Pursue What Matters
Episode 39: Deep Work Book Review
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Do you do deep work? Do you know what deep work is? Wow, I’m so excited to talk about this book today. It’s a book that I have been recommending to just about everyone I talked to. It’s so so good. So join me as we talk about deep work.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:21
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. Today, we’re doing a book review, you’re ready for our Book Review. Today, we are talking about Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. And it is a book review of the book by Cal Newport. This is a great book, I just read it not too long ago. And I loved it. I loved everything about it. And I think you will too. And, you know, if you don’t get a chance to read it, you will hear this review for me. So first of all, let’s start by learning a little bit more about what others are saying about the book.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:26
Okay, so first of all, this book was published in 2016. And there’s been a lot of acclaim for this book, it’s been very popular. So first of all, from Daniel Pink, who, you know, he’s one of my favorite leadership authors. He said, “as automation and outsourcing reshape the workplace, what new skills do we need, the ability to do deep work, Cal Newport’s exciting new book is an introduction and guide to the kind of intense concentration in a distraction free environment that results in fast, powerful learning and performance. Think of it as calisthenics for your mind, and start your exercise program today.” So that’s from Daniel Pink, author of Drive and To Sell is Human. He’s the author of several books, those are two of his most popular ones. And then, of course, from Adam Grant, who is one of my other favorite leadership, thinkers, he said, “deep work makes a compelling case for cultivating intense focus, and offers immediately actionable steps for infusing more of it into our lives.” And Cal Newport actually interviews Adam Grant in this book, because he kind of described Adam Grant as a deep worker connoisseur. And so he uses Adam Grant as an example, throughout the book. And it’s really an awesome example. And so that’s kind of cool that Adam Grant then gave him a nice recommendation on the book. And then also from Seth Godin, who is, so first of all, Adam Grant is author of Give and Take, and then also Originals about creativity. And then Seth Godin, the author of What to do When it’s Your Turn, also the author of Tribe, he’s the author of several books on marketing. So business writer, also a really fun writer, I like him as well, too, “Cal Newport is a clear voice, in a sea of noise, bringing science and passion in equal measure. We don’t need more clicks, more cats, and more emojis, we need brave work, work that happens when we refuse to avert our eyes.” I really like that. That’s awesome.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:44
So that’s what people are saying about this book. And then let’s learn a little bit more about our author. He’s very accomplished, and has, you know, been up to a lot has been very productive. And perhaps it’s because he’s doing a lot of deep work. So Cal Newport coined the term deep work in a series of articles published on his popular blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. So he, he’s married lives with his kids, his wife and children in Washington, DC, where he is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. So he’s, I think he’s written several books. And then, you know, as it indicates, he’s got a really popular blog on productivity, and then is also an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. So he’s, you know, he’s kind of doing a lot. And of course, this book came out in 2016. And it’s been really popular, very well received. And like I said, I’ve been recommending this book to several people. And I’ve had a really fascinating and so important for for this time, we really need this book. And so we’re going to talk about it so I’m going to review it and then I also want to give you a preview because next week on the podcast, I am talking all about distraction. So the podcast is Driven to Distraction. And so today we’re talking about deep work, which is really helping you to overcome distraction, so that you can do your best work. So you can do deep work and the value of deep work. And then, you know, next week, we’re really going to help you to overcome distraction. And so today is really helping you to, to get the buy in for doing deep work. And then next week, we’re gonna give you some really actionable skills to help you to become more distraction free. And of course, if you decide to follow up and get this great book, Cal Newport also has a lot of really great actionable steps in the book designed to help you to overcome those distractions. Some of those I do talk about in the podcast next week, some of those will be different. But just wanted to give you a preview for next week on the podcast, we’re going to be talking about overcoming distractions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:09
So okay, let’s go ahead and jump in and talk about the main points of this book. Okay, so first of all, let’s define the difference between or let’s distinguish the difference between deep work and shallow work, because that seems pretty important. He uses deep work throughout. So deep work, our 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. Okay, so that is his definition of deep work. In contrast, his definition of shallow work is non cognitively 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. Okay, so not too difficult, right to think about the difference between deep work and shallow work. And so that’s kind of, you know, the the working premise here as we move through the book. And so, his deep work hypothesis that he is going with this book, is that the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare, at exactly the same time, it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. So as a consequence, the few who will cultivate this skill, and then make it core make it the core of their working life will thrive. Right? Okay. So, deep work is increasingly rare. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. And so really, his point is, if you can cultivate deep work, and make it the core of your working life, you will thrive in the new economy. And so that is his hypothesis here. And he provides a lot of really great research and documentation for why he holds that hypothesis. And so the book has two primary goals pursued in two parts. So the first one is to convince you that deep work that the deep work hypothesis is to is true, right? Okay. And then the second one is to teach you how to take advantage of this reality by training your brain and transforming your work habits to place deep work at the core of your professional life. So first of all, let’s convince you that deep work is really important. And second, let’s train you and help you to make deep work a core part of your professional life. So that’s really the focus of the book, and he does it really well.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:11
Okay, so now let’s, let’s focus on this first part of the nature of deep work. So the first thing that he talks about is the fact that deep work is valuable. And so he makes several points to support this argument that deep work is valuable. So first of all, he says that deep work helps you quickly learn hard things. And he gives several examples to support this argument. So deep work helps you quickly learn hard things. Because right you have this focused attention. Deep work also helps you produce at an elite level. And he actually gives the example of Adam Grant in that discussion. And it’s, it’s a it’s a cool example. So he has a little equation Here, he talks about high quality work produced, equals the time spent times the intensity of focus. So sometimes when we think about to be able to produce high quality work that it’s just going to take a ton of time. And he says that, you know, it definitely is going to take some time. But it is a function of the intensity of focus. And so if you can train yourself to do deep work, you can produce really high quality work in a much shorter amount of time. And so that is what deep work is actually entirely focused on is, you know, it’s not about cutting corners, but it’s actually about training your brain training, your body training, training yourself, to be able to do deep work, okay. And so the argument here is that to produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. So put another way, that type of work that optimizes your performance, his deep work, and he just think about that, how many of us do that on a regular basis? Like how many of us work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction, right, so we really do need to train ourselves and, and hone that skill a little bit more if we want to be more effective in the new economy.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:38
So his second main point about deep work in, you know, talking about his hypothesis about the value of deep work is that deep work is rare, right, we are seeing it less and less. And he opens with the example of Facebook in 2012, Facebook unveiled the plans for the new headquarters. And at the center of the new building is what the CEO Mark Zuckerberg called the largest open floor plan in the world, which basically Cal Newport said, it just kind of made him shudder. Because, you know, of course, the focus on that was on collaboration. And on, like, really supporting collaboration and a belief in this open office space would really build that. But really, does anyone have any idea how it, how distracting it is, and how it undermines the ability to concentrate and actually do deep work. And so he uses that example, to open this conversation about the fact that deep work is really, really rare. And increasingly, our work lives are set up to make deep work, even even rare, right? Even more difficult. As part of that discussion. He talks about this metric, black hole in our work life. And, you know, basically, it’s this idea that there are various mindsets and biases that have pushed business away from deep work, and toward more distracting alternatives. And so the this metric black hole that he talks about, prevents clarity, and allows the shift toward distraction that we increasingly encounter in the professional world. And so he talks about. So right, we’re still talking about the fact that deep work is rare, and that there are a few reasons for this.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:44
And the first thing that he talks about is the principle of least resistance. And so with this, he talks about the culture of connectivity, where one is expected to read and respond to emails quickly, right, like at all hours. And with a principle of least resistance in a business setting without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest, in the moment. So with this like we do what is easy, not what is best, and not what leads to the best work. So he talks about this, this principle of least resistance. We do what makes our life easier in the moment. Because then we don’t have to do more advanced planning for our work. We don’t have to be more organized. And right we can just kind of put it off and put on other people. And so he said the culture of connectivity makes life easier because it creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox. So responding to the latest missive with a alacrity while others pile up behind it all the while feeling satisfyingly productive. Oh, I love that one. Right. So you’re not really leading your day, you’re running your day out of your inbox. I think there are so many of us that are guilty of that one, that you can feel totally productive because it’s like, oh, look, I’m getting through my emails. But it’s such a reactive stance. So if email were to move to the periphery of your work day, you might be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on. And for how long. And what Newport says about this is this type of planning is hard. It requires effort, right? It requires you to concentrate, it requires you to be proactive. And so this principle of least resistance is we do what’s easy. So we run our day out of our inbox. Right? Oh, this happens. So often, it happens all the time. And so he says that, that organizations have really become unwitting partners in undermining deep work, because they set up an expectation that you all need to be responsive to emails, you know, within a certain period of time. And so they saw their people have to be responding to emails constantly, which gets in the way of them being able to do deep work. And so it actually, right, it destroys the quality of the work that the organization is trying to do. And it’s, it can it can actually be catastrophic for an organization, or insidiously undermining, I would say, but no one really recognizes recognizes it, because it’s this metric, black hole. No one’s no one’s really actually measuring that. And so the assumption is, it’s good to be responsive to, to your emails. And so no one really looks at the potential costs have that in productivity or actually high quality work. And they assume that it’s that it’s a good thing to always be responsive to email, which is not necessarily true. And you share some research about why that is not always necessarily true.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:45
Okay. Another example that he gives is, and I’ve talked about this in one of the podcasts on meetings, that the practice of setting up regularly occurring meetings for projects. So the meetings tend to pile up and fracture schedules, to the point where sustained focus during the day becomes impossible. And so why do we have all of these ongoing meetings, because they’re easier. So for many of these standing meetings become a simple but blunt form of personal organization. So instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week, force them to take some action on a given project, and more generally provide a highly visible, somehow Whoa, crumb, if I pronounced that right of progress. Okay. And then he gives one more example, the very common practice of forwarding an email to one or more colleagues labeled with a short open ended question such as thoughts.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:52
These emails take the sender only a handful of seconds to write, but can command many minutes, if not hours. In some cases, they have time and attention from their recipients to work toward a coherent response. Right and that it’s like so easy for the sender. A little more care in crafting the message by the sender could reduce the overall time spent by all parties by a significant fraction. So why are all these easily avoidable and time sucking email so common? From the sender’s perspective, they’re easier, it’s a way to clear something out of their inbox, or at least temporarily with a minimum amount of energy invest invested. Okay? So with the principle of least resistance, which is what, what we’re talking about here, this principle supports work cultures that save us from the short term discomfort of concentration and planning, at the expense of long term satisfaction, and the production of real value. By doing so, this principle drives us towards shallow work. In an economy that increasingly reward stuff, okay, that’s a big one. Okay, so then right we’re going with this, the concept of deep work is rare. And the second one is buisiness as a proxy for productivity. So in the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turned back toward an industrial indicator of productivity, doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:34
Okay, and this is totally heightened when you have a really open floor plan, because it’s really important that others see you looking busy, doesn’t really matter if you’re very productive, though. So some of these depth destroying behaviors include sending and answering emails at all hours, scheduling and attending night meetings constantly. weighing in on instant message systems. All of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. Okay, but busy is not the same as productive.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:14
Okay, and then the third aspect, in his discussion of deep work is rare. He talks about the culture of the Internet, and this assumption that if something is tied to the internet, it must be good. Oh, boy, that’s so not true, right. And that the culture of the internet tends to move us to shallow work, and shallow content. And he gives examples such as like Twitter, and Facebook, he talks about, for example, like the New York Times requiring its depth reporters to have Twitter accounts and to be posting on Twitter and the assumption that that is something that they should be doing. And that that’s valuable work, even though it totally takes them away from their deep work. And so he really challenges that. So what Newport says is that deep work is at a severe disadvantage, and a tech monopolies. So where internet is valued above all else, because it builds on values like quality. So deep work builds on values, like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery, that are decidedly old fashioned and non technological, even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high tech, deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high tech behaviors. So his last point on this is that this assumption that as it relates to the internet, that it’s good, and, and businesses don’t really look at the impact that this has on our ability to produce valuable things. And that if you believe in the value of depth, this reality spells bad news for businesses in general. So you have to really be careful about that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:15
Okay, and then his last point as it relates to making the hypothesis about deep work is that deep work is meaningful, right? So it really helps to connect us to purpose we find deep meaning this is where he talks about flow, which is awesome. And so it’s a really great discussion there.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:36
Okay, so the second part of the book is where Newport talks about the rules. And this is the part two of his focus in the book where he really wants to focus on helping you to learn how to work deeply and to make that core to your work life. And so I am just going to outline the rules, I’m not going to go into any detail, but they’re really good. And if you want to jump in more deeply with them, I would highly recommend the book and then also watch for the podcast next week, because I’m going to go over some of the specific ways to overcome distraction. So part two, let’s, let’s identify the four rules. So rule one work deeply, rule two embrace boredom, rule three quit social media, rule four drain the shallows.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:37
Okay, with rule one on working deeply, he talks about several different approaches to working deeply and then really just encourages you to identify an approach to working deeply that works best for you. So those are really helpful to kind of think through like what might work best for you. And then with that, To ritualize, your approach to working deeply right. And, you know, one of the things that I talk about often on the podcast is the role of consistency. And that’s really what he’s talking about with ritualized right, you’ve got to develop some consistent pattern and some rituals to help you to learn to work deeply. And so with the rule one, he really talks about different approaches to working deeply. And so finding an approach that can be helpful for you and you know, maybe taking a little time and kind of figuring that, you know, working across the different styles and figuring out what might work for you. And recognizing that at different seasons, you might work in different ways, depending on the season of your life. Okay, so with the with his point around ritualize, some of the things to pay attention to is having an effective ritual must address the following points. So where you’ll work and for how long, how you’ll work once you start to work, how you’ll support your work, right? And so you got to pay attention to those keys so that your rituals will be effective. And then the other thing that he recommends, in terms of working deeply, is to make grand gestures. And he gives an example of actually JK Rowling. Rowling I think, actually is when she was finishing her last book in Harry Potter series. And so he gives a nice little example about her grand gesture, because right there was a lot of pressure to really tie that series together, which was, which was cool, but, do something to really make your commitment to working deeply.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:54
Okay, rule two is embrace boredom. So he says, don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus. I like this. He said, once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. So motivated by this reality, this strategy is designed to help you rewire your brain to a configuration better suited to staying on task. So you really kind of want to do a little bit of rewiring of your brain. So you know, we don’t want you to be continually task switching. He says this strategy works even if your job requires lots of internet use, regardless of how you schedule your internet blocks. So he’s talking about staying off the internet, except with designated times, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use, so you can’t break your own rules. And then scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. And so right like, being disciplined with yourself and setting up some rules can be really helpful. He also talks about meditating productively. So whether that’s while walking, that sort of thing. He talks about memorizing a deck of cards, I don’t want to memorize a deck of cards, but that can be helpful for some people.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:23
Okay, and then rule three quit social media. Okay, I’m not going to say much about this one. Because next week, when I talk about decreasing distractions, I actually talk a lot about that. But I will say just a couple things. So he says, Don’t use the internet, to entertain yourself because you really can get sucked into a black hole. With that one, then watch for the podcast next week where I talk about decreasing distractions on social media. And then rule number four, drain the shallows. I like that one.
Dr. Melissa Smith 28:59
Okay, so his first point with this one is scheduled every minute of your day. So this is not so you can be obsessive, or so that you’re booked every single minute. But basically, he wants you to account for every minute of your day, do you know where your time is going. And it’s really all about accountability. And when you are when you actually are aware and accountable for all of your time, you will use it more wisely. And so that’s kind of the idea behind behind this recommendation. Okay, another recommendation with drain the shallows is to quantify the depth of every activity. And so again, think about shallow work versus deep work. And, you know, you could even like assign a depth category to it. But it can be really helpful to think about, okay, the activities that you have to do throughout a day. How long is this going to take me like how, how hard or how challenging is this going to be? So that you can can start to assess what is going to require a view, whether it’s something that you can delegate to someone else. And it helps you to start to start to make some good determinations of not only your time, but also what is worth your time.
Dr. Melissa Smith 30:17
Okay, another recommendation here is finish your work by 530, you know, or you can pick another time as well, but don’t make it after 530. So we call this commitment, a fixed scheduled productivity. So fixing a firm goal of not working past a certain time, and then that really puts on the pressure to focus your efforts. And that can be a really helpful strategy. You know, as an entrepreneur, I, I own two businesses, and it’s so easy for me to leave the clinic and then keep working at home. And I’ve had to do this for myself, because otherwise, I’ll just keep working when I get home. Because there’s always more to do. And so making a commitment to finish your work by a certain time,
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:01
Okay, the next recommendation in drain the shallows is become hard to reach. I love this one. So for one thing is make people who send you email, do more work. So just because someone sends you an email doesn’t mean you automatically owe them a response. I really like that I think that can be really helpful. And then do more work when you send or reply to emails. And so he actually gives you some examples of how to make those more effective. And his third tip with emails is don’t respond, if they haven’t made the cut. If they’re if they put all the onus of responsibility on you, someone sends you an email, you do not owe them a response. So I actually think that’s pretty liberating, actually really liked that recommendation, because you don’t necessarily owe everyone a response.
Dr. Melissa Smith 31:55
So anyway, this is such a good book, this is the kind of book I could see that I would just review maybe once a year, because there are a lot of good tips. And this is a skill that you want to hone and practice over time. So again, the book is Deep Work by Cal Newport really, really good. It’s one of those skills that you would like, I think this would be a good focus for a month to kind of start practicing some of these skills, and then maybe jump to one of the other skills in the book during another month. So you really can get those get some traction on the skills. So of course next week, I’m going to do a deeper dive into distraction and ways to avoid it, which I think is a really good follow up to this book. But of course, before we get ahead of ourselves, make sure you head on over to my website to check out the show notes with all the great resources for this episode. And to get a link to the book at www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-39 Again, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/episode-39 I love doing these book reviews. And of course if you have a book that you’ve been looking at, but you haven’t had time to read or you’re wondering whether it’s whether it’s good, send me a message or an email and I’d be happy to review it here. You can find me on Instagram at @dr.melissasmith or you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for being here. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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