Thoughts on ‘Deep Work’

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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15 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘Deep Work’

  1. Great review Imogen, thanks! The distinction between shallow and deep work is an important one, and I agree with your final summation. Shallow work is a big part of what I need to do on a daily basis and can’t be so summarily dismissed but with the 4 hour deep work maximum, well, as you say, there’s plenty of time for both. Reading this was also a great confirmation that deep work isn’t really possible for huge tracts of time. It certainly hasn’t been possible for me – my brain starts to fry beyond a certain point and that can be as little as an hour some days.

    • Yes – I have benefitted from tracking my periods of ‘deep work’. This week I have averaged about an hour and half a day. Clearly room for improvement, but I wonder what parts of my job wouldn’t get done if there wasn’t more shallow work. Actually, even the naming of some work as ‘deep’ and other (family / relational) work as ‘shallow is deeply problematic.

  2. Great review! I read this book at the beginning of my PhD and had mixed feelings. I found “The Rules” useful and a good reminder of how to work smarter. However the style in the first half of the book was off-putting…too much pseudoscience for me (my usual gripe with self-help books).
    I do love his 30 minute schedule and end of the day to-do list concepts and have used them almost every day for the past 18 months. I’ve also tried to institute email-free hours where I shut my email down and concentrate on work but even over a year later I still find this hard to do.

  3. I very much enjoyed your review, Imogen. I was especially interested in your observation on the gender politics. My field of research is Victorian literature, where Anthony Trollope is often held up as a fine example of deep work. He’d rise early in the morning and spend a couple of hours writing diligently before heading off to his day job with the Post Office. Of course, like most middle-class men in the nineteenth century, he had a stay-at-home wife and servants.

    Victorian women writers (who are my area of interest) are usually described as working on the corner of the dining table in snatched moments. They must be available to their families at all times, and it’s unthinkable that they might enjoy a dedicated space or a couple of hours with no responsibilities.

    I think this attitude persists. Many female PhD students tell me that they must answer every text message from family members, no matter how unimportant. And it’s unthinkable for them to hide in the library for even half a day. In some cases, their work is seen as a distraction from the family, rather than something that might be to its ultimate benefit.

    • Thank you for this review, Imogen! I think you’ve provided a balanced and thorough perspective, and I particularly appreciated your insights into the gender representation.

      Catherine’s comment above really resonated with me. It’s not uncommon to be met with condescending/ignorant questions about returning to study (I’m a mother of two), and responses of “oh, I could never have done that – my children meant everything to me, they were my top priority”, particularly by women in my mother’s generation.

      But, I’m extremely glad to see this perception shifting.
      The sooner women/mothers are positively portrayed in an academic context in common literature, the better!

  4. YES! I’m relieved to see I wasn’t the only one to be disturbed by the gender politics of this book – other times I’ve commented on this people dismiss it or say ‘but he talks about JK Rowling…’ but I found the overwhelming ‘maleness’ really annoying and distracting from the main points (which are useful) He also barely acknowledges all the other ‘stuff’ that go into juggling a career and a life, and the attitude of ‘just ignore your emails’ leads me to wonder who in his department picks up his slack so that he can do deep work. Again, his key points are useful and sound but I really didn’t enjoy the book overall. If anyone has time, I’d be interested to see what a PhD student thinks of Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours as an alternative guide to making the most of your time.

  5. Totally agree with the reviews. PhD student with 3 kids (and fantastic husband), and I use the concept of ‘deep work’ as a way to focus my pockets of time when I have them – don’t spend the ‘best time’ answering emails, putting on a load of washing, etc. Although I agree that “shallow” is not a great alternative, I think of it as low-intensity focus time vs deep work. And, by the way, Laura Vanderkam’s “I know how she does it” is a great time-management book (similar to her other one) based on women’s experiences in high level positions which debunks some of the ‘myths’ about the costs to women and family life in these situations.

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  9. Thanks for this review, Imogen. Cal Newport seems to suffer from a deficiency of self-awareness. I bought his last book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, after it was recommended on this blog. Same issue – all bar one of the ‘experts’ he profiles in the book are men. White men. And he even uses gendered language like ‘Craftsman Mindset’. I hesitate to place the blame on anyone but Newport himself, but I’m surprised that his editors haven’t picked up on this problem since he is a repeat offender.

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