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Book Review: "Deep Work", by Cal Newport

“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”

Winifred Callagher

I have two bookshelves at home: one large bookshelf in my living room for my larger reference set of books, and a much smaller bookshelf in my bedroom for the books I would want to read again and again. It helps with prioritizing. I prepopulated my smaller bookshelf with unread books I thought I might want to keep, and move them to the larger bookshelf if they’re not repeats. I think “80,000 Hours” fits that description. “Deep Work” doesn’t.

For pretty much all of high school and college, which is all the time I’ve spent readying myself for the workplace, I was a busybody – and this is not a compliment. I remember in high school, I used to memorize the words for each spelling dictation 20 minutes before the exam, and then dump the knowledge afterwards to make room for new things to memorize. During undergrad, I used to browse the web during the time that I was studying, and didn’t do as well as I could or should, which are consequences I am paying to this very day. It happened because I told myself that I should always be studying, and that no time should be allocated to rest. I ignored the reality that people will rest after being pushed to their limits regardless of whether their high-level, System 2 faculties command them to. What really ended up happening was I was resting while I was working, and that meant not only did my productivity go down through the floor, I was altering my brain long-term to not have the concentration habits I did when I was younger.

Cal Newport understands this, and expresses it very well in his book. He mentions appreciating the long-term changes to the global economy, which rewards having and using increasingly complex skills and automating away the boring, replaceable tasks, as the “Great Restructuring”. What’s important in this economy and its evolution is having the ability to learn complex things extremely quickly (e.g. machine learning academic fundamentals and applications in 1 month from having no software engineering background). This ability is like a muscle, and the only way to train it is by “Deep Work”, defined as:

“The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”

Cal differentiates between four different types of deep work:

  • A monastic-type lifestyle, such as that of Donald Knuth, who does not have an email address and responds to postal mail every three months

  • A “bimodal” or semi-monastic lifestyle, such as that of Adam Grant, the professor at Wharton, who may take several months offline to conduct deep work, then rejoin the community

  • The “rhythmic” lifesytle, like that of Brian Chappell, who works for 90 minutes every morning before an 8 hour workday

  • The “journalistic” lifestyle, where advanced deep work practitioners like Walther Issacson can “turn on” the deep work portion of their brain on a dime and use any meaningful chunk of time to fall into deep work

Cal also describes the different tradeoffs between these lifestyles, mostly based on the level of commitment you expect from your routine and the valuable results the world expects. The easiest routine to get started with appears to be the “rhythmic” lifestyle, where deep work is eased into your lifestyle with a predictable routine.

The three big takeaways I got from “Deep Work” would be:

  • Deep work is a connection to the sacred. In talking about craftsmanship as a responsible form of sacredness in individual life, Dreyfus and Kelly argue the craftsman “does not generate meaning, but rather cultivates in himself the skill of discerning meanings that are already there”. It provides an alternative to shallow work, detachment, and nihilism, which is always soul-crushing.

  • Be lazy. Because the brain only has a certain amount of directed attention available (about 4 hours a day), and because deep work only occurs in large intervals, the brain needs time to recharge between each deep work session. Otherwise, using your direct attention reserves will interfere with your ability to concentrate during your deep work sessions. In addition, problems can be tackled both from the conscious and unconscious minds, and different perspectives enhance the understanding of a problem (see Unconscious thought theory).

  • Use productive meditation. In contrast with mindfulness meditation, where you physically do nothing and mentally work to do nothing, productive meditation has you physically do something but mentally focus on something else. Say walking in a park and thinking about a system design problem. Like traditional meditation, you need to be mindful of your mind wandering off, and it takes practice to become good at it.

This book was a great buy, and I think I like Cal’s writing about as much as Jason Fried’s and David Heinemeier Hansson’s. I will look into purchasing that first book he wrote, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, and look forward to the books he will write in the future.