Computer scientist Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World is pure gold and it is no exaggeration. Released by Grand Central Publishing in 2016, the book offers an easy-to-follow blueprint for knowledge workers interested in getting the most out of their time. It promises to be of huge help to those who struggle with scheduling and curse themselves at the end of the day for getting very little real work done. Much of their time is taken up by social media, so they feel unproductive and guilty for not fulfilling their potential.
The author is a computer science professor at Georgetown University in the United States of America. Apart from teaching and research, he writes on the intersection of technology and culture. Readers who are averse to capitalism might be put off by what Newport has to offer but patience is recommended because his ideas—unconventional as they may be—hold value.
Productivity, for him, is deeply aligned with the pursuit of personal satisfaction. It’s fashionable to dismiss productivity as an obsession of the so-called corporate slave but the same concept can be redefined in ways that do not dehumanise.
According to Newport’s vision, being productive is not about selling your soul to the employer. It’s about clarifying your own thought process about what you want and then develope habits to bring you professional success and also nurture your mental health. He does not decide on your behalf what success or health looks like—that is for you to figure out.
The assumption central to this book is that time is a finite resource, therefore one must learn how to manage it well. Newport does not glorify being busy. In fact, he urges readers to be vigilant about setting up fixed hours for work so that there is plenty of time to spend with loved ones and to cultivate hobbies that bring joy.
What he wants to convey teach through this book is discipline and the purpose is to optimise the limited time that is available. He is not a fan of multi-tasking. He advocates immersion and depth.
In the shallow
Newport is convinced that social media is a waste of time. According to him, it is extremely unwise of universities, companies and media houses to ask the knowledge workers they employ to post on social media. Composing these posts, tracking responses, and offering comments in return qualifies as shallow work. It takes away much time and energy from deep work, which is best done in isolation.
He thinks that knowledge workers must be left alone, without any distraction, to use their minds in the service of what adds value.
He is aware that shallow work cannot be wished away completely. Emails have to be replied to. Phone calls have to be made. Invoices have to be filed. Meetings have to be attended. Through this book, Newport shows readers how to minimise the shallow work they are called upon to do, so that they can free up more time during the day for deep work. These tactics and strategies are worth experimenting with. Readers who find it difficult to say “No” and end up filling their plate with more than they can handle would certainly find the book helpful.
Newport’s antipathy towards social media could appear puzzling, even outlandish, to digital natives. There is no need to adopt everything he says uncritically but it is worth trying out his recommendations to check if they prove effective.
It is hard to disagree with his argument that social media is addictive but a complete break from it would be undesirable for many who use it to stay in touch with personal and professional contacts. Women and LGBTQ people in oppressive contexts often use social media to seek community support.
This book can train you to recognise what is important and urgent, and therefore worth your immediate attention. It can help you see what you end up wasting your time on even if it does nothing to enhance your work or your relationships.
It can initiate an appreciation for setting professional boundaries, protecting your personal space, and guarding your time against distractions. These ideas may come across as hyper individualistic and therefore, seem alien to people who love working long hours, on weekends, and even on vacations.
This book is grounded in a neoliberal work ethic. Therefore, individualism is valued. There are no qualms about viewing the self as a brand and advancing its prospects. This does not mean harming others rather it involves working on self-improvement through skill building.
It also requires frequent cost-benefit analyses to avoid wasteful allocation of time to activities that produce little or no value in economic, social, affective or relational terms. It does not critique systemic injustice but it does hold individuals accountable for making bad choices.
Newport is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is worth looking at what he brings to the table. He is quite astute in his understanding of how to succeed in today’s marketplace, though he might seem like a fossil to those who cannot imagine being disconnected for even a moment. In fact, he argues that, in an age where most people are distracted with shallow work, the people who will stand out are the ones who can hone their capacity for deep work.