Jan 31, 2017

Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Book #5 of #50booksin2017

My theme for 2017 is “More focus, more outdoors, less screen time”. Keeping up with this theme, I picked up Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. What a fascinating read it was!  It is certainly one of the best books I have read in recent times. Many of my questions and concerns on work culture, use of social media and embracing deep, meaningful work got answered through this book.

The author takes the time to explain what deep work means and why it is valuable and rare in today’s world. With many examples and personal anecdotes from his academic career, he reinforces the concept more clearly. He states that there are two core abilities needed to thrive in the new economy
1. The ability to quickly master hard things and repeat the process again and again
2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed

To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.

Context switching leads to “attention residue” which hampers the performance. The author goes on to list three trends that decrease people’s ability to pursue deep work:
1. Open office spaces
2. Rise of corporate instant messaging
3. Need to maintain a social media presence

He then talks about how the “culture of connectivity” and “busyness as a proxy for productivity” are creating depth-destroying behaviors. The first part of this book is filled with precious insights that explain how shallow work can consume your entire day and work life, leaving you with feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of meaning and purpose.

In the second part, the author puts forth 4 rules to put deep work into practice:
1. Work deeply
      - Plan your deep work schedule - where you’ll work, time periods allocated for deep work, process to follow etc
      - Set ambitious outcomes to pursue with your deep work hours
      - Shut down work related thinking at the end of a set time - have a shutdown ritual, use downtime to replenish your attention
2. Embrace boredom
      - Wean your mind from a dependence on distraction. Resist the urge to check smartphone whenever you have a few seconds of idle time (wait time in a queue, restaurant etc)
      - Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet
      - Practice Productive Meditation - focus your attention on a well-defined problem during times when you are occupied physically but not mentally - like walking, jogging, driving etc
3. Quit Social Media
      - Instead of adopting “any-benefit” thinking, use a craftsman approach to network tools selection. Does the use of a specific tool create substantial positive impact towards your professional/personal life?
      - Plan your leisure time. Don’t default to whatever catches your attention at that moment.
      - Include structured hobbies, exercise, enjoyment of good (in-person) company and good books
4. Drain the shallows
      - Schedule every minute of your work day. Plan the day in hourly blocks. Allow modifications/changes to the schedule but always have a plan of what you’ll do for the rest of the day
      - Treat your time with respect
      - Quantify the depth of every activity. Stick to a shallow-to-deep ratio
      - Prioritize tasks that leverage your expertise

This book needs time and attention to grab the finer details. So I wouldn’t advise a skim-through. I took the time to jot down key points that were relevant to me. I multi-task quite a bit, given the nature of my work. Upon reflection, I now realize how detrimental it has been to my productivity. I just can’t blame it on the work culture of today’s corporate environment and accept things the way they are. This book serves as a guide to get deep, meaningful work done amidst the cacophony of noise through endless communication and numerous things that demand your attention.

I would highly recommend this book to all knowledge workers of today’s economy, especially those who are extremely busy during the day, processing emails, juggling meetings and random discussions, high-speed context switching etc and at the end of the day, wondering where the time vanished.

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