Cal Newport’s previous book “So good they can’t ignore you” is my all time favourite book on career building. Newport is an academic in computer science, but has made a tidy little side career in writing productivity books. I bought ‘Deep Work’ as soon as it came out and enjoyed it, but was so busy being productive on other projects that I had not got around to doing a review when Imogen Matthews sent me hers. I liked her take, and it certainly aligned with my views, so I was thankful that someone had done the review for me!

Imogen Mathew is a PhD candidate in Australian Literature at the Australian National University. Her thesis explores how Anita Heiss’s chick lit creates a more diverse, inclusive and glamorous Australia. She tweets at @ImogenMathew.

In a recent blog post entitled “How to Stop Flipping”, the Thesis Whisperer outlined the dangers of flipping between tasks without progressing on any of them. Her suggestion was to write a detailed and time bound to-do list, using the example of the literature review. The second dot point advised students to “look in your diary for stretches of uninterrupted time of at least 2 hours, but not more than four. Mark them as dedicated to your literature review”. The phrase “deep reading” recurred often throughout her list.

The Thesis Whisperer’s focus on deep reading provides a neat segue into my discussion of Cal Newport’s recently published Deep Work. Newport is a highly successful computer scientist at Georgetown University. Alongside his academic work, he has written a number of self-help guides for students in secondary and tertiary education: How to Win at College, How to Become a Straight-A Student, How to Be a High School Superstar, So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Titles like these make me feel uncomfortable and reinforce my reservations about the genre as a whole: in my view, self-help books operate on the assumption of deficiency, they are prescriptive and often read as clumsy attempts to deal with complex problems. I probably wouldn’t have read Deep Work if a friend of mine hadn’t told me about it over lunch earlier this year.

Newport divides professional work into two categories: deep and shallow. Deep work encompasses “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”. A PhD, in other words.

Newport presents deep work as a state under constant threat from its enemy, shallow work: “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate”.

Shallow work could designate many different tasks: data-entry, committee work and time spent on network and social media applications (email, twitter, facebook etc.).

Newport’s advances his argument along two, inter-related lines. The first relates to the impact of technology on the economy and the corresponding mechanisation of jobs: as machines learn to do an increasing number of tasks better than humans, employability becomes correspondingly specialised. As the capacity for deep work is not easily replicable by machines, humans who have this capacity will be well-placed for employment now and into the future. Deep work further advantages its adherents through an “ability to quickly master hard things” and “produce at an elite level in terms of both quality and speed”

Newport divides Deep Work into two parts, beginning with ‘The Idea’ (deep work is meaningful, valuable and rare) before elaborating on ‘The Rules’: work deeply, embrace boredom, quit social media and drain the shallows (be ruthless, in other words, in the amount of time allocated to admin, emails, meetings and social media). Deep work should be so cognitively demanding that it cannot be sustained longer than four hours – after that point, we head into brain mush. Those new to deep work may only manage one hour.

For regular readers of the Thesis Whisperer blog, this is not new advice. Shut Up and Write, the Pomodoro technique and Thesis Boot Camps are all built around these principles. If we know all of this already, it’s fair to ask what possible value there is in a book such as Deep Work.

Newport’s contribution is situating the ability to engage in cognitively demanding work within existing and future economies. Transposition of Newport’s argument to the world of the PhD candidate reads something like this: it’s worthwhile cultivating deep work habits not only because they will help you get things done, but also because they will be an asset in the post-PhD marketplace.

For me, Deep Work provided a welcome opportunity to review and refine my study skills. Newport’s demarcation of deep from shallow work functions as a convenient heuristic for categorising the different tasks involved in producing a doctoral thesis. I felt challenged, in a good way, to work on the knotty and demanding questions woven into my research and to do this in a disciplined, distraction-free state.

In my spare time I work as a gym instructor, and in much the same way that I encourage others to push beyond their limits (“you are stronger than you think!”), I felt that Newport pushed his readers to curb tendencies towards distraction and to engage in an intimate—not to mention uncomfortable—relationship with their intellectual potential.

Newport’s disdain for social media will not be for everyone, nor his advocacy of a purposefully distant approach to email and administration. He concedes that this type of shallow work is inescapable but urges readers to limit it to the absolute periphery of their schedule.

The strategies promoted by Newport may appear to contradict findings from the Thesis Whisperer on academic employability: that to be a successful academic today you need to be as strong in the ‘shallows’ as you are in the deep. And this means using social network tools to connect and engage within the academy and beyond. Yet these contradictions are not as worrying as they seem: Newport would likely respond that by committing to deep work (and remembering that this is never going to exceed a maximum of four out of eight working hours) PhD students can make time for the ‘other stuff’ too.

A far more disturbing element to the book for me was its gender politics. Almost every example featured a male protagonist to illustrate the virtues of deep work. Male scholars provided the primary theoretical ballast to Newport’s argument. I couldn’t help feeling that Newport had imbibed and regurgitated the unhelpful equation that deep work equals brilliance equals male. Women were present on the periphery, stranded in the shallows of Newport’s consciousness.

Thanks Imogen! A very thoughtful review I think you will agree. Have you read ‘Deep Work’? What do you think? How do you create distraction free time in your schedule?

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