'Deep Work' by Cal Newport

'Deep Work' by Cal Newport is an easy addition to my 'never get rid of' collection of books.

Whilst I love reading, I own surprisingly few books. This isn’t because I’m an avid user of iBooks or Kindles, I only read books in a digital format when I absolutely have to.

Often when I buy a physical book, I’ll read it fairly quickly and then pass it on to a friend, family member or charity shop. If it’s a good one, I’ll probably re-read it a few weeks later making notes to reference at a later date, and then I’ll pass it on. If it’s a really good book, it stays in my collection.

At the moment, this collection probably isn’t more than a couple of dozen books, so a place in it is a rare honour.

So, when I say that “Deep Work” by Cal Newport was an easy, and likely permanent addition to this collection; it should tell you all you need to know about my thoughts on the book. I first read it about 18 months ago, and have probably re-read it half a dozen times either in full or in part.

My copy is now heavily bookmarked has got annotations pencilled all over it. Frankly it’s bit of a mess!

What’s the book about?

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University whose thoughts on ‘focus’ and ‘productivity’ have gained a lot of attention. “Self-help” is a genre often lacking substance and prone to unsubstantiated nonsense from authors who like the sound of their own voice, but Cal Newport brings a pleasing dose of academia, reason and science with his writing. “Deep Work” examines the idea that ‘focus’, and the ability to concentrate intensely on a task is quickly becoming the most important skill a person can hope to nurture if they want to succeed.

The book is split into two distinct sections. The first makes a very strong case for the benefits of “deep work” by examining various studies and individuals. The second outlines how to cultivate such an approach to your work, and some of the barriers that keep people from working in this manner.

He argues that as a culture, we gravitate towards metrics of “busyness” rather than true output. We aim to appear busy and thus important by multi-tasking, going to lots of meetings and responding to as many emails as possible. However, despite all these public displays of “shallow work”, very little of our work produces anything of real value. He goes on to assert that work of any consequence in this environment is difficult, if not doomed to failure. Instead, those hoping to succeed should aim to work with as much focus, and as fewer distractions as possible.

All told, it’s a convincing read with many “Yeah, that makes perfect sense” moments. I think most of us know that the way the majority of people and companies work is hamstrung by red-tape, bureaucracy and bluntly is a load of bullshit! Cal’s book offers an insight and an understanding of the problem, but also a path to a better way of working with clear, actionable steps to take.

How this book helped me

Software is an industry that very much relies on output, even though it probably suffers with more than its fair share of shallow work. I’ve always felt that there were lots of barriers to actually creating something, both in the work environment, and personally. The concept of working smarter, not longer, was incredibly seductive.

Until recently, I found myself sat at my computer for long periods, sometimes up to 15 hours per day, but I always felt this was normal for someone in my profession. Between working for a startup, keeping pace with a rapidly changing industry and (when I could muster the motivation) working on some personal projects, I didn’t see any obvious ways to reduce my screen time.

I knew I needed to make a change because it was clear that this was an unhealthy way to work. It was affecting me both mentally and physically. My waistline started to change because instead of getting out and doing all the things I loved like surfing and mountain-biking, I was sat on my arse all day drinking equally unhealthy amounts of black coffee, getting worked up by problems on a screen.

However, this lifestyle took its biggest toll on me mentally. I found myself to be increasingly irritable, uptight and not the laid back person I’ve always been. I found that my mood was generally very low, and I lacked any real enthusiasm for work or activities I used to enjoy. Yes, I know what I’ve just described sounds like a startlingly accurate description of depression, I’m under no illusions about that.

The real kicker was that despite the long hours I was putting in, I was accomplishing very little with them. That was both a consequence of the way I was working, and that I had no real enthusiasm for what I was doing anymore. It created something of a vicious cycle where the long hours drained me, which left me unable to produce work of the quality I expected from myself, which drained me further still. I was aware of all of this, yet felt totally powerless to do anything about it.

Fortunately, I found the solution in “Deep Work”. It made me examine what I was doing and prompted some small changes to my approach to work. Over the 18 months since I first read the book, those changes have evolved and now my old habits are totally unrecognisable.

Not only am I working far fewer hours, I’m accomplishing more than ever. More importantly I’ve rediscovered the joy of building something, which was the reason I started doing all this in the first place.

I know that as developers we all suffer more than we let on. Whether it’s simply “Imposters Syndrome” or a situation like mine above, we all tend to keep quiet about it until we’re totally burnt out. If any of the above sounds familiar then I implore you to read this book.

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