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Book Review: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

February 20, 2023 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. A yellow background feature the title of the reviewed book in black and white.

A computer science professor discusses why working distraction-free can set you apart and how he applied these techniques in his own career.

Summary:
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Dividing this book into two parts, the author first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Deep Work takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories-from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air-and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. 

Review:
A drive for traditional academic and corporate success tinges the majority of this book. But if you are able to see past it, there are some good facts and tips as well.

It’s easy to feel plagued by distraction in this world, no matter if your goals are traditional or nontraditional. Part of that is by design. Most of us at this point carry a smartphone, and they’re designed to be addictive. Even if your goal is to relax watching a movie with a loved one, you might find yourself reaching for your smartphone repeatedly throughout the movie instead of focusing on enjoying simply the movie and the moment with your loved one. Times of deep focus is what this book terms “deep work.”

A strength of this book is the discussion of the benefits of spending some time in a deep work (focus) state. It lets you master difficult things at a faster rate. It leads to greater satisfaction because when we’re unfocused we skew more toward pessimism rather than optimism. And, something I personally think should be talked about more, our worldview is based on what we pay attention to. So, we should be more mindful about what we are paying attention to. These are all good points and motivators to take the power back from addictive devices over our time. But then the author goes into a work-obsessed left field.

There is a palpable sense throughout this book that any negativity a worker may feel about their workplace is all down to the worker not focusing in the correct way. Even a simple mismatch between the worker and the work’s goals is somehow something the worker can just focus past in the author’s mind.

You don’t need a rarified job; you need instead a rarified approach to your work.

loc 1012

People deserve to do work that makes them feel good. And we are all blessed with different talents, skills, and gifts. A job might not suit one person but suit another. A job doesn’t need to be rarified to be satisfying. And a worker doesn’t need to be rarified to excel at their job. I might also question, why the pressure to excel? Why can’t we simply do our jobs well and complete the day satisfied?

Toward the end of the book, the author describes a year in which he really pushed himself as he was about to come up for tenure. He states that during this year he was “a deep work machine” (loc 2908). He literally thought about work in every spare moment – when going on walks, when raking leaves. He had at least one young child at home, and he still spent all this time engaged in deep thinking…about work. Why? Because he didn’t get an opportunity his colleagues did. He does at one point express that maybe he went a little too far, but he also discusses how much work success it brought him and seems generally pleased with the outcome. I find it interesting that he talks so much about bringing focus to his job but not about spending focused time with his child or wife, for example. In spite of the fact that the same techniques for focus he uses for work could be applied to many other aspects of our lives. But he only seems to see their use in climbing the academic crab bucket.

If we choose to see past the toxic application of focus in only career, what are the tips given in this book for developing focus? These are what stuck out to me. Schedule times of deep focus. When in your scheduled deep focus times, focus on things that are, to you, wildly important. Keep a tally of the deep focus time you have accomplished – not the tasks, but the time. Review this weekly to help yourself understand what’s interfering with your deep focus time and adapt. On the flip-side of scheduled focus times, schedule times for distraction. So, for example, pick a 30 minute window where you will browse Instagram, and that’s the only time you do it that day. To hone your skills, select a task you want to accomplish and set a timer for slightly less time to finish it than you think you will need. See if you can beat that time. This will help you focus more deeply and become faster over time.

Overall this book has some interesting explanations of why focus matters and tips on how to bring more focus into your life. But you will need to look past the lack of work/life balance present in many of the examples given, instead extracting solely what is best for your own focus goals in your own, well-balanced life.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 296 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

Friday Fun! (August: Yoga and Gratitude)

September 3, 2014 2 comments

My view reading next to the Charles River (including my book, of course!)

My view reading next to the Charles River (including my book, of course!)

Hello my lovely readers!

My, it’s been quite a busy summer for me, and August is always the busiest, as anyone who works in post-secondary academia will tell you.  On top of students coming back to campus and teaching orientations, I also started a new project at work and took on more responsibility in another one.  In my personal life, my partner and I threw our first party together, which was a smashing success, and I finished out the month with some vacation time to get to go to the track with him again, something that I always really enjoy.  It makes me so happy to get to see him race and also camp out and be in sunbeams all day on top of it!

Two things I’ve discovered this month that I’d like to tell you about.  The first is something you may have heard of, MyYogaPro.  Basically MyYogaPro features videos done by Erin Motz (one of my favorite online yoga instructors).  The videos both break down poses step-by-step for you and also feature full-length programs, organized for various goals (flexibility, power yoga, backbends), progressing from easy to advanced.  Even better, you earn badges for completing videos, which makes it like achievements in a videogame but for doing something physical.  You can register for lifetime access for only $45 right now.  I know this sounds a bit like an ad, but no one asked me to talk about MyYogaPro.  I chose to sign up for the account, and I’ve found it really has enhanced my yoga practice.  I’m learning and progressing in a way I never have before with yoga.  I’m quite passionate about how the website enhances home practice.  If you’re into yoga, if you’ve dabbled your toes but never got serious, or if you’re brand-new to the concept, there’s something for everyone.

The second thing I’ve discovered that I’m really enjoying is an app called Gratitude 365.  It gives you a notebook page every day to put down however many things from that day you want to that you are grateful for.  It also lets you attach a photo to that day.  You can password protect the app if you want.  You can both view a snapshot of your last few days and a calendar of all your pictures.  It also keeps track of how many days you’ve journaled for and your average number of gratitudes.  A lot of people talk about how taking a moment to be thankful each day enhances mood and reduces stress and anxiety, but even if that’s not your goal, it’s a great little journaling app that is easy to use in the day-to-day.

In spite of being so busy this month, I still managed to read 5 books.  I currently have a back-log of three book reviews, so they should keep coming at a steady pace.  I also created a new cross-stitch pattern. The test stitch is completed, I just need to hoop it for the recipient and create the pdf pattern.  Keep your eye out for it.  It’s geeky!

My partner is always wonderfully supportive during my most stressful month of the year, and I honestly think his support is part of why I handled this August with as much relaxation tossed in as I managed to grab, whether that was sneaking in 10 minutes of yoga, journaling gratitude, going for walks together, laughing at old Twilight Zone episodes, or reading outside flopped on a blanket together.  When I think about my August, I don’t just think about the stress, and that’s quite the gift.

Happy reading, everyone!