Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

February 09, 2019

I heard about the book Deep Work during a presentation a colleague gave at work. The ideas presented were intriguing, and I started to think about how I might focus and work more deeply. I was particularly fascinated by the idea of embracing boredom as a tool to promote creativity. I became keenly aware how addicted I was to pulling out my phone to scan a timeline whenever “nothing was going on.” I started using ScreenTime as soon as it was available to try bring my screen addiction to a manageable level. I needed to learn more.

I had some credits on Audible, so I decided to get the audiobook to glean more insight. I enjoyed the book immensely, taking copious notes… I wound up creating a sort of new workflow for taking notes on books using Drafts.

I’ll open Drafts, quickly enter something based on what I’ve heard, then at the end of the day I’ll merge the notes together and activate my Append to Booknotes action… which runs a Shortcuts workflow allowing me to choose from a list of books I’m taking notes on and appends it to the end of that document. This was a huge time saver… before I would open 1Writer, navigate to dropbox, navigate to booknotes, choose the right file, scroll to the bottom of the file, enter writing mode… then finally enter the note. Being able to just pop open Drafts, write or dictate my thoughts and then close it and handle it later has been a wonderful experience.

What I learned

The book is roughly split into two sections: first, discussing the nature and “history” of deep work, intending to convince the reader that Deep Work is important and valuable. It contains the usual litany of success stories from history and personal experience that litter this genre of literature, but they were mostly well chosen and interesting. The second part goes over some specific strategies for fighting distraction and embracing depth in your work, I’ll list out what I did later.

For me, the idea of Deep Work is appealing as a means of excelling at work and also in learning to make the most of my days and relationships. Mr. Newport makes a compelling argument throughout the book that we have unwisely accepted social media and other distractions as part of a Cult of the Internet, that all new technologies are inherently helpful and good… I have found this very convicting. I’ve hitched my wagon to nearly every network that has bubbled up. (I was even quite active on Plurk and Pownce… nobody remembers those anymore… It’s all hay and stubble anyway.)

Mr. Newport introduced me to the concept of limited willpower… that much like a muscle my ability to focus and resist distraction can tire over time and during activities that are demanding. Not only has this affected how I permit email notifications and other distractions to rob me of my focus muscle and encouraged me to intentionally choose a focused life to train this skill, but it’s affecting how I interact with others. Will this email or message help my friend or build them up, or will trying to answer me just steal a tiny bit of their performance today? It also has adjusted my expectations for my sweet little daughter… she has a very tiny focus muscle and is only able to resist touching my guitar for a short time. I should simply put it away to keep her from having to exhaust herself.

In attempting to cut down on my consuming of media and resisting my urge to look up every fact that I can’t remember on wikipedia… I’m slowly realizing how intense are my urges towards distraction. Newport describes a simple method of recording when I get distracted as a means of accountability… and it’s humbling. I suppose that ScreenTime pickups could give me nearly the same method, but I like the discipline of physically recording the transgression.

Another big takeaway is that I’m slowly giving a higher priority to my time spent in deep work. It is the most valuable contribution to my job. I love to help people, to teach and to share. It often feels like responding to messages and staying in the easy shallows of question/response is “being helpful,” but as I have tried to say “wait… I need thirty more minutes on this before I can help you” I’m finding that I’m able to do even more teaching and sharing and still get my most important work done by choosing to put depth first.

Since reading the book I have become very excited about training my mind to resist distraction… Not just for work benefits, but also spiritual disciplines, and the ability to prioritize my family and my relationships over my phone… I’m still working on it. Hold me to it.

What I did

I listened to the book rather slowly over the last few months, giving me lots of time to take notes and slowly implement changes in my habits. Here are some of the things I’ve tried:

I stopped using Outlook. Just by simply using a separate application for mail and calendar means I can split up distracting messages and calendar organization. I can avoid being late for meetings and still follow Mr. Newport’s strategy of budgeting every minute in the workday.

Before reading the book, I would occasionally set aside time for focus on my calendar. While this helped tremendously, I’ve taken the next step and am scheduling blocks of time for shallow tasks… and I always schedule deep first. This has helped me put off my useless tendency to tackle smaller tasks while hoping to “gain momentum”, and gives me a tool to fight distraction: whenever a shallow task presents itself (checking my email, responding to a non-important request) I can put it in a queue to be handled at the next shallow block. A lot of these shallow tasks fix themselves in my absence, and also it has a side-effect of batching like tasks, which is efficient. (AKA, answering five emails one after the other rather than answering each on as it distractingly came in.)

I’ve been using a mix of a bullet journal and Things.app to handle my tasks. As recommended by Mr. Newport, I’ve taken up categorizing my work as deep and shallow and aggressively pursuing the deep first. I have a tag for Essential, and every day I have started by filtering to Essential so I’m not even distracted by the shallower tasks.

I have had a shutdown routine for a year now that includes some journaling of progress and gratefulness… now that includes classifying upcoming tasks and scheduling out for next three days.

I don’t presently have a sender filter. I have experimented with archiving immediately any email on which I am only cc’d. I don’t need it at the moment, but it’s there if I need it. At the moment I work with a relatively low amount of email noise, for which I am very grateful.

I am trying to not access my email or Slack till the first shallow block of the day… usually just before lunch. While this used to be the opening ritual of my day, I have found as Mr. Newport predicted that my most essential tasks tend to stay the same between closing of the previous day and this morning. Keeping my inboxes closed helps me gain momentum without dithering about seeking inbox zero… a useful state but not required for doing my best work.

I am tracking my deep work time as a lead measure with a simple checkbox system on my bullet journal. I may expand this in the future, but I’m seeing results already in terms of my output.

Probably the most difficult change, I am trying to intentionally say no to that dreadful itch to google facts I’ve forgotten or buzz someone as soon as I’ve thought of a question… instead putting these queries off for at least fifteen minutes or entering into Things to be acted upon in the next shallow work block. The hope is that by denying myself I’ll build more focus, and so far I’ve found that at work I often discover the answer to my own question in the waiting, and I prevent myself from sending a coworker a distracting slack message.

Conclusion

I am sure there are a hundred other reviews and outlines available for the book. I hate to add to that noise, but writing down what I learn is the surest way to make it stick.

I’m grateful for the book, and hope to use the ideas wisely to be a good steward of my time at work so that I can be a blessing at home. I also hope that a more focused life will keep me from distraction and endless scrolling as well as make me a more diligent student of scripture. Hopefully some of this is useful info… if I didn’t do a good job explaining something or if there’s a trick you’ve learned to train your focus, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading

  • 2019-02-09 19:27:33 -0600

    Fixes to typos... thanks @megalithic!

  • 2019-02-09 10:21:41 -0600

    Fix typo, thanks mom!

  • 2019-02-09 09:44:46 -0600

    Rework some awkward paragraphs.

    In my defense, it was late and I was _sleepy_.

  • 2019-02-09 01:09:00 -0600

    Add links to the bottom of the page

  • 2019-02-09 01:06:26 -0600

    Draft: Deep Work by Cal Newport