Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Cal Newport

Book cover

I picked this up after seeing mentions of it in a few blog posts and online discussions I found interesting. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind some recently because for the past two years, I’ve been in a management role at work that has limited my opportunities to do “deep work” (meaning, roughly, sustained inquiry on a challenging project). There have been a lot of great things about being a team manager, but I want to have at least some room for that other type of work in my professional life. (For me, that means writing code and building models.) I’m pursuing a change that I hope will provide that, but in the meantime I was interested to check out what Newport had to say.

It’s a reasonably good book, but didn’t exactly provide what I was hoping for. The first half of the book is an argument for why deep work is important. I’m pretty much already convinced of this so it wasn’t that valuable to me. The second half is about making more room for deep work in your professional life. This was, for me, a mix of some good ideas and some stuff that wasn’t really appealing for me. For one thing, he didn’t really talk at all about moving toward a role where you have more opportunities to do it. He mentions briefly that some management jobs are valuable-but-not-deep, but doesn’t talk too much about it–surprisingly to me, because I feel like that type of job is pretty common, where you’re doing work (probably management) that is fulfilling in some ways and is obviously of value to the organization, but lacks time for deeper engagement. I honestly feel like, once I have an opportunity for deep work in front of me, I don’t really need tactics to make sure I do it–I’ll jump at the chance and am pretty good at scheduling around it.

The thing that stuck with me most was the “any benefit/net benefit” distinction that he draws with regard to social media. I am not a big social media person so it doesn’t have that much specific significance for me. But it’s interesting to think about because I think it comes up a lot in modern society–companies trying to sell you on something with perhaps a marginal benefit but where the cost (usually in time, with a nominal $0 price tag) is non-obvious.

Some of the duds included “making yourself difficult to reach”–I’m all for intentional and limited use of communications technology, but honestly most of the stuff he talked about would make you seem like a dick. Finally, I feel like in some instances, Newport maybe weakened the courage of his convictions for the sake of having broad appeal. For example, in the section on setting aside time for deep work, he starts out by talking about how regular and sustained periods are necessary, but by the end of the section, he has pretty much said you can do it however works for you. It seemed like he was hesitant to make a strong statement that might be off-putting to some readers as too challenging or infeasible for them.

I read this as a “micro-book-club” with one friend, and it was interesting discussing it together.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars