Book review – Deep Work by Cal Newport

If there’s one thing this book made me do, it was to wish I’d read it when it was first published, 4 years ago. I would have achieved so much more in the last 4 years had I known about the benefits of deep work before.

I think a part of me already knew that time-vampires such as Facebook and Twitter were responsible for reducing productivity which is why I’ve always had a natural inclination to avoid them. I’ve never really relished either of them, even when all the writing gurus have encouraged it in order to grow a ‘following’. 

What is Deep Work? 

Newport defines deep work as the ability to concentrate on cognitively demanding work with no distractions, to produce high-quality work. Deep work is challenging but helps create the type of work that is valuable and hard to replicate or replace.

By contrast, shallow work is the kind of work we do on auto-pilot; email, social media and the internet – the kind of activity that diminishes our ability to concentrate and work deeply, is easy to do and is pervasive. The book offers studies and research on these time parasites and their effects on attention, and in the second part gives remedies for shallow work such how to schedule your day in advance to focus on deep work.

In this information age where we are bombarded by news or information we struggle to identify what we should be noticing. To become practiced in our area of interest or learning we need to be able to free our headspace from this increasing cacophony. 

Who is this book for? 

This book is for anyone who wants to be more productive, who works in knowledge or a job where concentration and focus is vital. 

It would be good if more managers and leaders could understand how shallow work – the kind you have no choice but to do in a noisy, open office – is detrimental to productivity. Perhaps it would encourage them to be more flexible when it comes to remote working and empower workers to achieve more of real value. It might also make them reconsider bothering employees with shallow administrative requests such as responding to email that has little or no real importance.

One of the most pertinent messages of this book for me was that deep work is much more important in terms of achievement than long work. By working deep one works better and working better equals working fewer hours (we only have the capacity for about 4 hours of deep work per day), with much better results. 

This book is so very relevant today when so many of us spend hours on social media. What we need is a version for tweens and young people so that they can understand how they’re doing themselves a disservice by being so attached to their phones and how this might be detrimental to their future. If they don’t learn, or have the opportunity to engage in deep work now, they might forever be consigned to the mundane shallow work when they reach maturity. On the other hand, being taught the power of deep work might just give them an advantage. 

There is a very compelling message from the author that if we organise deep work periods into our day, then we’re more likely to get more value from our work or learning and will achieve our goals and ambitions that much quicker. He offers examples of high-achieving individuals such as JK Rowling and Bill Gates, who used deep work to achieve their professional goals. 

If you haven’t read this book already, be warned, if you’re someone who wants to push the limits of your productivity, it’ll make you wish you’d read it as soon as it was published.  If you’re addicted to social media, glued to your emails or cemented to the internet you’ve probably been drowning in the quagmire of shallow work for years. So, if you want to get down and dirty with some real, quality work, then you need to quit the time vampires and go deep.

Book review – Mudlarking: lost and found on the River Thames

I love London social history. Simply fascinated by it ever since, in my early teens, I read of the fate of the Jack the Ripper victims in the East End in 1888. So this book jumped out at me in the bookstore as something I might enjoy. But it wasn’t like all the thousands of other books on London history out there. This one looked so much more compelling.

Indeed, it didn’t disappoint. The book looks at the social history of the Thames and the people who’ve lived beside it for centuries. All from the perspective of the findings of a mudlark, a person who scavenges in the muddy riverbeds at low tide. 

Lara Maiklem, the author, discovers finds items discarded or lost in the river by Londoners over the centuries; items that give valuable insight into the social and urban history of London.

The author describes the items she has uncovered in chapters that focus on different locations along the river, taking readers on a journey through history to the Roman fortification of London. Her extensive knowledge of the geography of London over the centuries and the Thames tides, coupled with the compelling stories she tells about the item and the last human ever to touch it, makes this a compelling and highly fascinating read that never failed to hold my interest.

In the context of the life of a modern-day mudlark, Lara reveals a little of her own life, how she discovered her love of mudlarking and the thoughts and feelings she experiences with her finds, helping the reader to feel a connection to her. 

I’m usually a bit of a book tart; I flit from one book to another depending on my mood. But with this book I couldn’t put it down. I read it within a couple of days; then I searched Lara on Youtube to find out a bit more about her. Throughout my reading of the book, I was ready to don my wellies and head for the city at a moment’s notice were it not for the fact that, as the author explains, the foreshore of the Thames is at many times inaccessible. This is due to the changing tide (the Thames is a tidal river) and the fact that you need a licence to be a mudlark these days. 

There is something wonderfully comforting about this book. I think it’s the way that the author draws you into her little world of treasure hunting, reveals the effect this has upon her and shows that, even in a bustling metropolis like London, there are moments of calm to be had if you know where to look for them. Moments whereby, with the help of Lara’s wonderful imagination, and her enthusiasm for her subject matter, so many of the past occupants of this city come to life to tell a tiny bit of their tale. 

As I mentioned above, I love books about London social history, but I haven’t read one I’ve so enjoyed since reading Dr Matthew Greene’s book London, a travel guide through time. Another fascinating and compelling read about London’s history.

No wheat? Why?

There are two books I’ve been reading, both of which are forcing me to look at my diet, and that of my family in a whole new way and both of which were introduced to me by the excellent podcast Latest in Paleo. One of the books is Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes, which supports one of the fundamental principles of the Paleo diet, to avoid grains in the diet. It makes sense; our ancestors didn’t farm and therefore didn’t eat the produce of farming. The book says that eating wheat, in any form, makes us fat due to the gluten content. It discusses how our endocrine system is the leader in determining our fat levels, and how what we eat influences hormone response.

The other book I’m reading Wheat Belly supports this notion and focuses on the mutant high yield version of wheat that we consume in such vast quantities, at every mealtime every day.

Wheat Belly’s main message is that wheat is actually bad for you; a poison! While more and more people are diagnosed with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, the rest of us believe that bread couldn’t possible harm us. Yet today’s “wheat” is not the wheat that our ancestors ate. By messing about with genes we have replaced traditional wheat with a stunted, bulging, super-productive dwarf variety. This triggered a change in the proteins our wheat contains, with the effects being detrimental in many ways to our health. The gluten in wheat can also cause a whole host of health problems and diseases – even in those who don’t show symptoms of celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

As if that wasn’t enough wheat, with its blood glucose increasing effect, causes blood sugar spikes. Two slices of “healthy” wholewheat bread raise blood sugar farther and faster than two tablespoonfuls of sugar. And is therefore implicated in the pandemic of obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes and is the likely culprit for heart disease, and cancer.

Dr Davis in Wheat Belly presents a very convincing argument that humans are not adapted to eat and digest, wheat and its gluten protein. Given that ‘good old wheat’ is so omnipresent in our society is concerning, and the book’s message is that many health conditions that are prevalent today would probably not even exist if it were not for our high consumption of wheat.


Book review – Simplicity Parenting

As a parent who worries way too much about whether I am overwhelming my kids with too much choice, too many toys, and too many events, this book was a gift from heaven (well the bookshop!). Just reading the first few pages gave me that sense of comfort knowing that I was in the hands of experts who know exactly what I needed to give me perspective on how I was raising my kids.