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Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World - Cal Newport

This is a very practical productivity book despite a big topic. The first third I found mostly worthless – it’s a long-winded sales pitch for working deeply, i.e., doing something that is intellectually challenging and requires focus. The last two-thirds though consist of practical advice, and sparked some serious thought about some of my habits. Some salient points:


- In the modern workplace, it’s often difficult for “knowledge workers” to gauge how well they are doing at their jobs, and easy to substitute the appearance of busyness (packing your schedule, quick email responses, etc.) for valuable work. But this leads to a trap where much of your work is easy rote stuff and doesn’t actually make use of your expertise.

- It can be hard to get your brain to focus on deep work, especially if you’ve trained it to reach for distraction the moment you’re a little bored or uncomfortable. For this reason, the author recommends not reaching for your phone every time you find yourself unoccupied for a few minutes (waiting in line and so on) – your instinct will be the same when asked to do something intellectually challenging. Let yourself be bored instead.

- Figure out when you can engage in deep work and schedule it. Having rituals around how you begin your work, and rules for the time when you’re doing it, can help keep you in the zone.

- It can also be helpful to keep a visible scoreboard for yourself and schedule a regular check-in to hold yourself accountable.

- You need downtime, to let you mull over things subconsciously and recharge energy. The author recommends leaving work by 5:30 (assuming a regular business schedule) and avoiding weekend work, arguing that the work done later in the evening is usually not that important and will only leave you more mentally tired.

- Schedule times when you allow distractions; schedule your day to make the best use of it. Structure your leisure time to avoid spending it just clicking low-value internet links.

- Be disciplined with use of email and social media. Even if you really do have to be regularly available by email, you can schedule regular check-in times rather than being constantly available.


A couple aspects that were less helpful to me:


- The book assumes that email and social media are massive distractions in the reader’s work and personal life, and recommends cutting back on them severely. Certain advice (not responding to unnecessary email or responding in such a way as to curtail back-and-forth; quitting social media altogether) is rather drastic if you already have a relatively healthy relationship with these tools.

- The author appears to have an unexamined but notable male-centric view of the world, and only manages to come up with a couple of female success stories in the entire book. I wondered at first if I was being overly sensitive to this before seeing that many other reviewers noticed the same.

- The anecdotes that begin most chapters are boring and can be skipped.


That said, I definitely found a lot of food for thought here and think this is a useful book overall, especially if you’re feeling overly distractible and want to add more focused, meaningful work to your life.