Don’t Row, Steer. A Professor’s Four Steps to Deep Work
Academics often find themselves information overload, juggling emails, administrative chores and committees while struggling to do the ‘deep work’ of contemplative thought required to be successful. Enter Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport with his offering for how to focus amidst the chaos of academia.
At about 250 pages, Deep Work is an accessible quick read from Cal Newport who gained fame offering study tips on his site Study Hacks.
Newport argues that humans are far better equipped (and more fulfilled) to deal with states of crisis than we are at performing mundane tasks. For those who are looking for a book that will encourage you to steer, not just row along, in your professional career, Newport’s Deep Work provides useful strategies to get things done.
The teachings of Jung, Csikszentmihalyi and others to are used to support his premise that individuals are hardened by personal and professional crisis, and that this need not be a bad thing. Crisis, argues Newport, can teach us how to work more effectively by defining not only what we want, but what we desperately don’t want.
Newport’s four step plan directs readers to leverage a crisis mentality and engage more intently with meaningful tasks. While I won’t go thru each of his Four Rules for Deep Work, the idea of tapping into my inner ‘crisis decision maker’ seemed a bit miserable. I have no desire to run around putting out personal or professional fires and the Deep Work strategy sounded like something better suited for perpetual procrastinators.
That being said, there were several parts of this pretty rigorous program that resonate and don’t require the kind of angst one normally associates with crisis. First, Newport advocates for a hardcore social media diet. And by diet what Newport recommends is more ‘die’ and less ‘diet’. While Newport accepts other kinds of distractions such as letting your mind wander and listening to music, but social media is pretty much out the window when adhering to Newport’s plan.
Other rules may about identifying the spaces, contacts, individuals, rituals and timing required to attain a state of deep work are equally challenging – the man is a computer professor for a reason. Newport emphasizes that few people are going to be able to think deeply in standard office or lab environments. He encourages readers to ritualize where they go to read and write, how long they work for, and how often they get feedback.
Academics prone to thriving in with some degree of distraction (hello friends with ADHD) will enjoy the fact that Newport has no problem with falling down intellectual rabbit holes, working with music or in busy environments. Deep Work outlines a surprisingly straightforward self check strategy to constantly evaluate useful distractions that lay the groundwork to creative thought and weed out thought patterns or tools that continually produce useless leads.
There’s lots that will resonate with academics about work products, teams and scholarship. I’m personally hoping Newport steps up with a ‘next steps’ manual that is more checklist oriented and provides some of the tools on time tracking that he suggests individuals develop as you read Deep Work.
This is a great book for folks who have the time and need to fully reevaluate their individual or team work strategy. For those of you luck to be on Vanderbilt’s campus, you can find it on the Red Cart of Bliss to borrow. For others, check it out at Amazon here.