Cal Newport’s Deep Work

Rain on High Street

I felt it this morning—the old year dying, making way for the new. At 7am in Melbourne it was dark, and cold, and wet. If it weren’t for my commitments to others I could have easily spent the day in bed. (Staring out the window and dozing. Reading comfort fiction and dozing some more…) Instead here I am, halfway through a moderately productive Solstice eve, sitting down to acknowledge where I’ve been over the past 12 months, and to envision where I’m going.

My thoughts this day are framed by Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World. I’m halfway through the book, and feeling inspired by the obvious love Newport has for the matter of concentration of attention as a practice for living. Deep Work is articulate, and meticulously structured, and it rings true to my 20 years experience in knowledge work that included roles both as ‘thinker’ and ‘manager’. It also speaks to my experiences as a craftsperson and as a long time practitioner in a meditation tradition that upholds the value of periodic silent retreat.

After years of wallowing in the distractions of early parenting—feeling like a milquetoast intellectual—Deep Work is just what I need. It reminds me, most eloquently, that concentration is a muscle. Flabby concentration isn’t good for much, but it can be trained. The trick is to come up with the right training plan, and to stick to it.

I’ve read Amazon reviews of Deep Work that claim Newport spends too much time faffing around with theory and anecdotes, and that he fails to come up with a quick and dirty cheatsheet for how to be successful. These reviewers have missed the point. There is no way to cheat on this. Newport’s message is uncompromising. It’s also the message I need right now.

Happy Solstice everyone. May your coming year be filled with intelligent perseverance, and with the satisfactions of work well done.

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