Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World  by Cal Newport newport-deep-work

A common refrain from high achieving new parents is that having kids has made them more productive at work. With less hours in the day to control, their time in the office is used more effectively. But as I’ve found over the last year of fatherhood, that doesn’t happen automatically.

‘Deep’ work, that is focused concentrated work at the upper edges of your cognitive performance is hard. And if you’re tired or distracted by family, office mundanity or the internet it’s very easy to spend long times not doing deep work.

You can even be productive and fool yourself into believing you’ve hit that zone. For calendar year 2016 I’ve published five academic papers, but in truth there’s issues with at least 3 of them and I’m only really proud of one of them. All the while sending countless emails, supervising students, administering a Masters program, teaching two courses, writing blogs and op-eds, co-editing a policy paper series and an academic journal and writing several (unsuccessful) grant applications.

This is work, and lots of it, but it’s not the life of the mind I’d envisaged academia to be. Much of it is ‘shallow’ in the sense of helping sustain my job rather than advancing it. Nor is it entirely satisfying. Cal Newport, another young father and academic (computer science at Georgetown University, Washington DC), however has an answer: Deep Work.

In this short and very readable text, Newport not only makes the argument for why deep work matters (it’s likely to make you happier and more successful compared to your more distracted colleagues) but also discusses how to achieve it with a variety of practical suggestions.

It was only after I’d read the book I realised this is a self-help text (a genre I avoid), because it often doesn’t feel like one. There’s a seriousness of topic, and lack of rar-rar “unlock your hidden genius” waffle that is welcome. The fact Newport is a fellow academic made the insights and discussions far more telling for me, though he rightly extends the discussion across all knowledge workers.

Most of his insights and suggestions are obvious. Schedule your time, limit distractions, don’t respond immediately to emails. But there’s also a recognition that no one technique will work and the point is to slowly develop the deep work skills. Rather than simply encouraging everyone to become hermits, Newport is focused on encouraging ways of thinking and habits which make it easier to do more, more often, within a normal life.

Likewise, there’s also a welcome recognition that this need not become your only focus in life. Elite professionals, whether orchestra players or writers can usually only manage four hours of true deep work each day. Yet like many young academics I view work in the evenings and weekends as the norm, though this has become increasingly difficult with a young family.

Newport however, argues that true deep work requires long periods where you’re not working. No email, no work related websites, and time spent relaxing and even bored, so as to ensure those four hours each working day are used as productively as possible.

Learning to say no is also a big challenge. The fun of academic life is writing and speaking with the belief people care what you have to say. And sometimes they do. But you don’t need to do so at every occasion and without deep work behind it, do you have anything worth saying?

Increasingly, my fear is that the answer to that is no. That these last years I’ve burned through my intellectual capital to produce that work, but without it really amounting to much. I’d been wondering —worrying? — about this for a while, hence reaching for Newport’s book. But through his clear prose and engaging arguments it has helped build my conviction that change in how I work is necessary.

Many academics are coming to similar conclusions. Far from the stereotyped cloistered life of quiet contemplation, the modern academy is a myriad of meetings and mundanity. Voluminous administration, organisation, and education commitments take away from the very point of the career: the production and distribution of knowledge worth having for society.

Part of this is our own fault. Hyper-specialisation has made the “knowledge worth having” part questionable, while our working environments increasingly impede the “production and distribution” of knowledge in the first place.

There’s also a troubling collective action problem here. Many academics seek to escape these challenges simply by shirking responsibility and transferring the burden to others in their department. They may feel entitled to this by dint of their own genius, but it’s not a sensible or responsible approach.

Changing how effectively we work, along with challenging in an open and direct way a culture which privileges ‘shallow’ over ‘deep’ work is therefore a necessary and important step. To that end, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is a welcome and important contribution.

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