Deep Work by Cal Newport

Let me begin by getting out of the way some of the issues that I had with this book:

  • The writing is in places annoyingly self-congratulatory and repetitive. Also, the argumentation is afflicted by the confirmation bias (though since it’s a self-help book rather than a scientific publication, one can be inclined to forgive it).

  • The whole debate whether Twitter is a “coercive development” and should one take “Internet Sabbath” occupies an unnecessarily prominent position in the book. I wish the author concentrated more on the mechanisms of deep work, and less on strategies for not getting overwhelmed by emails. More on the psychology of procrastination and distraction, and less on picking on social media and infotainment. (Newport himself admits to making “the simplifying assumption that Internet use is synonymous with seeking distracting stimuli”.)

OK, having thus satisfied my need for picking a book apart, I can say that this one is well worth reading. Newport’s case for deep work is convincing, even though some of the suggested strategies seem like they’re written by “a Luddite curmudgeon” and over the top. But if you take them with a grain of salt and treat them as guidelines rather than strict rules — they’re worth thinking about. As Newport himself concedes, it’s not about constraints, it’s about thoughtfulness.

So here are some of the things I found interesting:

  • The neurological explanation for the effectiveness of deep work: if you focus on one thing, practice it deliberately and with intensity, “you’re forcing the specific relevant [brain] circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits” — and the more myelin the neurons have, the faster they can convey electric impulses. Which basically means that you can ‘exercise’ your brain much like you’d exercise your muscles.

  • The theory linking focus with happiness developed by Winnifred Gallagher in her book Rapt, quoted by Newport: “the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience”. Why? Newport writes: “We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. […] Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to”. Thus it’s not fighting the unpleasant circumstances, but focusing on the things you enjoy, that will ensure your overall wellbeing.

  • Insight from a 1910 self-help book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day. The author, Arnold Bennett, discusses a typical salaryman who spends eight hours a day at work. This man, Bennet argues, despite not liking his job, regards these eight hours, plus the time it takes him to commute, as ‘the day’. The hours before and after work are “nothing but a prologue and epilogue”. This is, in Bennett’s view, a “profound mistake”. One should, instead, regard the remaining hours as essential. In those sixteen hours a day you are not a wage-earner, you are free. Newport urges that “you both should and can make deliberate use of your time outside work”, “put more thought into your leisure time”. And I agree, basing it on my own experience. It makes leisure time more enjoyable, satisfying, and actually more relaxing too¹.

  • An interesting angle on the social media (buried in the general crusade). Newport looks at social media through the prism of capitalism versus collectivism dichotomy, with the focus on the production of valuable content:

Part of what fueled social media’s rapid assent, I contend, is its ability to short-circuit this connection between the hard work of producing real value and the positive reward of having people pay attention to you. It has instead replaced this timeless capitalist exchange with a shallow collectivist alternative: I’ll pay attention to what you say if you pay attention to what I say — regardless of its value. A blog or magazine or television program that contained the content that typically populates a Facebook wall or Twitter feed, for example, would attract, on average, no audience.”

  • Newport’s book offers a lot of tips and tricks to encourage and facilitate deep work. I do wish I could build myself a tower on a Swiss lake, where I could lock myself up to work — apparently that’s one of the best strategies. Other strategies are less extravagant². For example, he suggests developing rituals that will condition you to going into the deep work mode, and maybe even a “shutdown ritual” that would condition your brain to relax. Because allowing your brain some idle time is just as crucial as intense focus while working. Idle time is when your mind power regenerates, but also it’s the time when the unconscious mind does it’s work.

  • Deep Work is not, as this post might suggest, a dense and long-winded volume. It’s actually an easy and fast read. Enjoy.

¹ You can go with Bennett’s suggestion and “use this time as an aristocrat would” which, in Bennett’s opinion, is “to perform rigorous self-improvement”. ;)

² Though Newport does make a case for making Grand Gestures. By making a Grand Gesture “you increase the perceived importance of the task. This boost in importance reduces you mind’s instinct to procrastinate and delivers an injection of motivation and energy”.

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