Book review: “Deep Work”, by Cal Newport

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DEEP WORK: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit.

To say this book has changed my way of organising my work and personal life is an understatement. I started reading—actually, studying is a better term—during the last week of December 2017, and first week of January 2018. I usually read books of this length in a few days, but this one begged to be mulled over.

It has drastically changed the way I do things and organize my life. In fact, as you may have noticed, I started blogging again. I decided to try and aim for 1 post a week in the first half of 2018. And I'm pretty well on track so far, while having more responsibilities and obligations, both professionally and personally, than in 2017.

I decided to read Deep Work after reading a blog post entitled Deep Work: Gaining Focus and Nobility in Your Work. It struck a chord in me. Some of the highlighted points were exactly things I struggled with, or wanted to achieve.

Embrace boredom

We live in a highly connected world, where distraction is just a tap away. How often do you find yourself having to wait for more than 1 minute, and automatically grabbing your phone to check up on some Tweets, emails, etc? How often, if you have more than 10 minutes on your hands, will you open Youtube?

I did that. A lot. I didn't even do it to “just pass the time”. I did it to use my time efficiently—or so I thought. I used this to quickly catch up on interesting Tweets, for instance (I mainly follow people that work in our industry, not so much friends or relatives). I'm a big fan of learning, and love Youtube channels like Kurzgesagt, Crash Course, and Ted ED. So, when commuting, or waiting for a doctor's appointment, why not learn something, thanks to these bite-sized videos which usually last less than 10 minutes?

It turns out, this is terribly wrong. It becomes addictive. I would use every spare minute during my day to try and squeeze in some more information. But, as Cal Newport puts it in this book, it's a “shallow” type of information and brain activity. It trains the brain to crave for small, distracting pieces of information, and makes it lose the ability for longer bouts of intense concentration and creativity. It's also pretty tiring, which at times left me feeling mentally exhausted, but without a sense of having used my time wisely.

So when Cal Newport goes on to prove, using scientifc studies for supporting evidence, how much these habits can hurt, not only our day-to-day job performance, but in fact every aspect of your life, it makes you stop and think really hard about your daily habits.

I, for instance, decided to uninstall Twitter, and remove Youtube from my phone's home screen. I unsubscribed from all newsletters except one. I removed several sources from my RSS reader, and unsubscribed from several podcasts, only keeping the most relevant ones. I also introduced specific time slots in my week schedule for consuming these kinds of information, so I'm not tempted to read or listen to them whenever I have some time on my hands (for example, I only read blog articles on my evening commute, and listen to podcasts at the gym or while doing chores).

Since the beginning of the year, I try really hard to embrace boredom, to not immediately grab my phone whenever I have to wait for something. Instead, I try to let my mind wander, focus on some tricky tasks, or simply enjoy my surroundings.

And it really works.

Get rid of distractions

I hate being distracted at work. When you focus on something difficult and challenging, there's nothing worse than have someone ask you a stupid question on Slack, which would have taken him/her 5mins to figure out for themselves.

But I do that, too.

We all do. It's so easy. Struggle with something? Ask Jane, she's online, and probably has the answer. Forgot where that piece of documentation was? Instead of doing a quick search, ping Richard; he probably knows.

Cal Newport has whole sections dedicated to these kinds of distractions, but also, more importantly, how you can deal with them. It's brilliant.

I think the best advice is that, you don't have to answer immediately! We think we should answer chat messages within seconds, and emails within the next 15 minutes. But the fact (usually) is: you don't. If you ignore most chat messages in group channels, and only answer your emails once every other hour, you're probably going to be OK (of course, there are exceptions to these rules, especially if you deal with client support).

I disabled all notifications on my phone for work-related emails and chat. I now use Slack's snooze functionality aggressively when I know I have to concentrate. I try to plan my work load in such a way that I get smaller, “shallow” tasks done in batches, so I have long stretches of time to focus on more complex tasks.

And here again, it really works.

Almost a philosophical journey

Some parts of the book touch on aspects deeply ingrained in our human nature, like the way we function, the things that give us satisfaction, or can make us happy. Cal Newport uses research in fields like neurology, psychology, and sociology to make a clear case in favor of “deep work”.

The part about the blacksmith Ric Furrer is a striking example of this, demonstrating how humans can find great pride and satisfaction in craftsmanship. I find it beautifully summarized in this quote:

A wooden wheel is not noble, but it's shaping can be.

It then traces a parallel with modern “knowledge worker” trades, which can achieve the same level of depth and satisfaction as craftsmanships of old.

This is just the tip of the iceberg

There's so much valuable information in this book that it's impossible to summarize all of it here. And it's pretty dense and deep, so, in order to get the most out of it, I suggest you don't just read it like a novel. Instead, find some quiet time, go over the ideas in sequence, and don't hesitate to pause and think. I used some markers, and pen and paper to make notes, to think about how some things apply to my daily life, and what strategies I could use to make it better.

For example, the next thing I'd like to implement is Cal Newport's strategies to mitigate the Zeigarnik effect (I had never heard of it either). It takes time and practice. But even implementing the most simple ideas of this book will already get you a long way.

So, I won't distract you further. I simply highly recommend you read this book.

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