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Review of Deep Work

I borrowed Deep Work by Cal Newport from a friend and skimmed the first part of the book where he attempts to convince the reader that deep work is necessary. Work is changing and if you don’t cultivate the ability to do deep work, “you’re like to fall behind as technology advances.” (13) He’s referring to a wide range of professions: his examples include computer programmers, scientists, academic writers, and, surprisingly, blacksmiths. (The blacksmith section was the most interesting to me and what convinced me that many of these principles could be applicable beyond a tech/business situation.) However important deep work might be, our “current embrace of distraction is a real phenomenon” (53) and prevents most people from doing deep work because they cannot see that distraction can be dismissed. Newport also argues in the following chapter that doing deep work will make our lives more meaningful; most people find satisfaction in this level of work. 

I read, and didn’t skim, the next section of the book. Newport attempts to teach the reader how to do deep work. He offers four rules in four chapters, though I found that the chapters would have been better if they had been smaller and there had been more of them. For example, the rule for Chapter 4 is “work deeply” and lists 4 different ways to do deep work but it also includes how to ritualize your work (make it where you don’t need to think about how to start), how to make grand gestures when appropriate to convince your brain you’re all in, a several page section on the value of collaboration, 4 disciplines to improve execution, and three benefits of downtime. That is a lot for one chapter that you expect to contain one concept.

The principles are good. Make time to do deep work, which involves scheduling blocks of roughly 90 minutes to dive deep into the work without distraction. Build your schedule around these block. Be bored. Don’t fill up every second with a screen. Schedule your internet usage. Use travel time to meditate on problems. Increase memorization skills to strengthen your brain. Quit social media. Determine what technological tools bring unexchangeable value to your life and and leave the others behind. Make good use of your time outside of work to build a life. Decrease your shallow work; this is stuff like answering email, attending unnecessary meetings, etc. 

Some of this I had already started to do. I’ve been blocking my work for the past couple of quarters. I’ve been consistently decreasing (or eliminating) the time I spend on social media apps because I’m aware of how much of my life they eat up. I will implement a few other steps. I plan on adjusting the way I’m studying Greek after reading the book. I’m going to rework how I block time to research/write papers. There is useful information in this book, but it is clearly written for a certain demographic.

As a mother who has spent the majority of her mothering life providing primary care for four children, I find much of the book impractical. One cannot emphasize 8-10 hours of sleep a night as critical and not realize that children interrupt that. Also evenings are a primary work time for care givers who are pursuing other work. If I’m going to have uninterrupted time for work, my children will have to be sleeping or at school. A “Don’t work past 5:30” rule will not be effective in that situation. I understand his emphasis. Many people need that barrier. But it does not work in other situations. Sometimes the work blocks are going to be 5-6 am, 1-2 pm, and then 8-10 pm. That’s what’s available. Sometimes, after putting in a full day with children or other responsibilities, a person is so tired that all the strategies in the world won’t work. I also don’t think we can argue that “deep work” is more important than raising people. (I would like to ask Newport who was with his small children while he was doing this deep work?)

Other times I have found it important to work in interruptible segments of time. I need to move in and out of the work because otherwise no work will be done. I can’t say that this yields the same results. Obviously, I don’t have a PhD or published books, but I am halfway through a graduate degree and am gaining proficiency in an ancient language. This is a completely different method from Newport’s and it is much slower, but it does work.

This is not so much of a critique of Newport’s ideas because clearly his ideas will work for some people as it is a reminder that we need other stories as well. We need the stories of people who do good work in their front-line jobs, their care work, their minimum wage paying jobs. We need the stories of how neurodivergent people do their work. We need to not think this is the “only” way or that what is most important is pouring out academic papers. In fairness, the book does not seem marketed for mothers or some of these other people; the blurbs on the back cover are all white dudes with programming/business/higher ed backgrounds. Successful authors write books for a certain demographic and he has clearly done that. There’s valuable information in the book; we could all, regardless of profession or salary or schedule, cut a lot of the distractions that come from our phones. But I’d like to read some other stories alongside this.

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