An In-Depth Review of Deep Work

Deep work cover image

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been meaning to blog about a book I recently read, but I have been so inundated by my to-do list that I couldn’t find the time — or, more accurately, the discipline — to sit down and apply myself to writing this post.

That’s ironic: The book in question is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and it’s exactly about how to organize your life to avoid my current problem.

Newport defines deep work to be “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” (So there’s additional irony: I’m not sure that Newport would even consider writing a blog post to be deep work!) Newport’s thesis can be summed up as follows:

  • Deep work is immensely valuable in our knowledge-based economy; in fact, it is the only type of work that creates true new value. Because the product of deep work is hard for others to replicate, it is highly rewarded.
  • Meanwhile, most professionals’ lives are organized in a way that severely inhibits their ability to perform deep work. We are constantly interrupted by email, instant messages, meetings, the distractions of open plan workspaces, social media, smartphone notifications, and more. Worse, we actively seek out many of these distractions, since they provide our brains with quick dopamine hits.
  • This sets up a paradox: At the same time that deep work is more valuable than ever, the ability to perform it is becoming increasingly rare.
  • To thrive as a highly skilled worker, you need two skills: The ability to quickly master new and complex topics and the ability produce at an elite level, where your knowledge output is measured in both quality and speed. Deep work helps you do both.

The second half of Deep Work reads like a typical self-help book, with a series of four “rules” for organizing your life that are intended to help build the habit of spending more time performing deep work and less time performing shallow tasks.

How CEOs Can Go Deep

One critique of Newport’s book is that I don’t believe his advice is as generally applicable to the entire economy as he suggests. For instance, I doubt that deep work is the secret to success as a politician, or a salesperson, or even being a great project manager at a tech company. Newport himself seems to recognize this lack of universality — he spends two pages giving those of us with the CEO title a hall pass on following many of his rules because in his view we create value by being “hard-to-automate decision engines,” and doing so requires lots of interruptions.

However, in the end, this criticism doesn’t matter because the concept of deep work is a compelling lens to look at what distinguishes spectacular hardware and software engineering. (Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown, so he’s one of us.) And since Cardinal Peak prides itself on offering world-class engineering, I’m naturally interested in anything that can bring more value — Newport would say more depth — to our customers.

Finding Our Focus

As I was reading the book, I realized that we’ve already tried to organize much of Cardinal Peak’s culture in such a way as to maximize our engineers’ time spent in depth. We have quiet offices that encourage focus instead of an open floor plan. We try hard to minimize the time our team spends in meetings, and when we do have meetings we try to schedule them at the start of the day or adjacent to another natural break like lunchtime — thus preserving as much as possible contiguous blocks of time for deep thinking. The best kind of engineering is hard, and it requires focus.

And I hope we embrace the philosophy behind this quote: “Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological.”

Meanwhile, there are probably still changes we could make to enhance our team’s time spent in depth. For one thing, we use instant messages pretty exhaustively — in fact, I have been interrupted in that manner three times while writing this — and I’m wondering if we couldn’t find a way to move some IM conversations back into email, which is more conducive to being processed in a single batch of shallow work at a convenient time.

I’m going to try to adopt some of Newport’s ideas in my own life, and also try to drive some suggestions inspired by the book through the Cardinal Peak team. Maybe I’ll report back in a few months on our progress. That is, if I can find the time to write.