Cal Newport – A Commitment to Deep Work
“A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.”
Cal Newport’s book is based on the hypothesis that performing deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time that it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. Therefore, if a person can cultivate the skill of deep work, she will have an advantage over workers that do not.
I have read other works by authors that are concerned with the shift toward the shallow in our culture. “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress…. As we cultivate lives of distraction, we are losing our capacity to create and preserve wisdom and slipping toward a time of ignorance that is paradoxically born amid an abundance of information and connectivity.” It is ironic that connecting with others is so much easier and yet people feel like they are missing the intimacy that comes with uninterrupted long periods of time walking and talking and being close.
Many people are concerned with the ever-shortening attention span of students. I really appreciate the way Cal Newport addresses the problem and encourages his readers to become “a disciple of depth in a shallow world.” (page 97) To do this we can follow 4 rules:
Rule 1 – Work Deeply – The book was full of both anecdotal and scientific evidence to support Newport’s hypothesis. Understanding what is happening to our brains when we are distracted by the shallow helps us see that deep concentration would be good for us. The stories of the people who have succeeded, Carl Jung, Neil Stephenson, David Dewane, Donald Knuth, Adam Grant (High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)), Clayton Christensen, Antonio Centeno, and many others help to drive home the point that there may be some geniuses out there who can accomplish great things with no effort, but most successful people have to put in the hard work that it takes to succeed.
This is distraction free work where attention is tightly focused on what you are doing. There are many ways to accomplish this; everyone is different and some can concentrate in long “batches” while others must organize their time differently.
I studied the four philosophies of deep work scheduling – “Monastic”, “Bimodal”, “Rhythmic”, and “Journalistic” – and determined that I am “Rhythmic”. I then went on to look at what “Rituals” I would need to incorporate to help me improve my ability to go deeper in my work. The helpful strategy that the author used was borrowed from Clayton Christensen’s “The 4 Disciplines of Execution”. I spent considerable time reflecting on these habits. I think that I prioritize well, act on the lead measure well, and usually keep a compelling scoreboard. One area that is hard for me is in a “Cadence of Accountability”. (page 140) Since I work at home it is hard to get anyone to review with me. To be honest, that is one of the reasons that I am going to seminary. The deadlines that we have for weekly book reviews and papers give me some structure. The feedback from our mentors and the Cohort are very important to me.
Another thing I really appreciate about the book is the realistic way that Cal Newport deals with human nature. We all need varying amounts of break time. He gives many helpful suggestions for not only why rest is important but how to structure yours in the way that fits your life. Shutdown time “aids insights” (page 144), recharges your batteries, and helps you decided what really is important. “Systematic idleness” (page 154) whether daily, weekly, or long term is necessary to help you return to the intensity involved in deep work. This idea is actually not new. The Lord God instituted a time for us to rest in the first place.
Rule 2 – Embrace Boredom – Letting our brains become accustomed to on-demand distractions is like an addiction. We need to wean ourselves off of our dependence on them. Purposeful scheduling of interactions with social media will help. I just read the other day that 25% of car accidents involve someone texting. I am really concerned for young people who do not know how to be alone with their own thoughts for more than a couple of minutes at a time. It’s dangerous!
Rule 3 – Quit Social Media – The Internet is a tool; we should not let it control us. Again, this is where scheduling is important. For myself, I check my email to make sure there isn’t something drastically important. Then I work for at least 2 – 4 hours before I answer the rest. I believe that Cal is right; most people respect your schedule and don’t expect you to drop everything to answer them. But it is a pull – I recognize that. I don’t know what the answer is. We are social beings and I think that’s great; how do we find the balance?
Rule 4 – Drain the Shallows – This is another area where scheduling is important. Thoughtful scheduling allows you to be purposeful and not just drift. And you get to schedule your fun time too!! We should bias our time towards depth.
“I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is,” said Winifred Gallagher. (pages 82, 263)
I can’t argue with anything in the book; I think it is timely and important. But the author mostly talks about succeeding at work. Honestly, that is a good motive but as a Christian I felt like it might be a little selfish if it is the only motive. May we apply these insights to our personal lives? How do we minister as leaders to our young people?
As I already alluded to I am concerned with the shorter and shorter attention spans of not only our young people but even older people who may be addicted to television instead of the Internet. I have heard it said that advertisements come every 8 minutes (5?) and that is what the average attention span is now. I would be curious to know what others think about sermon time for example? I remember when sermons were an hour. How about reading the Bible or any other important books? And, if this frenetic shallowness is really an addiction, how can we as leaders help people to try to get some balance between social time and deep work?
 Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016). 258.
 Maggie Jackson. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008.)13-16.
8 responses to “Cal Newport – A Commitment to Deep Work”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Great post Mary! I remember in Oxford that you and I discussed the concepts of secular and the sacred in the context of the business world. Do think that deep work may be one concept that functions in both the secular and the sacred? Enjoyed your post!
Yes, Jim, I think this is definitely a topic that crosses the secular and the sacred. Your Scripture references are really apt here. Whether at work, church, or home I should give my best.
Mary, I agree that Newport’s motive for doing deep work is lacking, as he focuses on wealth, advancement and prestige as the primary reasons. We have to be careful not to fall into a nostalgia for the past, though, as neither time nor culture stand still (and there were certain characteristics of the past that bear burying). That being said, I agree with both you & Newport that we must be more discerning with technologies’ effects (esp. social media), with which we seem to have paid scant attention and blindly accepted.
Thanks for your encouragement, Katy. You and I have had conversations before about not turning back the clock. I’m not sure that I want to. One of my best friends doesn’t have a cell phone or computer (because her husband doesn’t like them) and I long to be able to talk to her or send pictures like I do my other friends.
Good point about paying more attention to the effects of technology. I think you are right we just go along with it unquestioningly.
Good points Mary. Deep work has its value and I do relish experiencing it, but as people helpers, it makes me wonder if we need to adjust our perspective to fit those of society. I see attention spans getting less and less, not increasing so I’m wondering what Cal would suggest for working with people committed to staying in shallow work? How do we meet people where they’re at and help them to get the needed balance? Thought-provoking post and well organized. Thank you!
Mary the lack of focus is an issue. It is troubling how we do not know what “boredom” feels like nor are we comfortable with the thought of it. Learning to just be still and focus is definitely a challenge we face in the 21st century.
You, like Katy, question motive and the focus on work alone, which I think is a really helpful perspective. We have more resources and tools at our perspective than any previous generation – more podcasts, and daily reading apps etc. etc. but it feels like we read our Bibles less than ever before. We are cursed by the superficial and there is much in this book that we can learn from and reflect on.
I love your opening quote, Mary. It casts the book in a different light because we all can determine individually what we consider to be “valuable.” I am working to build a focused life, not to succeed in business, but to be able to give attention to what is before me at any given time – family, school work, community, etc. You raise a good point that our motivation as followers of Jesus must be a bit deeper than simply succeeding at work. A calling to love our God and our neighbors is a pretty high calling.