• Nancy Beers

HAPPY SCRUM MASTER BOOKLIST: DEEP WORK – Cal Newport

Updated: May 20



Reading is very important to me so I’m always on the look-out for a good book. Last year, I challenged you to try Xtrem Reading because it’s the perfect way to help you identify those books out of the many books available that are actually worth your time. And, oh man, there are sooooo many good books out there. So this year, I’m challenging myself: I’m going to read one book per week. Yes, that’s right, one book each and every week for an entire year. I wouldn’t be the Happy Scrum Master if I wouldn’t share not only my favourite games but also my favourite books with you.

This month’s favourite is: DEEP WORK by Cal Newport.

What I loved most about this book is that it tied in with several other ideas that have been bouncing around in my head. About creativity and productivity and how to stimulate those and more importantly, how to best fit them into a schedule that not only works for me and the teams I’m working with but also works with the demands and expectations from the rest of the world. Because, well…. even though, I would love to be able to spend hours on end trying to come up with new ideas or games or whatever, unfortunately, or not – depending on which way you look at it – I also have deadlines to meet, an accountant chasing me to hand in my paperwork, a partner I love dearly and friends and family that all want to spend time with me. I’ve been struggling with ways to keep my creative juices flowing while at the same time being able to meet my targets and have enough hours in the day left to do all the other fun stuff that makes life interesting. This book was in many ways a real eye-opener. It was so inspiring that I’m actually working on a presentation about it. I’m planning to combine my insights from Deep Work with the things I learned from Daniel Pink’s When and I can’t wait to share it with you at one of the conferences where I'll be a speaker. If you are looking for a nice keynote, maybe this is the one for your event :)

Deep Work is a very hands-on book, it starts with explaining Cal’s theory of what deep work actually is, provides you with a lot of examples of successful people who excelled because of their ability to do deep work, and explains how he was able to incorporate deep work into his schedule, providing you as a reader with plenty of inspiration to try it yourself. What I liked is that he takes you on his journey of how he incorporated deep work into his life and by doing so he allows you to travel with him as a fellow human being instead of being ‘a humble reader in desperate need of enlightenment’. Many authors tend to get preachy about the things they strongly believe in and as a reader it usually annoys the hell out of me. Because of his friendly and approachable writing style, the criticism he has about today’s world and especially e-mail and social media and the way most people interact with them – and are expected to interact with them – doesn’t feel like an attack. He simply explains why it didn’t work for him and others and allows you to make up your own mind about whether you want to continue using social media or not and how to go about using it. While basically he’s saying all social media is evil and if it were up to him it would be banned. Something a lot of you won’t agree with, I’m sure. To be honest, I’m not really sure I agree with him myself either.

So what is deep work exactly and why is it so important? Simply put: ‘deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.’ Why is it important? Because you need that focus to be able to truly excel at what you do and in today’s world with all its distractions and urgent demands on our time, we’re at risk of losing that ability completely. In this age of quick answers and solutions we tend to forget that being creative and coming up with truly innovative solutions is hard work, that it takes time, dedication, energy, and most importantly: focus. It’s that ability to focus deeply, according to Cal, that sets apart the true innovators from the masses. When you’re in a position to truly dedicate your focus to an issue for dedicated periods of time, you become more effective and productive. It is how he was able to write this book, publish an astonishing amount of academic papers while at the same time he was able to dedicate his evenings and weekends to his family instead of his work. Which is quite astonishing because in the world of academics putting in extra hours and working overtime is usually the norm. Many of his colleagues truly believe that that’s what’s required of them to get ahead. But, as Cal put it, being able to dedicate specific periods of time to focus deeply frees up other moments to do other things. In order to be able to create those dedicated periods of time it’s also important to decide what you need to spend time and focus on. Do you really need to spend time on all those social media updates the very moment they pop up on your timeline? Do you really need to reply to that vague email your colleague just sent you? A lot of people tend to spend huge amounts of time on things that distract them from the things that will actually benefit them. Deep work is about making conscious decisions about your work, about deciding what’s truly important in order for you to get ahead and about the way you structure your work and life to actually make things happen. Most importantly: being able to focus deeply is similar to working a muscle. You need to exercise it regularly or otherwise it gets out of shape. There’s no easy fix, it takes time and effort and dedication. It’s also about finding the balance between focus and being bored. Your mind needs time to wander and recuperate from those periods of intense focus.

The only negative point about this book and its theories is that you need to be able to exert a certain amount of autonomy in your work-life to make it happen. You need to be able to arrange your day/week/month/year in such a way that you can create those dedicated periods in which you can focus deeply on the things that are most important to you. Not everybody is lucky enough to be in that position. On the other hand, does that really matter? If you’re happy working in an environment full of distractions where you’re required to answer emails immediately and make snap decisions then what’s the problem? But if you’re not, you might want to rethink your priorities and decide for yourself if what you’re doing now is worthy of your time and focus.

Deep Work really helped me understand how to make decisions that help me achieve my goals in the long run. But also helped me in my quest to read one book each week ;) If you use 50% of the time you would normally spend on Social Media to read a book, I think you'll manage to do this too!

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