Regaining Focus: A Review of Deep Work by Cal Newport

Previously Published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


It’s hard to focus. I sit down to begin our homeschool day with one child. The washing machine cycle finishes and beeps until I attend to it. The littlest one needs a diaper change. I hang the clothes on the clothesline, sit down again and realize we never swept the floor after breakfast (or dinner the night before). I get a text message. Now the littlest one is crying because the next littlest is in his seat on the couch. He owns so many seats. The moment I get a chance, I retreat to the internet where it feels safe, noise-and-toddler-free, for a moment of adult time to read the news or check my email. I check Facebook. I do this again and again and again.

According to Cal Newport, this is why it is hard to focus.



Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, published in 2016, brings up some terrible news. The internet is a distraction.

But wait, there’s more.

Deep work is defined 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.” One replace “professional” with “intellectual” freeing these activities to those outside the work-for-pay environment.

Based on the principle of least resistance, human beings will generally “tend toward behaviors that are easiest at the moment.” The Internet makes things so easy. Distraction is easy. Checking and responding to emails is so much easier than the hard intellectual work.

And it is difficult to solve problems that take figuring. How to construct some apparatus; to turn thrift store clothes into Pokemon costumes; to read and write about Tolstoy’ to understand with empathy and insight the problems your partner faces. Deep work is hard.

Most other things are easy.

We are a distracted society. How do we improve?

There are two ends to get at. One is increasing one’s work skills deeply and the other is to put “shallow work” in its proper place.

To develop the skill, focus on what is important, keep a compelling scoreboard, end work at a certain time, create downtime, learn to meditate (he suggests by walking – a physical activity that does not require mental focus), improve your memory. To limit the distraction: schedule breaks from times of focus for shallow work, keep time outside of those breaks internet free; schedule your day, every minute of it.

The time went spend combined with the intensity with which we focus will produce high-quality work. Is it worth it?

Newport cites the principle that 80% of benefits derived comes from 20% of factors. Even if there is some benefit to social media, we are likely overestimating it. To find perspective, he asks the reader to identify is foremost professional or personal goal. Select two or three activities that will lead to it. If your personal goal is to develop strong and lasting relationships? More likely than not, analog tasks like spending time in person will help you reach that goal in a more pronounced way than clicking “like” on Facebook.

The book is filled with many other insights about how the Internet works, challenging our accepted beliefs about the importance of social media in creative work.

Social media is not the only distraction.

Home life is distracting, not just because of the internet, but because of the competing needs of four children and my own sanity. When the time comes for me to sit down and write, I need to accept that I might have to leave the house. Based on his ideas, I can start with a walk, go somewhere quiet, away from the internet, have a plan in mind, and get down to work.

The steps he advocates are the ones I desire. I want to work by writing and I want to be present to my home and children.

There was once talk of “having it all.” This is the way to have it, limit distractions, work deeply when called for, put the screen aside and wrestle with the five-year-old.

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