The ability to focus: a review of Cal Newport’s Deep Work

Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work. First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Piatkus. (Photograph by L.Bevilacqua, 2018.)

I thought I wasn’t distracted – then I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Subtitled ‘rules for focused success in a distracted world’, Newport’s central thesis is that the ability to work ‘in a state of distraction-free concentration that push[es] your cognitive capabilities to their limit’ is a valuable skill in today’s world where digital distractions abound. Until this year, I wasn’t on any social media at all. I don’t constantly check my emails. Okay, so maybe I do sometimes surf the net when I get bored. But I’m pretty good at focusing. I can work when I need to. I get things done. What could I learn from Deep Work? Well, quite a lot, actually.

1. I’m more distracted than I thought

The internet has, as Newport rightly points out, brought with it a plethora of distractions. It is these distractions, and their impact on our ability to work in a focused way and produce our best work, that Newport addresses in Deep Work. And although social media and emails can certainly be a distraction, so, I have found, can a lot of other things. Like many people, I have a full calendar: working, studying, professional development, housework and a host of social, family, personal and community activities and commitments. All these things can be good things. But, for me at least, they can also be a source of distraction. When I thought about it, these otherwise good things were distracting me from the things that really matter to me. Things that needed my focused attention, my deep work.

2. Deep work is a skill

I’d never really thought of the ability to work in a focused manner for a sustained period as a particular skill. At school and university, I was a pretty disciplined student, able to concentrate on the task at hand. It’s a trait I have carried on in my working life. But thinking of deep work as a skill is a useful perspective to adopt. If deep work is a skill, something that can be developed, can I do it better? Can I improve my ability to work deeply? Turns out I can.

Deep work is a skill and, according to Cal Newport, a valuable one we can each cultivate. Drawing together studies and examples from a cross-section of disciplines, Newport presents neurological, psychological and philosophical arguments in favour of deep work. He then dives into the practicalities of developing the skills and habits to produce deep work.

3. I need to make time for deep work

Deep work takes time. It won’t just happen. I need to prioritise it. And as Newport acknowledges, there isn’t one right way to achieve deep work. By showcasing the successful deep work strategies of others, reflecting on his own experience, and drawing out the relevant principles and considerations, Newport provides a foundation for anyone looking to cultivate their own deep work habits.

In light of this, I have taken a long, hard look at my schedule. It’s taken some trial and error, but I am developing regular blocks of deep work. I’ve also applied other strategies from the book to free up my schedule and allow room for deep work. Sometimes this has meant declining requests or removing frequent activities I enjoy, but that were taking too much time. And you know what? I’m really enjoying my deep work sessions. I’m not distracted, I feel productive and I get more done.

Worth reading?

In Deep Work, Cal Newport argues that ‘the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work’ – that is, a sustained period of focused, distraction-free work that pushes your cognitive capacity. If you are the type of person who values this ability to work deeply and want to develop the skills for deep work, I would recommend reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Although some may find it less than ground-breaking, I found Deep Work an accessible mix of science and practical steps for developing the valuable skill of deep work.

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