Deep Work

Score: 5 / 10

Deep Work is a faux-sciencey self-help book about how to get more done. The book’s basic premise is that through practice and eschewing distracting technology, one can enter the titular state of “deep” work and achieve more in a few hours than one otherwise would in an entire day of “shallow” work.

I like this premise. It reflects my own experiences dealing with shallow work; I’ll often end a long, busy workday feeling unaccomplished and unproductive. Conversely, I can remember times when I’d spend hours just coding or writing away, so focused I’d forgo eating, and produce more in those hours than in an entire typical week. I suspect part of Deep Work’s popularity is that most people share these same experiences. People intrinsically know their work is often shallow and unproductive. They feel distracted, scattered, and unfocused. They want to fix it but don’t know where to start, and Deep Work provides a solution.

The good news is Deep Work offers perfectly sound advice. Structure/guard your time, get rid of distractions (including social media), try concentration practice/memory techniques to aid focus, commit to a small set of your most important goals.

The bad news is this advice is wrapped up in 200 pages of narrative, faux-science, and weird capitalist ethos. Deep Work is a book that should be a blog post. Its core message can be delivered in the form of a bulleted list. Instead, it offers boring anecdotes about blacksmiths, history lessons about great thinkers, and venerations of Silicon Valley CEOs and their unparalleled work ethic.

Worse, Deep Work sits in the uncomfortable space between scientific and accessible. It cites studies, professors, and experiments to back up some of its claims, but it also consistently relies on anecdata (my friend works this way and is successful) and small sample sizes (two great thinkers did this, so you should too). It’s not rigorous enough to be scientific, but it cites too many studies to be considered merely advice.

Deep Work feels like Newport started with a single A4-sized list of advice and then wrote a book around it. There are great ideas here, but you can pick them up from a summary somewhere on the web without spending hours reading. It’s ironic that a book dedicated to helping people reclaim their time wastes so much of it.