Book review: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Is it ironic or awesome that I’m writing this in a focused 30 minute burst?!

A few weeks ago I realized that multiple bloggers I read had read and commented on Deep Work, by Cal Newport. I’m a big believer in the value of single-tasking and focus, and last summer I had a week-long experience with shingles that convinced me I needed to get less distraction in my life – so I picked up a copy of the book myself, in hopes of a few new ideas.

The summary: it’s changing how I approach focus, and that’s a good thing.

Often I find that business and productivity books are skimmable; all too often, someone takes a three-page idea and turns it into two hundred pages of content. Happily, that’s not the case with Deep Work; I found the whole thing to be worth reading.

The premise: focus and deep work are worthwhile because, professionally and personally speaking, they are a competitive advantage.

The challenge: we (ie, modern humans with access to cellphones, power, and data plans) exist in a context very likely to erode our ability to focus and do that deep work that will help us do whatever it is we’re trying to do (including, unfortunately, figure out what we’re trying to do!).

The approach: build focus and deep work into our lives, using several of a variety of techniques adapted to our specific situations.

Okay, that said, here’s how the techniques break down, specifically as I’m using them:

  • Find a rhythm that works. Tempting as it is to carve out three straight hours every morning starting at eight a.m., I work a lot with New York and India teams, which means most of my mornings are full of meetings. I’ve also noticed I work well in 90 minute bursts.

==> I’ve scheduled one 90 minute block for myself, every work day, and labelled it “project work.” These are usually in the afternoon, at different times each day. I’ve also set them to start on the quarter hour, which gives me a built in break between the prior meeting & the project work block.

  • Build up focus muscles. Don’t check the internet every time it occurs to you to check the internet. Instead, notice that you wanted to check it, and go back to whatever you were doing. This applies both during project blocks and in general. Basically, stop using the internet to amuse yourself while waiting in line. Instead, let your brain just do whatever it wants to do. The other idea I really liked in this section is concentrated reflection on a given topic – rather than just working hard on something, spending a while intentionally thinking it through. This pairs nicely with my goal of going for more walks.

==> I’m trying this. I think I can feel my brain unwinding!

  • Make social media intentional. What are you using it for? Deep connections with friends? Self-promotion? I basically treat LinkedIn like an old-school Rolodex (useful); Instagram as a connection with people I actually care about (I value this); and Facebook annoys me but is (maybe?) good for self-promotion of a poetry reading I’m doing next week.

==> I’ve updated my profiles and I’m paying more attention to what I read and post.

  • Crowd out low-value stuff. Work, errands, and personal tasks will expand to fill every available minute. So – cap the minutes, and fill them with high-value stuff.

==> I’m learning to delegate (I could be so, so much better at this! But I’m learning); scheduled the gym; I’m using the shuttle as a way to force-schedule my workdays; and I’ve made a few more weekend plans.

So. There’s more in the book, but that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying this plus tracking all my work time for the past three weeks. So far, so good. I feel a) calmer and b) I think I’m doing more useful stuff.

If you’re working on focus… what have you tried? What’s working?

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