Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, June 6, 2016

Book Review: Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World

I have decided to re-start the book reviews I used to post, although it is probably better to call them summaries. I will try to post a review / summary of a non-fiction book that I think is really useful for creative professionals in some way every Monday. I'm starting off the feature with a book that I think is really important for anyone trying to thrive in the knowledge economy: Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Cal Newport defines ‘deep work’ thus: “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.”

Newport’s primary thesis is a simple one: in order to do the kind of valuable work that is demanded of knowledge workers in today’s economy, we need to work deeply, in the sense of Newport’s definition of that term. And the way we work, constantly connected to distractions in the form of email and social media, makes it almost impossible to do the very work we need to do to get better at our jobs. A simple thesis, but not a trivial one, and worth grasping, because Newport believes (and I agree) that the ability to do deep work differentiates the best in a particular field from the others.

The book first endeavors to convince you of the need for deep work, then goes on to detail the methods for working deeply, and avoiding distraction. While I think the book could have done with attention from a style editor (certain sections read as if they were written by a computer science professor, which of course they were), the advice is definitely worth heeding. It is the sort of thesis that might seem obvious when pointed out, but it doesn’t make it any easier to implement, and actually going through the steps of Newport’s argument helps to sink in the importance of his point. 

In the weeks following my first reading of this book, I started to notice how easy it was to fall into the trap of doing tasks that were easy, or to allow myself to get distracted by something online that could wait, while important tasks that fell under Newport’s definition of deep work fell by the wayside. In my most recent book, I discussed the science behind why distractions make it harder to learn, and this applies equally to any other intense mental activity. Even though I know this, I find myself leaving my phone on when I need to write, or checking Facebook mindlessly when I am stuck on a particular sentence. While this is natural behavior for many of us, over time the distractions stop us from achieving far more than we realize. 

What really resonated with me: 
Newport’s deep work hypothesis: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” The mismatch between the importance of this idea, and the difficulty of pursuing it while we are bombarded with distractions stood out for me as an opportunity - if I (and those reading this) can cultivate the skill of being able to do important work in a focused way, it gives us a great advantage at standing out in our fields at the same time that its getting harder to compete in the global marketplace. 

Takeaway for creatives: 
If you’re trying to create anything new, you know that it needs focused and concentrated effort, and also that its easy to avoid it in favor of spending time online. This latter time can be easily justified as networking, or marketing, or building connections, or the ubiquitous, “research”. In order to get better at your craft, set aside time to work without distraction, and guard this time ferociously. Do your best to turn off notifications, put your phone on silent, and work somewhere you won’t be easily distracted, and you might be surprised at how much more you can accomplish. 
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