Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

  • Published

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Grand Central Publishing, 2016, 304 pp.

What percentage of your day is spent on semi-menial tasks like preparing PowerPoint slides, responding to vague emails, or mindlessly scrolling through social media? How does that percentage compare to “real work”? Cal Newport has written a though-provoking book focused on his proposed theory that our society has shifted dramatically to what he calls “shallow work” and away from “deep work.” He organizes his qualitative argument into the idea that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful in part 1 and provides examples. In part 2 he explains practical ways to achieve significantly increased productivity through depth.

Newport breaks down his argument into categorical examples of successful people: the high-skilled workers who can extract complex results out of complex machines, the superstars who excel as the best in their field, and the owners who have the capital to invest in advancing ideas. He proposes that to succeed in the new economy, it is important to have the ability to quickly master hard things and to produce elite-level quality with speed. Deliberate practice, free of distractions, successfully drives improvements in difficult tasks because of the neurological foundation that repetition creates. Meanwhile, multitasking is not productive because of attention residue—the time it takes for the brain to become fully immersed in the task at hand.

Newport argues that small niches of the economy value connectedness over deep work, but most tasks are done better with consideration to depth. Deep work is rare, mostly because of our constant connections, metrics, and emails, and writing a one- or two-line email response is easier than getting deep into a project. It is the path of least resistance, and a whole workday can be run by the next message in the inbox. Another particularly unhelpful habit is using busyness and its metrics as a proxy for productivity—doing things just to do them, to feel productive. Using metrics to define productivity is difficult to apply in modern times, especially since being visibly productive is not the same as actual productivity. Additionally, Newport examines the meaningful side of deep work in a psychological aspect, citing an experiment that shows people were happiest not when they had idle free time but when engaging in a stimulating task that challenged their mental capacity. The mental satisfaction of depth is becoming more sought after, but he claims that it is also rarer in today’s connected, distracted societies.

Working deeply sounds straightforward but is quite difficult in practice. Reaching for distractions—email, internet, and social media—is typically what happens after a short period of deep work. Newport describes examples of successful people in their field having various methods of achieving the right environment and scheduling to cultivate deep work. He splits these methods into monastic (extended retreats into complete isolation like summer trips to a cabin), bimodal (setting aside extended times, usually a few days at a time), rhythmic (a consistent time each day, for example 5 a.m.–7 a.m.), and journalistic (fitting in deep work whenever the opportunity presents itself in varying stretches of time). It is important to have a ritual to succeed in consistency: know exactly where you will work, for how long, what your work method is, and the ways to support your work. The last few areas he touches on are collaboration, social media, and controlling distractions at work. He emphasizes that collaboration only succeeds in the right conditions, with a clear understanding of what the project is and how it will be defined, developed, and measured in progress. Selecting tools, like social media, should be done only if they have a largely positive impact on the final result.

The timing of this book is interesting for many reasons. In the midst of a global pandemic (COVID-19), teleworking has become vital to maintaining operations in the civilian and military sectors, making digital connections and social media platforms absolutely vital. Newport portrays telework as an extreme distraction with an overall negative impact on productivity and the ability to work deeply. This tone initially sounds like anticollaboration and almost out of touch with reality for most of America’s workforce. He mentions that some jobs, such as the military with deployments and long periods away from family, may not be able to eliminate things like social media. However, he generally spends little time on a counterargument indicating the benefits of collaboration, with most of the book focused on eliminating media distractions.

Nevertheless, some suggestions are highly relevant to how the military has typically run business, especially in the office setting—constant emails and meetings along with the beloved metrics that must be recorded and sent from shop, to squadron, to group, and to wing. How much time is spent not doing the job that someone was trained for? His suggestion of establishing a “shallow work budget” to control the expectation of email responses, meetings, and other “shallow work” tasks could be a leadership strategy worth exploring. There are good points to consider, not only in the workplace but also in one’s personal life. Overall, I highly recommend this book as a discussion starter to reanalyze strategy on productivity and effectiveness personally and professionally.[*]

Capt Sabina L. Shaub, USAF


[*] Newport references the following publications that would be good for further reading on related topics: Race Against the Machine (2012) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee; Average is Over (2014) by Tyler Cowen; The Talent Code (2009) by Daniel Coyle; The Unwinding (2014) by George Packer; To Save Everything, Click Here (2013) by Evgeny Morozov; Flow (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi; All Things Shining (2011) by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly; and Give and Take (2013) by Adam Grant.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."