I’m breaking a rule with this post. I only write about music on this blog, but this book explores themes so obviously important for the work of a musician I thought I could get away with discussing it. It may even prove to be an indispensable conversation. You be the judge.
I first heard of Deep Work by Cal Newport on the Tim Ferriss podcast, if I’m not mistaken. The title instantly appealed to me, and I added it to a long list of books I keep that I intend to read eventually. A few weeks ago, in need of new material, I found it on this list and grabbed it from the bookstore.
This is not a quick-fix life-hack book as so many seem to be. The author does not attempt to make the objective seem cheap or easy, particularly given the prevalent culture of shallow work that permeates most workplaces. If you want to really dig into a task, you often have to risk coming off as antisocial, or worse. The makers of shallow work (meetings!) and small talk seem to have hijacked the high ground of social acceptability. The person who does not want another meeting or dinner to attend is the one who has the explaining to do, no matter how productive such “loners” might be in the workplace.
Against this culture of shallow work, Newport outlines the virtues of deep work and, perhaps most frighteningly, points out that our capacity for prolonged concentration can be permanently damaged by constant distraction.
In reading this book I’ve come to understand some of the mistakes I’ve been making–trying to cram important work into the cracks and edges of my schedule, trying to shoehorn a little bit of meaningful work amidst a legion of distractions–and often trying to do it in the wrong places–restaurants, coffee shops, or any other place I’m more than likely to be interrupted. The white-knuckled desperation out of which I did this was not enough to overcome its counterproductive nature. Thanks to the advice in this book, I’ve been getting better at marking out the proper blocks of time to do the work that really matters to me in an appropriate environment.
To cut through the culture of shallow work, Newport offers four rules to follow, along with the tactics that go with them. As I read through these pages I could feel my blood pressure dropping, like I was finally finding my way out of the hectic morass that is contemporary life.
The first rule, simply, is work deeply. To do this, decide on your depth philosophy, that is, how you engage in deep work. There is the monastic approach, which is more or less what it sounds like. People who take this approach are often nearly impossible to reach at all–a luxury most of us don’t have. The bimodal approach employs short periods of monasticism, kind of like a retreat, in order to get things done. The rhythmic approach is the one I most often use–scheduling deep work throughout the weekly routine, when no distractions are allowed in order that the flow state can be achieved. Finally, there’s the journalistic philosophy, which involves dropping into important tasks more or less on cue, as necessary. This last one is the most difficult but can be helped by the second tactic–ritualization. The ritual can be almost anything–time, place, drink, a specific order of operations. I even read somewhere that letting out a long string of expletives can be a good ‘cue’ to achieve the flow state, a suggestion I have more than happily embraced. Josh Waitzkin has a lot to say about entering the flow state in his book The Art of Learning.
Making grand gestures is the third tactic to achieving deep work. Newport notes a story about J.K. Rowling, who was languishing in distraction at home as she attempted to finish The Deathly Hallows in 2007. She rented an expensive suite at the Balmoral Hotel, the investment of which helped to propel her to the finish line. Newport gives other examples like this, but it seems to me that grand gestures don’t have to be expensive, necessarily. I think of Townes Van Zandt literally locking himself in a closet until he finished writing a song. I often do something similar when I write music but might be short on ideas: I force myself to sit in front of the blank page for a predetermined amount of time. A commitment like this makes magic: it is nearly impossible to have a blank piece of paper after an hour of staring at it.
Newport’s fourth tactic is not to work alone. This seems counterintuitive, especially as he criticizes, as many others have, the open-office plans so prominent in workplaces today. The author is referring, however, to well-honed collaboration between people with a shared goal. Each feeds off the other. I think of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and there are certainly a thousand other examples.
Next, Newport advises his readers to execute their tasks like a business by focussing on the wildly important, maintaining accountability, and the like. This can be counterintuitive to many artists, but as Steven Pressfield notes, the professional artist shows up every day, no matter what. As a counterpoint to this, the last tactic for working deeply is to be lazy. Newport notes the many benefits of downtime, along with the diminishing returns that we get with a grind of constant work.
The second rule encourages us to embrace boredom. Noting that we crave distraction once we’re wired for it, as many of us surely are in the digital age, Newport’s first tactic with this rule is to take breaks from focus. This involves scheduling internet time rather than constantly running back to email and social media with every urge that comes along in a fleeting idle moment. The second tactic is to work like Teddy Roosevelt, which is more or less Parkinson’s Law: pick an important task, then set a slightly unreasonable time limit for accomplishing it, in order to create a very fast and intense work pace.
The third tactic is to meditate productively, i.e., focus on a single problem while being physically active–walking, jogging, etc. This is a piece of advice that I see repeated over and over again in interviews and books: get out of your head and into your body. I find it to be an extremely reliable way to get un-stuck. The last tactic is to memorize a deck of cards, as memory training improves the ability of humans to concentrate. This isn’t for me, though–but come to think of it, maybe I should start memorizing music again.
The third rule gives the provocative advice to quit social media. This headline is a bit of an attention-getter, as Newport does not demand the reader delete Facebook completely. Though he has never used Facebook, the author’s real aim is not to eschew social media entirely but rather to get it under control and only use those platforms that truly add value to one’s life, rather than falling for the “any-benefit” approach which is far less discerning. He advocates a craftsman’s approach: use tools that bring the most advantage with the least amount of drawback. Newport insightfully compares the quality of interaction over social media as opposed to in-person encounters, something I think most of us have forgotten about from time to time. Do we remember the time a friend ‘liked’ one of our photos, or the time we went on a road trip together? (At this point I may be confusing some of what’s in Digital Minimalism, another excellent book by Newport that focuses more on the internet specifically.)
Perhaps the third rule’s most important tactic is never to use the internet for entertainment. This can be a tough one, especially if you’re stuck in a boring place that prohibits deep concentration and you can’t get out. But I’m trying to remember this rule and employ it as much as possible, even if it means I end up counting the dots on drop ceiling tiles for a few minutes.
The fourth rule is to drain the shallows. I love this phrase. It has the ring of ruthlessness of someone who means business. The first tactic Newport offers here is to schedule every minute of your day. This is precisely so that the truly important does not get buried by the merely urgent. He also advises the reader to quantify the depth of each activity and to ask supervisors for a shallow work budget. While this is discussed within a workplace paradigm, it can be applied to all aspects of life. This lays the groundwork for the next tactic: finish work by 5:30 every day. (I suppose the time can be adjusted for circumstances.) This is only possible if priorities are respected and shallow work is kept to a minimum. I would think this also keeps burnout infrequent. Finally, Newport advocates becoming hard to reach, particularly through email. He suggests both making your correspondents do more work when they write, and also doing more work in the reply. The point of this, he says, is to reduce back and forth, as the initial message will have been more thorough and less in need of follow-up.
This summary will hopefully show the compelling nature of Newport’s work, but it cannot possibly do justice to his thorough research and compelling rhetoric in advocating a culture of deeper work, without succumbing to thoughtless Luddism. Almost anyone could benefit from it, and I highly recommend it.