Book Review - Deep Work
A good business book doesn’t just tell you what to do, it tells you why to do it. A great book tells you what to do, why to do it, and how to do it. By this definition, Cal Newport’s Deep Work is a great book. It is also a much needed examination of the nature of “deep work” and its importance in an increasingly competitive economy and distracting world that seems bent on replacing quiet productivity with visible busy-ness.
Deep work is defined as an activity performed in a state of concentration free from distraction that push one’s mental capabilities to their limit thereby creating new value while at the same time improving one’s skill. In contrast, shallow work are those mentally undemanding, logistical tasks that can often be performed while distracted and which do not create significant new value or advance one’s skill.
At the center of Professor Newport’s book lies his fundamental thesis:
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 field, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
The remainder of the book builds on this hypothesis - first offering evidence of its truth in the first section and then offering the practical advice of how to transform one’s work life by building one’s professional life around implementing deep work as a primary focus.
Newport begins by demonstrating the value of deep work in the new information economy by pointing to two core abilities for “thriving in the new economy”: (1) The ability to quickly master hard things; and (2) The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. Citing the example of Nate Silver, whose data-analysis work with both baseball statistics and more recently, election polling data has made him a well-known - and well-off - stat “geek,” Newport successfully argues that both of these core abilities depend on the ability to perform deep work.
Newport then moves to the rarity of deep work in modern business. In the absence of any quantifiable metric to measure the immediate impact of deep work on a businesses’ bottom line, we will typically adopt behaviors that are easiest in the moment. A corollary to this principle of least resistance is the increased use of busyness as a proxy for productivity. We prove our productivity by “doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
Along the way, Newport uses the example of a blacksmith - a true craftsman in medieval metalworking - to introduce the concept that deep work - in addition to be economically valuable and experientially rare - provides meaning to those who engage in it. As he phrases it, “a deep life not just economically lucrative, but also a life well lived.”
“Your work is craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life.”
The remaining two-thirds of Deep Work are where the book moves from good to great. Newport provides four “rules” that provide guidance on what to do to engage in consistent, focused work that produces value. Reciting these brief rules without providing the explanations of what they mean and how they apply in practice would be counter productive. Suffice it to say that achieving a consistent pattern of deep work is not easy and “following the rules” is no different. But Newport provides an invaluable aid in providing specific steps and tips to developing this deep work habit in a real world setting. The section dealing with Rule #1 alone was worth the price of the book for me.
Deep Work is a classic case of a book that takes a weekend to read but a lifetime to master. Although it was just published a month ago, it is going to be one that will change and guide the conversation for years to come.