Paradigm shifting books, part 2: Deep Work, by Cal Newport
You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”
I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.
I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.
Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)
The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.
I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)
My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.
Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.