Deep Work… for Parents?


A working mom and productivity app publicist Tweeted, “How to do #DeepWork even when you have deep responsibilities (spoiler alert: that means kids) – by @lvanderkam.”

The accompanying image was Vanderkam’s right-on-the-money critique of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which held up Carl Jung as an example for shutting himself off to do “deep work.” Translation: he neglected his kids?

Newport starts by writing (in a laudatory fashion) about Carl Jung secluding himself in a tower so he could ponder his breakthrough ideas. Newport notes that there were sacrifices involved in his decision. For instance, it “reduced the time he spent on his clinical work.” Not mentioned: when Jung bought this retreat property in 1922, he and his wife had five children. It’s safe to say locking himself off from the world locked himself off from those responsibilities. And while perhaps that was par for the course for a man in 1922 (and maybe especially for Jung, who was allegedly an unfaithful husband), someone had to be around the family.

Newport is a working father, but as journalist Brigid Schulte suggests in Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, working fathers don’t carry the same load at home as working mothers. Maybe Newport has this all worked out with his family and work in a fair and agreeable way. But as I’m reading it, Schulte’s work is making a strong case that the ability to perform deep work is a gendered phenomenon. Culturally (in the U.S., at least) it’s still easier for dads than moms to get away and carve out large blocks of uninterrupted, focused time.

Be that as it may, “deep work” for any engaged parent can be hard to come by. Working from home is a beautiful thing, but how often have I felt tinges of guilt as I told my children I couldn’t play right now because I was working, barely glancing up from the computer to let them know? In that case both the work and (more important) the child receive less than what I would hope to give.

Someone needs to write a Deep Work for Parents book. Who knows? Maybe that will be Newport’s follow-up. And Vanderkam has great ideas here. (Her website is sub-titled, “Writing about Time Management, Life, Careers & Family.”)

How about you, working parents who read this blog? How do you get focused, high-level work done when your “job” isn’t your only job? How do you handle interruptions if you work from home? How do you find energy to cook dinner and do bedtime routines after working all day outside the house?

All ideas welcomed in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Deep Work… for Parents?

  1. Good post, Abram. I think it’s misguided to criticize “Deep Work” solely on the basis of one example from the book instead of the merits of the thesis or concept. Newton points out how extreme that case was anyways, and it’s also not really appropriate to impute Jung was a bad father by today’s parenting norms. Much of the point of the book is refuting some current office work habits and conventional wisdom for knowledge work productivity such as instant communications and constant availability. Any working parent can implement deep work principles. Better to focus on the principles themselves instead of cherry picking one example from the book to create a false controversy (to drive more clicks and blog comments??). And the example is from the intro, too implying they didn’t get far.

    1. ::rolls eyes:: you know I’m not about the click bait. But thanks for replying and sharing your thoughts–really am curious how others think about this.

      I agree with you about the value of the book and concepts. I think it’s great. But it’s been interesting to read it alongside this book *Overwhelmed* and to envision parents (and to sometimes be one) who occasionally find themselves in the unenviable position (especially in the summer months) of having to both work and watch kids at the same time. Newport seems to have good boundaries here, however he works it out.

      The block quote is from Vanderkam, not the publicist. I think her critique is valid, and don’t think it’s cherry picking. After all, Newport leads off with that example, and holds it up as in some sense something to strive for. The cultural norm of the absentee, always-working father has changed, and for good reason. This continues to be my critique of Newport, David Allen, Covey, etc., etc., etc. So much of that literature implies access to multiple, long stretches of secluded work hours, free of other responsibilities. What about “deep work” for “the rest of us”? Of course their principles can be adapted, but I wish it would be more explicitly accounted for in those books themselves.

      I think you hit the nail on the head with: “Any working parent can implement deep work principles.” Totally agree. The question is… how? I’m especially interested in the idea of having to rapidly toggle between roles–even if not simultaneously, sometimes between three different roles in a short period of time. There’s a productivity cost to that. It’s like checking Twitter in the middle of a project planning session. You lose the time it took to check Twitter but also the time it takes to re-focus. What if you’re totally free of social media, but get an interruption re: a family issue that you have to be present for? That kind of productivity cost is inevitable, and I think it poses a challenge to parents (male and female) that this kind of literature still doesn’t account for. How to still produce deep work in that setting?

      That’s the book someone needs to write. 🙂

      You strike me as very good at this, though, so maybe you need to get an article out there on this!

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