Deep Work: Book Review

How many times a day do you check your phone — what are you looking for? Are you trying to see breaking news about celebrity deaths, checking up on a live election you’re closely tied to, or something that has a large impact on the planet? Or are you just waiting for a new meme to be sent in one of the twelve 5+ participant group chats you’re in with all your different friend-groups?

Diverting our attention from work — whether that is programming, writing, selling, or more menial roles like data entry — to seek instant gratification like a funny meme, gag article, or something providing little value compared to what you’re actually trying to accomplish is an extremely common problem that is only getting worse with the rise of social media and the fall of people’s attention span. It’s impossible, nowadays, to stay focused on one thing for an extended period of time. We’re so obsessed with fresh, riveting, breaking news no matter the caliber that we push aside the significant tasks to instantly gratify ourselves. Deep work is becoming less and less prevalent — Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World dives into why this happens and teaches how to get back to work.

covert art for deep work

Multitasking is a Myth

If you’re multitasking, you’re not getting things done as effectively as you could be. There is no such thing as multitasking because there will always be one thing that is taking more of your energy and brainpower than the other. ‘Watching’ a movie in the background whilst working is going to diminish your work and leave you confused at the movie’s ending. Listening to a podcast while writing a book is going to leave you with an incoherent book and barely any insights gained from the podcast since you were barely focused on it.

If you have a few tabs open — one with a form where you’re filling out a proposal and the other with your Twitter feed — and you’re switching between the two fairly regularly you’re cheating yourself of valuable time. Switching and mental costs occurring while going back and forth are taking up so much time to the point where you could’ve added an entirely new task if they were all done sequentially. By shifting your focus to one thing after the other, the mindset from the other task is still fresh in your mind and will be lingering in there during the entire duration of this new task. Plus, the cost of trying to get in the right mindset in the first place is taking up more time than it’s worth since you’re going to have that same switching cost multiple times if you’re trying to multitask your way through it.

Understanding your different modes and which one you’re in is a big step to understanding how you work best. If you’re in phone call mode you should take care of all the phone calls that have to get done that you’re aware of. This way, you’re mentally prepared for talking, in the right mindset, and you can get everything in that category done. If you’re in programming mode you know you must get into deep work and disconnect yourself from outside distractions. By switching modes and taking calls while trying to program, you ruin both tasks. Bad code is going to get written if you’re taking calls before and after every new method you create — similarly, your clients aren’t going to be very happy that you may seem distracted and distant on the phone since you’re still calculating business logic for the program in your mind.

This is why programs like Slack along with all the other new communication apps are disliked by so many productive workers — they’re constantly being drawn to this endless stream of chatting, gifs, emojis, and such. Even worse than your friend’s group message, this is work-related — so it’s essential to communicate with the rest of the team!

Methods

The text discusses a few different methodologies that can be followed for maximizing deep work:

Monastic is used by avoiding things for long periods of time. Ignoring outside events, news, and such for the length of an entire month will drastically improve deep work. If you’re trying to finish your great American novel, try leaving your family and living in a cabin in the woods for a few months to eliminate absolutely everything that may keep you from finishing. Obviously, for some, this may not be the most practical method.

Bimodal is an interesting methodology. Here, you’d schedule all your deep work for the beginning of the day. You’d say that you have however many chapters to finish by noon, however many lines of code to finish by 3 pm, and enjoy the rest of the day. Knowing that you have the rest of the day ‘off’ after getting deep work done until the mid-afternoon is actually incentive to stay deep and be maximally productive.

The Rhythmic methodology might be familiar to you if you’ve ever considered adhering to the Pomodoro Technique. This forces you to get deep work done for, say, twenty minutes and gives you a five-minute break at the end of that cycle — then you repeat. It’s easy to pick up and popular among a lot of software developers.

Journalistic is my least favorite. This allows you to pick up deep work wherever and whenever throughout the day and depending on your availability. It’s very spontaneous and worries me since it allows for no mental preparation and much less scheduled.

Getting in the Zone

J. K. Rowling got in the zone by checking into five-star hotels. She felt that her writing was better and she was more productive and efficient when her environment encouraged it. She planned to get herself in the zone.

One of the tricks to be sure you’re able to find deep work very often is to plan the luckiness that is getting in the zone. You may go to bed one day feeling extremely proud of yourself for getting so much done — but you should go to bed every night feeling that way. What was it about that day that allowed you to accomplish so much? Whatever it was, do it every day and your productivity won’t revolve around luck but around your system.

Plan Everything

One of the best things Newport has ever taught me is the idea of planning just about everything. When I first became infatuated with becoming a more productive and effective person, Newport’s blog post on scheduling every minute was one of the first things I devoured and implemented straight away.

Not everyone may want to plan their lives so granularly but if you do you better believe all the things on that list are going to get done. Seeing your day at a high level and each hour partitioned and allocated to certain tasks is the only way to ensure nothing slips through the cracks. You can have tasks and projects organized in your management applications or notebooks, but sitting down and planning the day forces you to be honest with yourself and truly be productive.

Ultimately, Deep Work explained a lot of things I was already familiar with by following Newport’s methodologies prior. It’s very eye-opening to see just how easily we’re manipulated by the draw of instant gratification and how quickly we’ll abandon all our important tasks. Deep Work isn’t dying and it’s crucial that we cultivate all the deep work we can.

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