Deep Work - Cal NewportAs part of building my time management (managing yourself and your priorities) workshops I spent over 100 hours researching best practice. One of the many books, articles and research papers I read was a book by American computer science Professor Cal Newport. His book is called Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Newport draws a distinction between deep and shallow work as follows:

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.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

He then presents an hypothesis:

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Newport presents his case for why deep work is becoming increasingly valuable. One of his core arguments is that work is changing quickly through the impact of technology and the ability to quickly learn new skills and adapt to new ways of working (often in conjunction with machines) is critical for success. He believes that deep work is required to quickly learn new skills. He also believes that deep work helps you produce at an elite level. His own impressive output of research papers seems to support this.

In explaining why deep working is becoming increasingly rare Newport places much of the blame at the feet of social media and smart phones. He believes (and he presents some evidence to support his belief) that our love affair with social media and smart phones has meant we are unwittingly training our brains to love distraction and that as a result they are getting rewired in a way that makes it really hard to focus for an extended period. It’s an argument I find quite compelling.

Four philosophies for integrating deep work into your professional life

Newport explains four philosophies:

  1. Monastic
  2. Bimodal
  3. Rhythmic
  4. Journalistic

I’ll let you read the book to get the detail of these, but I will say that the rhythmic philosophy is the most likely to work for most people inside an accounting and advisory firm. This philosophy argues that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a simple regular habit. The goal, in other words, is to generate a rhythm for this work that removes the need for you to invest energy in deciding if and when you’re going to go deep.

Newport provides a range of tips on how to put yourself in a position to do deep work including how you deal with emails, social media and other interruptions.

Newport says his commitment to deep work is not philosophical but pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester. He notes however it requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits. He thinks it is worth it because it is transformative in a very positive way.

Should you read this book? Short answer – yes.  I found it to be very interesting and it raises some important questions about how changes in technology are impacting on how we work and even how our brains evolve. And it has some useful tips.

It’s available on Amazon here:

If you’d like to talk to me about running workshops at your firm on time and priority management, I’d be pleased to hear from you. [email protected] That way you can take advantage of the 100+ hours I’ve invested so you don’t have to. That’s got to be great use of your time!