Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
So, yeah, like most other people in creative and knowledge-work fields, I finally broke down and read Cal Newport’s DEEP WORK. I may actually have actively avoided the book for a while.
Being told you’re doing it wrong is good and practical and rewarding but nobody actually enjoys it. I wanted to read this book but I knew full well it would be sixty thousand words of you’re doing it wrong.
Newport knows this, and sweetens the top of the book with good stories as examples:
Jung built a tower out of stone in the woods to promote deep work in his professional life—a task that required time, energy, and money. It also took him away from more immediate pursuits.
Jung would rise at seven a.m., Currey reports, and after a big breakfast he would spend two hours of undistracted writing time in his private office. His afternoons would often consist of meditation or long walks in the surrounding countryside. There was no electricity at the Tower, so as day gave way to night, light came from oil lamps and heat from the fireplace. Jung would retire to bed by ten p.m. “The feeling of repose and renewal that I had in this tower was intense from the start,” he said.
The master of this kind of deep work was Georges Simenon, who would lock himself away for ten days to blast out a novel. It was, in fact, the only way he knew how to write a novel, and at the end of each day his shirt would be soaked through with sweat from the sheer calorific burn of that much sustained mentation. It’s since been documented that chess masters burn up to 6000 calories on a tournament day from just thinking.
The book is a dissection of, and a set of codified action sets and responses to, the concept of deep work. Newport’s pitch is that very few people actually do deep work any more, and yet deep work retains an immense cultural value regardless. In a world where a thirty-second TikTok now counts as meaningful cultural production, it may in fact have more value than ever, not least because so few people do it now.
DEEP WORK, as much as anything else, invites you to examine how you do work — by which he really means, how you think — and to ask whether it’s changed over the years, and whether you can do it better, and offers ways to consider switching things up. Don’t think of the book as production-oriented. Look at it as thinking-oriented.
He’s aiming for a particular sector when he frames it as “professional activities,” but try reading that book as a filter for how you take in and give back information and it becomes a hell of a lot more universal and useful.
The tools Newport suggests are interesting, but not One Size Fits All. Don’t treat it like a manual – take the pieces that seem relevant to you, and perform experiments with the rest to see if you’re missing anything before you discard them for good. The definitions of deep work, shallow work and the limits of deep work are, on their own, useful materials.
There was actually a serious holy shit moment for me, and it was this:
…the Zeigarnik effect. This effect, which is named for the experimental work of the early-twentieth-century psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, describes the ability of incomplete tasks to dominate our attention.
This is such a real thing for me, but I’d never seen it defined like that before. Which, given how much training I’ve done over the last year or two to recognise and release intrusive thoughts, was kind of a shock.
And, as related to my ramble up top:
…the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
A valuable, enjoyable written book, this, salted with little gems of anecdote and historical example. And, if it dissolves into lists of actions towards the end, well, it’s written first for an audience trained to look for actionables and deliverables. Don’t let that put you off. And don’t wait as long as I did.