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Deep Work Review — book by Cal Newport

By Duff McDuffee on January 12th, 2016

Most personal development books advocate secret shortcuts to success. The 4-Hour Workweek, an extremely popular title from author Tim Ferriss, detailed strategies for “joining the new rich” and traveling the world by working as little as possible. Cal Newport’s latest book entitled Deep Work by contrast is refreshing in its emphasis on extremely cognitively demanding work as the key to success and personal fulfillment. The following is my Deep Work review.

Deep Work is defined as “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.” Deep Work is contrasted with Shallow Work, defined as “Noncognitively 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.” Newport’s thesis is that the ability to actually concentrate on hard stuff is becoming rare due to addictive and distracting technologies from Facebook to Buzzfeed to email. Meanwhile, any job that can be replaced by a computer or someone in a developing nation will be, so deep work is actually more valuable than ever.

Deep Work is the knowledge workers’ version of “deliberate practice,” the sort of which leads to expertise as found by K. Anders Ericsson in studies of violin players, golfers, chess grandmasters, and so on. Sheer number of hours of very challenging practice with the aim to deliberately improve one’s skills correlates with the greatest expertise, hence the “10,000 hours rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Expert violin players practice 3-4 hours a day, whereas mediocre players practice only 1 hour a day or less. Similarly, knowledge workers who spend 30-50% of their work day in completely focused concentration on important, difficult projects produce more value than knowledge workers who spend most of the time checking email, sitting in meetings, and distractedly trying to get a few things done each day.

While Newport emphasizes the benefits in productivity and job security from Deep Work, I think the real benefits are in meaningfulness and life satisfaction. Newport has given a name to something vague I’ve felt was missing in my life. Now I not only have the vocabulary to talk about it, but also a model of how to live a deeply meaningful life in a sustainable manner.

I’ve had a belief that to do a high volume of good quality work, it was necessary to be a workaholic, a belief supported by the exemplars of high achievement in my life. Not wanting to experience the obvious negative effects of workaholism, I’ve instead chosen to be a slacker. Newport presents a golden mean between the extremes of workaholism and slacking, activity and rest; that of spending 3 or 4 hours a day sequestered in highly concentrated periods of challenging mental labor, 90-120 minutes at a stretch, never working after 5:30pm, and managing all this by ruthlessly eliminating the inessential.

This is a noble use of ruthlessness, versus Tim Ferriss’ ethic of ruthlessly cheating-within-the-rules or exploiting international labor markets for personal gain. The inessential ought to be eliminated; doing so ensures room for deep and important work. While Ferriss sometimes talks about eliminating the inessential, he frequently contradicts himself by recommending many unimportant things like expensive and needless supplements, or worthless accomplishments like setting a “world record” for number of tango spins in 1 minute, or cheating at kickboxing. Ferriss emphasizes laziness (“the 4 hour X”) and hacks that allow one to skirt effort, while Newport advocates hard, hard work for which there is no shortcut.

Ultimately Newport’s Deep Work is not simply about doing better work, it’s about living a better life, balancing many competing priorities, determining which technologies aid your most important labor, and valuing your energy and your time as the precious and non-renewable resources they are.

This book a must-read for anyone who does knowledge work of any kind and wants to live a meaningful life in our age of distraction.

Questions I’m Left With

That said, this book leaves me with some questions.

Deep Work is a book about finding meaning through work as well as success in life in Late Capitalism. The proposed solution to being outsourced or automated in a hyper-competitive global marketplace is to become indispensable by practicing in a way that leads to profound expertise. However, most new jobs in the economy are in the service sector. Quite a few service jobs won’t allow for Deep Work, for example Starbucks baristas, Amazon warehouse workers, Bus/Uber drivers, call center employees, administrative assistants, and so on. Do these workers have any opportunities to practice Deep Work on the job in a way that cannot be commodified?

Newport at one point suggests that these entry-level jobs do not, therefore the worker should develop deeper skills to increase their opportunities for deep work. But when and where can a service industry worker develop their skills, especially if they are already working full-time or more? The best time to develop skills is while you are being paid, and Newport advocates not doing anything work related after 5:30pm. It seems that the only way for such a person to get ahead would be to add an additional 3-4 hours of deep work into their schedule on top of their 8+ hours on the job, but this would necessarily lead to lower cognitive performance from overwork and inferior rest. Since expertise is about total hours spent in deep work or deliberate practice, an economy where the deepest workers thrive rewards the privileged.

Also by definition if rockstars are some of the only people in a field who will thrive, the system is inherently unjust, privileging a tiny minority while the overwhelming majority suffers. Is Deep Work only for the 1%, and therefore the 99% are destined to lead meaningless and shallow lives? Will Deep Work counter the trend towards increasing inequality, or will it further this disturbing phenomenon, or neither? Is there a way we can increase the opportunities for Deep Work for all workers, not just the professional elite?

Shallow Work is defined as basically busy work that presents a veneer of being productive, whereas Deep Work is the opposite: focusing on very cognitively demanding work that is personally and socially important. But some of the examples of Deep Work involve very showy displays of work such as number of published papers or (I imagine) lines of code written. Everyone knows it is easier to write 5 shallow books than one truly deep one. Could one be a better researcher by publishing fewer, higher quality papers? Does “publish or perish” really create better academic institutions? Does number of published papers make for a good researcher or professor? Does number of citations even make for a good paper?

Many paradigm-changing papers or works were ignored at first. As physicist Max Plank allegedly said, “Science progresses one funeral at a time.” Is high craftsmanship always valued and appreciated in a field, or do other values make something more popular or financially lucrative? For instance, a better program might be one which is more elegant, requiring fewer lines of code to do the same thing. But lines of code is a showy metric that appears to be better, despite being more shallow. While Newport’s official “lead” metric for success is hours spent in deep work, he also emphasizes the metric of number of academic papers published. Newport’s previous books were on academic success, which is largely defined as getting straight A’s in difficult classes. Is Deep Work just trying to get an “A” in life, or is it truly working on what is important, even if one is not rewarded externally as much as the person who plays to the crowd/rules? Is it “he who dies with the most published and cited papers wins?” or is it “he who writes the most meaningful and deep papers wins?” What if the crowd’s values for success in your field are wrong or shallow?

Is Deep Work actually deep, or is it merely technical? It seems like many of the examples involve learning a highly specialized technical discipline, and/or perhaps inventing something new in a highly specialized technical discipline. But is technical skill and proficiency what truly matters in life? To take the example of masterful musicians who K. Anders Ericsson studied: is mastery in musical performance merely a matter of technical proficiency? Clearly without technical proficiency, one cannot reach a level of mastery in music, so some high degree of technical proficiency is necessary. But just as clearly, musical performance that only contains technical mastery is missing something equally as important, making this technical ability insufficient. Newport’s previous book was about developing skill instead of following your passion, but a technical musician who lacks passion makes for a cold and unmoving performance. Is Newport underestimating the importance of passion or heart in expertise because it is more challenging to measure or teach?

I know several people who are back in school right now. All of them spend many hours a day studying very cognitively demanding material in a highly focused manner, but none are superstars. Why is this? One (my wife) doesn’t even have a Facebook or Twitter account, and studies in a very focused manner for hours at a time, and yet is still very slow compared to her son, who can write a nearly good paper in literally 1/10th the time. (He plays hours of video games every day.) Is she lacking some crucial study skill? Another is a PhD candidate in the biological sciences and basically works round the clock. Why isn’t she a superstar in her field given her long hours of difficult study? (She is doing well, but not head-and-shoulders above similar PhD students.) Is she not resting enough or focused enough while she works? Hours spent in a highly focused manner on cognitively demanding tasks is clearly an important thing, but also clearly not the only relevant variable in producing outstanding results. What are those other factors that determine extreme results and are they learnable?

Is Deep actually compatible with More and Fast? In this book, Newport emphasizes being able to produce high volume of work quickly in order to survive and thrive in Late Capitalism. But does this emphasis on More and Fast sacrifice some level of depth that is only possible with Less and Slow? For example, in the psychological sciences as well as in pharmaceutical drug trials, it is difficult to get funding for longitudinal studies that track individuals over long periods of time, but deep and important information is found from these studies that cannot be replicated through short-term studies alone. Because of the lack of these studies (and their expense), we have lots of data on short-term effects of drugs but little information about the effects of these drugs after years of use…and many of these drugs continue to be used for years, such as SSRIs and other anti-depressant drugs. Deep Work does seem to eliminate much of what is unimportant, specifically mindless entertainment and needless technology. A life of Deep Work is certainly more focused and meaningful than one without. There are also some advantages to More and Fast. But what other Deep things are we missing out on by focusing on More and Fast work?

Despite my questions, I found the book very moving and important, and I highly recommend it. In my own life, I will be seriously considering ways to make my daily work life revolve around as much Deep Work as I can sustain.

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