ICE Book Review – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

By: Rob Cooney (@EMEducation)

What we’re reading this month…

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His first book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You explored the idea that “pursuing your passion” is actually detrimental to becoming effective and leading a fulfilled life. His premise is that, early in your career, you do not understand what you’re actually passionate about. Rather, by working hard and developing a skill set that made you stand out from your peers, you would instead develop passion while becoming a recognized expert within your domain.

In his new book, Deep Work, Dr. Newport expands upon these ideas and provides the reader with a manual that seeks to provide methods for gaining that expertise. Dr. 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” (Page 3).

He contrasts this with shallow work, “non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts to tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate “(page 6).

Dr. Newport believes the deep work is a skill that can be learned and must be practiced in order to become effective at accomplishing this style of work. He also believes that our hyper-distracted society opens up the door to significant opportunity for those who develop and master the ability to “go deep”.

In the opening chapters, Dr. Newport explores the changing work landscape. As we shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy, workers must develop new skill sets. In order to succeed in this new economy, workers must develop the ability to quickly master difficult tasks while producing high quality thinking faster than their peers. For knowledge workers, this translates into developing their ability to “learn and apply” faster than the competition.  This, in turn, allows the knowledge worker to increase their value to their organization. Deep work is also rare. Knowledge workers are plagued with distraction and the misperception that “busyness” is being productive.

In the second half of the book, Dr. Newport explains his “rules” for deep work success. Each of these rules is explored in depth as the book continues. These are:

Rule #1:  Work Deeply

The first rule focuses on methods to add routines and rituals into the working life in order to minimize distraction and fight the limited willpower that most of us possess. He also describes “philosophies” the other deep workers have developed that help them work deeply.

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

The second chapter explains the dangers of multitasking and why a deep worker must allow “boredom” in their work in order to go deep.

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

His third rule has garnered a lot of attention by the lay press. In fairness, he is actually referring to social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. As he explains, these sites hire psychologists to figure out how best to lure the user into frequently interacting with their products in order to sell revenue via advertising. Instead, Dr. Newport urges us to adopt a cost-value approach to interacting with these sites. Currently, many people argue that they should use the site because they can identify “a possible benefit” while ignoring the possible detrimental effects that continued distraction might create. Instead, Dr. Newport urges us to ask whether the positive impacts outweigh the negative impacts. I found this to be a particularly interesting chapter as the #FOAMed movement has evolved via social media and the argument that a community of practice has been created via social media tools such as Twitter.  If this is indeed true, then should academics embrace Twitter?

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

The final rule explores methods for reducing routine shallow work. These include scheduling, analyzing tasks to determine depth, appropriately budgeting time, and aggressively protecting your time for deep work.

I believe that Dr. Newport has successfully made the case for why deep work matters. Educators wishing to advance their skill set will find many useful tips and tricks throughout the book in addition to several thought-provoking ideas that should prompt further reflection. I highly recommend it to all junior Clinician-Educators beginning their careers and seeking ways to add value.