- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Deep Work

I just finished reading Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work [1]. It is well-written and argues a compelling thesis: deep, focused work is necessary for creative and professional accomplishment. Also this type of work is becoming more valuable at exactly the time it is becoming rarer.

I work closely with Cal in the course we teach [2], so we’ve had lots of opportunities to discuss the ideas together. Still, when I read the book I was impressed by the clarity of the argument, the research assembled behind it and Cal’s ability to deftly deal with any objections that crept up in my mind. My only regret was wishing I had written it myself!

The Deep Work Hypothesis

The book is divided into two parts. The first argues the evidence for what Cal calls The Deep Work Hypothesis. In Cal’s words:

The Deep Work Hypothesis: 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.

Cal then taps into ample research from case studies to neuroscience showing why deep work matters. At the same time, he points to trends that are taking us away from deep work: the always-connected modern office environment, Internet and social media, and even to our inability to sit quietly without looking at our smartphones.

One doubt I had about this theory was its universal applicability. Deep work seems to fit for programmers, writers and professors—people whose career is judged by creative accomplishment. But what about managers or entrepreneurs, whose product is valued more on what they can get others to produce?

The simple answer seems to be that deep work is more important for some people than others. However, I think Cal makes a convincing case that those who benefit from deep work outnumber those who do not, and that given the predominant tendency against deep work, the marginal benefit for a shift to depth is likely positive for an even greater percentage of workers.

Cal also points to the trends of businesses to always-connected communication and distraction. Employees work in open office spaces and are expected to respond to emails within minutes. If deep work really matters this much, why are companies embracing shallowness?

Cal responds to this objection by noting that the value of always-on connectivity is more immediately measurable than sometimes-secluded deep work. This, combined with the general ease of shallowness leads away from depth.

I was skeptical about this point at first, but I think there are likely many standard practices used by most office environments that are not ideal, but settle in because they are the easiest. Frequent, long meetings have often been criticized as an impediment to productivity, but they’re still common because it requires more discipline to communicate more efficiently.

How to Work Deeply

The second half of the book concerns itself with how you change your working life, provided you accept the hypothesis argued in the first half.

To tackle this, Cal has a number of deep work “rules” he suggests, including embracing boredom and setting up rituals to foster depth. Most of these suggestions are in line with what I’ve suggested in my own thoughts on personal productivity, and I endorse them strongly.

The most controversial rule Cal proposes is number three, which Cal titles: “Quit Social Media”.

Even though the bullet point is fairly dramatic, what Cal is actually proposing is much more modest: don’t join social media networks unless you have good reasons to believe the benefits are high. Joining because there might be some benefit ignores the cost of your attention and time.

Interestingly, this rule caused problems for us when we launched the community for our course, Top Performer [2]. Having run a private forum for previous courses I’ve offered, I can say that maintaining a private forum is a nightmare. The biggest problem is simple: since the forum exists on a website the user has no habit of checking, it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain an active user base. When new visitors realize the forum is empty, they also quickly abandon it, so the problem becomes intractable.

Since Cal and I envisaged our community enduring beyond a single session of the course, we decided to run it on Facebook. Whatever flaws this entails, it has a strong and obvious advantage: most people have Facebook and use it every day. Which means most people will end up seeing posts from the community.

In practice, the community worked very well, but there was a small minority of vocal people who disliked needing a Facebook account to access it. Obviously this is amplified by Cal’s own apathy towards Facebook and general sentiment to avoid social media.

I personally have a Facebook account, as well as Twitter and I also browse Reddit in my downtime. So I’ve succumbed to the social media temptation Cal advises against. In my view, social media is a bit like junk food. Sure, you can eliminate it entirely and tell yourself it doesn’t give you any benefits, but most people (including myself) are not going to want to completely delete it from their lives.

I’ve written before about my struggles and solutions with dealing with habits of moderation [3]. In this case, I’ve found using a service called LeechBlock [4] very effective. It allows you to blacklist websites based on time of day, either restricting your access to those websites completely or limiting you to say, five minutes every two hours.

Another friend of mine uses an app which does the same thing but blocks your usage of entire applications within the time period. Set up properly, these systems can make going on the internet to waste time impossible outside of the exact hours you specify. Therefore I think social media tools are far more manageable than they would be if you needed to use your willpower to enforce a viewing schedule.

Overall Thoughts

The biggest strength of the book isn’t simply that it argues a compelling idea, but that it paints a picture of what life could be like with deep work. The numerous anecdotes of extremely accomplished individuals working deeply on meaningful projects is one that is inspiring, even beyond the raw efficiency of deep work.

I highly recommend the book, whether you’re a student or professional who wants to accomplish meaningful things. Even if you don’t end up quitting Facebook or setting up a Thoreauesque cabin in the woods to work quietly on your projects, the book can change your mind about changing the little habits you engage in every day, shifting you towards a deeper life.