Cal Newport is an academic and author, a Professor at Georgetown University and author of the StudyHacks blog. His other books include ‘Digital Minimalism’ (paid link) and ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ (paid link).
I’m using the term ‘writers’ in a very broad sense here. I think the book is relevant for both artists and those working in the knowledge economy. The same concepts are applicable whether you’re writing an important report or a novel.
I revisit this book often. The book covers a broad range of ideas related to Newport’s central idea. ‘Deep Work’ is a term coined by Newport himself, and he says that it is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.
To expand on that, he says that Deep Work is:
“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.”
He provides good end notes which allow one to learn more about the concepts introduced and real life examples, both historical and current.
Newport says that if you look at the lives of influential figures from both distant and recent history, that a commitment to deep work is a recurring theme.
He also argues that deep work is increasingly rare at the same time as it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. Network tools and sometimes the physical nature of how we work (open plan offices, for example) affect our ability to go deep with our work.
The many distractions we deal with erode the two core abilities for thriving in the new economy - 1) the ability to master hard things and 2) the ability to produce excellent work, in terms of quality and speed. His formula is:
High-Quality Work Produced =
(Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
He provides arguments for deep work, from neurological, psychological and philosophical viewpoints and evidence.
Newport pre-empts the argument that there are people who don’t do ‘deep work’ at all and are still highly rewarded- people like Jack Dorsey who helped found Twitter.
Dorsey has thirty to forty meetings a day and believes in ‘serendipitous availability’, where anyone can come up to him while he works. Newport says that there are jobs, such as working at an elite management level in a tech company, where the characteristic of their specific roles require this kind of networking and openness to chance encounters. For people in these roles, he says that this book might not be so useful.
However, I think for most people, this book is very relevant. Not only are we living at a time where our attention is commoditised and fought over by very well funded commercial forces, we have also developed working practices such as email, where anyone can add something to your to-do list with an expectation of a quick reply. It is easy to be busy as a proxy for productivity, so called ‘busy work’.
We are also dealing with ‘the cult of the internet’. One of the examples he gives to illustrate this is the work of the reporter Alissa Rubin at the New York Times.
Rubin’s value to the paper is her ability to cultivate important sources, synthesise facts and write high-quality articles that make a mark. However the Times wants its writers to also be active on Twitter. Newport says:
“Why is Alissa Rubin urged to regulary interrupt this necessary deep work to provide, for free, shallow content to a service run by an unrelated media company based out of Silicon Valley.”
I’d like to talk about three different “depth philosophies” which he covers, which I think are particularly interesting for writers. The first is the “monastic philosophy of deep work scheduling”.
This philosophy attempts “to maximise deep efforts by eliminating or radically minimizing shallow obligations.” The bulk of practitioners success comes from doing one thing “exceptionally well.”
Donald Knuth is famous for many innovations in computer science. This is what appears on his Stanford webpage.
“I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address…. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me: my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”
Knuth corresponds by post. His assistant brings him anything urgent, and then he answers the remaining correspondence roughly every three month or so.
Author Neal Stephenson also adheres to this philosophy. He says :
“The producivity equation is a non-linear one… if I organise my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels.”
The second deep work philosophy he covers is the “bimodal philosophy of deep work scheduling”.
In this section he looks to the work of historical figures such as Freud, Jung and Darwin - where they combined a busy life with period of ‘monasticism’
Jung, for example, had a retreat in the small town of Bollingen in Switzerland. When there, he would lock himself every morning into a minimally appointed room to work without distraction or interruption. When in Zürich, his life was anything but monastic, running a busy clinical practice and being active in Zürich’s coffeehouse culture.
Newport says about this approach “that deep work can produce extreme productivity, but only if the subject dedicates enough time to such endeavour to reach maximum cognitive intensity.”
Bill Gates’ ‘Think Weeks’ might fall into this category. (Gates has a very interesting blog called Gatesnotes) which is worth checking out.
A third approach is the “journalistic philosophy of deep work scheduling.”
For this, he uses the journalist Walter Isaacson as an example. Isaacson has written biographies about Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs (paid links), among others. (Great books but I see they're getting a bit expensive for some reason.)
Newport has a family connection to Isaacson through hs uncle. He and Isaacson used to holiday together and his uncle remembers Isaacson’s working methods well.
“It was always amazing… he would retreat up to the bedroom for a while, when the rest of us were chilling on the patio or whatever, to work on his book… he’d go up for twenty minutes or an hour, we’d hear the typewriter pounding, then he’d come down as relaxed as the rest of us…”
Any time Isaacson could find some free time, he would switch into deep work mode and work on his book. That is how he manages to be one of the most respected magazine writers in the country as well as producing 900 page non-fiction books.
The deadline heavy nature of being a journalist can help develop the skill at working in this modeI. It’s not easy, rapid switches can deplete willpower and increase attention residue, where the echo of a previous task continues into a new task.
There’s an interesting chapter on rituals and their importance. It’s an area I’ve been interested in with writers for a long time and I might write another post about that.
What experience do you have of different types of deep work yourself? Anything in particular that has worked for you or resources you found to be useful? Or is there one of these approaches you’d like to try out?
This is just a quick look at some of the great resources and ideas in the book. If you want to analyse how you work in order to maximise your talents and what you produce, this book might be of interest. There are some useful links at the bottom of the email.
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Here are some other useful links:
The book on Amazon (paid link):
Cal Newport’s website is at - https://calnewport.com/
This is his Studyhacks blog (which is now part of his main website: https://calnewport.com/blog/