Deep Work

By Cal Newport

Why did Mark Twain write much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in an out-of-the way shed on a farm where he was staying one summer? The answer is deep work. 

Twain understood what Cal Newport proposes, i.e. the way to make progress in our increasingly attention-fragmented society is through deep work. 

What is deep work? 

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Such work differs from shallow work which are those "noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks often performed while distracted." (Page 6) Shallow work is dangerous work. Newport notes, 

Spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and you permanently reduce your capacity to perform deep work.

Newport's hypothesis is simple: Deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming absolutely necessary. He devotes these pages to convince you of his hypothesis and to teach you how to make deep work a part of the core of who you are. Why? So you can become a winner in the new economy; an economy marked by three groups: the highly skilled (ability to work with intelligent machines), the Superstars (of sectors made more available via technology), and the owners (those with capital to fund enterprises).

Cal Newport's work is carefully structured, masterfully argued, and easy to follow. Here are some of my key takeaways:

1. Deliberate practice: The difference between expert performers and normal adults is not innate, but reflects "a life-long period of deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain." As one who writes and speaks, I must intentionally and regularly practice the craft.

2. Design deep work habits (keystone habits) to move beyond good intentions. Newport discusses designing your day around bursts of total focus (90 minutes), break (90 minutes), total focus (90 minutes) and doing this two to three times a day. Such effort will max your brain concentration for the day. Focus on where you will work, how you will work, and how you will support it.

3. Shake it off -- On-demand distractions: It's tough to wean the mind from the ping of text, email, or the constant look at social media. That's because such distractions are addictive. Newport offers help. Pay attention to Rule #3: Quit social media!

4. The most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary: "Yes"Move toward "fixed-schedule productivity. See "Drain the Shallows."

5. Keep score: Placing a tally of deep work hours in a prominent place in my office. 

I appreciate this work. Cal Newport is not out to simply make me more productive. He will argue "deep work can generates as much satisfaction in an information economy as it so clearly does in a craft economy." (75) Newport will speak of deep work as a path to the sacred, but it is an "under the sun" sacredness, satisfying the soul but not meant as an expression of worship to God. Despite my difference with the author on the matter of worldview, this work is a great reminder of the truths of Proverbs 14:23 and 22:29, which argue the excellence born of the kind of deep work Newport proposes. 

Thanks Cal Newport. This is a book to read again in 2019.