Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

My Review

It might seem a bit bold to call a book ‘life changing,’ but I can safely say that about Deep Work by Cal Newport. Due to a variety of factors, my work had reached a point where it no longer felt sustainable. No matter how many hours I put in, it simply wasn’t enough. I had read everything on the Internet about time management, but nothing I implemented from those suggestions made significant enough improvements.

Deep Work is one of those books that has been around for a few years and shows up on every must-read list. Since I was in the market for some better advice, I purchased several of the ‘classics’ including Deep Work. Before I had even finished reading it, my workday had greatly improved. By the end of the book, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more I would have accomplished had I read it sooner.

On the surface, Deep Work seems to be about how to get ‘into the zone’ to get more done, but it’s much more than that. The book covers what deep work is, vs shallow work; why we need both and how to determine when one is acceptable; how to obtain and maintain a deep work state; why we need the often overlooked ‘end time’ to a day; why we have unproductive impulses and actual exercises to manage them; and why a tool or task that provides some benefit isn’t enough, plus a wealth of more information that shifted how I approached each day. It managed to cover all these topics without vilifying social media, either.

Nearly a year passed, and I was starting to feel sluggish again. I knew I was losing some of the habits I had acquired up from Deep Work, so I read through it again. Not only did I get the pick me up I needed from the same great advice from the first read, but I discovered layers that build on those foundations. I’ve resolved to re-read this book every year because the mindset adjustment it provides is time well spent.

Why Most Productivity Tips Didn’t Help—and What Did

Note: I know many people are in a bad place right now, so this isn’t really meant for those who just need to curl up with hot chocolate and TV. That’s fine too 🙂 This is for those who are browsing the ‘listicles’ that talk about organizing to do lists and time blocking, and are trying to figure out how to make it all come together. Hopefully, this helps.

I turned down several amazing opportunities. Previously, I would have never considered doing so, but this year, I wanted to do things differently—and I can safely say I have.

I had been sick for a couple of years, and as I started to feel better, I set out to make the most of it. However, many productivity articles only got me so far. Pomodoro techniques and time blocking don’t exactly help if I simply have too much to do in a day. I can work from sun-up and into the long night, I can ban myself from social media, I can give up cooking and leisure reading—and still find myself without enough time.

There had to be more to the situation than just a better organized to-do list. So, I started analyzing a few different areas of my life and came to some conclusions. At least, as much as anyone can conclude for the present.

As I’ve been talking to more people, I find many of us have a similar juggling issue. Yet one of the conclusions I made—which helped me get from almost no progress on the author side to writing six books in a year among still working and mundane life—is the most counterintuitive one. It has little to do with finding my ‘peak hours’ or reading for an hour before work.

I’m one of those people who can’t say no to new ideas, not because I feel obligated, but because I’m easily excited.

“Wanna start a podcast?”

Sure!

“How about we move to Alaska?”

Sounds fun!

“Pluto seems nice this time of year.”

Let’s go!

Worse, though, are the million ideas a minute I have myself. The end result is, I usually have my hands in a lot of cookie jars. While that keeps life interesting, I had to step back and re-evaluate what they all meant.

Every single task felt crucial either in something I ‘had’ to do or something I ‘wanted’ to do. There had to be a better way, though.

I researched making five-year plans, selecting goals, and brand extensions. I read books like Deep Work, The 80/20 Principle, and Indistractable [Note: These are affiliate links, which means if you use these links, I may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you]. The main takeaways, as related to this topic anyway, were that I had to consider my ‘vision’ for the future. Something real. Something concrete. Something big, but attainable.

Then I had to narrow it down to the most crucial five points of that goal.

Of course, there are many other things that need done. Bills must be paid. Dishes need done. And, oh gosh, the laundry.

Still, being armed with what I want written down, everything else became a bit easier to balance how I used my time. Every task I come across now gets held up to that list of five and promptly added or thrown into a basket based on if it supports those goals.

Next came prioritizing the tasks within the goal and between each other. For example, I knew I wanted to do a huge launch for my next series, but to get the most out of that, I wanted my reader magnet (freebie on my newsletter) ready. So, I completed the reader magnet, Queen of Doors, before I finished the series. Now, the link to it can be available in the back of each book in the new series when it is published.

The trick here was to focus on one piece at a time. I did not write my series while I wrote Queen of Doors. As much as I wanted to start the next book in the series, wanted to do a newsletter builder, wanted to create better Instagram content, wanted to write the opening to another series, wanted to plot the points for yet another series—I finished Queen of Doors.

You can get your copy here for free.

Then I moved onto the next thing. The order of the tasks did not have to complete each goal; some of the goals will take years to finish. I move between these goals (which all support each other too) but only one task at a time. It can be as granular as works for me. Giving myself permission to work on one thing until it was finished was not stressful; it was freeing.

I also tried to hold the tasks up to the 80/20 rule when I was deciding when to do it, if ever. For those unfamiliar, the 80/20 rule basically breaks down to the idea that some tasks accomplish a lot, and a lot of tasks accomplish a little. The more I could prioritize the tasks that accomplish a lot—towards my goals—the easier it was to let go of tasks that will accomplish some, but not a lot. There are many things that help a little. They don’t all need to be done, especially right now.

But something else magical happened in the process. Because I had a better sense of what I needed to do, it became almost second nature to start re-thinking the parts that did not prop up those goals.

For example, I had several distinct experiences I wanted to fictionalize. Since they happened in real life, with nothing particularly ‘fantasy’ about them, my immediate thought was that I would need to write them as contemporary books. That made the most sense.

They have been on my list for a while, but once I started peeling away the layers of projects to find the core, it became clear that these contemporary books didn’t prop up my goal to create a large body of fantasy works.

Did they have to go into the basket though? Did I ever want to be a contemporary writer? Not really. I just wanted to tell these characters’ stories.

The solution was obvious then: make them into fantasy series.

It took almost no effort to see how fantasy elements could slide right in to these stories and keep them ‘on brand’ (for want of a better word), yet I could still write the characters as I wanted. While it seems easy now, at the time, I hadn’t even considered if they could be fantasy stories. It was just ‘one more thing to do.’

Of course, there are goals past 1-5. So what happens to 6-10? I believe in having it all 😉 That’s where brand extension comes in. Essentially, once a solid foundation is set for my current goals, I can then roll out the ‘extension.’

My focus now increases the success of new ventures in the future.

All of this came to a point when I was offered not one, but several, fantastic opportunities. I immediately started to jump at them. They were no brainers.

Right before I signed the dotted line, though, I realized none of them supported those current long-term goals. In fact, they would take enormous time out of my day that would have been spent on those goals. As painful as it was, I let the offers go.

Now, I’m currently a few chapters from finishing the last book in my new series. Without going through the above, I don’t think the series would be completed; possibly not even halfway. It’s not a perfect process, but I do feel more equipped to know what I should be doing, and just as importantly, what I shouldn’t be.

Let’s see where it goes.

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