Deep Work Guest Interview: Cal Newport
As I mentioned earlier, Cal Newport is a friend of mine, a former guest on the Unmistakable Creative podcast, a brilliant writer, a tenured professor at Georgetown in theoretical computer science, and has some of the most interesting views on social media and distraction you'll ever hear, and also some of the most valuable. So, let get him onboard. Hey, Cal.
How you doing?
I'm doing well, good to talk to you again.
Likewise. Wow, it's so funny, 'cause we've been talking about minimalist offices, and I notice you don't have anything on your walls.
No distractions, Srini, no distractions.
All right, so where I wanna start, actually, believe it or not, is with the post on your blog recently about Facebook and the fact that you actually said, despite the fact that it has this massive valuation and took $120 billion loss in a day, you actually said, of all the companies that are this big, it's the most dispensable. So, I want you to expand on that for us a little bit, to ...
I think it's an interesting observation, right? I spend a lot of time working with people about social media in their life, I help a lot of people severely reduce or even quit social media, and something I keep running into again and again is that Facebook's role in most people's life is relatively slight. They don't mind it, there's some benefits it gives, but if they take it out of their life, if they maybe take three days free from it, most people are like, eh, not a big deal. And this is not the case with most other of the big tech giants. If you take Google out of someone's life, they're gonna say, I really miss that, I really want that back. If you take the ability to order something on Amazon out of someone's life, they're gonna say, I really miss that, I want that back. If you take away their Apple or Samsung smartphone, they'll say, wait, this is a pain, I want it back. But Facebook is unique among these elite levels of social media and technology giants that its role in all of its billions of consumers' life is relatively minor. People say, yeah, it's okay, but don't really mind that much if it goes away.
Well, I mean, you've been a vocal component of quitting social media. Deep Work was one of those books that really had me analyze my own habits and it made a huge difference in my life, but before we get into the how, let's talk about the why, so we can set this up for people in terms of why is it important to quit social media or drastically reduce our use of them? And then I wanna have you talk about some of the benefits and some of your own experiences that you've had from it.
Well, I've been making this argument that, as we shift increasingly towards a knowledge economy, one of the most valuable skills you can offer is your ability to concentrate intensely. This is the sort of main mechanism of producing value in a world of information is your ability to actually concentrate intensely. Now, the problem with social media, in this context, is that most of these social media applications, especially the versions designed for your phones, are engineered to be as addictive as possible, to fragment your attention as much as possible, to make you increasingly worse at your ability to concentrate. So, before you used the analogy of an athlete and smoking. I really think that's increasingly becoming true about our current economic situation, that when elite cognitive work is becoming increasingly valuable, social media is like being in a world where athletic ability is increasingly valuable and you're maybe eating junk food, or smoking, or doing something to give you some small benefits, but is actually hurting your ability to bring home the bacon, to use a metaphor.
And I wanna have you talk about the results in your own life from having been a person who's not ever had a social media account, and yet accomplished a lot of different things.
Yeah, I've never had a social media account. It turns out this is allowed. I still have friends, I still know what's going on in the world, I still have an audience, I still sell books and find interesting ideas serendipitously. I think that the issue with social media is not that it's not useful, it's that we tend to overvalue or hype the utility it gives, and often, some of the things that people like about social media, there's other ways to get those values in a sort of more, not only efficient, but much more intense way. So, social media might help you, for example, connect to people. That's true, but there's also other ways to form strong relationships with people that don't require this tool and don't have many of the negatives. And so, my life has been a case study of that. I've given up some small benefits, but I'm more of a minimalist in my technology use. I focus on the things I care about, and I try to really push those things I value to their extreme, using technology only where strategic to help me with that, and then I'm comfortable missing out on everything else.
And, as a result, you've written multiple books, correct? You've had a popular blog, and you became a tenured professor in a fairly short amount of time, from what I know.
Yeah, that's true. I've published five books, my sixth is coming out in February, I'm writing my seventh right now. I did become a professor young. I got tenured after only a few years. I have, you know, three kids. I mean, it really makes a difference what happens when you start to really aggressively cut back on the non-deep stuff when possible, and really take seriously your ability to concentrate intensely.
Yeah. One of the things that I remember you talking about, you alluded to it earlier, was this notion of being a cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes, and I remember you telling me that you shouldn't be using your phone during down time, for example, when you're in line at the grocery store or right before you're about to go to bed, because so often, even when I found myself on social media, I kind of get done and I'm wondering, wait, why did I do that, I didn't need to do that, there was nothing that drove me to do that other than the fact that, yeah, probably there is an addiction driving this.
Yeah, we worry, you know, about social media or the web is distracting us when we're trying to work, but we often miss on this other aspect of it, which is, when you're using highly distractive, engineered to be distracting type technologies outside of work, what you're doing is you're reducing your overall ability to concentrate. There's a couple other reasons why this is true. One reason in particular is that if, for example, you pull out your cell phone every time you're a little bit bored, your brain begins to form this Pavlovian connection that says boredom means stimuli, boredom means stimuli, as soon as I get a little bit bored, I get to see something interesting. If you train your brain that is true, when it comes time to be at the office the next day and to lock in on a cognitively demanding task, your brain's gonna say, wait a second, this is boring because there's not a lot of stimuli, where's my shiny treat? Where's my distraction? It's simply not going to tolerate long focus, concentration as an activity that it's gonna put up with. And so, if you're not used to being bored on a regular basis, you're gonna have a hard time doing the boring but important work that really makes a difference.
What have you seen as the results in the lives of people, like your readers, who I know you've helped a lot of them quit social media? I remember a massive study, and you thought you were only gonna have a few volunteers and you ended up having something like thousands, correct?
So, what have been the results in their own lives, as a result of quitting? And then we'll get into the tactics and the how-to.
Well, this sort of goes back to the Facebook being dispensable comment. I mean, that came in part from this experience. Basically, what a lot of people reported from this experiment was, actually, removing social media from their life, once they did it, was not a big deal, and it really hits home the fact that there's this storyline that we're told and we tell ourselves about these technologies being completely indispensable to functioning both socially and professionally in this world, and then there's the reality that, for a lot of people, they're really just something to try to fill in that moment of boredom, or to give you something to distract your mind so you don't have to think too hard about what do I really wanna do with myself. And so, people took this out of their lives and they did not miss it. I would say a large fraction of the people who sent me reports back either have severely reduced their social media use or eliminated it altogether permanently after taking a 30 day break from it. But the other surprise of this experiment was they found it really hard to figure out what to do with their time once those distractions were gone, which I think is very telling. I think these technologies, these shallow technologies can distract you so easily that you lose the ability, you lose your comfort with building up the high quality, analog leisure that we really depend on. So, they had more difficulty trying to figure out what to do with my free time than they did not being on social media.
I remember briefly in the TEDx talk that you did about quitting social media, you mentioned how you spend your free time. You said you listen to baseball on the radio, you sit in a leather chair, and you read books, which I thought to myself, I need to get a leather chair after hearing that. How do you spend your time? And then, let's start moving into what is more tactical here, and that is how do other people start to really wean themselves off of these things, and then how do they take that and translate that into doing what you call deep work?
Well, I would say as my number of kids has grown, my number of minutes of free time has reduced, so I guess that question has become slightly less relevant. But it's true, I really like analog leisure. I read on my big leather chair. My new house has a nice porch, so I like to read outside as well. I do listen to baseball on the radio. I was actually listening to some baseball while waiting to come on the show here, so nice and relaxed state of mind. You know, I write. Other than that, I'm spending a lot of time with my family. So for me, it's when I work, I work intensely, and then when I'm done, I'm completely done, and that seems to be a pattern that is really conducive with both a productive but also satisfying life.
Let's talk about how people do this. I mean, we've spent a lot of good time this morning talking about attention management, about focus, about not multitasking. So, how do people actually start to take what you're talking about, because I remember, the one thing that you told me was that this is a skill that has to be built. It's not something that can be turned on and off like a light switch.
Yeah, your ability to focus intentionally, what I call deep work, is a skill that can be incredibly powerful. It's something that can have a significant boost to both the quantity and quality of the work that you produce as a professional. That's why I sometimes call it a superpower of the 21st century economy. If you can concentrate, you can do deep work and get huge returns. But, as I mentioned, it is a skill, and if you haven't practiced it, you shouldn't expect to be very good at it, so I often tell people to think about this practice in two categories. There's passive and active things you can do to help this skill. So, the passive things is more about just increasing your general comfort with boredom, your general ability to concentrate, and active is actually pushing your mind with exercises to be comfortable focusing more and more intensely. So, one example of a passive activity, take your social media applications and kick them all off of your phone. So, I'm not asking anyone to quit social media right now, I'm not asking you to be away from any of the values that you think is indispensable to social media, I'm just saying do it on your laptop when you do it. Don't let it be on your phone, so it can't act as just a time fill, social media has to be more of a tool like, oh, I need to check in on this event in my Facebook group, let me load it up on my laptop. By taking social media off of your phone, the amount of time you'll glance at your phone will drastically reduce, which, for the reason we talked about before, is gonna start laying the foundation for your mind to be comfortable with focusing. On the active side, an example of an activity you can do is take the type of interval training that you were just talking about with Steven Cotler, you can do this certainly with focus. You start with small intervals, you set a timer, you try to work as intensely as possible on a single, cognitively demanding task during that time. A single glance at an inbox or phone invalidates that block, you have to start over. Once you're consistently succeeding with intense, unbroken concentration in that duration, increase it by 10 minutes. Once you're consistently succeeding with that, increase it again by 10 minutes. I used to work with undergraduates on this and we would start at 20 minutes, because the modern undergraduate, my goodness, has a very hard time focusing.
I was gonna ask you about that.
Yeah, but it takes about a semester to get 'em up to 90 minutes plus no problem intense concentration, so just train that just like you would train your ability to sprint longer and longer distances. So, passive, set the lifestyle that's conducive to concentration, and active, push your ability to focus, and in just a few months, you're gonna start reaping major competitive advantages as compared to your peers because of your ability to do laser-focused deep work.
Well, I'm glad you brought up the undergraduates because I was gonna ask you, as a professor, have you noticed people's improvements in academic performance as a result of this? And, you know, if there are college students or younger people who are tuned into this, what would you tell them about this?
Well, the current generation of college students I think presents a sort of particular issue for our culture at large. This generation which demographers sometimes call iGen is the first generation that grew up native with mobile internet, so it's the first generation to grow up with smartphones starting from, say, the age of 12 or 13, the youngest age you might give someone a smartphone. As a result, we're sort of running an unintentional social experiment. What if we take a generation and basically free them from ever having a moment of solitude, where I define solitude very precisely here to be freedom from inputs from other minds. So, the human brain needs lots of solitude. It needs lots of time where you're not processing input from other people or other minds, you're not listening to something, you're not reading something, you're not reacting to something, you're just thinking your own thoughts, you're processing things, you're letting things serendipitously arise. This new generation that grew up with smartphones could basically go their whole life without ever having that moment, because every second of boredom or lack of stimuli could be filled with a phone, and they've built a social culture in which that's entirely acceptable to always pull up their phone, always look at it. So, if we think of them as the cognitive canary in the coal mine, what are we seeing? We're seeing massive, unprecedented spikes in anxiety and anxiety-related disorders, and it seems like what's really going on here is we're basically short circuiting the brain. The human brain is not meant to exist free from solitude, to be in a constant state of receiving stimuli. So if you push that to an extreme like we see with iGen, large cognitive issues result. So, I look at iGen partially as this cognitive canary in the coal mine for all of us to realize, oh, wait a second, we really are losing something deep to our humanity if we begin to excise out of our life regular time to just be alone with our own thoughts.
Well, I wanna ask you two other questions about this and then we'll turn it to the audience. You mentioned that you're a parent, and knowing what you do about all of this, how is it changing the way that you're raising your kids in terms of technology, and what advice would you give to other parents who might be tuning into this about technology and the role of parenting?
Well, I'm still worried about how this is gonna play out. So, my oldest of my three boys is only five years old, so we're not yet at a stage where computers, or smartphones, or any of this is all that relevant, but it's something that I am very weary about, because I do think that focus is the new IQ in the 21st century, and that, unlike IQ, it's something that you have massive control over in your own life and is gonna depend a lot, in particular, on how you actually attend to your attention and how you respect and cultivate your attention. And so, the one thing that I know is gonna be a big factor in the Newport household, as my boys get larger, is a sort of specific and explicit identification as the ability to focus, to be able to pay attention, to be able to think deeply as something that's both meaningful, and deeply human, and at the foundation of building an interesting, autonomous career in our current economy. So, that's gonna be sort of topic, you know, one, two, and three in a lot of the discussions in the Newport household as my kids get old enough for that to be relevant.
All right, so two other questions. I know you've written about something called attention capital theory, and you're working on books about that, as well as one on digital minimalism. Can you define what those two terms for us are and how they apply to our lives?
Sure, so Digital Minimalism is the next book that I have coming out. That's coming out in February. And digital minimalism is a philosophy for technology use in your personal life. My basic argument is that we are using way too much technology overall, and digital minimalism is an alternative which says you should be very selective and intentional about what technologies you use and for what purpose you're using them. We create a life where technology plays a crucial role in satisfying your values, but also a very limited and intentional role, and that this is actually gonna lead you to be much more happier and much more satisfied than what we do now, which is the maximalist approach of if this seems a little bit interesting, or maybe could offer some benefit, I'll just let it into my life and let it just do what it does. This is not working. I think we need to become much more intentional. Digital minimalism's one way to do it. And then, attention capital theory is, my argument that, in knowledge work, the most valuable asset organizations have is the ability of the human brains they employ to concentrate and produce new, valuable information out of old information. Back in the Industrial Age, your main capital resource might've been your factories, your machinery, your assembly line, but in the knowledge work age, it is the ability of the human brains that you employ to concentrate. And I think, right now, in these early stages of knowledge work, we're really bad at getting a good return on that capital investment. We build workflows built around email all day, and instant messaging, and constant messages, which is a particularly inefficient way of getting value out of your attention capital. So, I think, as we advance in knowledge work, as we get better at knowledge work, we're gonna see a move away from this sort of hyperactive hive mind approach to work in which we just send messages all day long, and we're gonna start to see much more thoughtful, intentional, and diverse approaches to work that better gets value out of our human brains, which I think is not only gonna produce more, say, money for organizations, but it's gonna make work significantly more satisfying for the knowledge workers themselves.
Well, let's turn it over to the audience for questions. As you've gathered, Cal has a wealth of knowledge about all things attention-related and deep work, so let's turn it to you guys for questions. What questions do you guys have for Cal?
While they're thinking, Cal, just wanted to say thanks for joining us today. This information has been fantastic. Definitely a contradictory approach, right? You've created some controversy in our chat rooms already today. A lot of our students, actually, here at Creative Live, leverage social media for business, not only for business engagement, but also as a learning tool. Is there an alternative to the all or nothing plan?
Right, well, often when I talk to people who use social media as a core aspect of their business, I say use social media like a business, which is to say, don't have it on your phone, don't use it as a source of entertainment, don't use it as a source of filling in those sort of bored moments. Have sort of professional tools on your computer, and a set social media plan, just like a professional social media guru would use. So, for example, the book I have coming out, I actually spent some time talking with a sort of social media expert and learning sort of the tricks of the trade, how professionals use tools like Tweet Deck, and they're very careful about what they use, and when they use it, and how they dive into social media and pull out information. So, I acknowledge that, in the business context, social media can be very valuable, especially because, despite my best effort, most of the population still uses it, so you have huge wealth of audiences. So, I don't fault people who take advantage of that fact for their business. But I just advise, make sure that you don't allow the fact that you do some business uses on social media be sort of the excuse that allows it to become something that's just an omnipresent presence in your life fragmenting your attention.
Maybe tactically, if you could talk a little more about how you are helping students build concentration? 'Cause I think that you're right, that's a valuable muscle and we have to build it over time. So, this idea of sprints, I think, especially with writers, is a really valuable thing. Can you talk a little more about how you work with people, starting maybe with like a 20 minute spring and building up and we could start to do that?
Yeah, so the general strategy I use with students is you start with 20 minutes, and once you're able to go one to two weeks of consistently hitting that duration without having to do resets. So, you can consistently hit it without having to do a glance, or stop, or do something to embellish the deep work, that you add 10 minutes. So, we typically do about 10 minutes every one to two weeks, which is what gets us to about 90 minutes after about a semester of doing this type of training. I also advise students to get social media off of their phone, like we talked about before, and also to spend regular periods of time away from their phone, because I think the solitude is just like a reset cycle for your brain. So, students in particular need regular exposure to, say, a long walk without your phone where you have to just be okay with your thoughts. Sports can be excellent for this, by the way, Srini always makes me feel like I should be spending more time surfing. I think he's right about that. You know, being out on the water, being out on a trail run, doing a skilled sport where you have to give full concentration to something physical and bodied. All of these things really help to bring it back to a healthier state and be more comfortable with focus. So, I have students trying to do all of these things as sort of detoxing their brain from a lifestyle of constant stimulation.
Well, for those of you who wanna dig more into Cal Newport's work, check out his blog at calnewport.com, check out his book Deep Work. I can't recommend it highly enough. I consider it one of the seven most essential books that every creative person should read. I've read it at least a half a dozen times. We also have interviews on The Unmistakable Creative with Cal that you can check out, and we will definitely have him back on Unmistakable Creative when his new book comes out. Thank you, Cal, this has been phenomenal.
Great, thank you, I enjoyed it.