea of deep work as craftsmanship, whether it’s sword-forging or farming. Coding—the author is a computer scientist—is used as an example several times but it’s never examined to the same depth as writing. The fact that the book is strongly tied to a particular form of knowledge work that produces new ideas in written form may mean readers from industries with other emphases get less out of the book (although, writing up new ideas is a standard transferrable skill across disciplines).
As someone who is currently writing their PhD general exams in a computer science-related department at MIT, I found the book super accessible. Cal Newport starting developing his routines and rules whilst doing a PhD in CS at MIT, and his current life as a professor has a lot of overlap with my own. However, the book is meant for a general audience, and he uses interviews with people from a handful of non-academic industries to make that point. Because of the similarity of my background to the author’s, it’s hard for me to know how well he succeeds at making an argument and rule set for deep work that’s generally representative. For others like me at least, I strongly recommend Deep Work as an easy to read and well organized set of strategies. I’m eager to apply them to my own life.