Deep Work, by Cal Newport

I came across Deep Work around a year ago. It was a great time to find out about the book: I was the course director for two undergraduate degrees at Cass and it was becoming difficult to deal with all the work. More than that, it was difficult to combine the nature of the different types of work: research, on one hand, requiring patience, motivation, and trial and error. And a job such as course director on the other hand, which meant dealing with the latest problems that appeared. Not that we had a lot of problems, just the regular amount. In any case, I realised how much my job—the research part—needs deep work. And, more importantly, how little of it I was doing.

Since then, I have been trying—and succeeding more often than not—to schedule blocks of at least two hours to work without interruptions daily. No checking email, no checking web browser, nothing. This means that there is no dopamine release during that period—that is, there is no short-term compensation—but it is the way to make actual progress. The pace at which I am able to work has improved; while still far from my target, the difference between 2017-18 and 2018-19 is significant.

The author of Deep Work is Cal Newport, a Millennial computer scientist that does not have a Facebook account. Deep Work is a book about work that requires deep concentration. In the hyper-connected environment of today, which extends to the work places—hot desks, instant messaging—it turns out that deep work is becoming more and more valuable. This might not always be clear. I have been told, for instance, that I take too long to answer emails sometimes. I have also been asked to put my name in my Twitter account. All these from my colleagues. But it turns out that what institutions end up valuing is what is produced through deep work.

This realisation seems trivial. But what is less trivial is to realise how much of our day-to-day job departs from this principle. Dopamine is again partially to blame: the satisfaction of completing tasks makes us feel better. But it accomplishes very little and, importantly, does not increase our long-term satisfaction. Not at all.

The tension, however, is clear. Some time ago, in a different institution, I remember attending a training about time management and the difference between urgent and important work. Cal Newport talks about deep vs shallow work, but the tension arises from the fact that shallow seems to correlate with (perceived) urgency, while deep and important go usually together.

The book provides evidence from research about the productivity problems from switching tasks constantly and working in a state of semi-distraction. It also provides tricks to overcome these issues. Maybe the most important is “the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches”. This is what many high performance intellectuals, such as Adam Grant, from Wharton, do.

I could talk a lot more about this. I think it is a topic that links to the lack of meaning that many people of my generation are facing. It links to recent advances in neuroscience which allows us to understand ourselves better. It links to the concept of flow, and how fulfilling it is. But this is not the place and there are thoughts that are still under development. The book is great, I highly recommend it especially if your job involved a significant amount of intellectual work.

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1 Response to Deep Work, by Cal Newport

  1. Beautifully written post , thoroughly enjoyed.I too had the privilege of reading this book and had an amazing experience.The mention of myelinated neutrons , oligodendrocytes their relationship to deep Work is amazing.The central theme which resonated with me is that no matter how much quick fix we do while taking part in the rat race , to do something magical needs focus and attention in isolation..,.

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