I have struggled to figure out what to title this post and how to talk about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Worldbecause, in very large part, I liked this book a lot. As anyone who has ever done anything can tell you, it is easier to criticize how someone did something than it is to actually do something yourself.
And yet there was one part of it that bothered me repeatedly throughout. I’ll get to that below.
I came to Deep Work because I heard Newport on an episode one of my favorite podcasts, Hidden Brain. And they were discussing something that has been on my mind a lot recently: trying to lessen distractions in a media world that is brimming with them in order to get work done. This seems especially crucial at a time where news is unfurling at neck breaking speed and our access to it is immediate.
I lost days last week to unnecessary but, because they were happening anyway, vitality important shifts in the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Or in parsing through transphobic tweets by the President of the United States and the reactions to them. Or in re-reading to my delight a profanity-filled interview between the White House’s Communications Director and a political reporter at the New Yorker. That was just last week.
All the while I’m trying to write a book or research a feature article or do any kind of focused task for longer than 10 damn minutes. And this last week was the worst because I was working on a long overdue project whose lateness has created a gripping writer’s block paralysis that is just making my ability to turn it in even harder. What a mean, vicious cycle my busy life and anxious brain have created. And nothing made me hate myself more than when the writing and work would get hard, and without thought, I would type in facebook dot com, or I’d pick up my phone and start scrolling through an app. Suddenly the day laid out in front of me would melt away and I had nothing to show for it except my lack of willpower. What an embarrassment. What shame I feel.
Before I heard Newport on Hidden Brain, I had already decided to take an extensive leave of absence from my biggest time suck: Twitter. I did this by having my husband change my password and not tell me what it is. I did not trust myself to simply stay off of it. I know myself too well.
I tried to do it with Facebook, too, but for reasons not interesting enough to go into here, I couldn’t.
And then there was a recent episode of Note to Self (another favorite podcast) that told me to try to break away from my reliance on my iPhone by deleting the apps I distract myself with the most. Goodbye, puzzle game where I match up fruits to feed baby animals. Then I’m supposed to put my phone in the other room, take a break from it, give myself space to breathe without that invisible tether between me and this device.
There was also that moment with my therapist a couple of months ago. I talk to my therapist a lot about how easily I’m distracted and how much I hate that and it causes me to miss deadlines and then I get anxious. But also about how my anxiety needs distractions because if I leave my brain alone too long, well, let’s just say I don’t trust it to focus on the positive. Y’all, not to put too fine a point on my obsession with never resting my brain, but I read while I brush my teeth. Anyhow, back to my therapist’s office a few months ago, when I was cursing at the existence of my fucking email inbox and how it seems to always be growing. It’s like a hydra. I send an email thinking I’ve vanquished one of the many heads and two pop up in its place. A infinite source of unmet expectations. My therapist asked me, how many times a day do you wish you could check your email? “None,” I said without thinking. What would be realistic? “4, maybe?” What is it now? “All the time!”
I was ready for someone to present me with answers for how to stop being distracted and to, instead, do the kind of researching and writing that I love. In stepped Newport and his concept of deep work.
The concepts in the book are simple on their face. There are two kinds of work: deep and shallow. Deep work is defined on page 3: “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Shallow work, on the other hand: “noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Newport then spends the rest of the book telling you why deep work is the best and how great you’re going to feel when you get good at doing it, and how draining shallow work is and how you need to cut it out of your life as much as possible.
This is so seductive. Newport explains deliberate practice, attention residue, and how we substitute busyness for productivity (looking like you are doing something is not actually an indication that you are, in fact, producinganything).
I underlined the sentence, “The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhibit.” Oh my god, yes, what this man just said.
The majority of the book is about the how of it all — deep work is great but teach me how I can do it. And he does. I am now ready to try it. I have goals and metrics and schedules to fill in each day. I am going to embrace a hard stop at the end of the day (no work, including emails!, at night), using the time I’m walking the dog to work through a particularly thorny part of an argument I’m writing, and not always immediately turning to the ease of scrolling through my phone when I’m even the slightest bit bored. I’m ready to try anything. What Newport lays out, in large part, seems doable. At least doable-ish.
And the reason I am unsure still is because I don’t think Newport wrote this book with me in mind. Sure, in the broadest strokes, he did. I am someone whose work benefits greatly from intense focus and concentrate. I am an easily distracted person who loves Twitter and games on my phone too much.
But there was something about Deep Work that bothered me over and over again: It’s about men. And while I didn’t check, I think it’s mainly white men. There are a lot of examples of people in this book who have successfully used deep work to advance their careers and so much credit is given to this concept of working (rather than, say, their success is, in part, because they are white men in a world that eases the way for white men).
I kept thinking while reading about these men: who is doing all the other stuff? Who is doing this man’s laundry? Or picking up his kids? Or planning his dinners? Or taking care of his elderly parent? Or paying his bills? Or, you know, doing the ever-exhausting labor of managing the domestic aspects of his life?
I remember there was a flippant sentence somewhere in the book about how you should hard stop at a certain time but if you have to push that back just a bit to finish the task, that’s ok sometimes. And I thought, “what if you have to get your kid from after care every day at 4:30 no matter what so there’s never a possibility to finish the task?”
If we are talking about work in a serious fashion and being able to rid ourselves of the shallow in our lives, what of the household management?
Certainly, there are plenty of men who do that work, too. But we know that this kind of work is gendered. It just is. And it wears you out.
So, let’s look at two examples from Deep Work.
“A doctoral candidate named Brian Chappell, who is a father with a full-time job, also values deep work, as it’s the only way he can make progress on his dissertation given his limited time.” Lovely. Good for Brian. As someone who started but never finished a dissertation and who was also a working mother as I did(n’t do) it, I applaud his effort.
Newport tells us that Chappell eventually landed on what Newport calls the rhythmic philosophy of deep work. “This philosophy argues,” Newport writes, “that the easiest way to consistently start deep work sessions is to transform them into a single regular habit.” What this meant in practice for Chappell was that “he would wake up and start working by five thirty every morning. He would then work until seven thirty, make breakfast, and go to work already done with his dissertation obligations for the day.”
It’s entirely possible that for brevity’s sake, Newport left out the childcare Chappell was doing in the morning. But maybe someone else was doing that childcare? Part of my point here is that Newport doesn’t even hint at this even though he does let us know that Chappell is a dad. I think we’re supposed to infer that makes him more busy and so him finding and using deep work is even more of a feat. Is that the whole story, though?
Or take Newport’s inclusion of Donald Knuth, a famous computer scientist. Knuth does not have an email address. If you want to reach him, you have to snail mail him. Newport uses Knuth as an example of an extreme form of deep work, called the monastic philosophy. “This philosophy attempts to maximize deep efforts be eliminating or radically minimalizing shallow obligations.”
What happens to Knuth’s snail mail then, when it arrives? “He says that his administrative assistant will sort through any letter arriving at that address and put aside those that she think are relevant. Anything that’s truly urgent she’ll bring to Knuth promptly, and everything else he’ll handle in a big batch, once every three months or so.”
You caught that “she,” right? I circled it in my book. I then wondered about getting rid of shallow work because you have enough money to pay someone to take on the burden of it for you and what that, as much as the gendered aspect of this book, tells us about who gets to do deep work.
There is such a dearth of women as examples of the successful implementation of deep work that when Newport introduces Radhika Nagpal on page 237, I actually put three exclamation points in the margins by her name. Nagpal is the Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, a mother, and deep work works for her! Yes! It is possible. Ok! How badly do I wish the section about her told us anything about how she managed the mother part of her life alongside the professional/deep work part of it.
Maybe, in practice, it will be easier than it seems. Maybe by getting rid of the distractions in my life and devoting more time to deep work, it will free me to have more time to get the domestic tasks handled. Maybe the anxiety and stress of household management and the large amount of shallow work that you cannot simply ignore as the household manager will not be as much a hindrance to doing deep work as I fear it could be.
This is all to say, I liked Deep Work a lot. I would highly recommend it to people struggling with the same issues I have been. You should give this a chance. I’m going to start implementing parts of it in my life as much as I possibly can.
I’m going to have to do it around things, though, that were never directly addressed in the book.