Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work, by Cal Newportdeepwork, is one of the best books I have read recently. Unlike many books in the self-development category, which are often repetitive and filled with too many anecdotes and stories, Deep Work is concise and full of important insights on a very important topic. As is evident by the title, this book is about the practice of deep work, which the author defines 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, Cal Newport)

Some may wonder if they need to read an entire book on this subject matter. However, as the author convincingly argues, deep work is now more important than ever, as Newport explains:

“To remain valuable in our economy. . . you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances. The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you’re producing is mediocre, then you’re in trouble, as it’s too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online.” (Deep Work, Cal Newport)

Deep work can prove to be the difference between those who are able to support themselves with a vocation of their choosing and those who are forced to take whatever form of employment they can get. In other words, deep work is key for those looking to sculpt their own destiny instead of sleep-walking through life.

The ability to perform deep work, however, is not a skill one can simply pick up when they so choose. Rather, it is a skill that must be honed and this is why Deep Work is such a valuable resource – it is full of tips and practices on how to master this skill.

Research by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has suggested that the limit for the type of intense concentration required to perform deep work for a novice is at most an hour. Experts, i.e., those who deliberately practice developing this skill, can extend their ability to perform at intense levels of concentration for up to four hours. Those who reach this upper threshold are often the people others look at and wonder, based on their productive output, if they were born with special talents. But what often sets these people apart is the ability to perform deep work for long durations – and this ability can be cultivated by us all.

With that said it needs to be stressed that many people are losing the ability to participate in deep work even for short periods of time due to the impact that new technologies are having on attention spans. As Newport explains:

“Once your brain has become accustomed to on-demand distraction…it’s hard to shake the addiction even when you want to concentrate. To put this more concretely: If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where…it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.” (Deep Work, Cal Newport)

Newport’s book provides an excellent series of methods to, as he puts it “[train] your brain and [transform] your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life.” These training methods include ways to improve one’s ability to concentrate intensely and at the same time help those “addicted” to distraction kick the habit.

While the ability to perform deep work can make one much more productive and increase the quality of their work, it can also improve the overall quality of one’s life. As so many philosophers and psychologists have pointed out, a life well lived is one where we have a purpose and are taking active steps to achieve the goals associated with our purpose.

If one improves their ability to partake in deep work, they will find it much easier to make substantive progress towards whatever goals their chosen purpose requires. For it is very easy to dream big dreams, but if those dreams never amount to anything, as will likely be the case if one does not master the skill of deep work, life can be a struggle. For this reason I highly recommend Deep Work.