Taking Cal Newport’s Deep Work Seriously

A U.S. civic worker. From Bureaucratics (2008)

One of the things I talk and write most about is reading. This is the puffer fish intellectualism of someone who has a lot to say yet knows that most of it has already been said. My bookshelf is a window into how much of my knowledge, and therefore my identity, is on loan from other people.

On the bookshelf of my Being, the most embarassing shelf is marked: Productivity. Every so often, I take a break from theories of societal collapse to learn how to respond to emails more efficiently. I love this self-help subgenre, and I hate that I love it. I’ve read Nir Eyal’s Indistractable, James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing.

However, no productivity author has stuck with me quite like Cal Newport. I followed his 30-day ‘Digital Detox’ in Digital Minimalism and cut my phone usage from 2.5hrs/day to 40 minutes or so. I read Deep Work a while ago, but re-read it recently as part of my effort to read fewer books this year.

A central argument of Deep Work is that a trained, focused, and undistracted mind can do around three or four hours a day of meaningful work, but that those few hours will be highly productive and rich in insight. He’s speaking to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow state, a situation in which we feel highly attuned with the task before us.

Newport has never had a social media account and speaks with the measured cadence of a retired woodworking teacher. His book evinces some amount of unacknowledged privilege — he mostly speaks to people engaged in high-value, well-remunerated intellectual labour. Entering into the flow state is impossible when one is working under impoverished, precarious conditions that push us to the limits of our health and well-being.

However, even the privileged who work in well-paid knowledge economy jobs find it challenging to flow with their work. The prevalence of bullshit jobs and petty power heirarchies blocks flow like a concrete dam. And when interpersonal problems are solved there are personal habits which prevent us from engaging in deep work. Digital distraction and dopamine addiction mean we struggle to flow with anything less rewarding than a slot machine. My own brain was raised on video games, so I long struggled to flow with anything that doesn’t involve catchy 8-bit tunes, gold medals and leaderboards.

Deep Work, then, should be seen as an aspirational goal, a vision for how knowledge work could be in a fairer society. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Newport’s newer books verge on, without ever quite entering into, structural critique. Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email each look at some of the structural reasons behind our failure to create conditions that support people engaging in deep work.

However, Newport would make the case that even many of us who could organise our life around Deep Work fail to do so. Indeed, people on higher incomes tend to work more hours than people on lower incomes. When Kelloggs conducted the first experiment in a six-hour work day, workers demanded that they work eight hours instead as they wanted all the new products being created in post-war consumerist America. For all the structural barriers to deep work, the biggest seems to be the hedonic treadmill — a drive for accumulation, capital growth, and conventionally-defined success.

Newport’s follow-up books, Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, both hint at what is missing from Deep Work: A renunciation of excess. As his later books encourage us to give up our addiction to distracting technologies, Deep Work tacitly encourages us to give up work-as-identity and work-as-accumulation. I would argue that what Newport advocates for (these are my words, not his) is the minimalist idea of work for flow. At it’s apotheosis, work becomes something closer to playan activity undertaken only for its own sake.

There’s good evidence that hunter-gatherer societies only worked around 4 hours per day. They likely found work joyful and did not work for capital accumulation or social status. We should be careful about generalising from deep history, but there are certainly lessons to draw in terms of what we may need to renounce before seriously pursuing deep work.

There is little marginal value beyond working a few hours per day. If your work is mostly intellectual labour, you would benefit from working fewer hours and resting the mind — Plato hung out at the gymnasium, Carl Jung built a stone house, and Jenny Odell goes birdwatching. This is the space where ideas germinate, collide, and crosspollinate. It’s the space that ensures your hours of work have real value, generate real insight and can create meaningful social change.


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