“A deep life is a good life,” claims Cal Newport in his 2016 book “Deep Work” (Grand Central Publishing, 263 pages).
By “a good life” he means a life in which you are thriving, doing your best work, thinking your best thoughts, making good decisions, having good conversations, achieving balance.
The ticket, claims Newport, is to establish time in your daily or weekly routine that is protected so you can think “in a state of distraction-free concentration.” This deep work gives you insights into your own life, stretches your mind, and increases your ability to come up with new ideas and solve problems.
In contrast, “shallow work” includes all the things we do while partially distracted by other things asking for our attention. To be sure, much shallow work is necessary and good—like answering emails for work or texts from your kids. But the ability to be continually connected to the Internet and to every human being we’ve ever met (even just virtually) means that shallow work can eat up our entire lives if we let it.
Because so many of us spend so much time doing shallow work, deep work has become a rare and valuable skill. Newport calls deep work “the superpower of the 21st century,” a phrase he takes from business writer Eric Barker.
Newport assumes we already realize that Network tools are causing permanent damage to our mental ability to concentrate. If you want to explore this, check out “The Shallows,” by Nicholas Carr; “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” by William Powers; “The Tyranny of E-mail,” by John Freeman; or Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s “The Distraction Addiction.”
The first half of Newport’s book makes the case that deep work is valuable, rare, and meaningful. The second half fulfills the promise in his subtitle: “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”
Rule #1 is to actually do deep work. This isn’t easy, even when we’re convinced that it would help us be happier and more effective. Shallow work is simply easier. It’s also more interesting. Surfing websites, reading email, checking Facebook, watching Netflix or television, talking on the phone—activities like these tickle our brain. Making a plan ahead of time – setting an appointment with yourself to do deep tasks—works well for many people, especially if it’s the same time every day or week so that the force of habit works in your favor.
Rule #2 is to embrace boredom. Research has shown that when we get addicted to stimulation, our capacity to focus decreases, and we can’t just decide to think deeply. We need to train our brain by practicing being okay without stimulation. When you check your phone (or whatever tickles your brain) “at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” Newport recommends scheduling times to go online/check your phone. The rest of the time, leave it alone and live a deeper life, because “a deep life is a good life.”