Shallow Minds on Deep Work

by Michael Szul on

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This title is unfair.

Let me start by saying that I highly respect Cal Newport's thoughts on work and his computer science research. This title is just a title—meant to be provocative.

In a previous diatribe on Ultralearning, I discussed the prevalence of snake oil salesmen in the self-help/career coach/lifestyle arena. Scott Young's Ultralearning fits into this category, as does pretty much everything that Tim Ferriss produces. Really, these are people trying to live up to the expectations of their one huge breakout success. In self-help advice, it seems your 15 minutes of fame runs closer to 15 years, I guess.

Cal Newport, unfortunately, slots right in with the rest of them. I was recommended Deep Work by several people that I highly respect, so I tossed Newport some coins for that book and So Good They Can't Ignore You for some binge reading. To my mistake, I did so while also purchasing Ultralearning and failing to read the testimonial plastered on the front cover by Newport praising Scott Young's book. Later I found out that Young and Newport were working on a very expensive Internet course together. That tells you a lot of what you need to know about the treasure chest of tricks Newport is offering.

Here's a recent Twitter exchange I had with a friend:

Yes, Newport quotes Ferriss not in one, but in two different books. Ferriss, of course, shot to fame with his 4-Hour Work Week, which was a good read, but not generalizable to an audience outside of his own story. Despite this, people drooled over the book because of the dream of working less… and Ferriss turned it into an empire of snake oil.

Before we get into what's only my opinion, the reason I'm writing about this is because I've been laser focused on two areas recently: Productivity and learning.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a life-long learner, so these two items are always at the top of my list. But currently I'm an engineering manager on a short-handed team, trying to balance my time between value creation through programming and my obligations in leadership. Management is meeting-heavy and when it splits your day, you can lose a lot of productivity. We're all familiar with that old adage of makers vs. managers where makers schedule their time in blocks of 4 hours (before lunch and after lunch), but managers schedule their day in hourly increments (the normal time period for a single meeting). If the managers are scheduling the meetings without much input (or sensitivity) to the makers, you can split a maker's time block, ruining their scheduled block of detailed, complex work, and causing them to disrupt an entire 4 hour block.

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker's schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn't merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

Why is this such a problem? Why is there a difference between makers and managers in this realm? I think a lot of this comes back to complexity. Complex problems (e.g., engineering tasks) require complex mental maps for the engaged individual to immerse himself or herself in. This can be seen as the deep work that Newport talks about, but there are other authors who use different buzzwords.

To his credit Newport acknowledges these differences in complexity:

Learning something complex like computer programming requires intense uninterrupted concentration on cognitively demanding concepts—the type of concentration that drove Carl Jung to the woods surrounding Lake Zurich.

Differing levels of complexity require differing levels of concentration, and nothing ruins concentration more than having to focus on multiple things.

This brings us to context switching, which is likely the primary cause of productivity loss in knowledge work.

Even adding a single project to your workload is profoundly debilitating by [Gerald] Weinberg's calculation. You lose 20% of your time. By the time you add a third project to the mix, nearly half your time is wasted in task switching.

Of courses, Lean principles have spoken out about context-switching since the beginning. Lean attempts to bring attention to works in process (WIP), and has shown consistently that taking on too much work at once, greatly reduces productivity. Tackle one problem at a time in order to reduce WIP, but also reduce the amount of stale open requests that can bog down a project.

WIP is a leading indicator of cycle time. The more items that are worked on at the same time, the more doors open up that allow dependencies and interruptions to creep in.

Deep Work (Newport's book) promises to solve all ailments when it comes to productivity, while also encouraging work/life balance, and improving overall value creation.

First let me say that Deep Work is the best of Newport's books. In fact, it's very much his 4 Hour Work Week. This is the book that shot him into the shared mind-space of self-help productivity gurus. Deep Work is worth reading to get Newport's perspective on the subject as long as you don't expect it to change your life. Newport isn't sharing any unique ideas or secret sauce. He's collected a series of points that represent common sense, but provides some limited research to back it up, a few anecdotes, and a basic framework to follow (Newport creates hard coded "rules" for this), and he does this for the purpose of separating shallow work with little value from deep work with high value:

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.

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.

I'm hard on Newport because I do like some of his writing and there's potential in some of his ideas, but upon reading Deep Work and then moving onto So Good They Can't Ignore You I run into shades of Ultralearning. In fact, Scott Young quotes Cal Newport's Deep Work in Ultralearning, and reading through both authors tomes, it's no wonder Young is working with Newport on some side projects. Young clearly got his chapter formula from Newport. Ultralearning, Deep Work, and So Good They Can't Ignore You follow the exact same writing formula of opening a chapter with an anecdote, trying to generalize the success in that anecdote into a rule, and then coming up with a few best practices to ensure you adhere to the rule.

The result? Shallow books. All three of these books (including Young's) are less than 300 pages (mostly tracking around 200 pages—give or take), and if you remove all the anecdotes about other people's stories, you're left with half the size of the original book.

Basically, these books are just elongated blog posts with better marketing spiel associated with them. You're not getting the depth you expect in a traditional non-fiction book. What you're getting is something you can read in an extended weekend while you're on vacation that will leave you refreshed and ready to go back to work: Motivated with a few life changes.

For example, So Good They Can't Ignore You (besides the title) has a great line that resonates with me:

"Stop focusing on [the] little details,"" it told me. "Focus instead on becoming better."

Such a statement can be moulded in various ways as motivation on avoiding distraction, while concentrating on the task meant to make you good. It's a simple statement, but rings very clear.

To reiterate a point from earlier: I do like Cal Newport's ideas, and I think he's on the right track with most of the concepts he's gathered in Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You. I just think that the books are rushed, shallow in detail, and ultimately have been used to position the author and his friends into the Tim Ferriss and Seth Godin arena of productivity/life/career coaching, which borders dangerously on the snake oil being fed to too many early career professionals today.

As such, I'll leave you with a tweet (like how i began this post):

If you're a life-long learner and you like to read, you can devour Newport's books rather quickly, and doing so will give you a few pages of notes to work into your personal lifestyle changes for better habits. If you're looking for a deeper examination of learning and empowerment, you'll have to search elsewhere.

With that said, I will be using some of what Newport has expounded, and will certainly give credit where credit is due.