Book review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

This book, like countless others, has been on my to-read list for too long. If I had known it would take me less than a week to read, I would have read it sooner – mostly because it confirmed what I already knew about the benefits of deeply concentrating, without distractions, on one cognitively demanding article at a time. But also because it gave me a few tips and ideas about how to get better at this practice.

The biggest takeout for me from Deep Work by Cal Newport was scheduling. Scheduling time for deep work and scheduling Internet breaks and sticking to both, no matter what.

Scheduling deep work

Cal argues that, when it comes to consistently producing great work, design is more powerful than willpower. The latter is finite and quickly depleted by the endless stream of emails and social messaging we’re bombarded with every minute. Once all your willpower is used up, you might as well call it a day because you’re not going to be very productive.

Creativity doesn’t happen only when motivation strikes, which is seldom and always at the most inconvenient times. The best way to boost creativity is to design it, says Cal. That means scheduling time in your diary for deep work – every day. It’s an appointment that you make with yourself and one you really should stick to.

I’ve woken up at 4:30am for as long as I can remember. By the time I’ve made coffee, meditated and let the dogs out for a pee, it’s 5am and I’m ready to start writing. I get my best work done between 5 and 7am, when the house is quiet and there are no distractions.

Except for hadedas in the summertime. I fantasise about a bug catching in their throats mid-squawk.

I generally reserve this time for client work. They are paying me, after all, and deserve my best attention. And, as a freelance writer who works from home, those golden hours are sacred to me. I can get my most pressing task for the day done and dusted before the house descends into toddler and puppy chaos.

But I would be lying if I said that I didn’t allow distractions to creep into my focus time. I always start the day by checking emails, logging into my Internet banking to see if anyone has paid me, or – my biggest nemesis – being seduced by that stupid Hey Day farming game that I can’t get enough of.

Last week, however, I took Cal’s advice and did none of the above. I sat down at my desk and immediately opened my biggest writing assignment for the day and got cracking. I was amazed by how much I ticked off my to-do list this week. I even wrote this blog. I hardly ever write for myself these days, so this gives me a great feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment. I also started a ‘close the loop’ list, but that’s a post for another day.

I found that I had more time on my hands. But rather than defaulting to social media or Hey Day, I used that time to read, do a bit of yoga, or close the loop on something that had been nagging me for a while.

How to Start?

Cal suggests scheduling one hour of deep work into your day with the aim of building up to a maximum of four. Put your phone on airplane mode, put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door if you need to, close your browser, and just write. Or draw. Or study. Or do whatever mentally demanding task you need to do. Social media will still be there when you’re done.

For one, undisturbed hour, just concentrate. You might be amazed at how quickly it passes.

Scheduling Internet blocks

Cal argues that we’ve lost the art of being bored. Every free minute we have, we reach for our phones and mindlessly scroll through social media, achieving little.

We need to learn how to be bored again – and to enjoy it. I’m guilty of whipping out my phone when waiting in the queue at DisChem. But if I had allocated those 20 minutes to what Cal calls productive meditation– spending time thinking about an article or issue – I might have come up with an amazing angle, which I can develop in my next deep work session.

Productive meditation is even more important if it falls within a self-imposed Internet block.These periods of, say, one hour, also need to be scheduled if you’re going to stick to them, says Cal. The idea of an Internet block is that, for one hour, you cannot do anything that requires connectivity – no responding to mails, no social media browsing, no news scrolling, no Whatsapping. Put your phone in another room and forget about it for an hour. Try to do this twice a day (not when you’re sleeping, obvs. That just defeats the purpose). Internet blocks need to be scheduled at times that you probably would be checking mails.

I’ve scheduled my blocks during my golden hours of 5 to 7am and again from 4 to 5pm so that I can spend quality, undistracted time with my daughter. It’s forcing me to be present. To look at the clouds while Ayva runs around outside, rather than looking at my phone and missing the moment that she kisses a flower.

No matter how bored you get, resist the pull of the smartphone! Breathe, think, learn to enjoy being bored. Again, this has to be designed. Schedule your Internet blocks into your diary and stick to them. If you do it when you remember, it’s not likely to become a habit and you won’t experience the benefits of boredom.

The main idea is that, by regularly scheduling deep work into your day, you’ll produce more high-quality work in less time. And the more you produce, the better you’ll get at your craft. A lot of this work will be mediocre at best but I’m holding out for Cal’s promise that, one day, I’ll produce a masterpiece.

Deep work is a skill that’s becoming increasingly valuable but also increasingly rare among knowledge workers, says Cal. And as technology gets better at distracting us from the things that really matter, we need to retrain ourselves to focus, so that we can learn new skills and create meaningful work. It’s the only way we’ll survive as the machines get better at doing most things than we can.

Not sure you want to read the book? Start with this excerpt.

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