On My Bedside Table is a book review series that wants to make sure that the best books are read over and over again. Find out more about the series here.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport (2016)
Try this exercise: Calculate how many minutes, or seconds, between now and the next alert that shows up on your phone. During the writing of this article, I happened to receive about five text messages between the time I started and finished the first sentence.
Here is the plight of our modern life: We are dinged, pinged, alerted, and notified on our phone, tablet, laptop, and desktop. The rest of the time, we tap on app icons and scroll away with our thumbs. Those that vie for our micro attention are doing whatever they can to consume our silent moments and make boredom extinct. And truthfully, the fun is quite addicting.
“This state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking.”
That sentence comes from Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Newport defines deep work as:
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.
Deep Work’s preoccupation is not on becoming a Luddite or a digital hermit. Rather, its focus lies in improving our ability to focus, so that we can gain new skills quickly and effectively, and produce valuable work. It’s about creating an environment and a lifestyle conducive to achieving flow—a state of mind so focused that you don’t feel time passing—as much as possible, and training our mind to get into that mode easily.
Newport makes practical—as opposed to moral—arguments for deep work. Those who train their minds for depth can take advantage of a culture that trends toward shallow, busy work. In an economy that relies on increasingly complex and continuously changing systems, the art of mastering new skills nets high value. The more you master this art, the more differentiated you are from the rest of the workforce, the more valuable, and indispensable, you are to your organisation.
The best part of the book, in my opinion, is Newport’s practical advice to creating a lifestyle optimized for depth. Understanding that each line of work has its own pace and communication styles (i.e., email habits), Newport adapts his recommendations to several types of working environment. His tips span from the micro, like how to schedule every minute of your day without being uptight and burning out, writing emails that prompt thoughtful responses and minimise unnecessary back and forth replies, to the macro, like structuring your yearly schedule for deep work.
I would venture to guess, safely, that readers of this blog don’t need to be convinced of the importance of depth. As a people who strive to guard quiet, reflective, personal time, we feel the extreme pull of distractions. The question is, how do we resist, effectively. This book proposes some good answers.
Josephine Elia Loi is a chemical engineer working in the energy industry. She is an avowed lifelong learner and bibliophile. She blogs at www.josephineelia.com.If you enjoyed this review, you can continue this train of thought here and here.