Book review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

I had the opportunity to read a book recently, Deep Work by Cal Newport. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown. He wrote a book that I picked up when I started my graduate program, called How to be a Straight-A Student. I’m not sure how much it applied to students in graduate school, but as I’m not doing much research,  I needed improved study and work habits. Deep Work was one of my attempts to examine on how I could work more effectively and quickly, and I think it’s more relevant to my learning goals.

Newport divided the book up into two sections, one defining what “deep work” is and why it’s important, and the other focusing on tactics that allow one to employ deep work into their routines. I certainly appreciated that it was a teacher writing the book, nonetheless a professor in my chosen discipline of computer science. He threw out lots of examples relevant to the tech world and programming.

His first arguments were laid out by outlining deep work and its place in our society. The book loosely defined it as work performed in a distraction-free environment where your mind is allowed to push its limits. Newport acknowledged that we’ve transitioned to a ‘knowledge economy’, where what you know translates into value. He threw out the example that browsing Facebook and Twitter are easily done by many people, making that skill low-value, whereas knowing how to write programs in a certain language is far more valuable. Further, the ability to quickly learn new valuable skills and produce on them increases one’s professional value. Newport introduces the deep work habits of people who have made enormous contributions to our society, including Carl Jung, Bill Gates, Don Knuth, and several journalists and professors. He also helped outline why deep work is becoming exceedingly rare in our increasingly networked and connected world, where interruptions to thought and attention are so easy. Finally, he made arguments on why performing deep work is meaningful to one’s self on multiple levels.

Newport then went on to give hints and suggestions on how to engage in deep work more frequently. He laid out several professionals and their approaches to deep work, whether it was extended seclusion, a daily rhythmic, ritual, or one that allows for spontaneity and flexibility. He offered methods that allow individuals to monitor their deep work and check their progress to see that things are actually getting done by citing a case study from Intel. He again brought up examples of notable people who were deep workers that were able to produce significant amounts, such as JK Rowling and Teddy Roosevelt. He makes a strong case to eliminate or drastically reduce social media use, and even offers a method by which to whittle them down by deciding on their necessity. He closed the second portion by listing ways that one can reduce “shallow work”, or logistical tasks that may seem menial and repetitive. Some I will definitely employ.

I was very inspired by this book and will be working to incorporate many of these steps into my daily routine. I know that I can’t go off into the woods for a month or so like Carl Jung, so I can’t isolate myself. I do know from Newport’s other book that I am best off working in the mornings. An even better work morning is produced when I limit my interaction with my smartphone and the internet, so I will be working on how to schedule time with both resources. I’ll need to come up with ways to monitor my work progress, comparing my hours put in to a task or subject versus the goals completed. In a previous job, I would take note of my start and end times and realized that while I was working around 42-46 hours a week, it often felt like 60. Quite the opposite came from reading this book. I read the 263 pages quickly and thoroughly in about 3 hours. Sadly, I am pretty proud of my completion of this book because it’s rare that I will see one through to completion. Granted, most of my reading is non-fiction and reference, so it may be a future goal to commit to reading more books in their entirety.

Deep work is a great practice for those who want to develop a sense of meaningful work, while also giving themselves completely to a task at hand. It’s a practice of presence, mindfulness, and focus that goes hand-in-hand with the theme of this blog, and it’s something I will work on employing as time goes on. Thanks for the great book, Cal.

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Maintaining course.

The last post was about the endless pursuit- this one could be called maintaining pursuit.

As life progresses I realize how delicate the balance is between living with awareness, meaning, and purpose compared to wasting hours away. It’s amazing how quickly you can be thrown off course.

The past two weeks were a prime example of that. I started a course on Monday on Java programming (more on that in a later post) and I’m feeling slightly desolate because of the progress I made in preparation for the class. Of the past two weeks, the first one felt very scattered and rushed, while the second left me feeling more in control. I was pretty frustrated with my use of time the first week.

Here’s what I’m going to work on to stay more productive and happy:

Planning a schedule and sticking to it.

I find that I function so much better when I have that majority of my activity planned out for the week and attach it to a regular routine. That includes my fitness schedule, budgets, meal plans, study time, and my activity in the workplace. Having a schedule with set activity gives me a checklist for the day to attack. I need to be conscious of fulfilling the goals at hand and not giving into spontaneous decisions.

Rewarding myself.

Motivating yourself to stick to a schedule when it isn’t very fun or enjoyable is a challenge. I need to build in rewards to celebrate accomplishment. It works for a teacher and his students, it should work for others as well. Be it a meal out, an adventure with a friend, taking a “day off” from goal activities, or do something else I love. I feel I will work more effectively when I can enjoy my progress.

Maintaining ties.

I came across a TED talk a few days ago that I’ll soon write about. One thing I took away from the talk was the desire among humans for connection to one another. I’ve found that the lower points of my life were also times that I was more isolated from others. The more interactions I have with family, friends, and coworkers translate into more opportunities to feel accountable for myself, to others, to feel loved, to have fun, and to check in with the world outside my head. By scheduling time with connections, I am fulfilling the first two ideas of this post- to plan and reward.

The first week of preparation for this class was nearly absent of these three ideas. I did not plan effectively. I had few goals. I did not reward accomplishments; if I did something pleasureful, it was merely for the sake of pleasure and not really a reward for anything. I didn’t stay very connected with people outside of my necessary interactions. The second week was the complete opposite. I need to strive for more weeks like that. Finishing this blog is one step towards that. Finding the balance between structure and freedom is tricky, but hopefully sticking to these ideas will maintain that balance.

Leo at Zen Habits has some good, cheap ideas for rewards. Check them out.

Until next time.