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…