“Don’t use tech as an end. It is only useful – when it comes to human flourishing – when you’re deploying tech for very specific, intentional purposes that you care about. As soon as the tech becomes an end in itself, that’s when we start to see problems.” – Cal Newport
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Cal Newport is a well-known Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and researches cutting edge technologies so he can write about the impact of these innovations on society. Cal has numerous books including “Deep Work” and recently launched his latest book, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” In this episode, Cal talks to Commander Divine about how to make sure you’re using tech in the best way so that it is helping you toward your goals, rather than simply distracting you from them.
- We currently have an economy based around knowledge products, but very little consideration is given to how we make them.
- Addictive behavior is NOT fundamental to smart phones, social media has just enhanced and developed addiction to technology on our part
- We should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives.
Listen to this episode to understand how to control your technology, and make it the tool rather than the goal of what you do.
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Hey folks. Welcome back to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is Mark Divine. Thanks so much for joining me today. We’re gonna have an incredible show with my friend Cal Newport – author of “Digital Minimalism,” and one of my favorite books “Deep Work.”
But before I introduce Cal let me tell you I just got done with a 9-day retreat of my own, where I checked my cell phone in – no TV, no cell phone, no internet access and deep emotional work. And it was awesome. It was really awesome.
And so that’s one of the things we’re gonna be talking about today – is unplugging and not just for productivity, and hacking, and being better… But for what does it mean to be human? And to reconnect with our humanity?
And stuff like that. So it’s gonna be really interesting.
And I’ve been saying this for a while now, so if you missed it then this might be the first time you heard it.
But I’ve completely revamped our online unbeatablemind.com course. Which is a 12-month program of transformation following the path of our five mountain training, where we get you fit and aligned physically, mentally, emotionally, intuitionally. And then laser focused on your life purpose or your calling. And in a way that you’ll never quit. And we call that Kokoro or whole mind.
So check it out at unbeatablemind.com. Really, really proud of that. It took us about 18 months to rebuild that whole program.
And then we also have a three-day immersion experience to go with that. That we’re running now in March and September. So the next one is coming up in September, if you want to go do a deep dive with myself and my team. Here in San Diego, California where I am right now.
But Cal is not here with me. We’re doing a Zencast – although we’re filming this podcast, so you can see me talking to Cal through a microphone. Which he says he can’t hear very well – so this is gonna be fun. There’s a tech issue and I’m just putting it up there.
So halfway through here Cal might be talking to himself, or vice versa. We’ll see how that goes.
Cal, so stoked to have you. I’ll introduce more, but geez, it’s really good to have you back on the show. And I miss you, man.
Cal: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. It’s been too long.
Mark: It has. I’ve been tracking your work and I know that you’re a university professor, you’re a computer scientist – actually – but I loved when I read in “Deep Work” just how you organize your life. And so it really was not surprised that your next work was “Digital Minimalism,” because you already are kind of a minimalist. And I’m really stoked that you went deep into that subject to help other people appreciate the benefits of that.
So let’s – before we kind of get into all that cool stuff – let’s remind our listeners or those who aren’t familiar with your work or who you are as a person, just a little bit about your background, and how you came to teach computer science. And what it is that really fires you up and make you unbeatable.
Cal: Well I really do two things. So I am a computer scientist and that’s what I’ve been training for my whole life. I went right out of college into MIT. Got my doctorate. Am now at Georgetown. I focus on the theory of distributed systems – that means I do the sort of non-useful type of computer science, where we solve equations at the whiteboard, instead of actually building useful things with computers.
But I have also been a writer in parallel with that whole progression. I wrote my first book when I was still an undergraduate. “Digital Minimalism” is my sixth. And so I’ve been writing at the same time that I’ve been a computer scientist.
It used to be the case that the books I wrote were just topics that were relevant to my own life at the time. So, for example, back in 2012 I wrote a book about career satisfaction. I wrote it then, because I was entering the job market. And I wanted to know about career satisfaction.
In 2016 I wrote “Deep Work” because I really cared about how do I get tenure? Or more generally, how do knowledge workers succeed? And I really went deep on the value of focus.
I will say, however, mark, that in recent years – with this new book, and the book I’m working on now. I’ve really seen my mission starting to sharpen. Where I no longer see my life as a writer as something different than my life as a technologist. I now see myself primarily, right now, as a technologist who also writes about the impact of these technologies on our culture.
And so that’s what’s really been getting me fired up – starting with “Deep Work” and with my new book “Digital Minimalism.” and the book I’m writing now about email that’s called “the world without email,” is all me trying to grapple with the intersection of tech and our culture. I think these are some of the more important issues facing us right now.
Mark: So in a way it’s your apology to culture, for screwing us up with all your computers and stuff.
Cal: Yeah, this is my apology for what I’ve wrought with my academic work. Right.
Mark: (laughing) what you’ve wrought on society. Well you’re not alone, there’s a whole bunch of other people working in that area.
To distract us, and to take us away from important things like spending time alone and being quiet and that type of stuff.
So let’s talk about “Deep Work” before we get into your current work – or your more recent work – with “Digital Minimalism.”
One of the things I loved about “Deep Work” was this notion that if you want – like you just mentioned – if you want to really contribute and not just skim the surface of social media and news and just like languaging in a social context.
But if you really want to go deep and understand something deeply, then you have to kind of escape. And different people have different ways to do it.
How do you do it? Like how do you – I mean, not escape from reality – but escape from unreality and go back to where the true information lies? Right?
Which is going to be found through insight, intuition as well as being able to really penetrate a subject by studying it. With deep concentration.
So tell us what your discovery was. What worked for you and what works for some other high-level thinkers, and authors, and creators?
Cal: Well, for me – like with a lot of people – there is two components to trying to really prioritize depth and do the type of thinking that moves the needle and knowledge work.
So one component is actually just minimizing the amount of non-depth stuff on your plate. And so this is an ongoing, aggressive effort to try to make sure that you’re not adding too much shallow obligations on your plate. So there’s this overall effort to minimize – something that I work very aggressively at.
I sort of try to be very careful about what I allow on my plate, what I agree to, what initiatives I take on. I’m sort of notoriously hard to track down. I say “no” to most invitations to do most things, because I don’t want my time being taken up.
Then when you focus on what is on your plate I do something that a lot of other people do – which is I oscillate between periods of deeper work and periods of shallower work. And I do that on many different scales.
And so that might mean on the scale of an individual day, I like to start with Deep Work. And then once that energy is spent maybe move over to some of the logistical stuff.
On the scale of a week I tend to have a balance of some days maybe are a teaching day – as long as I have to be on campus teaching, I’m going to put other meetings on that day – I’m going to dedicate that day more towards non-deep efforts.
But then other days in that same week might be almost entirely dedicated to deep thinking.
And then on the scale of seasons, as a professor, I do the same thing. I’m entering summer right now. That means I’m going into hibernation mode. I’m about to become very hard to track down, because I’m going to be reading and writing for months at a time.
And so having a clear separation between depth and shallows at multiple different scales coupled with an overall commitment to being incredibly careful about what I agree to let on my plate – has helped me get in enough of the deep cycles to keep doing interesting things.
Mark: Mm. That’s awesome. And it sounds simple. But there’s a tremendous amount of self-awareness that goes into what you just said. In those two big categories – saying “no” in service to that bigger “yes.” right there, the self-awareness required to know what to say “yes” to is really the most important thing.
So that means really getting clear about what is your unique gift to the world. At a broad level. And then how you’re going to express that and really dive into that at this point in time, right?
And that’s going to change as you evolve – for you, it’s changed as your interests have evolved right and then the other thing… Go ahead
Cal: Well, I was just going to say briefly – there’s an irony to that as well – it’s absolutely vital and the irony is as what you’re doing – the thing you’re working deeply on – gets more developed and gets more impactful, the demands that take you away from it grow as well. It’s this weird binary coin, and sort of the more your deep thinking becomes useful to the world, the more the world is going to try to take you away from your deep thinking.
And it’s difficult, I mean there this is social reciprocity. Just yesterday I was showing my wife I said “look,” I cleaned my inbox on Tuesday. Earlier in the day. And here it was Wednesday afternoon. And I was saying “there are now nine requests in here for my time from people I know. And every one of those is going to require like a relatively delicate social dance to basically say “no” to.
So it gets pretty hard. I mean anyways… I think it’s worth emphasizing, you’re correct to emphasize that it’s hard work. But it’s work that’s absolutely vital to do. If you want to keep doing things of impact.
Mark: Right. And the irony there is the distractions come as you said because of the Deep Work and because of aligning with that purpose or that gift. But also the requests are in alignment with it.
Meaning the more of an expert you become – let’s say on Digital Minimalism – the more avenues you’re going to open up. And the more experts and opportunities for things like this podcast that open up. And it’s all in alignment with this new vein of gold that you’re plumbing.
But then you have to do that like the next layer of selectivity, right? And so it’s not the old stuff that’s distracting you anymore – it’s new stuff – new people, new interests, new avenues. And like you said, that’s just a never-ending thing. You can’t get rid of the distraction. You just keep on sharpening the saw of your awareness on what to say yes to and what to avoid. So you can keep going deeper in the right vein. Or follow the vein appropriately – to use that metaphor – all the way down to the depth.
That’s fascinating cause we could literally spend the entire time talking about how to do that. How to develop that type of awareness.
The other thing that you said – this idea of having a battle rhythm is really interesting. Knowing how to spend your days where your energy is going to be best spent on Deep Work.
And then also you when you’re doing something like you, where you might be doing reading and writing and then teaching – some people would say that teaching is the Deep Work. Is every bit as important, because you have to be engaged. That’s where you’re offering your gift to the world, just in a verbal sense as opposed to a written sense. So I’m curious as to why you would categorize teaching as shallow work. And reading, and writing, and thinking as Deep Work.
Cal: Well, that’s a good question because what I should clarify, I guess, is the reason why teaching tends to anchor a shallow day. It’s not the actual time in the classroom – because I agree, when you’re actually communicating that’s very deep. I mean what we’re doing now, for example, I consider Deep Work. Or when I’m in front of what in front of my students and teaching a class on computational theory – that’s Deep Work.
It’s more that teaching brings me to campus. And once I’m on campus, now it’s “I can do office hours. I can do these meetings with students. I can do…” so it’s once I’m on campus and I’m here and available, my thought is “let’s batch. Let’s make this a day. If I’m going to be here and doing other things let’s make this a day where I do everything I can.”
Like I’m on campus right now recording this. I have a full afternoon of meetings scheduled, because it will let me take advantage of that.
Whereas yesterday, I was at home all day. And working on one thing deeply the entire day.
Mark: Right. So these blocks – the deep and shallow – are pretty large blocks and you fit different things into that block that go in those categories.
Cal: Yeah, that’s right. They can be on all sorts of different scales. But they’re often quite large.
Mark: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And that rings true for me. Whenever I’ve tried to do… I’m going to do an hour or 90-minute block of Deep Work, and then I’m going to go do something else. It’s just really… I don’t know what the right word is… It’s just difficult to really go deep and stay there, because you’re constantly getting pulled out. So for me it’s got to be like a day or, like you said, a week.
Next week I’m going out to be alone to finish a manuscript. And that would be my Deep Work week. So it sounds like you have kind of the same thing.
But I love the idea of seasons, and that’s kind of unique to your profession. It’s difficult for other professionals to have a seasonality, I think, to their battle rhythm.
But I think that would be interesting to think about, right? If you’re an executive can you arrange a sabbatical or something like that during a summer month to just go deep on something?
Cal: Yeah, I mean, I think that would be a good idea. We see seasonality on a more of like a weekly scale. We’re seeing this starting to emerge in software development, where… For example… This sprint methodology has become big. Where they’re recognizing sometimes the right way to develop a software product is to actually take two or three days. And make it clear that this is all you’re doing. You’re just working on this. You’re just doing one thing, you’re just going deep.
And then when the sprint is over, it’s a completely different phase. “Okay, I’m not in a sprint and maybe we’re being logistical, we’re planning…”
In general though what I find surprising is that we have a whole economy based off knowledge products. We have a whole massive portion of our economy that’s based on us using our brain to create value. And yet we understand so little about the actual let’s say cognitive or physical best practices for doing it.
I mean, if you talk to a professional athlete they’re completely locked in to their body and their body’s performance. They know about breath, they know when they’re gonna get the best strength. When they’re going to be weak. How much to push it, when not to push it, how to build towards peaking for an athletic event. They really understand their physical performance.
And yet, when we look at elite cognitive fields, we don’t put nearly enough thought into understanding “hey this brain is a part of our body. It’s not that easy to figure out.” and we don’t think about what it needs, or how it actually operates, or how we get it to do things at high performance. What rest it needs? What’s the cost of context shifting?
And I think this is one of the big shifts I’m seeing culturally sort of in the years after “Deep Work,” is that we’re beginning to see a growing interest from let’s say the business world – the management world – and actually starting to understand “how do these brains work?”
Because it is brains that are creating all of the value in our companies. Its brains if I’m Eric Schmidt that’s producing the code that makes google all the money. It’s brains if I’m an author that produces the books that’re gonna sell a lot of copies. How do these brains actually work?
And I’m starting to see a growing interest and maybe we need to reshape how we work around the reality of the human brain. As opposed to what we’re doing now, where we just treat people like these black boxes. And all that matters is they have the right objectives, the right motivations, they’re given the right information. And then, just like a computer processor, execute.
I think we’re realizing that black box analogy doesn’t work. We have to open that black box, we have to confront the messy neurons inside, and figure out how do we get this biological reality to produce really good things as sustainably as possible?
Mark: Right. And I might add it’s not just the brain. It’s the whole mind – the heart and the biome and… Because my experience is it’s not a cognitive capacity that has held me back – it’s emotional engagement and being able to really bring the passion and the emotions every day to the Deep Work.
So that’s an interesting thing. That’s where I’m heading… My next book is all about how do you tap into heart and emotional engagement to build an elite team? And that’s why… People would be surprised, Cal and maybe you would as well… It’s like navy seals they’re really cognitively intelligent individuals, but it’s their heart, it’s their emotional engagement that allows them to dominate their missions. And I don’t think that’s ever been really studied or written about so I think that’s an interesting area to go down.
Cal: Yeah, it’s a great topic. I mean, it’s just an example of one of these threads involving how our mind works how our brain actually works that until recently we haven’t been polling. We just really have been wanting to see people as these black box computer processors. Give them tasks, make sure they have the right information, make sure you’re paying them the right money so they feel motivated, and it’ll just work.
And it’s really much more complicated story.
Mark: For sure. There’s so much to talk about there. I mean that’s where AI is missing the mark too.
But let me talk about your own practices/processes for ensuring the highest quality Deep Work session. I’m sure so you have some similarities depending upon it’s a short, medium or long term deep work session. But there’s probably some nuances too.
But what are some of the core practices that you do to ensure you’re engaged, you’re focused, you’re able to tap into your intuition. You’re able to get the most out of those periods of time.
Cal: Well, I care a lot about clarity. So it’s important I know what I am trying to accomplish in the session. This is in some sense the artifact I’m trying to produce. Be it a sketched out plan, a certain number of words or progress on a proof that I’m doing as an academic.
Location matters for me. There’s several different locations I use for Deep Work depending on my mood and the type of work I’ll choose the location. But there are locations I associate with Deep Work – my office at my home for example. Where I do most of my Deep Work. Has no computer.
So we have a separate sort of household home office where we have the printer and our computer, and we pay our bills, and our filing cabinets are.
But where I do my work I’ve actually replicated an academic style library. I had a custom-built library table of the type you would see in sort of a university library. With library lamps next to a dark wood cases, looking outside of windows…
I put effort into that. It’s not just a sort of eccentric quirk. To me, that’s actually a professional investment, because that’s a place I go when I need to think deeply. And when I get there – I know that’s what I’m doing. I have a similar place outside and certain walking routes I do.
So clarity is important. Environment is really important. And then for certain types of Deep Work I’ll also have some sort of ritual. Usually for me the ritual involves getting my blood flowing. So it’ll be a particular type of walking route I’ll do. Maybe about five minutes long. Clear the head. Swap-in the relevant variables. Get the blood flowing so that when I get down on the desk I can lock right in.
Mark: Wow, interesting.
Anything physically? Nutrition, nootropics? Anything you do there that would fall in maybe the hack category that you found worked for you?
Cal: Well I found there seems to be a pretty big connection between fitness and cognitive ability. The fitter I feel, the better I do. Actually, you would probably appreciate… Ever since my days as a collegiate rower I have always been a big fan of navy seal style workouts… Actually, I do calisthenics every day, usually before the sun rises. I have my pull-up bar and dip station built in my garage. And I still have the classic array of pull-up grips I think I learned from one of the classic navy seal workout books. The wide grip, the normal, the chin-ups and the close together hand grips. I still do my dive bombers and my burpees.
So I do calisthenics every morning. Usually 30 pull-ups of various grips and then push-ups and dips. That helps.
And then nutrition, I would say that matters for me, especially during the day. I’m pretty locked in with a sort of Mark Sisson-style, primal approach to my diet. And it makes a really big difference. I can absolutely tell depending on what I eat how much I can concentrate. And so I mean I think that’s an area where we’re also just starting to recognize the connections. Physical fitness and cognitive fitness are not really two separate magisteria.
Mark: Right. Agree. That’s cool.
Mark: So now let’s kind of shift to the nemesis of personal technology, right? So that little iPhone of mine… I’ve been dealing with that too, because we all have behaviors that if you were to take a broad definition of addictive patterns, I don’t think there’s anyone listening here who doesn’t have some sort of addictive pattern.
And I don’t mean that in the negative sense like being addicted to some damaging substance like alcohol or drugs, but pretty much anything that you do.
For instance work. Like work is a big addictive pattern for those of us in the west. And it’s just part of our culture… It’s a cultural bias.
So it’s something important to take a look at. Anything you do obsessively that takes you out of balance you could – in my opinion – you could put under that label of an addictive quality.
And certainly iPhone use or a mobile device has made it easy for us to really expose those patterns, right? And that’s the topic of your next book or your book “Digital Minimalism.” it’s not the topic, but it kind of like points to why that’s such an important subject. Is all of a sudden since 2007 we have literally technology in the palm of our hand. And it’s a technology that that is so addictive, or exposes our addictive tendencies. And then routes them in pretty deeply and I think everybody – like there’s very few people who don’t kind of struggle with it – and they may not admit it right? But they’re struggling with it, because it’s taking them away from things that are healthy. It’s pulling them out of balance and it’s causing a lot of distress, I think.
And so when did you start noticing this, Cal? And how did you get passionate about this kind of deep dive you did on Digital Minimalism?
Cal: It was really after “Deep Work” came out. And I was on the road talking to readers. I kept hearing the same storyline – especially starting around late 2016, early 2017 – I kept hearing the same storyline which is “maybe I buy your premise about what’s happening with tech in the workplace and we’re more distracted because of email.” but what about tech in our personal lives? There’s something going on there that was making people uneasy.
And so I looked into it. “What’s going on here? Why do people feel that they’re uneasy? Is it what they’re doing on the phone? Is there something specific with the phone itself that’s making them unhappy?”
Then what I discovered is that it seemed to be an issue of autonomy. So it’s not that what people are doing when they look at that screen is in itself or in isolation bad, right? So it’s not like smoking a cigarette or something where hey that smoke is immediately hurting your lungs.
It was more the sense that they were looking at that phone more than they needed to. More than was useful. More than was healthy. And to the exclusion of things that are more important.
It’s like they began maybe just looking at the phone during idle times that they otherwise would have been bored. But then it began to creep out of that original assignment. And it began for a lot of people to displace more and more of their leisure time. More and more of the time they used to do other things with, it was pushing it to the side. And they look up let’s say seven years after buying their first iPhone and realize “I’m on this thing constantly. I do a fraction of the other types of meaningful activities I used to do. And when I am doing those activities, I can’t help but look down at this screen. Even though I know what I’m doing is more important than it.”
So it’s that sense of “I’m losing autonomy over directing my life towards the things that I think are so meaningful. That’s what people are becoming uneasy about.
Mark: Yeah losing autonomy or agency over your life almost. Like that phone starts to own you is the feeling, right? Like you said – and they’ve done studies – even if the phone is just in front of you and you’re not looking at it your productivity is about eighteen or twenty percent less than if your phone is locked in a drawer in the other room.
Cal: And I have to add that sort of the dark underside of this story is it didn’t used to be that way. This is one most interesting things that came up in my research for that book. Is that we forget now that when let’s say the iPhone was first released in 2007, we did not use it the way we use it today.
Like today we’re used to this idea that the phone is a constant companion that we look at all the time. But that’s not the way we used the original iPhone. The original iPhone was a tool and it was designed to do a few things that we already did really well. It made making phone calls easier. It was a much better music player than the iPod that came before it. And it combined the iPod and the phone in the one device, so you didn’t have to carry two devices.
And then it also allowed you to look up maps, which was really useful. It was a tool you deployed to do a few things that we were already doing really well. What happened – as far as I can tell in my research – is essentially the social media companies took the lead – and in particular Facebook – when it came time for Facebook’s IPO which was a few years after the iPhone came out, they had to switch from user acquisition mode into revenue generation mode, so they could hit the price targets that wall street was setting for the IPO. And so there is this period where social media reinvented the whole social media experience to essentially exploit psychological vulnerabilities and retrain us to look at this phone all the time. That behavior – in other words – is not at all fundamental to the technology. It’s something that was trained in to us by a small number of companies because they had to get our minutes per day looking at their app up, so they could hit their IPO targets.
And so to me that was a really distressing finding is that not only are we losing autonomy, but we’re not really doing it even on our own volition. There’s nothing fundamental about smartphone or social media technology that says you need to look at it all the time. That’s a contrivance. And it’s something that I think people are getting fed up with.
Mark: Yeah. And to be fair the tech companies that produce the phones merged a lot of the tools for packing the brain and the emotion of the user into all of their apps, right? And so every app now had gamification, and notifications and those things that draw you back time and time again.
So I think you’re right – when I first started using the iPhone, there weren’t those things. Or at least they weren’t as prevalent and they weren’t always on. And so you weren’t always drawn back to pick up the phone.
So it’s the gamification of the device which has led to such a – it seems to me anyways, I should say – I don’t want to make these broad statements, especially to someone who studied this thing ad nauseam.
So I should ask that as a question. Do you think it’s the gamification that has been the primary culprit?
Cal: Yes. I mean, it depends how broadly we define gamification… But basically yes it’s a collection of strategies that helped make these apps irresistible. And so one of the big changes that led this way, was for example when the social media companies changed the experience so it was no longer about “I post. You post. Because I know you, I check what you post.”
That was the original social media experience. That was the original web 2.0 vision.
They replaced that with “I hit this app, and there is an incoming stream of social approval indicators about me. There’s likes” – which weren’t there originally – “there’s likes for my post. There’s retweets. There’s favorites. There’s people auto-tagging me in their photos.”
So that was one of the big changes, because it meant when you hit that button sometimes you were going to see a lot of social approval indicators about you. And sometimes you were going to see no social approval indicators about you. And sometime you might see that people are upset at you.
The way our brain is wired, we cannot resist pulling that virtual slot-machine lever if those are the rewards to come out on the other end. And that was partly purposeful.
And then they re-engineered the interfaces for all of these tools to have that gamification feel. So now you can have swipe down to reload. That’s very slot machine-esque, right? Or they go to endless scrolling on certain types of interfaces. So that you have no easy friction point that’s going to get you to stop.
Facebook changed their engineers made the original notification badge gray because that was the Facebook palette. And the attention engineers came along and said “no, no, no. It needs to be alarm red. Because that’s what is more likely to create a sense of sort of distress or urgency in the human brain. You’re gonna be more likely to hit the app.”
And so it’s a whole reinvention around intermittent stream of social approval indicators – which has nothing to do with the original idea of social media – wasn’t there, it’s completely contrived. The idea of a “like” button, photo tags… That’s all about driving eyeballs coupled with this sort of interface reinvention.
And I got to say – and not to sound too conspiratorial – but there’s a few pockets in academia that specialize on what they call persuasive technology. How do we redesign technologies to actually induce a desired action in the user? A lot of the people who ended up innovating these ideas at the big tech companies came out of these research groups.
And so this is all intentional. It’s why when Sean Parker, the original Facebook president more recently a couple years ago came out and said “we’re hacking your brain. We’re hackers and we figured out how to hack your brain.”
And I gotta say this was terrible news for the social media companies. The idea that “we’re exploiting you. This is addictive. It’s making you unhappy.”
And I think this is a real reason why their PR people told the social media companies “`you have to tack hard to another topic.” and that’s why you see the conversation almost entirely about things now like privacy and data portability and content moderation. Because they had to change the subject. They cannot be talking about are these services addictive and making people unhappy? Because that’s a problem they can’t solve. If they make the service less addictive their revenue plummets.
And so there’s been this hard shift in the way they talk about things to say “well, let’s deal with issues that maybe we can do something about. Maybe we can add end-to-end encryption to try to reduce privacy violations. Maybe we can keep tweaking content moderation standards.
There’s a reason why they’re talking about that and not talking about their former president saying that we’re hacking your brains. It’s because that’s the playground they want to be playing in.
Mark: Right. Well, it’s interesting… It takes us a while to study and acknowledge at a social level to study acknowledge the damage that can be done at a broad level from something like smoking or alcohol addiction. And then to take action against it.
Do you think that’s going to happen with brain hacking through these electronic devices? Or is it just something that the government is gonna be like “yeah, whatever. It’s just free market.”
Cal: Well, you have to keep in mind… We have to keep the historical example in mind… I think this is actually an interesting point so there’s been recently in the news like let’s say Chris Hughes one of the cofounders of Facebook and some of the presidential candidates coming out and saying “social media… The big companies like Facebook are like big oil, and they need to be broken up. They’re trusts that need to be broken up.”
But maybe the better analogy is actually big tobacco, because think about… The government response to big tobacco was not “we’re gonna somehow regulate tobacco companies to make cigarettes less harmful.” the response to big tobacco was we’re going to essentially…
Mark: Tax it.
Cal: Well, yeah. But also educate the public that you probably shouldn’t be smoking. And I’m wondering if that’s not the more apt analogy here. If this is a free service that’s based on extracting attention, fundamentally it’s going to be it’s going to be addictive, it’s going to be exploitative.
They have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to be addictive and to get as much use as possible. And so I don’t know if the idea of “what we need to do is maybe just get more competition in this space,” is somehow the key.
To me I see this a little bit more through the lens of how we used to see big tobacco. And that’s what I’m trying to do with my books. Is shift the culture to some degree where people no longer feel comfortable with the idea that this is something that they’re just going to slavishly check on their phone. I mean, I think when something is unhealthy as opposed to un-competitive, that’s a different set of solutions you begin to look at.
Mark: Right. Or another option is that we’re heading into an era where people – because of the access to information and the diffusion of information – that a lot of people are demanding more social responsibility of the companies that they do business with. As well as invest in. And so I think you’re gonna find companies that exploit things that damage the social fabric having a harder and harder time staying in business. That’s maybe a dream of mine… (laughing) But it’s not happening right now, it doesn’t seem. But you never know, right?
Cal: You never know. And the funny thing about a company like Facebook is that it’s historically unique. We’ve never before in history had a company that was so valuable. I mean Facebook is valued around five hundred billion dollars – that’s almost twice Exxon Mobil’s valuation.
And yet at the same time is so dispensable. If you think about Facebook right…? If I came to you and said “look, I’m sorry. A court ordered you’re not allowed to look at Facebook.” you’d be okay.
Mark: I haven’t looked at Facebook in ten years.
Cal: Exactly. And most people have same reaction “like oh it’s okay. I mean, if it’s there I’m gonna look at it.”
And yet it’s worth 500 billion dollars. Typically when you have a company that valuable it’s because, let’s say, they supply oil. And our entire economy requires oil to run. And it’s a necessity and it’s a social good.
But that’s this weird place these social media companies are on is that their hooks into their audience is very tenuous. And people can very easily leave a platform and go to another. I’ve been documenting pretty thoroughly a lot of people my age who are just leaving social media altogether. Like “well, I tried it. It was okay.”
I mean they don’t really play… They’re an interesting source of distraction but for most people, they’re not at all indispensable. So they’re in this weird, precarious situation where Kim Kardashian says the right thing about Instagram tomorrow and they could see their user base plummet by 30%. That’s a scary position to be in if you’re one of these companies.
Mark: Except that they own Instagram.
Who they are valuable to or is the business world that’s doing business on the internet. And spending… I know companies spending millions of dollars a month on Facebook. Which is crazy. Just to attract eyeballs and hopefully convert some users.
Cal: Yeah, well, I mean there’s a reason they’re worth 500 billion dollars. It’s because the advertising works. But for that advertising to work they have to get… Like the average millennial user now uses social media something like 141 minutes a day. That’s what makes them so valuable is the fact that they’ve convinced a sizeable fraction of the population to essentially dedicate the bulk of their leisure time to entering data about themselves in the databases.
tech in the right place
Mark: Let’s talk specifically about your book. Now I saw in some of the notes that Allison put together for me that you were hoping to get a small cadre of peeps to do a little experiment, and to go off all social media and screens. 100% for 30-days. And you ended up with a boatload of volunteers.
How did that come about? And what were some of the surprising things about that study?
Cal: So the original ask – and this was an email I sent to my mailing list – and so it’s a little bit under the radar and I said “look, I want to find volunteers to do this thing I’m calling a digital declutter.” where as you said you take a 30-day break from all these optional technologies in your personal life. And then when you’re done, the idea was you don’t just go back to everything. You rebuild from scratch. So the 30-days.
The idea of the 30-days as opposed like just doing this over a weekend – the idea of the 30-days was that you could actually have some time for reflection, experimentation and figure out what do I really care about? What do I want to really spend my time on?
Get some clarity on that so that when it comes time to add back tech you can be much more intentional.
I thought I would get – I don’t know – a dozen volunteers. I mean that’s kind of a big ask, right? I honestly thought like yeah it’d be about dozen volunteers and I can talk to them all. I thought for my book. There’ll be 12 people who do this, and I’ll keep up with them on the phone. And then I can I can kind of write about the experience in the book, what it was like for these 12 people.
And instead 1600 people signed up.
Mark: Wow. So it became an actual like research study.
Cal: Yeah it became like an actual research study…
Mark: With surveys… And then you had the code the surveys… And come out with whatever the relevant data was.
Cal: Except for to be clear I purposefully did not officially code the surveys or gather data in a quantitative sense, because then I would need IRB approval from my academic institution.
But it became like an unintentional sort of social movement. Ended up being covered in the New York Times. One of their reporters’ roommates was doing it…
And that’s what really helped me understand that there is such a pent-up hunger for change here. But I’ll have to say one of the big things I discovered from this experiment is that a) people were surprised to discover the extent to which their phone had pushed everything else out of their life that they used to care about. And they had been telling themselves this story of life “well look, I look at my phone occasionally when I have nothing else to do. It’s idle time. I’m in the elevator. It’s not a big deal.”
And that first day, when they didn’t have the phone to look at, they realized “I don’t know what to do with myself. I have gotten rid… I’ve stopped putting in the hard work required to actually build up a meaningful leisure life outside of just your professional activities.” so that was the first thing I learned.
The second thing I learned is that the people who just treated this like a detox – and I really hate the use of the word detox in context of technology – because I think people are completely abusing the concept when they talk about “digital detox” – which for most people they mean a break – which is actually like a pretty big insult to the substance abuse community. Where the whole notion of a “detox” is to make actionable change. As the foundation for a better life.
The idea that you just taking a break from the thing that’s bothering you is… But that’s a bit of an aside. But the people who treated this 30-days like one of these “digital detoxes,” and just tried to white-knuckle it. Like, “I’m just going to not use my phone. I use it too much.”
They almost all failed. Lasted a week or two and were back to it. The people who succeeded in making lasting change out of these 30-days – for the people who took the 30-days and said “I’m going to get after it and figure out what is it that I really want to do? What is important to me, especially outside of the work day? Like what do I want to spend my time doing? What activities are important? What gives me fire, right? What is this that I want to be about in my life?”
And the people who put in the time to figure that out it was very easy for them after the 30-days were over to become very intentional about their tech. Because their filter was clear. “If this tool can really help one of these things I care about… Okay, I’ll bring it in. But I’ll put some rules around it, to make sure it doesn’t take over. And everything else I don’t care. Because it’s not about what’s bad about those tools, it’s about what’s good about what I want to do.”
So the people who came out of this now with clarity on “this is what I want to do with my time. And I don’t want things to get in the way of that.” they had a really easy time making lasting change. The idea that you just need to take a break, I think is nonsensical.
What you need is to declutter all this junk and rebuild something from scratch that’s much better.
Mark: I mean there is a lot of parallel between recovery that actually is in there. Because if you just go cold turkey, and you doing all or nothing… And then when you’re done the cold turkey most people are right back on whatever it is that they’re doing, like you said.
But if you go and deep dive into why that pattern… What are the roots of the pattern to begin with? What are you trying to replace with the pattern of constantly picking up the phone? And the ease of that, right?
You’re trying to really… Actually, it’s a surrogate for connection. And any addiction is actually a surrogate for connection, in its broadest sense, I think. So that’s fascinating.
So did you have a little kind of like a 12-step? Did you have people say “I’m powerless over the iPhone? And I’m gonna explore this and make amends.”
Or what was the structure, beyond just set your phone aside?
Cal: So the way the way I ended up structuring it was the first week or so, this is when people… I mean, to use of substance abuse analogy… The first week or so is when people most strongly felt a sort of withdrawal. Where people most strongly felt this urge to check and found it difficult.
After about a week that urge to check something went away. And there the instructions I was giving people is, “you need to be incredibly active. You need to be expending energy. And it’s self-reflection and experimentation, were the key things.”
And then after the 30-days were over, what I essentially had people do was work backwards from the values they had identified. So they come out of these 30-days saying “these are the things. The four things, the five things, the six things that I want to spend my time doing outside of work.”
And then I had them work backwards from those. And for each say “what’s the best way – if any – to use technology to help this thing?” they would answer that question. They’d find… And because in a lot of cases like things that are really important, tech can give you a huge boost, right? I mean, I think technology can be a huge accelerant to living a value-driven life. And I’ve never doubted that.
But it requires intention. So for each of these things that’s valuable, is there a way you can use tech that’s going to be a big accelerant? And if so though, the key rule I gave them was you can’t just say “I now use this tool.”
You also have to say how and when do I use it? You had to set those fences on what devices do I use it. Is it on my phone? Is it only on the computer? And when do I use it? Do I use it just all the time? Do I just check it on Sundays?
Those two questions often push the cost-benefit ratio decidedly in the advantage of the user and away from the company. And so I had them go through that process… And at the end of the 30-days, what they’re left with is a new technological life, built from scratch, on a foundation of their values, with some careful rules around how they how they actually engage with the tools.
Mark: Mm. I love that. So you’re taking care of the “I,” the self-awareness and then the “it” the structure. But there is that third component and that’s the “we,” the people in your life. And I can imagine people after this 30-day detox, they do what you said. Let’s say they have some skillful means and they take care of when and how they’re gonna use the tech and because they now know why it’s important. Again – almost dovetailing with your Deep Work – they know what to say “no” to.
But then if they keep hanging out with the same people who are constantly on their phone during social gatherings or that’s how they connect, then I could see how that could be a jarring situation. You might have to make some changes – which could be uncomfortable.
Cal: Well, yeah the uncomfortable aspect is the always being around people with their phones when you’re not. And lots of people reported… One dad was telling me how surreal it is to be at the playground with his kids. Because he’s the only parent there who’s not looking down. And he’d never noticed it before.
Another young woman was telling me how she has a really hard time going out to eat with her brother now, because she just gets so frustrated at how often he’s looking at the phone.
But the place where actually – this is kind of interesting – I was concerned that people were going to find that their social lives were impoverished perhaps. After they made some of the changes that this process would lead you to.
But actually the opposite happened, because one of the big revelations that people have going through this process is that the sociality that they really care about is where they actually sacrifice their time and attention on behalf of family, close friends, or their community. They actually say, “I’m gonna go to you and we’re gonna do something. I’m gonna spend time just with you. Or my morning is put aside to help you with this. Or I’m coming to watch this thing you’re doing. I’m making a sacrifice on your behalf to show my commitment to you and our social connection.”
People rediscovered that that’s actually the core of a thriving sense of sociality. And so what they lost when they spend less time doing the constant text messages and particularly social media messages, is sure, there’s this sort of whole stratum of weak-tie connections that they become disconnected from.
But there’s no real good evidence that human beings really need to maintain a lot of sort of weak-tie connections with people they barely know. And they found that by instead putting much more energy and sacrifice into strong social connections, they come out of this transformation feeling more connected, less lonely, and more socially accepted than they can remember in many years.
Mark: Yeah. I can believe that.
This is kind of a more of a process thing, but what I found is – because I’ve been working on some of these things as well recently – is like for instance, I go out to dinner with my wife. And I will leave my phone home.
But it took a little bit of work, because I found so many there’s so many functions now that are that are app enabled. And it’s gonna get worse and worse with 5g, when 5g comes down the pipe…
But like for instance paying, right? And so I would bring my phone because oftentimes that’s how we would pay or I would track receipts or there’s like two or three things that might be involved in a transaction. Which is all on my phone. And then I would bring the phone, because I would be thinking okay in-case-of-emergency – need phone.
Well, that’s true too. How was she going to call triple-A and blah, blah, blah?
So now like one of us will bring a phone for the purpose of emergency – son needs to get ahold of us, or whatnot… And then I’ll just bring a credit card or cash. And we just will keep the phone either in the car or we don’t bring it out. It took a lot of discipline to figure that out. It’s a simple thing, but not easy, for sure.
And then there’s other examples of this where one of the primary benefits was this what Peter Diamandis would call a dematerialization, where now everything fits in this digital device. But then, that’s one of the reasons why we can’t really leave home without it, so to speak. It’s a real problem, or challenge, I should say.
Cal: One of the trends I’ve seen, is that now because other devices like laptops and tablets have become so small is that you increasingly see people who are re-dumbing down their smartphone. “Okay, I can make calls on this thing. I have apps I have like the map app on this thing. But if I need to do anything productive I have an iPad mini with a cellular connection on which I have all those type of tools. And when I’m in a work context, I can bring that with me. But when I’m out to dinner I don’t have to carry all these tools with me. People are minimizing the phone back towards the original Steve Jobs vision of “this is a thing that does a few things well. I don’t need it to be everything.”
Mark: And there’s actually some companies now that are creating light versions of the phone again. It’s like the old flip phone.
In fact, I tried one I bought off like an Indiegogo campaign called the light phone and unfortunately it was an early adopter type thing and it didn’t work. But the idea was that you were it transferred it used your phone number. And so you plugged a little code into the iPhone, and then phone calls that came in would go to the light phone.
And then the second version had just phone and text. So I think that’s kind of a neat hack around – so to speak – that kind of gets the job done there.
Cal: Yeah, yeah. I agree. I think we’re rethinking this idea that the more options we have with us at any time the better we are. That’s a very engineering mindset – an optimization mindset. That it’s always strictly better to have more options, more tools with you.
But I think the sort of humanist mindset is “we got to be pretty wary about what those tools are. Because we’re not just a cool optimization algorithm. We’re actually a sort of hot and messy human being. And we have to acknowledge that.”
Mark: Right. So the Meta-message here is balance, right? Don’t throw out the tech, leverage it appropriately for the right reasons at the right time. Don’t pretend that it satisfies your need to connect and to be intimate as a human being, because evidence is out that that’s false, right?
So to sort of protect your time to be human. And to go deep in that regard, as well. Because it feels good. And it’s what we’re meant to do.
Cal: Yep. I agree. I was gonna say to summarize – don’t use tech as an end. It is only useful when it comes to human flourishing when you’re deploying tech for very specific, intentional purposes that you care about. As soon as the tech becomes an end in itself that’s when we start to see problems.
Mark: I love that. Awesome. And with your book “Digital Minimalism,” does everyone need to do a 30… I mean are you recommending do this 30-day plan? Or let me ask this another way – where do people start? Like if they’re listening to this and they park their car getting ready to walk in, what’s the first action or first few actions they can take to start moving in this direction?
Cal: Well what I’ve discovered is that ultimately you probably have to do something as extreme as this 30-day challenge. Especially if you’re pretty deep into a world of the phone. You just need that time, you just need that space, you just need that clean break.
That being said, there are some things you can do in advance to get in shape for the 30-day challenge. Just like I wouldn’t want to go to one of these Kokoro sessions without having first done a little bit of jogging.
And so a few things you can do to get ready before doing the 30-day challenge is a) take off your phone any app where someone makes money off of your attention when you tap on it. You don’t have to quit anything yet, but just get rid of the easy access.
And then two, maybe start doing some work to reintroduce high-quality leisure into your life so that when it comes time to do the extreme, 30-day, complete reset you’re not looking at the first day… Or the first morning of the first day, and saying “I have no idea what to do with myself.” you already have put back into place some activities that you know for sure are gonna give you meaning.
Mark: Mm. I love that. Cal, thanks so much. The book is “Digital Minimalism.” can you give us a snapshot of what your next project is – you mentioned you’re already digging in. Or is it top secret?
Cal: No, it’s not. So I’m in the early stages of writing a book tentatively titled “a world without email.” and it’s once again about tech and the workplace and it’s about some of the unintentional consequences that happened when we introduced low-friction digital communication to the workplace. Unintentional negative consequences. And these shifts I think are coming. The sort of radical shifts to how we work that are going to then correct for those unintentional consequences.
Mark: Oh cool. Can’t wait to see that one.
Cal, thanks again for your time. Keep up the great work. And I know you’re about ready to go deep on something. So stay focused.
Cal: It was my pleasure, mark.
Mark: Do the work. All right, we’ll talk again soon. Appreciate you.
All right folks. “Digital Minimalism.” check it out.
And also I highly, highly recommend “Deep Work,” if you haven’t read it. I mean that is a classic, and really important. In fact, I would say those two kind of go hand in glove. And support Cal any way you can. He’s doing great work, it’s really important. So I appreciate him.
And I appreciate you for listening and for paying attention to the Unbeatable Mind podcast. This is a lot of fun, but I think it’s also important conversations, so that we, collectively, can evolve ourselves and evolve culture. To be healthier and more balanced and more unbeatable.
So appreciate you and until next time, stay focused, go deep and let’s practice a little Digital Minimalism. Did I say that right? Minimalism. That’s a big word for me.
See you next time.