Book Review: Deep Work

Book Review: Deep Work

Soon after I was about to finish So Good They Can't Ignore You, I stumbled upon a post by Ryan Holiday (another author I frequently follow), and it mentioned another book by Cal Newport - Deep Work. I thought a second and realized, "I think I have a book by that name." I go up to my library and, sure enough, there it is on my shelf. So when I finsihed the current book I was reading I picked this one up. I expected to receive similar benefits as I did in his previous book that I just finished and, sure enough, I got some good insights and advice from it as well.


The first part of the book goes into how deep work is valuable, yet it's increasingly rare in our work environments. In fact, the author goes into two core abilities you must have to thrive in our work environments. You must have the abilities to do the following:

  • quickly master hard things
  • produce at an elite level in terms of both speed and quality

These two abilities, though, depend on your ability to perform deep work. The author pretty much sums it up in this statement:

If you don't produce you won't thrive - no matter how skilled or talented you are.

This makes sense, of course, but what we may currently produce may not be the best value that we can give.

Deliberate practice needs deep work

You may recall my current strategy for doing deliberate practice for my programming career. However, doing deliberate practice in itself is a practice in deep work because core components of deliberate practice are

  • Having tight focus on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master
  • Receiving feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive

The first core component of deliberate practice is getting deep work done on the skill or idea you're working on to master. The second component is essential so you can receive feedback to better tailor your next deep work session so you can continue to improve.

In order to produce great work that is valuable working for extended periods with no distractions at all is the key. This is essentially what deep work is, and it is essential to getting the deliberate practice you need to master a skill.

Enemies of deep work

Earlier in this post I mentioned, as the author does several times in the book, that deep work is very valuable, yet it is very rare in current work enviornments. If it's so valuable why isn't it happening more?

The author gives several reasons why, but one of the biggest enemies of deep work is the need to always be connected or to always be reachable, whether through email or through a chat application. I always knew that email was a big distraction from my readings of The Four Hour Workweek. You'll save so much time by scheduling when to check email and only do it, at most, twice a day. Another connection it drew in my mind was, in the Tim Ferriss Podcast episode with David Heinemeier Hansson, DHH (as he's often refered as) goes into how they get so much work done. Once you listen its very simple how...they're able to get deep work done often. The whole company seems to love being able to get deep work done. From a post about working four day work week they mention how they reduce or completely remove the common distractions one can have during a typical work day. Meetings, email, and chat can be very distracting and will remove your concentration causing you to not get much deep work done.

As I say this, me and my company do a good bit of email and we have even adopted Slack as our main way of communication. This doesn't mean that we have to change our ways as a company or anything. This simply means that we have to be more mindful of how we are personally using these tools.

It's ok if we don't immediately respond to an email or chat message. Nothing work related is going to be life or death. The author even mentions a small study done with a group of management consultants at a very big company who were asked to disconnect for a day. Naturally, the consultants were nervous that the clients wouldn't like that, but it turned out that the clients didn't care. People will usually respect your right to become inaccessible as long as those periods are advertised in advance, and are able to get in touch with outside those periods.

How can this help your programming career?

The author cites a great book for developers on honing your craft, The Pragmatic Programmer:

We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.

As developers we are constantly trying to hone our craft of programming. There's always something new to learn in our field, whether we want to stay up-to-date or to go in a different area. Deep Work has good advice to do deliberate practice and ways to change your work day so you can get as much deep work done as possible.

Even in your day-to-day work what you produce can be greatly expanded if the rules of using deep work are applied. Outside of your daily work, incorporating these deep work rules can also be of great use. Going through training material or working on that side project will yield better and quicker results if they are done as deep work.

There were some great insights from this book that I plan to incorporate in my own working life. Even turning off email and checking it on a schedule, I believe, can yield great results. I recommend this book if you feel like you can do more during the day but not quite sure of how it can all be done. It can be done and this book shows you a few ways to get there.

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