The Deep Work of Cal Newport and How It Can Help Us Grow
In early 2016, writer Cal Newport released a book on the idea of deep working called, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He wanted to see what his idea of working deeply on topics could do for knowledge workers. While this book came out nearly eight years ago, I found that I somehow had a copy of it available in my archives. I decided to go through it because I wanted to see what sort of new (and old) things I can pick up from it in 2023. To start, Newport describes Deep Work as:
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.
So for Newport, to dive into the depth of the work you do, you have to be doing something professional, something you can free yourself of distractions, and something difficult for others to do if they tried. It has to be hard or else the work is not particularly deep. So tasks like coding, creating music, writing books, or queuing through AI chains to figure out political statistics are some of the tasks that slide into the “deep work” category. However, so are tasks like building new wagon wheels and fashioning Viking swords out of metal ingots. The work is deep when the work is undistracted and brings in the best music for concentration and focus.
Now there are a variety of things we need to excuse about a book written such a long while ago. One thing I noticed when I first picked this book up in 2018 was that Newport is a white male who often writes about other white males and what they’ve already accomplished. Everyone from Bill Gates to Jack Dorsey and Nate Silver makes their way through the book which leans heavily into more decidedly conservative forms of American business and economic superiority.
When you see these names and personalities like those, things can sound a bit more “perfect” than they need to. They may have “won” the economy games in 2016, but that energy might not feel as potent going forward. For instance, while running both Twitter and Square during the last decade, Jack Dorsey once said of his open office that “We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity—and people walking by each other teaching new things.” Luckily, it did not take Newport long to blow this theory apart in terms of doing deep work. For him, the depth is in the application of new values, and improved skills that are difficult to replicate. An open office at a company like Twitter or Square could take away from the notion of doing deep work. It would leave little room or space to operate most effectively if you write music or code all day. An open office would bring in telephones and personalities that would distract you too much.
Easiest In The Moment
“The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment."
Working in the shallows makes life feel easier, but it does little to stick with you in the way that deep work does. What Newport argues is that “doing what’s easiest in the moment” won’t lead to a better or fuller life. I think for many of us that put new information together, he’s most likely correct. There is something pure in the struggle of working more deeply. As someone who has returned to working more deeply on this piece, I've found it almost freeing of toxicity to work this way.
I used some of the tools that Newport explains in the book. I remembered to close out any extra effort or verbal videos in order to do what I needed to do to write this article. It was difficult at first but became easier as my mind began to remember how to work this deeper state in which I found myself. Rather than move into my own shallowness and distraction of answering emails, doing social media posts, and limiting my article production, I instead decided to take advantage of what I was reading. I chose to deepen my work as I continued to write.
While it can be difficult to truly understand why it works, I can factually say it does work. So when diving into your own activities this week, I encourage you to try adding some deep work to your regimen.
Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour.
Eliminate additional distractions from your phone or computer.
Distance yourself from other workers and people that like to work in the shallows.
Do the activity you need to put together
Then write about what you did and how it worked for you.
Working deeply can become something you can add to your daily schedule, or build your entire life around the way writer Cal Newport did. He likes to brag about never having a social media account in his life. So while the full brand of deep work may not be possible for many of us yet, it can help us to bar the less helpful bits and dive into the second half of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World when building your own deep work habit.