Most personal development books advocate secret shortcuts to success. The 4-Hour Workweek, an extremely popular title from author Tim Ferriss, detailed strategies for “joining the new rich” and traveling the world by working as little as possible. Cal Newport’s latest book entitled Deep Work by contrast is refreshing in its emphasis on extremely cognitively demanding work as the key to success and personal fulfillment.
Deep Work is defined 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 is contrasted with Shallow Work, defined as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Newport’s thesis is that the ability to actually concentrate on hard stuff is becoming rare due to addictive and distracting technologies from Facebook to Buzzfeed to email. Meanwhile, any job that can be replaced by a computer or someone in a developing nation will be, so deep work is actually more valuable than ever.
Deep Work is the knowledge workers’ version of “deliberate practice,” the sort of which leads to expertise as found by K. Anders Ericsson in studies of violin players, golfers, chess grandmasters, and so on. Sheer number of hours of very challenging practice with the aim to deliberately improve one’s skills correlates with the greatest expertise, hence the “10,000 hours rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. Expert violin players practice 3-4 hours a day, whereas mediocre players practice only 1 hour a day or less. Similarly, knowledge workers who spend 30-50% of their work day in completely focused concentration on important, difficult projects produce more value than knowledge workers who spend most of the time checking email, sitting in meetings, and distractedly trying to get a few things done each day.
While Newport emphasizes the benefits in productivity and job security from Deep Work, I think the real benefits are in meaningfulness and life satisfaction. Newport has given a name to something vague I’ve felt was missing in my life. Now I not only have the vocabulary to talk about it, but also a model of how to live a deeply meaningful life in a sustainable manner.
I’ve had a belief that to do a high volume of good quality work, it was necessary to be a workaholic. Not wanting to experience the obvious negative effects of workaholism, I’ve instead chosen to be a slacker. Newport presents a golden mean between the extremes of workaholism and slacking, activity and rest; that of spending 3 or 4 hours a day sequestered in highly concentrated periods of challenging mental labor, 90-120 minutes at a stretch, never working after 5:30pm, and managing all this by ruthlessly eliminating the inessential. Newport advocates hard, hard work for which there is no shortcut.
Ultimately Newport’s Deep Work is not simply about doing better work, it’s about living a better life, balancing many competing priorities, determining which technologies aid your most important labor, and valuing your energy and your time as the precious and non-renewable resources they are.
This book a must-read for anyone who does knowledge work of any kind and wants to live a meaningful life in our age of distraction.