Can you Focus? — Book Review: Cal Newport’s Deep Work

Is Deep Work part of your life? A look at Cal Newport’s investigation into the art of focus: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

The ability to concentrate, to zone in, to focus, has always been a highly regarded trait; one that we generally see as playing a significant role in separating the achiever from the non-achiever, the winner from the loser, the wise from the unwise, the rich from the one who just ‘gets by.’

Focus is at the foundation of this book’s argument. The author, Cal Newport — a Professor in Computer Science, and the man behind the ‘Study Hacks‘ blog — introduces a concept he calls “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.”

You could just call this deep focus, if you wanted, but because of the ambiguity surrounding the word, its very likely you’d miss the point; and besides, “Deep Work” sounds better, anyway.

The benefits of focus are those we all know — you’re able to get more done; it allows you to become good at a skill or discipline, and if you’re very focused, the best; it’s important for work; it gives you a sense of satisfaction afterwards; its essential to success, and so on — and we do our best (or so we think) to practice it when needed. Not only that, but we also think we’re much better at focusing than we actually are. It seems however, that today — with us being in the’ information age,’ with smartphones, 24/7 news, 10 second ads, etc — our ability to focus is as bad as it’s ever been. This claim we cannot know for sure, of course, but the evidence is piling up in favour of it everyday.

Once segment of evidence is the huge rise of interest in meditation and mindfulness practice, and the increase in mental health issues — namely, Depression. Distractions are everywhere — in fact, the world’s most powerful companies today have distraction as the theme of their business model — and, as you will find out in the book, the distracted mind is rarely a happy mind. More than often, it’s the opposite.

This decline in ability to focus is a huge issue; no doubt it’s the price we’re paying for the incredible advances we’ve made in technology. Addressing it is not as simple as being disciplined or dishing out incentives; what we’re dealing with is biology, the wiring of the brain, ingrained patterns of behaviour and thought, habit. I’m of the opinion that problems created by technology are only solved by better technology; and so this problem of focus — which, as far as we know historically, has never been so prevalent — that has been created or at least worsened by innovation, can only be solved by further innovation. To come back the to book, although Cal stresses that what we have on our hands is an epidemic, solving it at scale is not something he touches upon; nor in fact, is it the reason he wrote the book.

As the saying goes, in every problem lies an opportunity, and herein lies the basis of the Author’s argument; and in my opinion, the most important takeaway from the book. Because this problem is so enormous, because so many people across the world are finding it hard to focus, a huge gap has been created in the market for those who can. This is more substantial than it initially sounds, for with the soaring rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robotics, many jobs are being — and will continue to be — lost. Jobs that were once only done satisfactorily by humans are now being taken over by a much smarter, more efficient, more reliable technology — machines. At the moment we’re seeing this in Supermarkets, Banks, and Admin; but Drivers, Doctors, Postmen, Mathematicians, Brokers, and so many more roles are being replaced by automation; and it’s happening much faster than we think. Craftsmanship, Artistry, and superpower-like abilities, therefore, become all the more important if a good future for you and your family is in your interest. Today, one of these superpowers is the ability to focus intensely for considerable amounts of time; and this, as we know, lies at the heart of the arts and crafts. superpower, first

The ability to focus is certainly not a panacea — there are other factors that contribute to success, thriving, financial security, happiness, skill development, and the like — but it certainly isn’t far off. The further we move into a technology-driven world, the more we move towards its two-pronged attack: one the one hand, it’s making us less able to focus, which decreases our work capacity, memory, and ultimately, happiness; and on the other, it’s ruthlessly taking over jobs, of all types, but mainly those in which deep focus isn’t valued much. In other words, technology is both decreasing the amount of jobs available, and decreasing each humans ability to qualify for those that remain.

Most of what I have discussed here touches only on the first half of the book, where the author — via thought experiments, real-life examples, and scientific studies — takes you through the theory, the what and the why. This gets you ready for the second half, which is packed with practical advice — exercises, hacks, and life advice all dedicated to helping you become adept in the art of focus.

For thousands of years humans have dreamed about having superpowers. Kids dream about them. Adults dream about dreaming about them. Films and books are released everyday based on them, and not surprisingly, they are always the most popular. For all our dreaming, however, we’ve yet to achieve superpower-like abilities as individuals (excluding of course, inborn genius and alien levels of cultivated skill). Part of the reason could be that deep down we’ve never truly believed superpowers are possible; and that is a good reason, for the typical answers to the superpower question include invisibility, psychic powers, real fortune telling faculties, and control. Another part of the reason could be that it has never been a necessity; that is, there has never been enough need for superpowers, of any sort. For example, if mind control powers were essential to our survival, to evolution, then its quite possible most people would have them today. This may sound an unrealistic example, but actually, hypnosis, wordplay, and persuasion techniques are today widely used, and by some people to profound effect. Although these aren’t drop-of-a-hat mind control powers, they’re not a bad compromise. You may say such powers aren’t essential to our survival, and you’d be correct; but since our beginnings the desire to have influence over another being has been big enough to overtime help us figure out what works best and what doesn’t work at all; and with this knowledge, mind control, however subtle, became a reality.

One more reason for our lack of superpowers could be that so far we’ve only dreamt of superpowers that we know about, or that we actually believe are superpowers. This reason, combined with the previous two, points to a startling, but exciting realisation: The 21st century presents the first time all humans have a real shot at developing a superpower on their own accord, and this superpower, is the ability to lose oneself in the realms of concentration, is to have access to a deep-rooted, laserlike focus, ready to be unleashed upon anything that requires it.

This book will teach you how to cultivate that superpower. The blend of powerful, coherent arguments, and lucid, articulative writing, makes this book well worth your time; and in all likelihood, one you’ll want to keep on your re-read shelf. No matter what your profession or recreational interests, you’ll do yourself a great service by devoting a few hours of careful attention to this scholarly piece of work from Cal Newport.

The necessity of deep, reliable, concentrated focus ability is not yet the talking point; perhaps it will never be THE talking point, but the value of it now and its role in the future is undeniable. Why not get ahead?

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