Deep Work – my review of a very good book

Cal Newport helps us see how to restrict ‘shallow work’ and its distractions, to work productively, and at depth.


I’ve been reading and hugely enjoying Cal Newport’s new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.  If you don’t know Newport he works at Georgetown University as a computer scientist, and has an interesting blog at Study hacks

His day job has two elements: the need to produce research papers and books, and the constant, rival need to attend to people, emails, meetings – the usual round of things that, in most jobs, if you don’t do them, you get the sack.  He calls this ‘shallow’ work – it’s necessary, but doesn’t contribute in any way to his ‘deep’ work of demanding thinking and writing.

Newport’s central insight is that most productivity tools don’t really help him, because they focus on being better at the ‘shallow’ stuff.  They’re good at that, and everyone needs systems to handle emails and tasks. But Newport’s point is that we need to move beyond controlling the shallow work, to constraining it – we can finish a week of ‘shallow’ work, exhausted, apparently having done our jobs, but not actually working at depth.  And so we need other, deliberate systems, to encourage us to work at a demanding  but fruitful level of focus.

Here  are what I think are key insights, followed by some of my takeaway for pastors (I don’t know if Newport is a Christian or not – that doesn’t appear in his book).

We are easily distracted.  Something in our brains loves the shiny, the new – and what slays us is that we live in a culture where toys have been designed which appeal directly to that love. I like my tech toys too, and I resonate deeply with what he observes – that a few minutes flicking over pages on my phone is hard to stop, and when you’ve done it for a while, it becomes even harder.  It is addictive. (You might be experiencing this right now – what should you be doing while you’re reading this?).  And as Newport rightly observes, the web especially is being tailored to distract – careful algorithms design the clickbait and updates that appear on your screen, tailored to your interests and, depending on your browsing history, your temptations.  Humans are easily distracted, and the web is a massive machine for generating that distraction.

Distraction uses up productive time.  That’s obvious, and Newport hardly mentions it.  Time is a limited resource, and what we spend watching YouTube cannot be spent again.  That’s not a new insight, nor is Newport making a big thing of it – although he does note studies that show people consistently underestimate the time they spend watching TV or browsing the web.  British studies.

Distraction uses up productive energy. This is key, and is now emerging from a number of studies.  The brain is a physical organ using energy, and just like a muscle, it tires.  It doesn’t need rest (it never rests, even when we sleep) but it does require change: it can only make so many decisions before the will becomes tired.  That’s why shopping malls are so mentally tiring. And equally it can only handle so many distractions.

Newport’s point here is that we think that by browsing the web we are giving our brains a break – but actually, we are tiring them, and thereby reducing our ability to focus hard when we switch YouTube off.  We would be better reading a book, or even watching an extended movie, than constantly switching tasks.

Deep work requires focus for blocks of time.  We know this,really, don’t we?  Writers, composers, need extended periods with no other distractions to get their work done.  Newport’s done his homework – he reckons that even the most productive people can only do this kind of depth work for a maximum three to four hours, and then they need to switch to something else.  Stories are legion of famous novelists never working beyond mid-morning, for instance.  They isolate to focus, and they come up for air, to breathe. They walk, fish, garden –  they recharge, even daily. Sabbath is a weekly discipline.

Deep work requires productive energy.  That’s the reason – the brain requires food and appropriate rest.  But Newport points out that checking email while we are trying to work at depth, not only breaks our flow of thought, but actually reduces our capacity to focus when we switch back.  Our brain’s ability to focus is also a finite, although renewable, resource.

Don’t confuse focus with depth. Many people are talking about ‘Flow’, ever since it was observed by the wonderful but unspellable Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  ‘Flow’, or ‘being in the zone’, is that experience of rapt attention where you don’t notice time fly, and you are unusually productive.  Everyone knows it, and the theory goes that the best work for us is one that enables each person to get into that space as much as possible.  This is my observation,not Newport’s: working at ‘depth’ is often identical with an experience of ‘flow’ – but I notice that I can also get it from ‘shallow’ work, and that’s a danger.  let me make a confession – I can get in the ‘flow’ by designing PowerPoint slides.  I know – it’s really trivial, and almost the epitome of ‘shallow work’, but choosing backgrounds and fonts engrosses me.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that – unless I confuse my experience of ‘shallow flow’ with working at ‘depth’.

Multitasking is over.  Again, we know it, so stop it.  One thing at a time.  Switch off the alerts.  Your brain cannot consciously address two tasks at the same time – it fools you into thinking that it can by switching attention rapidly.  It’s bad for thinking hard, and it’s tiring. Stop it

Be ruthless. Learn to say ‘no’ – that extra meeting, speaking event, article you’ve been invited to write, are all ‘shallow’, flatteringly distracting you from depth.  That’s true even if they require attention and focus, because they are distractions from your own, unique deep work. And he takes particular aim at the way we have been seduced into thinking at a constant online digital presence on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is a necessity for today’s thought leaders.

So, lessons for pastors

Our unique deep work starts with knowing God – and that means deliberate time for prayer and bible. Our own relationship with God is deep work, which is why finding some mechanism for making sure we are keeping that alive, rather than doing it for the sake of other people, is critical.

Sermon prep is our weekly deep work.  We have to be, we want to be, faithful and fresh each week,  with 25 minutes of spiritual food.  So identify that as the key work, put it in the diary, and don’t allow it to be eaten away.

Sermon prep has elements of shallow work – don’t confuse them.  I used to write out my sermons, by hand, in full.  It took hours, and counted in my prep time.  I think it taught me clarity and careful expression, but it came at a price.  Now, I would advise my younger self to spend more time thinking throughs the pastoral implications, and less time on unnecessary but engrossing labour.

Sermon prep uses blocks of time – don’t be fooled into pulling them together.  If it takes 12-15 hours to prepare a sermon, spread them out.  Assume that you’ll need processing time when you’re out for a run or walking the dog – and that that’s OK.  Your brain works differently sitting at a desk, to mulling while you stare at the sky.  I know the advice to ‘stay in the chair until the work is done’, and that’s a critical component – but I also know that if I spend too much time at a stretch on that task I become stale and predictable.  Chunk the time, do the hard yards, and then come out of that work into something quite different.

Work in a deep environment.  Newport talks about people having writing cabins in the woods – not many of us have that luxury.  But we would be well advised to make sure that our study is a study, not an office.  We are distracted, so make sure the desk is clear of other tasks, or (as I’ve started to do) work in a different space where only those books and papers you need are with you, and there’s nothing tantalising to catch your eye. Go offline for hours at a stretch. I’ve started to blow the dust off an old laptop which doesn’t have wifi, so I can work without the constant temptation to check stuff.  And I’ve started to think about using an old phone on occasions, so I can be reached but, again, I can’t be dazzled by tinsel on a screen.

It’s a fascinating book, and not long or hard to read.  Have a go and tell me what you think – it’s not as obvious as perhaps I’ve made it sound.  Those of you heading into or on sabbaticals might find it a really helpful starting point.

You can buy Deep work here:
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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