“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.