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Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

January 12, 2016

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Cal Newport teaches us why the ability to do "deep work" is more important than ever in a digital age, and how to get there.

Cal Newport has a knack for bucking trends, for taking what appear to be contrarian stances and making them seem perfectly obvious. As the entire business world was repeating the mantras to follow your passion and do only what you love, he reminded us of the importance (and primacy) of developing skills and creating work you love by becomind so good at what you do that you feel comfortable and confident in your work—whether you're a doctor or a college admissions administrator. The idea is to develop a "craftsman mindset" to your work, and become So Good They Can't Ignore You. It was the winner of the Personal Development category the year it was released, and remains my personal favorite book on career development.

In his new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he takes up the cause of focus and concentration in a world that seems to be losing those qualities. As most people in business are busy chasing the latest apps, networking tools, and web developments looking for a way to boost communication and productivity, he reminds us of something I think we all know by now: These tools are making us less productive, and blurring the lines between our "work life" and the rest of our life. They are on at all times, which makes us feel like we have to be. And when we're not using them for work, we turn on to other social networks to keep up with the latest important social news, like what our middle school girlfriend had for dinner. In short, the internet and its associated tools are shredding our attention and undermining our ability to concentrate at the very time we need those abilities the most to succeed. Newport explains his thesis:

Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century philosophers. It's instead a skill that has great value today.

 

There are two reasons for this value. The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that's dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. Some … computer languages … didn't exist ten years ago and will likely be outdated ten years from now. Similarly, someone coming up in the field of marketing in the 1990s probably had no idea that that today they's need to master digital analytics. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don't cultivate this ability, you're likely to fall behind as technology advances.

 

The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g., employers or customers) is essentially limitless—which greatly magnifies your reward. On the other hand, if what you're producing is mediocre, then you're in trouble, as it's too easy for your audience to find a better alternative online. Whether you're a computer programmer, writer, marketer, consultant, or entrepreneur … To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you're capable of producing—a task that requires depth.

 

But this is no luddite polemic. Newport is himself a "a theoretical computer scientist who performed [his] doctoral training at MIT's famed Theory of Computation group," has published four books, and is a professor at Georgetown University. What he is providing, after explaining why all this is true in the first half of the book, is a clear and concise how-to book for getting back our ability to do deep work, how to choose our tools in the wisest ways and reframe our days, work, and life around the ability to dive deep into our work. It is a way out of the frenetic and frantic world so many of us feel we've stumbled into, and a way back to the calm, comfortable, and confident life of knowing that what we're producing is our very best.

If you'd like to learn more about Deep Work, check out our Jack Covert Selects review of the book.

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