How often do we find ourselves scrolling through our social media feeds distracted and in a state of trance? In an increasingly distracted world, we waste hours of our time every day on social media, compulsively checking emails and performing "shallow work". By actively engaging in logistical-style tasks in a distracted state (shallow work) like answering emails or attending back-to-back meetings, we have lost the ability to concentrate and think deeply on a task.
Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work, argues that this was not the case with influential figures like Carl Jung, J.K Rowling, Woody Allen, and Bill Gates. Leveraging the ability to concentrate without distractions for extended periods of time, they pushed their minds to their limits making breakthroughs and creating value which was hard to replicate. The author calls this ability "deep work" and believes that with the advent of social media and the ubiquity of digital technology, modern workplaces have increasingly made knowledge workers (academics, bankers, lawyers, programmers, etc.) immersed in shallow, cognitively less-demanding work that keeps them busy long enough to make them forget the value of going deep.
This is troubling because as technology progresses and the gap between man and machine shortens, employers are likely to replace humans with robots to carry out shallow work, creating a new digital divide. However, the author argues that individuals who are superstars in their respective fields, high-skilled workers and venture capitalists will be able to use technology to their benefit and become clear economic winners.
Although deep work cannot help us get the capital to become angel investors, Newport says that only through deep work can we become high-skilled superstars in our respective fields as it will enable us to learn difficult things very quickly. The writing is on the wall, if we can perform deep work that is becoming increasingly valuable and rare, we will be able to become less distracted and more successful.
I found the first part of the book to be very informative as the reasoning behind the author's argument is well-organised, categorical and convincing which encourages readers to truly commit to the second part of the book.
The author shares personal anecdotes, case studies and peer-reviewed research to structure his argument and explain to readers why deep work is valuable and rare due to modern workplace habits (like encouraging employees to maintain social media presence which distracts them); the difficulty in measuring the hidden costs of working distracted and the tendency of workers to engage in shallow work to appear busy (it is difficult to quantify the value produced by a single knowledge worker so we tend to measure our productivity based on hours of work). Moreover, the author provides a psychological, neurological and philosophical argument for why deep work is meaningful that I found quite convincing.
The book talks about Carl Jung isolating himself in a stone house in Bollingen, Switzerland to focus deeply and produce psychological breakthroughs that enabled him to match his mentor turned rival Sigmund Freud. For a cognitively demanding field like psychology, deep concentration was essential.
The book provides us with more practical methods of achieving deep work while fitting it into our busy schedules (few of us can afford to isolate ourselves for days in a remote location). It is a treasure trove of various strategies that we can adopt into our daily work habits to perform deep work regularly.
The author himself is a user of the deep work strategies and leads by example. To illustrate, by embracing the Rhythmic Philosophy of deep scheduling (the most practical of the deep work strategies), the author (a professor at George Mason University) was able to produce nine peer-reviewed journal articles in a year (more than doubling his output).
The second part of the books informs us how to engage in deep work. Remembering to concentrate from time to time is not enough as research shows that we have a limited reserve of willpower that when depleted forces us to revert to our old habits. Therefore, the book suggests developing a habit of regular deep work. The book hosts a plethora of effective strategies to extend periods of concentration while enhancing our willpower which cannot be confined to this book review.
Notably, the book asks us to commit to a different lifestyle and work habit that maximises deep work while minimising shallow work as much as possible. This involves time-blocking (detailed scheduling and routines), the evaluation of our professional and lifelong goals and the identification of the steps to achieve it while incorporating deep work and embracing boredom to let our subconscious mind solve complex problems in the background.
Moreover, the author asks us to re-evaluate the need for social-media platforms in our lives by taking a month of an unannounced break to determine which platforms to keep using and which ones to permanently cut out of our lives.
Finally, Newport maintains that it is not the duration of work but the intensity with which we work without distraction that makes all the difference. He also reminds readers to keep track of the hours of deep work they engage in by marking it in the calendar to maintain consistency.
Reading this book was an absolute game-changer. I have also adopted the deep work and time management strategies from the book into my daily habits. It is well-researched, methodical and very direct. For those who want to stay focused and take their productivity to the next level, I strongly urge you to read to book for yourself. "A deep life is a good life," Newport says, I couldn't agree more.