Why “Deep Work” by Cal Newport is a tough read for dental owners – and why you must read it

There is a sense of growing frustration as one reads through this #1 bestselling business book, virally recommended in recent months.

As a freelancer (and on behalf of my dental entrepreneur clients) I find myself thinking “it’s all right for you Cal – you are an academic and not subject to the distractions and deadlines of a small business owner.”

Newport does quote a series of business leaders in his line-up of exemplars of Deep Work but, yet again, they are often at the head of great teams that have built billion-dollar businesses.

What about the £500,000 turnover consultant or dentist who feels as if she has to “do everything and keep an eye on everything else”?

Initially, I agreed with everything said about the tyrannies of email and social media, about how we are losing the ability to stop, to think and to avoid constant interruption.

The personal connection that used to satisfy the need of “belonging” to a tribe as described by Maslow has been replaced by the superficial narcissism and engagement supported by social media. The selfie photograph or video and the “comment” have taken over from good conversation.

Guilty as charged by the way.

My own marketing thrives on visibility through social media, blogging, newsletters and articles.

Yet, even though I’m addicted to the habit, I still get frustrated when I see an airport lounge full of passengers hunched over their devices on email for work or Candy Crush.

Fewer people are talking to each other (except me and my taxi drivers, when I remember).

Good rant, but this is where I miss the point of Newport’s book, which isn’t to complain about the way we don’t communicate with each other. He’s happy to leave us to our fate.

Rather, Newport is concerned about the way we communicate with ourselves.

The essence of the book is a distinction between Deep and Shallow Work and the suggestion that the former moves us forward, the latter freezes us into unproductive stasis.

Deep Work is what happens when I take a week off the road and lock myself in The Barrow Bunker (as next week) to think and plan without interruption.

Shallow work is what happens when I’m stuck in a seemingly endless email thread with 5 people trying to decide on a trivial matter, everyone having to state their view, when all it needed was a leader to make a decision.

Deep Work is what happens when a dentist zones her diary, allowing ample time for more complex treatment plans.

Shallow work is what happens if that same day is full of the distraction of dental health reviews, emergencies or team members who want “just a minute”.

Deep Work will be what happens to the business couples who attend my Autumn Retreat in September, emerging after 3 days with a complete personal and professional plan for 2018.

In essence, Deep Work is what happens when we book out significant blocks of time in which to work “on” our businesses and lives as opposed to working “in” them – Gerber was talking about this years ago in The E-Myth Revisited.

Some of my clients noticed I was reading the book and commented that they enjoyed the philosophy (as did I) but struggled to find practical applications.

Towards the end of the book, I found myself experiencing the frustrations mentioned earlier, as Newport talks about quitting social media, refusing to answer unworthy emails and segmenting his working year into time with students and time with himself.

The challenge for the small business owner is obvious – we can’t announce to the team that the first three months of the year will be spent in personal isolation and that we will see clients/patients in Q2 and Q3 and answer their questions/do training and development in Q4.

I can’t quit social media unless I’m prepared to invest c.£50,000 a year in advertising and trade show stands. No chance.

I spend half my life showing my dental clients how to use social media responsibly to lower their external marketing budgets (and I’ll be talking about that at The Showcase this year in the Practice Plan theatre).

Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin are great for business.

So what are the practical applications of Deep Work for the overwhelmed small business owner?

Think about Colin Campbell’s yearly sabbaticals, where he does actually leave his business for a month to pursue other interests. He has built a business and a management team that allow him to do that. Perhaps more importantly, his personal production has become a much lower than average percentage of total sales.

I have another client who, in the 15 years we have worked together, has reduced his clinical days as an implant surgeon from 200 to 150, then to 100 and (in 2018) to 80. His dental business thrives under the management of an excellent team and he is free to invest in other start-up companies.

Back in the 1990’s, the late Thomas Leonard wrote that one of our most important challenges was to “become incredibly selfish”, not in the sense that we climb over everyone else to get to the top – but that when we look after ourselves, we do our best work for those we are called to serve.

As I progressed through Deep Work, it slowly dawned on me that I’ve been doing a lot of what Newport suggest for years (because I was taught well by Gerber, Sullivan, Covey and others):

  • Deep Work is what happens every weekday morning for me, rising at 05:00 and working “on” my day until 06:30;
  • Deep Work is the thinking I do when I run – never wearing ear buds;
  • Deep Work is sitting in my reading chair on a Saturday morning for 90-minutes before my weekly training run (more thinking time);
  • Deep Work is what happens every Monday when I take a Bunker Day;
  • Deep Work is what happens once a quarter when I take 3 consecutive Bunker Days;
  • Deep Work is what happens once a year (in August) when I lock myself away for my annual review of finances, calendar, business plan and goals;
  • Deep Work is what happens when I hire Phillippa Goodwin to handle my calendar, travel and paperwork, Kim Black to handle my IT and Steve Thompson to handle my book-keeping and treasury function – in other words I have created a team to handle as much of MY shallow work as possible.

Deep Work isn’t so much about time/priority management as it is about identifying exactly what your Shallow Work is and becoming obsessive about either DELEGATING or DELETING it.

Covey covered this in the 80’s with “First Things First” and the plea to spend less time in the “urgent but not important” quadrant and more time on the “important but not urgent” work.

Sullivan covered this in the 90’s with “The Entrepreneurial Time Trap” and Free, Focus and Buffer Days. In the same decade, Gerber gave us “The E-Myth Revisited”.

Allen covered this in the 00’s with “Getting Things Done”.

We have all been here before.

Deep Work is a fascinating philosophical statement and a welcome reminder of what matters most when it comes to prioritising our time in a age of digital disruption – I’m glad I read it because it made me realise that some of my Deep Work time has become diluted by the shallow.

If you really what to know WHAT to do about interruptions, rather than WHY you are suffering – I suggest you revert to the original source material mentioned above – revisit the masters.


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Chris Barrow

Chris Barrow has been active as a consultant, trainer and coach to the UK dental profession for over 20 years. As a writer, his blog enjoys a strong following and he is a regular contributor to the dental press. Naturally direct, assertive and determined, he has the ability to reach conclusions quickly, as well as the sharp reflexes and lightness of touch to innovate, change tack and push boundaries. In 2014 he appeared as a “castaway” in the first season of the popular reality TV show “The Island with Bear Grylls”. His main professional focus is as Coach Barrow, providing coaching and mentorship to independent dentistry.