In Praise of “Deep Work”

As focused attention becomes rarer and rarer in our distracted culture, the people who cultivate focused attention will find themselves becoming more and more valuable.  In other words, you can’t afford NOT to be doing deep work.  This is the thesis of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a book that I cannot recommend highly enough.  Here’s why.

 

Deep Work: A Definition

Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines deep work in this way:

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.

In contrast with deep work is 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.

Most knowledge workers spend most of their time engaged in shallow work–email, anyone?–so that, though they may be busy, they are not productive.

The people who are writing the best-selling books, making the blockbuster movies, creating the irresistible advertising campaigns, winning the major tournaments, and leading the market-beating companies, these are the people who are doing deep work (whether they realize it or not).  Deep work makes a difference.

The Deep Work Hypothesis

The prevalence of shallow work in our culture leads to Newport’s deep work hypothesis.

The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy [and becoming valuable because it is becoming rare–AF]. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.

Newport also argues that deep work actually makes people happier.  As someone who has certainly spent a day being busy without being productive, I know that he’s right: I’m happier when I’m able to focus.

So, if you want to thrive in our knowledge work economy and if you want to be happier while doing it, you need to learn how to do deep work.

The Deep Work Rules

Newport has come up with what he calls The Rules of Deep Work.

  1. Work Deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. Drain the Shallows

1. Work Deeply

Deep work is something we can learn how to do.  Focused attention is not something you can just turn on or off–it’s something that must be trained and cultivated, like a muscle.  Just as someone who spends his time sitting on the couch eating Doritos and watching television cannot overnight become a marathon champ, neither can someone who spends his time like that be immediately good at deep work.  Deep work requires practice and planning.

2. Embrace Boredom

Internet tools (social media, on-demand video, infotainment sites, etc.) have taught our minds to need constant stimulation, but deep work requires focused attention, and our need for shallow stimulation will undermine our ability to do deep work.  Therefore, we need to embrace boredom.  It’s good to resist the urge to pull out your smart phone when waiting in line at the post office: our minds need boredom.

3. Quit Social Media

You knew this was coming, right?  Newport makes the argument that people who are actually producing deep work (best-selling authors like Michael Lewis, e.g.) produce deep work because they do not allow themselves to be distracted by social media.  I know lots of people believe that social media is like alcohol–to be used and enjoyed in moderation.  I wonder, though, if social media is more like heroin: addictive and distracting for everyone.  (UPDATE: In conversation, I could say something provocative like that and you’d understand from my jocular tone what I was trying to convey, but I realize that, if you just read those words, they come across differently.  My church actively uses social media (and I use it, too) and I have many friends who work in social media marketing; if I really believed that social media was the same thing as heroin, I’d stop using it immediately.  I think social media marketing is necessary in our culture.  My point is just that I think all of us are much more easily distracted than we want to admit.)

4. Drain the Shallows

By “drain the shallows,” Newport means that we should aggressively eliminate the non-essential from our working lives.  For example, he gives practical tips on how to cut down on email, a major source of shallow work for most people.

Why I Need This Book

About 45 times a year, year after year, my professional responsibilities require me to create a brand-new, relevant, engaging, and faithful presentation and then deliver it in front of an average live audience of about 1,000 people, each one of whom is judging me savagely (even if they seem to be nice people!) on that presentation.  In addition to that, I also create multiple smaller presentations and essays through the year that also need to be original, relevant, helpful, and faithful.  In our distracted world, it seems as if everything but the truly important is screaming LOOK AT ME!  PAY ATTENTION TO ME!, and so I’ve come to the following conclusion:

if I don’t learn to do deep work, I’m not going to make it.

Deep Work is one of the most insightful, practical, and challenging books I’ve read about work and creativity…maybe ever.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

★★★★ excellent

 

 

 

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The Best Books I Read in 2015

I set a goal to read 50 books in 2015. In September, I revised my goal down to 40…and I hit it! What follows is my list of the best 6 books I read in 2015, in chronological order.  (Update: My entire 2015 reading list is here.)

My Rules

I only count books I read all the way through, cover to cover.  I read lots of journals and periodicals, and in my weekly sermon prep read parts of different books and commentaries, but for my reading goal, none of those count.

A book that I keep thinking about, a book that adds enduring value to my life, that’s a book I’ll define as good.  I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:

★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★★     excellent
★★★         worth reading

Books getting less than 3 stars aren’t on my “Best” list, which doesn’t mean they were necessarily bad, but just not books that I’d excitedly recommend to you.

★★             read other things first
                 not recommended

Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

gladwell

I read all of Malcolm Gladwell’s books in 2015; Outliers is my favorite.  No man is an island; any amount of success we achieve is due to hard work, of course, but it’s also all about right place, right time; success is about our circumstances, our family, and our environment. ★★★★

The Radetsky March, by Joseph Roth

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I read because I want to experience life; the books I like best are the ones that evoke other times and other places so acutely that, to paraphrase Robert Frost, they make me remember things I’ve never known.  And, there is something about the vanished places that only exist in memory that are the sweetest and saddest.  Since I first read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s great memoirs (A Time of Gifts and Between the Wood and Water) I’ve loved reading works of nostos for Mittereuropa, that now-vanished world of the Austro-Hungarian empire, dismantled in World War I and disappeared with murder and concrete by World War Two and the Iron Curtain.

After watching The Grand Budapest Hotel, I read about Stephan Zweig, whose work was the inspiration for the Wes Anderson movie. Then, in Zweig’s autobiography, I stumbled across a reference to The Radetsky March.  I’d never heard it mentioned anywhere else, but it was one of the best books I read in 2015 and the sense of it will stay with me a long time after.

So, what is The Radetsky March about?  I like Simon Schama’s remark:

‘Read this and your life will change,’ we say, pressing it relentlessly on strangers encountered in Daunt Books who might confuse him with Henry or Philip of the same moniker. ‘So what’s it about?’ they reasonably inquire. ‘Ah, well,’ you say, ‘it follows an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army before the first world war, stuck in a provincial border garrison doing nothing in particular except getting drunk on 180 per cent schnapps and haplessly wandering from calamity to disaster … ‘ ‘Oh, right, thanks,’ they say, looking around for an escape route before you can add: ‘Oh and, of course, all of human life – sex, class, food, music, land, power, and Jews – there’s this scene where Kaiser Franz Joseph runs into an old Hasidic rabbi … ‘ But you’ve already lost them to the Man Booker shortlist table.”

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

Franz Joseph, Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1848-1916.

The novel is an “elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire” and about the soft but irresistible pull of that empire towards destruction, and about one family’s own petty paralysis in the face of that slow pull.

For me, The Radetsky March is all atmosphere, elegy for a world that will never come again. (For a contemporary review of the novel that even then was looking back on a lost world, see this 1933 New York Times piece.)  ★★★★

 

An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest, by Alan Fadling

an-unhurried-life

“If you had one word to describe Jesus, what would it be?”  In An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling recounts how, when philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard answered that question, he chose relaxed.  Fadling writes, “What took root in my own heart [after hearing Willard’s one word description] was the desire to know Jesus as an unhurried savior.” When I read that sentence last summer, I thought “YES.  Me too.”

I read this book at exactly the right time.  I had been feeling harried and shallow for months, feeling as if I could never find quiet, and feeling that God was calling me to prayer and silence.  Alan Fadling’s book was a blessing to me, and I recommend it to you.  ★★★

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Unset

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Imagine living in a world in which all of reality–everything you could see and touch and taste and smell–was enchanted with the power of God.  This is the world of Kristin Lavransdatter.

Rod Dreher explains:

The late medievals were heirs to a belief system that regarded the world as enchanted. God was everywhere, and ordered all things to Himself. All of Creation — and it was “Creation,” not yet “Nature” — was a sign pointing to its Creator. It is an anachronistic mistake to think that our late medieval ancestors regarded the world as we do, except with a belief in God added to it. They did not. God and things divine were far more present in the imaginations of the people, who looked around them and saw Him. They lived in a cosmos — a universe ordered by God, pregnant with meaning and divine purpose [emphasis in the original].”

Kristin Lavransdatter is an 1,100 page historical novel (actually a trilogy of novels, published in the early 1920s), written by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset about 14th century Norway.  The novel follows the life of the title character (Kristin, daughter of her father Lavrans)

first as a young girl enjoying bread, butter, dried reindeer, and mead in sunny alpine meadows with her father; then through her thrilling first encounters with the love of her life, the beguiling Erlend Nikulausson, during which Undset precisely renders the romantic heart of a teenage girl; and finally through Kristin’s adulthood as a brooding but hardworking mistress of a household and mother of many sons.”

Carrie Frederick Frost has an insightful essay at First Things (from which I took the above quotation) about Kristin and motherhood and faith.  I will never be a mother, but I am a son and a father, and I appreciate Frost’s summary of the insight that Kristin gains from motherhood:

It is through reflection on her own experience of motherhood that Kristin is able to understand her parents’ love for her. After a decade of motherhood she considers the character of her parents’ love: “That love had been strong and wide and unfathomably deep; while the love she gave them in return was weak and thoughtless and selfish, even back in childhood when her parents were her whole world.” Kristin realizes that even though she loved her parents, her love for them did not approach the love they had for her, and that she now feels this same “strong and wide” love for her own children. Through her maternal meditation, Kristin understands that she belongs to a lineage of love linking her children, herself, her parents, and all of humanity back to God’s “unfathomably deep” parental love.”

Kristin Lavransdatter is not just about motherhood, though: like other great epic novels (e.g. War and Peace or Island of the World) it is about all of life: marriage, adultery, hatred, war, forgiveness, and the grace of God.  I love this novel.  ★★★★★

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspirationby Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

buzz

I had an insight last year: my job (or at least the most public aspect of it) is essentially creative.  Every single Sunday, 47 weeks a year, I am personally and alone responsible for a 30 minute presentation that is supposed to faithfully convey Christian doctrine, bring the Bible to life, appeal to outsiders and skeptics, nourish the faithful, and, if possible, be both humorous and poignant.  And then do it again in 7 days.

How is it possible to make that kind of creativity and excellence routine?

Catmull_-Ed_940_529_72-ppi

Ed Catmull is a computer genius in his own right, but he is also a business genius, and as a co-founder and president of Pixar he has been obsessed with creating a culture of creativity since 1986.  Creativity Inc. is Mr. Catmull’s attempt to put what he has learned down on paper.  The result is a business book unlike most business books, and I found myself underlining sentence after sentence as I read.  ★★★★

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

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The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian young adult novel, surprised me: it was much better than I expected it to be, and I still find myself thinking about it frequently, months later.  The basic story line–how a ruthless elite amuses themselves to death while exploiting the general population in order to maintain their wealth and comfort–strikes me as chillingly similar to life in modern America: we live in The Capital.  I think Katniss Everdeen is a totally believable heroine, and I am impressed with Ms. Collins’s creativity and vision.  ★★★

My 2016 Reading Goal

Once again, I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books this year.  What about you–do you have a reading goal for the year?

 

[Here are my 2013 and 2014 reading lists, respectively.]

 

I’m recommitting to do better about blogging 3 times a week, so click here to subscribe to my blog updates, delivered right to your inbox.

 

 

 

Some New Music for You to Check Out

How could you not take to a guy like this?  Meet David Crowder, in his own words:

I was born half Baptist (the East Texas, King James carrying, pipe organ, hymnal singing, Southern, type Baptist) and half Pentecostal (the Holy Ghost, jumpin’ and shoutin’, hand-waving, prophecying, Southern, type Pentecostal). Later, I was born again.”

crowder

Crowder Math

I’ve been a fan of David Crowder’s music for over a decade; nobody sounds like him.  Here’s my summary of his unique style:

Texas gospel rockabilly
+
Electronic dance beats
+
simple, piercing lyrics


= David Crowder

Hee Haw, Aqua Net, and Olivia Newton John

David on his musical influences:

The son of an insurance salesman and a social worker, fructifying in the piney woods of Texarkana, I was as muddled as the name of my town. We drove a light blue Ford Thunderbird; not the old, classic kind, but a brand new one that had a sticker on it. The one with the electric windows and mirrors and the headlamp covers that flipped open when you turned on the headlights and an in-dash eight-track player. My dad and mom both used Aqua Net hair spray. He parted it on the right side and always carried a comb. She got permanents and had curlers that heated up every Saturday night while we all watched The Lawrence Welk Show and Hee-Haw. The eight-tracks in rotation were Elvis, Willie Nelson, Olivia Newton John, and Bill Gaither. Everything I’ve ever done musically can be traced back to there — that Ford Thunderbird, those sounds, the view out of those windows, and my brother punching me in the arm on the way to Sunday morning Church. That is all metaphor and all true.”

After 6 albums, the David Crowder* Band broke up in 2012.  But, David has kept making music under the name “Crowder” and released his first solo album, Neon Steeple, in May 2014.

Neon Steeple

Like previous David Crowder albums, Neon Steeple has a story to tell from start to finish.  Although there are a few standout songs that work well on their own, the best way to listen to the album is in one sitting, beginning to end.

Here’s David describing his work on the album:

Neon Steeple is a collection of songs and sounds looking forward to the past and counting the present as sacred. It is a longing for belonging, a search for home. It is a collection of choruses that believe that this is not all there is. There is more, there must be. It is the sound of the Appalachians and Ibiza. Folk music and EDM. The music of the People. Folktronica. Digital and Analog. The Ones and Zeros and the Handshake. The Banjo and the 808.”

Four Year-Old Dance Party, etc.

Neon Steeple is a beautiful album that tells a beautiful story in an unsentimental and creative way.  It’s also a lot of fun.

The song “My Beloved” is a favorite of a four year-old in my household.  (The video is embedded above, but the album track is a much better version.)  It’s a clap-your-hands-stomp-your-feet happy hoedown.

One of my favorite tracks is “Come As You Are” (embedded below) that is an invitation to the weak, weary, broken-down to lay down their burdens and shame.

Another standout track is the southern throw-down “Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains).”  It’s an aggressive, growling song.

But to pick out those three tracks is to give the impression that the rest aren’t worth hearing, an impression I don’t want to give.

“I Am” is another favorite of mine; I love the ambiguity in the central hook:

“I am holding onto you;
In the middle of the storm,
I am holding on…I am.”

Who’s holding whom?  That’s the question, isn’t it?

Another great track is the duet with Emmylou Harris (“My Sweet Lord”): just achingly beautiful.

“Blind is the fool, I see that now;
I broke the rules, and let ya down.
I walked alone; now I have run dry:
I need my sweet Lord to help tonight.”

The entire album is really strong: I recommend it.

“Making Dead People Alive”

As much as I appreciate David Crowder the musician, I think I appreciate David Crowder the writer and theologian even more:

Neon Steeple is both a critique and a hope. The meta-narrative of scripture is about innocence lost, it is about displacement, about things not being right and a search for belonging and home and forgiveness and reconciliation, the tension of death and life, what it means to be alive. The story is not about making bad people good, it is about making dead people alive. The story sold is rarely that.

What if we started believing?”

 

What if indeed?