May 16, 2018 by readingoutside
I just finished reading Cal Newport’s popular non-fiction book Deep Work, and I have a lot of thoughts about it so bear with me as I try and work through them. I think this is an important work in a lot of ways and definitely deserves to be widely discussed and thought about. He hits the mark more often than not in his understanding of why deep work is important, and why we should all make more room for it in our lives. Unfortunately, I also think his suggestions will cause serious problems for a lot of people and there’s a lot he should have addressed that he didn’t. I want to state this upfront because I am ultimately going to recommend this book, but I am also going to give fair warning that I think it is fundamentally flawed.
Let me start by pointing out what I think he gets right. His concept of deep work is the kind of work that is entirely focused, distraction-free, and pushing your brain to its limit. It’s the sort of work that in creative circles is called “flow,” although he doesn’t address creative work much in these pages. This kind of deep work, he argues, is what you will ultimately be the most proud of and will leave the most lasting value in the world. And he’s right. His argument is simple: if what you’re doing is so easy a novice could do it, then why waste your time on it? Why squander all your education and expertise on meaningless tasks when you could be producing things of worth?
And this kind of production isn’t just good for the world. It’s good for you, too. Study after study has shown that our minds are happiest when engaged in challenging tasks. We feel more satisfied and relaxed afterward than if we had been trying to just relax mindlessly. I can’t help thinking of The Feminine Mystique and all the housewives’ restlessness, and the brilliant minds being squandered in housework when they should have been challenged in deep work. If only society had known more about this at the time.
He’s spot on about this part of our psychology, and I know it from my own personal experiences. Which is why I felt so uncomfortable when he discussed how to “drain the shallows.” Because I recognized that I, too, get distracted by low-hanging fruit like Facebook and Buzzfeed and work email. I too put off pushing myself to the limit at work and at home in favour of easier tasks. I put off writing at home so I can do laundry or play Tetris. At work I put off working on important projects that will help people, in favour of sending another email or updating my work Facebook. This section made me squirm, because I know I’m guilty. And that’s probably a good thing. A self-help book that doesn’t make you squirm a bit isn’t doing its job.
One of the most important arguments in the book is his suggestion that we need to embrace boredom and stop distracting ourselves. And it’s an important point. The reason isn’t because checking your phone is inherently bad, it’s that in doing so we train our brains to be intolerant of boredom. But we need those quiet times and spaces away from technology to reflect, recharge, and come back to our work fresh without being sucked into more clickbait. Our time is precious, he argues, and do we want to let shallow distractions steal it away? Should we let mindless Internet scrolling control our thoughts and attention? It’s a sobering realization, and a serious wakeup call for me, as I thought about just how much time I have wasted wading in the shallows.
This is all well and good, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out my personal problems with this book. It’s written by a man, it’s about men doing man things, and it’s making assumptions about its readers being white-collar knowledge workers. On one level I can relate. I do knowledge work, I don’t have kids to take care of, and my husband takes on a huge amount of the housework which frees me up to do things like writing and art. But I also realize this is an incredibly privileged position for me, a woman, to be in. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most women aren’t so lucky. The author writes about how great he is at getting all kinds of important things done, but he also says he has a wife and kids. Who, then, looks after his children while he’s doing his important computer science professor duties? His wife? A baby-sitter? How do they engage in deep work while they’re changing diapers and making lunch? Because the reality is, someone has to do it. While you’re sitting there thinking deep thoughts, someone has to be delivering your packages and picking up your garbage and stocking your supermarket shelves.
It’s a frustrating oversight of most people’s realities and one that has long been pointed out by feminists and people of colour. The ability to cloister yourself and work on profound things is an inherently privileged one. Of course it’s important, for all the reasons listed above, but the consequences of just ignoring all those “trivial” things are a lot more problematic if you’re not a white dude who can just have someone else do menial work for you. The fact that he basically ignores this is the book’s biggest problem. He does make a brief reference to the fact that, if you’re in a shallow job, you should get a better one, as if it’s just that easy. It’s telling that every single example he uses to show people who have worked deeply and produced great things are white men, with just one exception (J.K. Rowling working on Harry Potter).
If only there were a follow-up book, written by someone who has a lot more trivial responsibilities to take care of, on how they managed to get things done. That would be really inspiring.