In this type of environment, knowledge workers who can master new skills or learn new information quickly and then use these tools to innovate are valuable and rare.
But more than that, Cal Newport says Deep Work is meaningful. Getting into a state of flow is the ultimate feel-good, more so than relaxation. But beyond that, for Newport, presumably an atheist, work becomes the one source of meaning outside of the individual in the absence of God.
Though it’s tragic he rejects God, Newport is actually manifesting a fundamental reality about work’s role in the lives of humans as image-bearers of God.
In the Christian worldview, work was God’s second commandment to people. (The first was to have lots of babies.) Adam and Eve were tasked with extending the order and beauty of the Garden of Eden over the wild tangle of the rest of creation. They were to imitate the Creator who only took one day off in seven. Later, Jesus said his Father was always at his work, and he was too. (John 5:17)
But the reality is that work is not pure pleasure. The Biblical explanation is that the ground was cursed after Adam and Eve’s first sin. The soft ground began to produce thorns and thistles in addition to edible produce. Work became sweat-inducing toil. In other words, painful things get in the way of our work and work is often hard. For me the daily barrage of email to deal with is my thistles. The act of concentration on writing or marking is so intense it makes my brain sweat, if not my actual brow.
So here’s my disagreement: unlike Newport, I do not believe work itself is “sacred”—whatever that means to an atheist. Sacred means holy, consecrated, set apart. Work is the business of life, so in contrast the Sabbath is the sacred day, set apart from the others. For me, it’s more accurate to call work a divine mandate. On the other hand, I agree wholeheartedly with him that work is not something to be endured to get to the real living of relaxing. His image of approaching our knowledge work as skilled craftsmen is a beautiful one.
The second part of Deep Work, The Rules, is full of ways to minimize the thorns and thistles and get straight to the sweat-of-your-brow.
First, isolation is the key to getting anything done. There are three types:
1. Total monastic isolation: you know, cabin in the woods solitude for at least five days up to several months until the project is complete. This is what Kazuo Ishiguro calls “The Crash”.
2. Bi-modal isolation: a weekly on-off pattern. One to four days a week of total isolation.
3. Rhythmic isolation: A daily routine of several hours of focused work.
There’s a fourth, journalistic deep work, but that involves switching gears rapidly between life and writing projects. Not for newbies.
Second, embrace boredom. Don’t constantly be reaching for distracting stimulation (random web browsing, checking social media, etc…) If your brain can’t handle a little bit of boredom, it won’t have the muscle to focus deeply when it needs to. It will be constantly seeking to get out of deep work the minute it gets a little boring or hard.
Third, quit social media. This is his clarion-call. He doesn’t have Facebook, Twitter or any other social media account and he rightly says,
They offer personalized information arriving on an unpredictable intermittent schedule—making them massively additive and therefore capable of severely damaging your attempts to schedule and succeed with any act of concentration. (p. 206)
Fourth, drain the shallows. In other words, minimize the time spent doing any work that you could easily train a bright recent grad to do in a few weeks. He gives all kinds of specific advice for dealing with email and other urgent-non-important interruptions. For example, check email once or twice a day only. If not, then give email only ten-fifteen minutes out of each hour. Or, create filters on your email so that only the most relevant ones get through.
But Deep Work wasn’t just an interesting read for me. It had a profound impact on my writing life. I had been mulling over the question, “How can I make progress on my novels and blog while teaching full-time?” I didn’t want to leave writing for “after” or for summer vacation either. The transitions were too difficult and I was feeling burdened by guilt as day after day went by with no writing.
The section on isolation struck a chord. I realized that both total and partial isolation were impossible for me, and the journalistic method didn’t work either because I could always find some excuse for not writing after work or on weekends.
The only option left was the one I had been resisting. I’d have to follow Jules Verne’s and Anthony Trollope’s example: write before work. Waking at 4:50 am seemed way too early, but the pay-off of starting my work day having reached my quota of 1000 words is lower stress. No “I-should-be-writing” hanging over my head.
Other tips I’ve garnered from Deep Work:
-be more vigilant about email
-be aware of when my brain is craving novelty and distraction and resist fulfilling that craving.
-try “walking meditation” to think through problems
Anyway, pre-Cal Newport I was not writing frequently. After discovering his incredible message, here I am, writing away before dawn every day.
What projects have you got simmering in the background that aren’t getting done? Maybe reading Deep Work will help you find your focus.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!