The crazy and wild world of the internet impinges on our life from every angle. Notifications, video calls, email, Twitter, Instagram. Instant, global communication is at once the source of delight and collaboration as well as stress and distraction.This has only become more immediate in the last two years, and we as a society still have a lot to learn when it comes to dealing with this technology. In his 2016 classic book, Deep Work, computer scientist Cal Newport lays down a compelling case for the why and how of living a more focused life in an age of distraction.
So what exactly is deep work? Newport defines it 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.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Newport begins the book with an anecdote of how Carl Jung built a small, secluded cabin for himself so that he could focus utterly and profoundly on his work without any external distractions. But most people do not have this luxury, so they need to cultivate a practice of focus, a practice of deep work. It is only when we focus on one thing and really grapple with it that we can actually push our minds to grow and develop.
A key concept in Deep Work is that multitasking is a myth. Deep work runs directly counter to multitasking and all its pitfalls. You can think of deep work as cognitive work outs, and Newport cites numerous studies and anecdotes to back this up. Through intentionally cutting out distractions and honing in on one thing for extended periods of time, you can massively boost your productivity and master difficult skills.
Newport further argues that these skills are more valuable than ever in the shifting landscape of the modern economy. Rapidly changing technology and work environments can make the role of the knowledge worker very ambiguous. Do you have real concrete skills? Or are you just great at responding to e-mail and Slack messages within the hour? Modern communications technology floods us with distractions and has a marked negative impact on productivity, making focus both more valuable and harder to come by.
Deep work provides a remedy to this. Newport discusses a number of different ways to practice deep work, from blocking out specific times in your day to practice deep work, to practicing social media fasts, to simply breaking the habit of checking your inbox every time you’re bored.
Now, the book is definitely a lot more philosophical than practical. There is plenty of actionable advice in the book, but it really doesn’t come up at all until the second half. This, combined with the slightly preachy tone at times, may certainly detract from the book at times. But there’s no denying that most of us would do well to cultivate a life of greater focus and intentionality. Looking forward to the new year, Deep Work provides an excellent blueprint for doing so.
Deep Work is available for purchase here.