Deep Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Deep WorkDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cal Newport
Grand Central Publishing (2016)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Those who aspire to “connect sacredness inherent in traditional craftsmanship to the world of knowledge work” would be well-advised to keep Aristotle’s observation in mind. What we do habitually defines us, for better or worse. In this remarkably insightful book, Cal Newport explains how – over time – he became a “deep work machine” and how almost anyone else can also become one. Her examines a process that is easy to describe but for many – if not most – people immensely difficult to sustain: focus only on what is most important, ignore or eliminate everything that isn’t, develop habits that support rather than distract attention, and – meanwhile – allow sufficient time for personal growth and professional development.

Although an adept deep worker earlier in his academic career, Newport reached a point when he realized that there was still substantial room for improvement. “I returned to my MIT habit of working on problems in my head whenever a goo0d time presented itself – be it walking the dog or commuting. Whereas earlier, I tended to increase my deep work only as a deadline approached, this year was relentless — most every day of most every week I was pushing my mind to grapple with results of consequence, regardless of whether or not a specific deadline was near. I solved proofs on subway rides and while shoveling snow. When my son napped on the weekend, I would pace the yard thinking, and when stuck in traffic I would methodically work through problems that were stymieing me.”

He notes that during this period or renewal and recommitment, he doubled his average work productivity as a classroom teacher at MIT while writing a book and published nine peer-reviewed papers — all the while maintaining his prohibition on work in the evening. “To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I’m arguing, is a transformative experience. The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes in your habits.” That said, deep work is — and always will be — “way more powerful than most people understand”…until they read Newport’s book.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Newport’s coverage:

o How to Become a Winner in the New Economy (Pages 28-33)
o Deep Work Helps You Quickly Learn Hard Things (33-37)
o The Principle of Least Productivity (61-66)
o The Cult of the Internet (66-70)
o A Neurological Argument for Depth (76-82)
o A Psychological Argument for Depth (82-86)
o A Philosophical Argument for Depth (86-91)
o Decide on Your Depth Philosophy (101-112)
o Deep Work Scheduling: Philosophical and Journalistic (110-117)
o Ritualize (117-121)
o Make Grand Gestures (121-126)
o Don’t Work Alone (126-134)
o Execute Like a Business (134-142)
o Be Lazy (142-154)
o Don’t Take Breaks from Distraction. Instead, Take Breaks from Focus (159-166)
o Meditate Productively (169-174)
o Memorize a Deck of Cards (174-179)
o Apply the Law of the Vital Few to Your Internet Habits 192-203)
o Quit Social Media (203-209)
o Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself (209-214)
o Schedule Every Minute of Your Day (221-227)
o Quantify the Depth of Every Activity (228-232)
o Finish Your Work by Five Thirty (236-242)
o Become Hard to Reach (242-256)

Some of these have an implied prefix such as “How to” or “Know how to”; others are clearly an admonition, perhaps even a challenge. Obviously, Newport agrees with Albert Einstein’s determination to “make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler.” Also with Peter Drucker’s observation, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” And also with Stephen Covey: “Spend much less time on what is urgent and much more time on what is important.”

Obviously no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality and value of the information, insights, and counsel that Cal Newport provides but I hope I have at least indicated by I am so grateful to him for what I learned and am now applying amidst my own distractions.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out two others: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.

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