A book review of Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, 2016, London: Little Brown.
It’s no secret that many of us find it difficult to find space to do the deep thinking that we need to push forward our work — our paid work, but also our self-work, or the work we want to do to for a personal project. Cal Newport, like many others, connects this with our constant connectivity and the dearth of focused quiet time we might clear in our lives each day. Indeed, many of my readers will be accessing this blog post via Facebook or Twitter (around 80% of you do so), and you may have clicked on this link while standing in a queue, waiting for an event to start, or even while distractedly listening to your kids tell you about a random dream they had last night. Some of you may have clicked on this because you got to a tricky bit in your academic writing work and decided to ‘have a break’ by scrolling through your feed.
Well, this is the kind of behaviour Newport is arguing pathologically reduces our ability to focus. And he is not alone. Indeed, there isn’t a week that goes by when my Facebook or Twitter feeds do not show a research article explaining the impact of social media on our ability to focus. My favourite news site, The Conversation, shows up 4 pages of articles when you search for Social Media, many of them on social media addiction, the social consequences for teens, and the effects of increasing distractedness. But it is not just social media that is distracting, Newport lists a whole area of work he describes as ‘shallow work’:
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
It is not hard to see that this entails almost all administrative tasks and indeed, most care-work too. He contrasts this with deep work:
Deep work: 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.
For those of us who are academics, this sounds like heaven — imagine distraction free time to work on our writing and research — or even for teaching preparation. Newport’s basic argument is that we should intentionally make time for Deep Work and contain the amount of time Shallow Work takes up in our professional lives.
Firstly, I will say that on principle I agree with Newport completely. I find the 50+ emails I get each day completely overwhelming and distracting and both anger and anxiety producing. It is easy to whip off a quick email or cc someone into something FYI, but each of those emails appears equally in line with super important emails, and must be dealt with somehow. If I answered every email I got every day, I would never get anything else done. I agree that we need to shift our ‘hub’ outside of our inbox, and more intentionally structure our days around the work we need to do to produce value.
This is all good and obvious advice, and has been floating around academic circles in a variety of ways for years: my number one favourite article on organising the academic life is The Awesomest Seven Year Post Doc: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure track academic life; The Thesis Whisperer has a whole category for ‘Getting Things Done’ that keeps us up to date with planning and organisational strategies including time blocking for deep work; Alison Miller’s Finish your dissertation: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move on With Your Life set me up with most of these concepts during my doctoral study years (completed while having two children and a full time job). Indeed, I even learned some of this in a session on study skills in my last year of high school, and from subscribing to ‘The Fly Lady’ in the early 2000s in an effort to get my housework under control. (I wonder if you have noticed what I have done here? Did you notice all these women thinking and writing about this issue?).
And this brings me to the niggling annoyance with reading Newport’s book. On the one hand, I want to give it to every graduate student I supervise and say ‘HERE. THIS. DO THIS.’ But on the other hand, it is distressing to see that Newport’s book is a particularly masculinist take on productivity (see also this review post on Thesis Whisperer). I think I’d feel better if the book was called ‘Deep work for men’ and just left it at that, and we all used my other sources which are more applicable to both men and women. What exactly do I mean by ‘masculinist’? I mean, a view of reality that is primarily based in the male experience but presented as universal — and to this we could no doubt add ‘white’ and ‘middle class’.
My concerns are based around the following: Newport ignore’s women’s deep work; Newport ignores power relations; and Newport creates a false dichotomy that devalues care-work. I’ll finish with some thoughts on how we can enable deep work on a more collective level.
Newport Ignores Women’s Deep Work
There are only about three examples in the whole book of women doing deep work, which a) perpetuates the stereotype that women are better at shallow work and are not cut out for this kind of work and b) immediately makes me suspicious of who is doing the ‘shallow’ care work that enables these men to focus on their deep work. Who looked after Carl Jung’s family while he was building his house in the woods? I immediately googled ‘was Carl Jung married?’ and look what I found on Wikipedia within five seconds.
Emma Jung (born Emma Rauschenbach, 30 March 1882 – 27 November 1955) was a Swiss Jungian analyst and author. She married Carl Gustav Jung, financing and helping him to make him the prominent psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology that he became, and had five children with him. Enduring his infidelities and mood swings, she was his “intellectual editor” to the end of her life.
This made me very, very sad. I’ve never heard of Emma Jung. I imagine she was at home trying to manage her own intellectual deep work while also looking after the five kids while Carl was off in the woods building his tower and doing his deep work. Lucky Carl. Too bad Emma. Which leads me to my second point:
Newport Ignores Power Relations
Some people are able to do longer stretches of deep work more easily than others. These are normally people who have someone to take care of much of the shallow work in their lives. For example, married men (research shows women in heterosexual relationships still do the majority of domestic organisational work). Or just men — in academic departments, academic women seem to take on a larger administrative load too. Why is this? Well, for one thing, the hard nose rules Newport recommends are more difficult for women to implement without negative effect. When Newport or the MIT professors he cites turn down an administrative task that contributes to the collective, who takes it up? Who is the coordinator for the graduate students? Who organises the learning and teaching committee? I recently went to a College of Science wide meeting of postgraduate coordinators, and bar one person, ALL of us were women, in a college/faculty where the majority are men.
This is not Newport’s fault — and Newport is obviously not a social scientist so hasn’t been trained to think about power relations. But still, it’s there. Do we choose to do these jobs and therefore just need to ‘try harder’ with prioritising ‘Deep Work’? Maybe, but I’m guessing that it’s because the standards men and women are held to are different. My husband and I often joke that if he turns up to drop the kids off at school and their faces are unwashed and hair unbrushed, people are like: “oh, it’s so great you make time for your kids”. If I was to drop them off like that, people would be more like “Are you drunk?”. The standards imposed on women with regards to so-called shallow work are higher. Newport and others who are white middle class men might have a bit of an advantage when drawing a hard boundary line. People expect male professors to be useless with communication and take it as an example of their intelligence. People expect women to be responsive and caring, and if they come across as useless communicators, well, it’s seen as ditsy or distracted. If they are hard-nosed about boundaries, especially with regards to family life, they can be seen as ‘uncommitted to the job’. Which brings me to my next point.
Newport Creates a False Dichotomy
I fully agree with Newport’s goal to increase and set aside time for Deep Work. But I don’t think it is helpful to do this by calling everything else ‘Shallow Work’. To lump social media in with care-work is really not accurate or helpful. Indeed, as philosopher Sara Ruddick argues, care-work and mothering can produce a particular kind of cognitive style that consists of non-dual and concretely productive thinking. This is the opposite of ‘masculinist’ thinking, which is often dualistic and based on strict boundaries between categories (see Gillian Rose’s work for more about this). I might cheekily suggest that if Newport was doing more regular care-work in and amongst his deep work, he too might be able to develop a less dualistic style of deep thought (I have no idea what his care-load is, but he talks about finishing work at 5.30pm and spending time with his kids which implies he isn’t doing his academic work in and around them and someone else cares for them until 5.30pm).
Perhaps we could talk in the affirmative about enabling deep work, without degrading everything else to shallow work. Indeed, the seeds of this are in Newport’s book, when he describes a number of different philosophies of deep work scheduling: The Monastic Philosophy (total separation from society), The Bimodal Philosophy (separating time periods into deep work retreats and everyday life), The Rhythmic Philosophy (creating a daily or weekly rhythm that allows for deep work to be scheduled), and the Journalistic Philosophy (intentionally taking what time you have in the interstices to do deep work — I would rename this one the ‘Part-time Mother-Worker Philosophy’). Except for the Monastic mode, the others all recognise the fact that deep work is just one part of life, and helps us to think about making space for it in and among the other kinds of important work we do.
Beyond Deep Work for Men
My good friend is finishing her PhD in Chemistry. She has five children, one of whom was born during her PhD. She knows the value of deep work, and structures her time so that when she gets a couple of solid hours free to work, she really focuses and gets the work done. No Facebook, no media sites or news. Very little emailing.
One of my PhD students has two children, and her husband is at home with them a few days a week. On the days that she has to do her work, she is ultra efficient. She completed her proposal and confirmation of candidature a few months into her enrolment, and is moving forward on her PhD at a pace unprecedented in our department.
In the final year of writing my PhD, I had my second child. Once she was around 5 months old, I arranged to have someone pick me up and take me to university at 8am every day. I then had four hours before I had to be home for the next breastfeed. I did as much work on my thesis in those four hours than when I worked fulltime. Perhaps more.
My point? Well, this style of work is a) familiar to mothers with time-scarcity since we have no choice but to focus intensely in the hours we have away from our children and b) relies on the carework of others oftentimes — either others taking up administrative loads we cannot meet due to our stretched schedules, or others taking up carework for a period to free us up.
To make the call for deep work relevant beyond the individual and the man, we need to think about how to enable deep work collectively. My next post will look at a number of collective enabling strategies for deep work.
Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge Travis Dombroski for folding all the washing (noncognitively demanding, logistical-style work that does not produce value) while simultaneously entertaining the three kids (distracted, but perhaps not easily replaced) while I wrote this blog post in bed on a public holiday with the door mostly shut. He also did the dishes and hung out the washing, he adds. I dedicate this post to Cal Newport’s partner.