Deep Work by Cal Newport just might change your life.
The book should come with a warning: be prepared for a sea change.
It’s one of the business books I’ve read to try to make myself a better educator. If you’re a teacher, you need this book. If you have a job, you need this book. Trying to anything really valuable with your life? You need this book.
I would encourage parents to read this book and share its ideas with their kids. If you have teens, it would make a great family book club read.
The Premise of Deep Work
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown. He’s very young and very, very smart. He is also very, very, very productive.
One reason he is so productive is that he has harnessed the power of what he calls “deep work.”
Deep Work is different from other (shallow) work in that it requires:
- sustained concentration
- a high level of skill and training
and it produces:
- work that is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the norm.
He argues that our economy rewards those who (with a few specific exceptions) are able to use Deep Work to produce truly spectacular results.
I began the book as a skeptic and finished it an acolyte.
The Deep Work Argument about Divided Attention
Being a professor himself, he quotes a lot of studies. This should come as no surprise. One study he quoted (“Why is it so hard to do my work?” by Sophie Leroy of the University of Minnesota).
In her study, she discusses the loss of efficacy in people who have to switch from one task to another. When we do this, part of our attention remains with the abandoned task, a phenomenon called “attention residue.”
You leave the task; your brain just can’t leave it alone.
Leroy says, “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task.”
What I acknowledged after reading this was that I have been undermining myself by not having solid blocks of time to work. For years I’ve done this – grading papers whilst trying to binge watch Call the Midwife on Netflix, talking on the phone while typing, making lesson plans while in faculty meetings (#guilty), etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (imagine overblown British accent here).
This has had a real cost. I make mistakes. Sometimes, these mistakes are costly.
I don’t always end up with the quality of work I’m capable of. I’ve felt frazzled. Sometimes, I’ve felt out of control of my time. I’ve felt overloaded.
I was wrong. I wasn’t overloaded. And even when I was overloaded, I made it worse. I was overloading myself. And my brain quit. (Like the book The Day the Crayons Quit. Don’t go look it up now – it’ll cost you in attention residue.)
I resolved to focus on one thing at a time, deeply focus.
If you’re teaching, you can’t just say, “Okay, kids, time for you to let me engage in some Deep Work. Talk amongst yourselves.”
What you can do is use your planning time wisely, guarding it from things that would steal your attention. You can focus on the grading when you’re grading. Focus on the planning when you’re planning, focus on the kids when you’re teaching (put the phone down, please).
The Deep Work Argument about Divided Attention
Newport quotes Winifred Gallagher’s book Rapt, when she says, “Skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.”
(Note: “sine qua non” means “the essential thing” and is pronounced “sinna qwah nahn.”)
Let yourself read Gallagher’s statement a few times. I did.
Then Cal Newport drops this thought bomb:
Avoid “allowing your attention to drift over to the seductive landscape of the shallow.”
Consider all of the seductive shallows that catch your attention every day…every hour…sometimes every minute.
He explores ways we can make sure that this doesn’t happen to you, including being more intentional about the scheduling of our time, avoiding allowing ourselves to be at the mercy of the addictive enticement of social media and phone notifications, and controlling email.
Yep, controlling email.
He has a few suggestions specifically about that, including:
create a sender filter
This involves some kind of system for filtering out unnecessary emails.
One way of doing this is to use the rules in your email program to send certain emails into different folders and keep them out of your inbox (#bathandbodyworks).
Another way is to have an auto-responder that shares information about how emailing you works. (This strategy works well with the next suggestion, so stay tuned).
Thank you for emailing me. I’m engaged with my students from 8:05am – 3:20pm. I check emails each day at 7:30am and again at 3:40pm. I will respond to your email during the next available time. Please check my FAQ page to see if your question is answered there.
If it is, please feel free to send me an email that simply says, “answered” in the subject line. Then I will know you were able to obtain the information you needed.
If you need to schedule a parent conference, my conference times are x.
create an FAQ page
We all get very similar emails all of the time. The same questions. The same needs. If you track those, you can create a simple FAQ page that answers those questions. Your school district may give teachers a website, but if not, you can use Google Sites to make a simple website or simply put your FAQ page on a simple Google Doc and share it.
The kinds of things we see include things like:
- What happens if my child loses a copy of an assignment?
- Where do I find make-up work?
- How often are grades updated in the computer?
- What do I do to make a parent conference?
- How long does it take to return graded work?
- How much time should the homework take?
If you keep track of the emails you get, you’ll be able to determine if something is being asked that could be answered in an FAQ.
Answer each email more fully
This one seems odd, but hear me out. Newport’s suggestion is that we respond more fully to emails when they come, we avoid the back-and-forth we so often engage in. He gives business examples, so I’ll share a school one and a home one.
You receive an email from the counseling office that a parent wants to schedule a conference. Rather than just writing back a generic response, consider writing back something like:
I’m available Tuesday or Thursday from 11 – 11:30. If either of those times work, please let me know. I’ll consider your reply confirmation of the conference.
If you receive an email that makes suggestions, consider taking more time to respond, adding in specific tasks you will do. Planning in the process makes it more likely that you will save time later. It’s that old “a stitch in time.”
Deep Work and the Any Benefit Fallacy
This was one of the most powerful things I took away from the book.
Newport explains that we often buy into the Any-Benefit fallacy. It says:
You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use,
or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
He talks specifically about social media (which he avoids), but it works for everything.
Just because something has some benefit doesn’t mean it’s worth doing or using. This is the old “the good is the enemy of the best” dynamic. I had to really think about this.
What this looks like in real life
We rarely allow ourselves to be distracted from our most important purpose with things that are ridiculous. We have a harder time not allowing ourselves to be distracted from our most important purpose by things that are good.
I’ve noticed that many teachers are on their phones all day. I mean, all day. It’s not okay.
Even if you’re tweeting cool stuff out, your attention is focused on your phone, rather than your work. Could you consider taking the picture in the moment and sending it later? Is there going to be real harm caused if you don’t respond to that text right now?
Newport suggests this process:
- Identify your high-level goals. What is it you’re really trying to do? What is critical?
- List the two or three most important activies you do to satisfy that goal.
- Consider the tools you’re using and identify them as having either a substantially positive impact, a substantially negative impact, or little impact on those goals.
The last one was the hardest for me. I had to really consider whether I was lying to myself about how much benefit some things I was spending time on really gave me. Facebook? Gone. Email? Totally changed my process. I’ve set aside time to truly evaluate my main goals and be reflective about whether I’m engaging in the activities and using the tools that will really help me get there.
I found Deep Work truly rewarding, and I highly recommend it.
Worth Reading Rating: 5
You can learn more about my Worth Reading Rating System here.
Looking for other great reads?
I’ve got reviews on others like:
- The Talent Code
- Why Don’t Students Like School
- The Boys in the Boat (If you haven’t read this, just stop your life and go read it.
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