Book Review: Deep Work

4 minute read (917 words)

TL;DR: Read this Book, when…

  • you want to get more productive at knowledge work (yes, software development is knowledge work!)
  • you feel like you’re drowning in “shallow” work like e-mails and phone calls
  • you need arguments to defend a change of work style towards your colleagues and your boss
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Overview

In his book “Deep Work”, Cal Newport gives a name to the productive state of “flow” most of us like to attain at work but which we can rarely maintain for more than a couple minutes when the next emergency interrupts our train of thought.

Newport defines “Deep Work” as:

Deep Work: 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.”

The book is all about how to create an environment in which Deep Work is possible and how to reduce the time spent on “Shallow Work”:

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.”

The book is structured in two parts. The first part motivates Deep Work in stating that Deep Work is valuable, rare and meaningful. The second part describes four rules that help to facilitate Deep Work.

Likes & Dislikes

As you might guess from the use of words like “noncognitively demanding” in the above definition of Shallow Work, Cal Newport is an academic. And he lets us know that he is a very successful one on every other page of the book. The writing style is pleasantly conversational, however.

Newport tells a lot of anecdotes about his own academic work and about that of other important people in the world. The anecdotes always prove a certain point, so they definitely serve a purpose. In my opinion, however, the points could have been proven with less anecdotes and with less words, as the anecdotes take up a significant share of the text.

The book starts a little slow. I had some trouble staying motivated through the first part which goes into details about why Deep Work is important. The chapters are very long, with sub-headings in between. I like it better if chapters are short and I can read through them in a single session.

The second part of the book was worth every cent, however. It provides very actionable tips on how to plan for Deep Work and how to make the best of the time you set aside for it.

Key Takeaways

The second part of the book is full of tips on doing Deep Work. Here are my key takeaways in no particular order:

  • Schedule time for Deep Work, ideally in a rhythmic fashion to establish a habit.
  • Schedule every minute of your day in order to keep shallow distractions at bay.
  • Consciously decide for every entry in your schedule if it’s deep or shallow to set the mood.
  • Take breaks from focus - don’t take breaks from distraction. Schedule breaks from focused work regularly.
  • Set impossible deadlines. The only way to keep an impossible deadline is focused work.
  • Give yourself a budget of Shallow Work and don’t overspend it.
  • Ritualize where you work and how you work. Create rules that help you to focus.
  • Quit social media because it’s a shallow distraction.
  • Be hard to reach to avoid shallow distractions.
  • You needn’t be alone for Deep Work. Collaborative Deep Work is possible (Newport calls it the “Whiteboard Effect”). This doesn’t mean that Open Space is the best office layout, though.
  • Execute like a business. Focus on the important, measure your deep work time and results and keep track of them on a scoreboard, and do a regular review. This is called the “4 Disciplines of Execution” (4DX) Framework
  • Have a weekly rendezvous with yourself to review your achievements and plan out the next week.
  • Don’t extend your work day into the evening to do Deep Work, because it’s most likely not productive.
  • Establish a “shutdown ritual” to follow every day after work in which you check the status of today’s tasks and your calendar for the next day. This helps to free your mind to let go until the next day.
  • Take downtimes away from work seriously. They help to recharge.
  • Meditate productively on Deep Work problems when running, driving, or otherwise not mentally engaged.
  • Identify the high-level goals you want to reach and the key activities that help you reach them.

Conclusion

Even though I don’t particularly like the anecdotal writing style, “Deep Work” was very enlightening. Once through the book, I started to apply some of the tips and successfully created a habit of doing deep work every morning before work which allowed me to write most of my e-book, prepare and hold two conference talks and write articles that tripled the visitors to my blog - all within about 5 months.

I definitely recommend it for anyone who is interested in creating a productive environment for cognitively demanding work.

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