Deep Work by Cal Newport

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I used to scoff at people who needed an internet blocker while writing. If they were getting distracted by social media, maybe they simply didn’t love writing enough. Not anymore! Nowadays, I’m testing programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey and asking my friends which blocker works best.

Distractions are everywhere. Even worse, they are affecting our brains. The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more our brain trains us to be distractible. Computers and social media are so enticing (maybe even addictive) it’s no wonder we can’t concentrate anymore. Uninterrupted time is rare and becoming rarer. But concentrating deeply, being in “the zone,” is exactly what writers need to do. DEEP WORK has some excellent advice for writers who need to slow down, concentrate, and produce more books.

DEEP WORK is divided into two parts: theory and practice. In part one, Newport lays out why deep work is rare, valuable, and meaningful. He distinguishes between “shallow work” (things like email and meetings) and “deep work” (things like writing, computer coding, and inventing). Shallow work will make you look—and feel—busy, but only deep work truly matters. After all, nobody gets a promotion because they are great at email.

But a persuasive argument for deep work is no good without an action plan. Newport has advice for scheduling deep work, banishing distractions, and cutting out as much shallow work as possible. I found Newport’s suggestions extremely practical and not at all hard.

Newport also suggests cutting out all social media. This last one is probably not realistic for a writer, since social media is our main source of networking and fans expect to interact with us online. However, we certainly can all limit our use of social media, especially during prime writing time.

As much as I loved this book, I do think Newport has a blind spot. He cites numerous examples of men doing deep work, from Carl Jung to Nate Silver, but he quotes few women, and ignores gendered expectations. Women, especially married women, are expected by our society to take up domestic and childcare work, as well as emotional labor such as daily scheduling and managing the social life of the couple. Men are rewarded for ignoring all that and retreating into work in a way that women are not. You can’t do deep work when you’re interrupted all the time and women are most often the ones being interrupted.

DEEP WORK is not for everyone. I can’t imagine a nurse or a waiter or an electrician getting much out of this book, since their jobs are fast-paced and extremely interactive. Newport’s advice is for a certain kind of worker: a knowledge worker who works alone. In short, writers are the ideal audience.

Spending lots of time “in the zone” is crucial for writers, especially new writers without a book contract, who have to rely on their own willpower to get a book written. Without deep work, writers can drift from shallow task to shallow task, looking “busy” the whole time but never getting any of their books written.

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DEEP WORK is available here.

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Rating: 4 stars

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This book is best for: beginning to intermediate writers

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I recommend this book.

3 thoughts on “Deep Work by Cal Newport

  1. I view motherhood as deep work. Trains one to multi-task while attending, deeply, to each and every task and child. At least for me. I don’t view it as gendered- rather I view it as ‘deeply’ worthwhile and meaningful work. My choice!
    But deep work can also be an intense focus on a project, any project. Even listening to a podcast can be deep work. 🙂

  2. Motherhood, for me, was intensely meaningful and powerful and fulfilling. But the kind of “deep work” that Newport is talking about is the kind where you’re free to concentrate on one thing–and one thing only–for an extended period of time. Motherhood was never that for me. I had to think on my feet, since kids always demanded something new and change was constant.

    I loved every single minute of it, but if it weren’t for naps I’d never get any writing done. 🙂

  3. I admire Cal Newport’s writing about work (I’m an ex-knowledge worker – and I’ve worked as a manager of knowledge workers) but when I read Deep Work, I too had questions around how the work of family fit in with Cal’s thinking. The issue isn’t simply ‘busy-ness’ (Cal addresses that when he talks about what kinds of work do and don’t lend themselves to ‘depth’), or even distraction (when my daughter was very young, the only way I could write was if I left her with someone else – a strategy that fits with Cal’s recommendations) but rather about the old chestnut of the mental-load work of parenting – the parenting work that is often done by women, unless they have remarkable support of some kind – and the kind of work that continues way past the early-years. I think the discipline to turn off from mental-load goes way beyond what Cal talks about. Thank you Alex for all your reviewing work – I’ve followed your blog for years, and found it really valuable.

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