The New Self-Help

The Secret to Hyper Productivity in 3 to 4 Hours a Day

Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Work’ is a modern self-help classic

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

The humorist Mark Twain wrote the bulk of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during a single summer vacation in the rolling hills of New York’s Southern Tier. While his extended family lolled around on his sister-in-law’s bucolic farm estate, Twain spent his days bunkered in a repurposed, octagonal shed with a panoramic view of the Chemung River Valley. There, the prolific author purportedly wrote most or all of three book-length travel narratives, two stage plays, dozens of essays and short stories, and four novels. Legend has it that Twain would become so engrossed in his work that, at dinnertime, his family needed to blow a horn to get his attention.

In his already classic book Deep Work, Cal Newport highlights Twain and several other figures, across disciplines, whose world-changing intellectual output came through focused, near-monastic production. Newport describes deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.”

Unlike “shallow work,” or the rote tasks we unthinkingly fill our hours with, deep work only happens when we shut out distraction and hunker down. Deep work is locking yourself in a shed for 11 hours to write great American novels while your kids harangue the local milk cows. Or, if you’re not Samuel Clemens, setting the SelfControl app so you can crank out that project deck without pausing to swap a ’90s nostalgia meme, go down a Reddit rabbit hole, or gossip in a group chat.

While today’s way-too-online life makes deep work harder to come by, Newport argues that deep work is precisely what the economy of ideas values most — now, more than ever. “These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate,” he writes.

The term and its accordant theory are the author’s own. But Newport is perhaps uniquely positioned, within the 21st-century digital gurusphere, to expound on getting things done. A thirtysomething associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, he has authored a half-dozen books on digital-age productivity that caution against digital-age distraction and been a high-profile blogger since the dawn of the medium.

He has proudly never owned a Facebook account and doesn’t maintain a Twitter. He purports to receive his news from “my home-delivered Washington Post and NPR” (“I don’t web surf,” he proclaims) and didn’t own a smartphone until 2012, when his then-pregnant wife issued an “or-else” order (“you have to get a phone that works before our son is born,” he recalls her saying).

It is this resistance to digital distraction and devotion to depth that Newport credits for the impressive output of his relatively short career — a career that, in addition to six books, includes a PhD and professorship, and has yielded a steady stream of peer-reviewed academic papers. Most astonishing of all, Newport insists he rarely works past five or six in the evening on any given workday. “Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output,” he writes.

Newport’s theory is also a strategy, one that’s especially vital in this age of information overload. While the deep work approach is arguably not right for everyone, or at least, not all the time, there’s power in giving yourself permission to opt out of the noise.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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