This review first ran in the Aug. 2 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World
By Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing
How about we quit social media cold turkey and don’t tell a soul?
At the end of 30 days, we’ll ask ourselves two questions.
Did our professional and personal lives suffer irreparable harm because we weren’t on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram?
And did anyone care or notice that we were gone?
If we realize that we didn’t miss out on much of anything and no one was clamouring to hear what we have to say then let’s quit for good.
Walking away from social media is one way to ween ourselves off the near universal addiction to constant distraction.
That addiction makes it tough for us to do deep work, a term coined by MIT grad, Georgetown University assistant professor of computer science and author Cal Newport.
We’re at our best when we’re doing distraction-free deep work. We’re learning and mastering new skills. We’re solving big, complex problems. And the quality and speed of our work is at an elite level.
“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement,” says Newport. “It is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. “
“Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity. To succeed, you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing – a task that requires depth.”
The ability to focus for a sustained stretch on deep work is increasingly rare and valuable. That makes it the coin of the realm in today’s economy for knowledge workers. “Deep work is becoming a key currency, even if most haven’t yet recognized this reality,” says Newport.
But we spend far too much of our days keeping busy doing shallow work. Newport calls this kind of work “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Shallow work also makes us easily replaceable by cheaper people or faster machines.
If a freshly minted grad could step in with little or no training and fill your shoes then there’s a good chance you’ve loaded up on shallow work.
Social media is only part of the problem. It’s a challenge to do deep work when you’re in an open concept office, your calendar’s full of standing meetings, you’re conditioned to constantly check your inbox for urgent emails demanding immediate responses and you’re expected to have an active presence on social media.
“This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact,” says Newport.
Along with a social media sabbatical, Newport recommends carving out blocks of time for distraction-free deep work. Aim for uninterrupted stretches of three to four hours.
Also ask your boss for a shallow work budget. Get agreement on how much of your time should be spent on shallow work.
“Obeying this budget will likely require changes to your behavior,” says Newport. “You’ll almost certainly end up forced into saying no to projects that seem infused with shallowness while also more aggressively reducing the amount of shallowness in your existing projects.”
You should also make yourself harder to reach to limit distractions. Newport leads by example. You won’t find him on social media. On his website, there’s a special-purpose email specifically for offers, opportunities or introductions that will make Newport’s life more interesting. He tells you upfront that he’ll only respond to proposals that are a good match for his schedule and interests.
“Most people easily accept the idea that you have a right to control your own incoming communication, as they would like to enjoy this same right,” says Newport. “More important, people appreciate clarity. Most are okay to not receive a response if they don’t expect one. In some cases, this expectation reset might even earn you more credit when you do respond.”
Deep work is hard work and forces us to make tough choices. We’ll need to break habits, learn new routines and get comfortable saying no. Yet Newport speaks from experience when he tells us a deep life is a good life.
Jay Robb has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999, serves as director of communications for Mohawk College and lives in Hamilton.