By Cal Newport
(Grand Central Publishing,
296 pages, $34)
Your time at work can be divided into two segments: deep or shallow work.
Deep work is what we crave. It's the path to success. Shallow work is where we generally wallow. It can be alternatively enticing or frustrating, but it should actually be feared, since it can be the quicksand of career aspirations.
Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport defines deep work as professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacity to its limit. These efforts create breakthroughs and improve your skills. Shallow work is non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. They don't create much value for you or your organization, even if they can seem vital.
"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," he writes in Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
He outlines four depth philosophies that can help you take advantage of deep work for a greater part of your life:
Maximize your deep efforts by eliminating or radically altering shallow obligations, finding a monastery-like setting for much of your working life. Donald Knuth, a celebrated computer scientist, stopped using e-mail on January 1, 1990, after 15 years, figuring that's plenty for a lifetime. "E-mail is a wonderful thing for people whose role is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be at the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration," he said.
People who can't succeed without substantial commitments to shallow work can balance that with concentrated deep work periods of at least a day. Carl Jung would hold regular retreats to a rustic stone house he built in the woods, then return to Zurich and his busy clinical practice. "Those who deploy the bimodal philosophy of deep work admire the productivity of the monastics but also respect the value they receive from the shallow behaviours in their working life," Prof. Newport observes.
The reality of our lives may make those first two approaches unreasonable, but we can build in solid routines to ensure we do deep work regularly by borrowing from Jerry Seinfeld. Every day the comic takes time to write jokes, he crosses out that date on his calendar with a big red X, trying to keep the chain of those marks from ever being broken. Make deep work a regular habit, removing the need to invest energy in deciding if and when you'll do it.
Just as journalists are trained to shift into writing mode on a moment's notice, grab the opportunities for deep work, even if short. But Prof. Newport stresses this is not easy for novices, since switching from shallow to deep mode doesn't come naturally.
Whatever philosophy you adopt, you need to develop rituals, which start with specifying where you'll work and for how long. Then consider how you'll work once you start – the rules and processes to keep your focus and the work organized.
"For example, you might institute a ban on any Internet use or maintain a metric such as words produced per 20-minute interval to keep your concentration honed," he writes. Also, consider how to support your work, whether it's a cup of coffee brewed beforehand or enough food or some quick, light exercise to maintain energy.
He urges you to embrace boredom – not taking breaks from distraction to focus but taking breaks from focus for distraction. That means scheduling when you'll look at the Internet and keeping other times absolutely Internet free, since the Internet is a chief distraction in our lives.
"To succeed with deep work, you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli. This doesn't mean you have to eliminate distracting behaviours; it's sufficient that you instead eliminate the ability of such behaviours to hijack your attention," he writes.
Downtime can lead to insights, as your subconscious continues its own deep work. That's why he shuts down at 5:30 p.m. every day, after methodically closing all loose ends (which might simply involve putting an unfinished task on tomorrow's to-do list). He still manages to be unusually productive, issuing studies in his field and his productivity books because evening work is often not that effective.
This is a deep, not shallow, book, which can enrich your life as you wonder how you can be most productive. It also offers a warning about the current tizzy over collaboration: Sometimes collaboration can involve deep work, such as two scientists working together, but often with open offices and continual distractions, it's a big barrier.
While Cal Newport's description of deep work will be alluring to knowledge workers, for some of us it can be a trap. He points to Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter, who divides his days between his management role there and at his newer startup, Square. His style of work is not deep, but it's not shallow in the sense of low value.
"If you're a high-level executive of a major company, you probably don't need the advice in the pages that follow," he concedes early in his book, calling such leaders "decision machines" for whom spending four hours thinking about a single problem might be wasteful.
Salespeople and lobbyists who succeed through connections might also shun deep work. But at the same time, he urges them to consider whether some change in their operating patterns could be helpful.