If your value to an organization depends on the quality and insight of your thinking, Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, offers important insights about how to think about your thinking. The forces at work in our environment and in our organizations favor quick, shallow, and social over other forms of thought. That is generally adequate for much of the activity that fills our days.
Exceptional value, however, finds its roots in sustained, focused, individual thinking and reflection. Deep Work builds the case for this mode of thinking and offers paths to carve out the necessary time and develop the necessary mental muscles to engage in deep work more intentionally and predictably.
Newport defines deep work as
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
The ability to think deeply is a skill, so it can be developed. Much of the book offers counsel on techniques and practices that can help you develop your skills at deep work.
Newport is an academic computer scientist. In his world the contrasts between deep and shallow work can be stark. His binary distinction doesn’t transfer neatly to organizational settings where it is more useful to think in terms of a spectrum of work with shallow and deep anchoring the extremes. With the pressure toward superficial and shallow, there is great opportunity for individual knowledge workers to become more proficient at going deep.
Newport does offer practical advice for how to make deep thinking more possible. That advice needs tuning and refinement to work well in most complex organizations. Newport sums up why that effort matters thusly;
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.