Deep Work – Book Review

In my opinion, this is the best non-ministry book for ministry. Cal Newport (professor of computer science at Georgetown University) will teach pastors and preachers how to be productive and accomplish “deep work.”

Deep Work
Spurgeon approves.

Cal is a unicorn: a rare breed of social-media free Millennial. His success as an influencer in the productivity niche has been won the old-fashioned way – no click-bait Instagram pics or Facebook campaigns – just plain ol’ grinding out helpful content on his private blog and publishing bestsellers for students and professionals.

Newport takes a strong stand against social media abuse, but his position is not a recent reaction sprouting from the hotbed of #QuitFacebook. Cal has never been on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform. I hope others will give him a listen and reassess whether their involvement in social media is worth the expensive price tag affixed to “free” social media accounts, a price paid in the currency of one of your most precious commodities: the ability to focus. Cal does not preach a message that condemns social media in black-and-white terms, but advises his readers to seriously consider whether the services are actual tools to help reach important goals, or just fodder for the data farm animals.

But there’s a lot more to this book than social media slams. Read Deep Work and be a better preacher. I affectionately call it “the best book about preaching that isn’t about preaching.”

As a preacher, I must learn to consistently focus for long periods of time in my weekly wrestling matches with Scripture texts. I must scrutinize, analyze, dissect, and master long passages written in foreign languages by ancient authors; then I must take what we I learned and capsulize it into a 30-ish minute sermon that is both interesting and helpful. To do this well, and to do it week after week after week, requires what Newport calls deep work.

The book is divided into two parts: “The Idea” and “The Rules.” The former is a general discussion and defining of terms with many poignant illustrations and examples, while the latter is Cal’s philosophy of executing a deep work consistently and meaningfully.

Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from Part 2 “The Rules”:

Rule #1: Work Deeply

 “There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration…waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration.” (pp 118-119, quoting journalist Mason Currey)

Rule #2: Embrace Boredom

On page 155 (in the chapter titled “Embrace Boredom” – love it!) Cal describes the scene at a New York synagogue, early on a weekday morning. What struck me was how dedicated these men were to the deep work of studying the Talmud. I wished more Christians were that interested in understanding the Holy Bible. I have to pull teeth to get a handful to turn out for a Bibles study during a conveniently timed mid-week service. I can’t help but be amazed by the hunger for deep work learning that the Jewish students exhibited at the beginning of this chapter. The American church is shrinking, I believe a great deal of it has to do with the fact that instead of teaching Christians how to embrace boredom and become better students of the Word, we have fed into the popular trend of syrupy, entertainment-driven church.

“Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.” (p 157)

“Schedule in advance when you will use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.” (p 161)

Rule #3: Quit Social Media

“It’s amazing how overly accessible people are. There’s a lot of communication in my life that’s not enriching, it’s impoverishing.” (p 193, quoting  author Michael Lewis).

I pondered how many conversations on Facebook I had that were “impoverishing” – energy-draining, and discouraging.

“After thirty days of this self-imposed network isolation, ask yourself the following two questions about each service [e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.] you temporarily quit:

1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?
2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?

If your answer is ‘no’ to both questions, quit the service permanently.”  (p 205)

Rule #4: Drain the Shallows

“…treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.” (p 221)

The following are three strategies that Cal explains (used as sub-headings within the chapter), written in the imperative to put it on the bottom shelf where I can reach (and easily remember).

“Schedule Every Minute of Your Day” (p 221)

“Finish Your Work by Five Thirty” (p 236)

“Become Hard to Reach” (p 242)

Newport’s book has been a tremendous help to me, in both my professional and personal life. I’m sure it will help you too.

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