Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Now that my campaign for Mayor of Phoenix is over, I’ve had a chance to read a few books and wanted to jot down my notes on the main themes for my future reference and for anyone who might be considering the book.

The first one I read on vacation in Flagstaff, Cal Newport‘s “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”

The main thesis is that the ability to concentrate on a single project or problem for a sustained period becomes harder in our world of network tools and distractions like email and clickbait websites.  Since it’s harder to do, there are significant advantages for those who practice the skill of going deep over others who are stuck doing shallow work.

Deep diving

After laying out his hypothesis that deep work is worthwhile, he sets down four rules to cultivate the ability to do deep work and make it part of your personal practice.

The four rules are:

  1. Work Deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows

Work Deeply: Focus on the most important tasks (Pareto’s 80/20 rule), create rituals and an environment to make it easier to get into the deep work, and make sure to incorporate downtime when you stop trying to do the deep work to allow your mind to refresh and to develop insights into the problem or project using your subconscious mind.

Embrace Boredom: Our constant distractions prevent us from being bored (checking social media or messing with our phones), which detracts from the ability to focus.  By blocking out time to focus, and then allowing Internet distraction only as a break from that focus, you rewire your brain to have focus be the default.

Quit Social Media: The ability to connect is a small benefit, at the high cost of distraction.  Since this constant shallow distraction is not likely to be moving you toward your life goals, you should evaluate social media to see if the benefits outweigh the costs.  Like the rule about not buying single-purpose kitchen appliances, the added clutter doesn’t pay for itself with a benefit. Choose your tools like a craftsman, applying careful cost-benefit analysis.

Drain the Shallows: Figure out what work is deep, schedule all of your time so that you can prioritize the deep work.  Make sure to have a limit to how much deep work you do in the day.  When you do have to do shallow work like email responses, make the senders work harder to send, make the responses advance the project, and don’t feel obligated to respond to every electronic missive that comes your way.

It’s a relatively short, well-written book, with solid research citations and anecdotal examples from the author’s career of how the techniques can benefit someone who wants to achieve more than most people in society without spending as much time.

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