A Book Review by Claire Aitchison

Newport, Cal (2016). Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world London. Piatkus

“You need to read this!” said my colleague as she handed me this book. She’d heard of my struggles to survive in my new open plan office and she’d seen me sweat and strain under the daily tsunami of emails.

But I’ve never been a fan of the self-help genre, and besides that, I don’t have time to read for pleasure! So it sat around in my lounge room until, spurred on by guilt, I picked it up with the aim of reading just enough to politely return it. However, I found that, despite myself, I enjoyed it – enough to encourage doctoral students and academic friends to have a look for themselves. Cal Newport argues that most of us are unproductive workers who are constantly distracted by our workplace environments and habits. He promises not only to convince the reader of this view, but also to provide concrete ways of countering such distractions and to develop practices for deep thinking and sustained cognitive engagement. Who wouldn’t want for this?

Although I was initially, put off by Newport’s ‘you can too’ style which is peppered with occasional references to scientific papers and liberal doses of success stories – he does present an intriguing description of our working lives. Newport argues that our unmonitored engagement with the distractions delivered to us online are especially insidious because they address an irresistible desire for recognition and gratification – and in the case of social media and emails, these distractions deliver a social connectedness that can be doubly enticing because of the instant rewards (eg replies, likes, re-tweets) from minimal (physical and mental) effort. He is not the first to argue that unfettered distraction and interruption fragments attentiveness that changes the brain in the long term.

Irrespective of the veracity of the science, Newport is onto something of relevance to knowledge workers. Concerted and sustained thinking is the essence of scholarship and it is perhaps one of the most critical elements for doctoral success.

I found Part One the least engaging – indeed, almost to the point where I gave up. It didn’t need 90-odd pages to lay out the basic premise that sustained concentration (what he calls “deep work”) is a valuable but rare commodity. For me, the most rewarding bits occur in Part Two where Newport explores how to reshape one’s working life.

Here are some of his strategies that resonate for research writers and scholars:

  • The ‘grand gesture’. This refers to the effect of raising the stakes – by whatever means. To illustrate this, Newport tells how J K Rowling booked herself into an expensive hotel to finish a novel that had a non-negotiable deadline. It seems, the guilt of such an indulgence, combined with the expense, worked a treat.
  • Regularly, and in concerted blocks, take time away from the coalface: leisure and down-time aids productivity. Remember the old-fashioned idea of a relaxing (unconnected) holiday? A change in routine such as a writing retreat can create a similar boost for concentration and productivity.
  • Limit and corral work time (or time working on the PhD). Regular routines, and fixed start and finish times reduce cognitive load so that energy is not wasted rehearsing anew, at each sitting, what to do.
  • Practice ‘productive meditation’. By undertaking physical activity unrelated to the substantive task at hand, the mind is given time to reflect, consolidate and create.
  • Value, and design for, concentration. Newport advocates proactively training the brain to seek out quiet time and to build resistance to distraction and ‘noise’.
  • Internet abstinence. It will come as no surprise that Newport advocates regular periods of disengagement from social media and the Internet.
  • Email strategies. He also suggests strategies for reducing and managing emails, including an email formula that reduces the number of subsequent exchanges.

To a degree this book is entertainment, and some of the claims and proposals are somewhat pat; on the other hand, it is very readable and provides practical suggestions for desk-bound knowledge workers such as academics and doctoral students. We know that changing one’s behaviour and circumstances isn’t always simply a matter of applying willpower – agency, stage-of-career, cultural and power relations are just some of the prohibiting factors. However, it can be an important first step to recognise the things that contribute to our frustrations.

Not everyone has capacity to enact the strategies proposed by Cal Newport; nevertheless, I enjoyed exploring the premise that noise and distraction can often be modified or avoided – and that we have some agency for making a healthier and more balanced working life. I’ve already made some changes to how I deal with emails, monitor my working hours and find quiet time. What’s not to like about that? Next, I’ll redesign the open plan office…

If you have any suggestions for increasing productivity, we’d love to hear from you.