Book Review: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Deep Work book cover

Book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Author: Cal Newport

 Reviewed by: Leah Parkhill Reilly

The Premise:  Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport is perhaps known in the business world less for his innovations in the world of computing science (although I have no doubt there are many as he’s quite prolific) but more for his insights in the science of how to get into that state of deep “flow”.  In this very timely two-part book, Newport lays out the argument for why “deep work” is critical now more than ever and how anyone can structure their work and career to move into a state of flow more readily. The first half of the book Newport makes the argument for why, and this ranges from the extrinsic and pragmatic factors to the more intrinsic, self-actualization motivators. He delves into how deep work can create competitive advantage both for businesses and individuals as it’s valuable and rare in a world where attention is increasingly fragmented between meetings, to-do lists and social media. He also pulls in research from neuroscience and positive psychology to make the case for how deep work helps individuals tap into a greater sense of meaning and joy rather than being “human routers of information managing inboxes”.  The second half of the book is devoted to four rules for making deep work do-able in (almost) any career. These rules fit in the category of “easier said than done” and ranged from the way one structures their workday, to the environment one works in, to the choices one makes in their downtime to preserve and not drain brain capacity. There were a few situations where Newport allowed that deep work is intensely challenging, namely being a CEO of a large organization however even then, space for deep thinking work is critical.

The Bottomline:  I really enjoyed this book. On a personal note, it made me think about how I’m structuring my calendar and how much control I’m ceding that could be productive working time. While this wasn’t a new concept, what was new was naming the residual attention drain. I’ve noticed it in myself after I’ve been in a day of back-to-back meetings or continually managing the email inbox.  It made me reflect about how many hours do get flushed and the simple steps I can take to regain more headspace – which has benefits both for me and my organization. This book is particularly good for leaders who are pushing the “everyone needs to be in the office because that’s how collaboration happens” message. Survey says, wrong. The data consistently shows that workers need space both to collaborate but also a quiet space to put their heads down and think. Open office plans do not help with thinking. They create constant distraction keeping knowledge workers in “the shallows” (e.g. tactical work like email management). This work might feel productive but it’s perhaps not the “deep work” you might want them doing (e.g. writing an RFP, developing a presentation, creating a detailed project plan, analyzing data for insights).

Recommendation: Recommended for anyone who feels like they have a cotton-brain after a day of back-to-back meetings and/or is staring down an overly crowded inbox. Great kick-in-the-pants to reassess both what work is critical and how work is getting done.

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