Doing Focused Work in Distracted Times: Cal Newport’s Deep Work

Cat, staring intently

Although the book didn’t quite arrive in time for New Year’s resolutions (which are junk anyway), 2016 has already seen the publication of Cal Newport’s eagerly-awaited new title, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing), which promises to offer research-driven guidelines for doing meaningful work. And it’s pretty successful at this goal!

Cal Newport is the prior author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love (Grand Central Publishing, 2012), How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Into College By Standing Out (Without Burning Out) (Three Rivers Press, 2010), How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less (Three Rivers Press, 2006), and How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students (Three Rivers Press, 2005). He maintains the popular blog Study Hacks, and ohbytheway is also an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown.

Deep Work’s thesis risks banality: If you want to make a difference, stop sharing Buzzfeed quizzes on Facebook and Instagramming your #snacklife and devote as much time and attention as you can spare to meaningful, hard problems. Well, yes.

The thing is, I’d be pretty skeptical of a productivity book that really proposed an earthshatteringly new approach. Human nature and the struggle against procrastination and low expectations–that is a pretty timeless battle. And I don’t really begrudge Newport the hustle necessary to sell a book. So if you read this book–and, really, if you read us, or GradHacker, or any other productivity-related site, then you probably should at least check it out–try to tune out the parts where Newport acts as if the advice to set aside a regular time for writing and hold yourself accountable is brand-new information (for example, Billie Hara wrote a post about exactly this, using the same reference to a LifeHacker article about Seinfeld FIVE YEARS AGO) and focus instead on the specifics he offers.

Newport’s book opens with a paradox: deep work–that is, the kind of work that emerges from deep, sustained concentration–continues to be incredibly valuable, yet many aspects of our working life and Internet culture writ large militate against that kind of work. He writes, “big trends in business today actively decrease people’s ability to perform deep work, even though the benefits promised by these trends (e.g., increased serendipity, faster responses to requests, and more exposure) are arguably dwarfed by the benefits that flow frm a commitment to deep work (e.g., the ability to learn hard things fast and produce at an elite level.” He argues that most of us (especially outside academe) tolerate this because it’s easier in the moment. That is, it’s always easier to kick the email can down the court than it is develop something genuinely interesting. Further, as many have observed, most of us so thoroughly confuse being busy with being productive that there can seem to be rewards for focusing on comparatively meaningless tasks and benchmarks.

Complicating matters, according to Newport, is research that continues to demonstrate that we are really bad at multitasking, and that willpower (i.e., actively resisting the distracting–SQUIRREL!!) is a resource that depletes with use. Eventually, you’re going to take the Buzzfeed quiz and find out what royal dog you’d have been had you lived during the Victorian era.

Unless, he argues, you protect yourself with rituals: habits and rules that make it easier for you to focus on meaningful work. That’s the real benefit Deep Work offers: not the emphasis on “deep work,” not the description of the problem, but rather the practical suggestions for how to make sure you’re focusing on the right things.

For example, he offers three different ways to schedule time for deep work: a “monastic” approach (his examples here are Donald Knuth, and Neal Stephenson); a “bimodal” approach, where you set aside extreme chunks of time for deep work, but at other times enter fully into the distractions of the world; a “rhythmic” approach, which is about settings yourself a habitual time to work; and a ‘journalistic’ approach, which involves being able to switch instantly into deep focus. (Newport doesn’t really recommend that.)

He has an extensive discussion of rituals that help you achieve focus. One of his key claims is that it’s better to stop working at a definitive time every day than try to cram a little bit more work in. He even recommends a “strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end fo the workday,” one that “ensure[s] that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right.” One of the bravest moments in the book is when Newport admits he literally says “Shudown complete” once he’s completed the review each day. (This works because something called the Zeigarnik effect, which is a term I was glad to learn.)

Newport also has excellent recommendations for receiving and sending email more productively, and a variety of other tips and strategies, many of which are research-based.

It’s almost impossible to write a book about productivity without considering the attention disaster that is social media. Merlin Mann set this problem out rigorously 5 years ago–on Twitter, for extra irony:

Twitter screenshot

Newport, who advertises his never having had Twitter or Facebook accounts as a sign of his productivty bona fides, more or less just tells people to stay away, and is almost incapable of imagining writers, and especially journalists, who use Twitter for any reason other than “out of begrudging compliance to an editor’s order.” A huge part of the problem is that he almost exclusively imagines social media as a one-to-many platform, rather than as a conversation, or in any other way. (For example, that academics might well have built strong learning networks on Twitter seems to have escaped him. I’m sure folks who know something about journalism might well know about its relevance for, say #BlackLivesMatter.) I’m not trying to tell you you have to be on Twitter, but I suspect there’s as good a case for being on social media as there is for universally staying off of it.

While his overall take on social media is draconian, as you would expect, Newport does have some super-helpful concrete advice. For example, he argues that people too often adopt tools, such as social media, because of some benefits, whether real or imagined, whithout considering its costs, and especially without considering how the tool’s strengths and weaknesses align with your own goals. Newport proposes:

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Note that this craftsman approach to tool selection stands in opposition to the any-benefit approac. Whereas the any-benefit mind-set identifies any potential positive impact a justification for using a tool, the craftsman variant requires that these positive impacts affect factors at the core of what’s important to you and that they outweigh the negatives.

Now, since Newport clearly believes social media are almost by definition destructive of the capacity to do real work, this test is a little less neutral than he implies here–but I actually think in principle this is fair, and could well be used by more neutral observers as a way to choose among different social media platforms. (That’s actually the key difference: Fairly or not, Newport tends to think of social media as basically a unified threat to deep work.)

I do have some reservations about Deep Work, which mostly have to do with unexamined privilege. It’s no accident that his academic examples are all from research I schools, and virtually all are at Ivy or Ivy-equivalent schools. (And while Newport is careful to identify all his academic exemplars as good-to-excellent teachers, it’s telling that all the examples of their deep work’s success have to do with research.) It’s also a little shocking how few women figure in his book, especially when he looks at historical examples. (For the love of Bloomsbury, he even cites Arnold Bennett rather than, say, Virginia Woolf, who gave Bennett a couple of public beatdowns and, more relevantly for Newport’s thesis, wrote a little essay called A Room of One’s Own. And I say that as someone who admires Bennett!) It’s also a book that frequently seems weirdly excited by a winner-take-all economy and the faux-meritocracy it rests on. (It literally refers to rich folks as winners in an early chapter.)

Plus–and I don’t know how to cushion this–it’s a book that takes Jung seriously. (It almost made me break my iPad a couple of times. Dorothy Parker’s maxim about books that should be “thrown with great force” doesn’t apply in an e-book age!)

Having said those things, this is a book I paid my own cash-money for, and I don’t regret it. While the general advice is not terribly surprising, there are specific suggestions on how prioritize your attention, how to wrestle with email and how to set aside and defend the time necessary for deep work that are well worth the $15 or so.

Photo “Concentration” by Flickr user Jeremy Segrott / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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