Work Deeper, not Harder


Best-selling author Cal Newport has written another book: Deep Work. Hardly surprising that he has written yet another, if you know what the book is about: working deeper and just getting more done as a result of it. I suppose the publication of the book itself can be seen as evidence towards his method being a success. Well, before judging too harshly, let’s dive in deeper.


What’s Deep? And what’s not? Let’s kick off with the definition of deep work. Deep work is “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” It seems much in line with Nike’s Just do it! Or my personal favourite: let’s just get this over with.

In itself deep work isn’t a new concept. This becomes evident throughout the book as well, as Newport brings up historical examples from Carl Jung (the psychologist) to Teddy Roosevelt (the US president). Of course, the book is riddled with beaten-to-death examples such as Bill Gates, but that just seems to be unavoidable when discussing successful people. But in general, Newport admits to not having invented the very concept. What he does seem to claim is its explanation of success in the 20th and 21st century, in which the best approach to work is to shut down e-mail and social media, and get cracking!

As you might have been able to gather from the previous sentence, e-mail and social media are not considered “deep.” They are in fact considered shallow. Shallow tasks are those that are not considered to create much new value, that are easy to replicate, and often performed while distracted. So yeah, e-mail is guilty of being shallow, and Facebook can fuck right off as well.


Going Deep So how does one go “deep”? Carl Jung might have built a stone tower somewhere in the woods to get work done, and J.K. Rowling might have rented herself a very expensive suite in a five-star hotel in Edinburgh to look out over its castle, but this is not for everyone. So, let’s tone it down a bit.

It seems that step 1 is to just shut out all possible distractions. If you don’t need the internet, shut it down. Flight mode on everything. Now this might be a bit too hardcore for most, and for some professions this isn’t really an option. But going without Facebook pop-ups and constant slews of e-mails would allow you to concentrate on one task at a time. A nightmare for an ADHD sufferer, but a relief for most people who just need to get their projects done, and would like to have a workweek that isn’t exceeding 50 hours. So, start with just shutting it down for a couple of hours, until you make for lunch.

If your work doesn’t allow for living an offline life, implement step 2: you are going to have to put aside specific hours to engage in shallow work: so e-mails, social media promotion, parts of collaborative work, admin., etc. But when you finish those (or have just reached the end of your time limit), it’s shutting all of that out again, and going back into the deep work, with effectively no distractions.

If you are starting to feel this is backfiring (you now have 1000 unanswered e-mails, that are in fact neither SPAM nor BACON and you are starting to panic), you might need to adjust the expectations of e-mail. Newport does mention it. Our e-mail addresses can be found anywhere, especially if you are well-known and/or successful. People will always want part of your time. Question is, are you willing to give it? You are under absolutely no obligation to e-mail back a stranger asking for help, if their request has nothing to do with your work, would not benefit you at all and would take up a lot of your time. Just ignore it. There is no negative consequence of doing so, so why not? My supervisor adheres by this principle: if it’s important enough, they’ll continue to reach out and you will see their e-mails multiple times, get the hint and reply accordingly. So, there is that.

So yeah, a full state of concentration, where you can work on one task without interruption. That’s deep work for you. Should work, as an increased focus tends to help most. That is of course, if your job revolves around producing this type of product/outcome. If you are a manager who’s goal it is to keep your team (or department) going, without having to produce tangible work yourself, the offline life where you are inaccessible to others might not be for you. But for a (assistant) professor trying to produce and publish a lot of high-quality research articles, it might make the goal of receiving tenure much more feasible.


Current Society Critique You could read Newport’s book as a critique of contemporary society as well. He does mention that employers increasingly expect people to be reachable (colleagues, family, friends, fans and tutees are just as guilty of this) ALL THE TIME, across a variety of media platforms. A stream of constant e-mails, (social) work updates, meetings and open-plan offices (where anyone can approach and interrupt you) feature heavily in his book as disrupters of deep work. And they are. Because if you get distracted, getting back into a cognitively challenging task, takes a lot more time than falling out of it. So, this in itself makes a good point: if you want your workers to produce assets that require a lot of deep work, maybe constantly bombarding them with stimuli that distract rather than fuel productivity with these bullshit open-plan, “fun” offices and updates is not the way to go.

Conclusion The message from working smarter, more creatively, more out of the box, or in this case deeper, is all the same: you are doing it wrong and you could do it better. You could be producing higher quantity and quality work. Because that is seemingly what it is all about, producing more and better. God forbid we just want to live. If you ask me this is, although a nice read, such a common sense book. You can ask a first-year-undergraduate student how they think they’d improve their ability to study (go deeper I guess) and they’ll come up with this themselves. As a fact, my friends and I did figure this out during undergrad. Hell, I’m sure we came up with this when high school homework became a bit higher maintenance. What irks me the most about deep work (or this book in general) is that initially you are promised to be able to stick to a normal working day, instead of having to add on more hours to go deep(er). You just need to cut out the shallow. But one of the examples in the book clearly states that one man (there'll be many like him) is unable to reduce the amount of shallow work in his job (meetings, e-mails, more meetings, online promotion etc.). As such, what he does is get up very early, and do his deep work from 5 am till 7:30 am. And that just goes against everything we have been told so far. It's so contradictory to the initial promise, it's a total fail.

Do I, as a result of all this, actively discourage you from reading this book? Nah. It’s only about 260 pages in a big letter font and size, so you should be alright. Unless you are pressed for time already. In that case, just shut down the internet and get to your actual work. Nike had it right. Just do it. Without distractions.

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