“Almost anyone can get really, really fit if they workout. And this is the case with concentration. It’s like we live in a world where almost everyone is cognitively obese.”–Cal Newport
Cal Newport has his doctorate from MIT and is a professor at Georgetown University in computer science. He is also the author of several books for students and businesspeople to maximize their potential. He has written books including, “How to Win in College,” “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” and his most recent book is “Deep Work.” Commander Mark Divine and Cal discuss his concept of “Deep Work,” and how to make sure that despite all our distractions, we give our time and attention to the important tasks.
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Transcript & Show Notes
Mark: Hey folks, Mark Divine coming back at you with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Super-stoked that you could join me again today, so we must be doing something right. Really appreciate your time and I’ve got an extremely interesting guest today. Cal Newport. And I’ll tell you all about Cal in a second, but before I do… you’re going to be like, “Okay, you just said this the last ten podcasts. But I’m gonna keep saying it until my staff says, “Okay, don’t say it anymore.” But please go to iTunes and rate the podcast. And start on the right-hand side, because if you start there then all five stars will click and you know, you won’t need to go any further.
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Now, I heard of Cal Newport when a good friend of mine Joe Stumpf came along and said, “Hey, I just read this amazing book about learning how to focus and it’s called “Deep Work.'” He goes, “I think it’s really important.” And that’s something that we talk a lot about in Unbeatable Mind, in our training program is how we develop focus and concentration so we can deep dive in and be more successful. Obviously, there’s a lot more involved in that. So, it’s something that our guest today, Cal has written a whole book about, and it’s something that he’s really passionate about obviously. So he’s an author, that’s his most recent book called “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” And aren’t we in a distracted world? He’s also an author of “How to Win in College,” and “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” So I’m really interested in learning about those, Cal.
But that’s like in his extra time because his real job is he’s a professor of computer science. A soon to be Associate Professor of computer science at Georgetown. He has an undergrad from Dartmouth and a Doctorate from MIT. And all around smart guy.
So Cal, thank you very much for your time. I know you’re busy. You just got tenure, you’ve probably got students lining up at your door right now.
Cal Newport: That’s right. I’m in hiding.
Mark: (laughing) You’re in hiding, that’s right. You put the sign up on your door that says, “I’m not here.” People are saying, “But I can see you in there.”
Student, Professor, and Author[2:56]
Mark: Good for you. So, wow. Let’s not start with “Deep Work,” cause I want to spend a chunk of time going into that. But let’s start with just who is Cal? Where are you from and what were some of your early influences in your life that kind of led you toward this kind of double life of being a computer scientist and an author?
Cal: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think it goes back with me to actually high school, to sort of the… this is the Rosetta Stone to the whole sort of dual life I have. In high school, this was the late 1990s, was the first dot-com boom. And as a computer geek, I started a tech company during my teenage years. I had been exposed in my teenage years to business books, advice books, help books, business advice books–things that were pretty no-nonsense. You want to be more successful at marketing, do this. You want to be more successful at whatever… time management, do this.
Then I get to college and I’m taking on student loans, and I say, “Okay, I want to do this well. I want to get my money’s worth.” I go to buy some books about how do I nail this, right? How do I do really well at college? And the stuff on the shelf in the late 1990s, early 2000s when I was at school was not what I was looking for. It all had a sort of playful flavor. I later found out from editors that the publishing industry was worried that students would think your book was not cool if it was too serious. And I thought this was nonsense. I mean, college kids have a lot of self-regard. They think they’re older than they are, they’re reading Proust, I’m sure they can handle David Allen. So I had this idea that, why don’t I just write a college advice book the same way you’d write a business book? In fact, I even took a very specific business book, “How to Become CEO” which had these short, contrarian declarative chapters. “Do this, do that, do this.” I said, “I’m just going to write a book about how to succeed in college in that exact business book format. I’m going to copy it exactly.” Even the agent I got was the agent of the author of that original.
And so I went out and I interview a bunch of Rhode scholars and Marshall scholars and valedictorians. I pulled out their advice. I wrote it in this format. And it was a success. It turned out there was a hunger for people to not talk down to college students. And just say, “If you’re serious about really getting your money’s worth, getting good grades, really doing well… here’s the no-nonsense stuff you have to do. And that’s what sort of kicked off this double life I’ve led ever since as someone in an academic path and someone who writes at the same time.
Mark: Mmm-hmm. So you’ve been writing ever since you got into your professional career as a computer science practitioner and professor.
Cal: Yeah. I think I signed with my first literary agent when I was 20 years old. So, yeah, I’ve been at it longer than I guess I’ve been a professional computer scientist.
Mark: You know, with “How to Win at College,” was there a pull or a tug to kind of build a business around that? That could have steered you in a whole different direction?
Cal: Yeah, there was. ‘Cause I wrote another one soon after called “How to Become a Straight-A Student,” which was even more successful. And this was one of the decisions I was facing as I was graduating college. Graduate school? The tech industry? I had a job offer from Microsoft. Or try to build a business out of the student books. I think what helped make up my mind, is the reality that student don’t like to spend money on things. So I think that helped me begin… the one thing students don’t have is a lot of money. So I realized that… I liked writing books for them, it was a great market. I like the opportunity to be out there and talk and meet these people. But you probably weren’t going to build a massive business on top of there.
Mark: So what were some of your findings? What were some of your recommendations for “How to Win at College” and “Become a Straight-A Student”? Just for some of our student listeners here.
Cal: Yeah, I mean here’s the core thing about college academics is that most college students are terrible at studying. They’re terrible at the job of being a student because the culture and the social pressures are you’re not supposed to think much about the mechanics of how you would actually be a student. It’s, “well, just kinda work hard,” and spend more hours, if you want better grades, and some people are brilliant and some people aren’t.
And the reality is if you actually spend even a minimal amount of time being systematic about what are my habits? Why are these my habits? You can evolve maybe in about one semester’s time a set of custom fit study strategies and habits that’ll have a massive impact on GPA.
I mean, my experience, for example, was my freshman year in college, I was a fine student–not great, but, you know, As and Bs. And I decided, “well, I want to do better and I’m not willing to do all-nighters.” So I spent one semester doing systematic experimentation. “Let me try taking notes this way, let me try taking notes this way. Let me try writing papers this way, let me try it this way.” And it really was Darwinian. What works what doesn’t? I wanted to have some justification. I got a 4.0 in every semester after that. I ended up graduating… I was like a hundredth of a GPA point away from valedictorian of the University. I didn’t get smarter between my first year and my last three years of college. The only variable that changed between there was I spend two months being a little bit serious about, “Why am I studying this way? What might work better?” I think college is one of these last opportunities where there’s massive inefficiencies. In the world of business, world of entrepreneurship where there’s money on the line, these inefficiencies have been largely found and taken advantage of. In college there’s massive inefficiencies, so even a little bit of systematic reflection on how you work can have massive positive benefits to your academic performance.
Mark: Mmm-hmm. How have the educational system and educators accepted this work? Is it a threat to them, or do they embrace it?
Cal: Largely positive. Because what happens is what they get is students who are doing the work better, and who are more engaged in the work. You know, an interesting transition I had in my career as a writer was a wrote these two books for students in college and right after college. And then after that… after the second book came out I started a blog, so this put me in much more direct contact with students than before. So it was around 2007 when these technologies first came along. And as I got into more direct contact with students, I realized that there was this other issue out there which was this culture of high destructive stress that was really having an impact on high school and college students. It was really having a very large mental health impact, so I spent actually quite a few years while a graduate student doing a lot of speaking and consulting on how to help students not just be successful but do so in a way that was mentally sustainable. And that was I think something that got a much more positive response because it really is a problem. There’s a mental health crisis on college campuses right now because there’s not a lot of mental fitness, I think. There’s not a lot of preparation for the mental challenges of being in the world for the first time, and tackling some of the ambitions and technical challenges, so that’s actually where a lot of my effort ended up was helping people figure out how to tackle these issues and do fantastic, but do so in a way that was incredibly mentally stable.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You[10:16]
Mark: Mmm-hmm. Through that work is that what kind of inspired what I think would be your next book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You?”
Cal: Yeah, well…
Mark: This relationship to developing resiliency and focus on campuses?
Cal: It was an interesting connection. So “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” I wrote while in a career transition. So the premise of that book is how do people end up loving what they do for a living. And I researched and wrote that as I was making the transition from graduate studies into professorship. ‘Cause that’s a… potentially the first and last job interviews I was going to do in my life. I thought if there was any time that I really needed to understand how people end up loving their work, I really should understand that now before making these relatively permanent-seeming career decisions. So that book was an excuse for me to go out and try to actually get at this question. What is it that leads people to really love their work?
And it did have some connection back to what I had been doing in college because in particular, I had seen during my college advising that there’s this phenomenon where students, late in their careers would suddenly start switching their majors. Very late in the game. And it would cause trouble. They couldn’t really fit in enough classes, or to try to fit in enough classes for the new major they’d burn out, it was too much. And it turned out the reason they were doing this is that their classes got harder as they got to the upper-level in their major. The upper-level classes are harder. And they were saying, “Well wait, I’m not loving this. This is hard.” And they had this conclusion then, this must not be my passion. Because I’m not loving every minute of this. I better switch my major. And this got reflected into the world of career advice, and sort of what I quickly discovered when studying people who are passionate about their work is that too often the advice that trickles down to people is that you have a pre-existing passion. And all you need to do is identify and match it to your work. And if you do that you’ll love your work from day one. And if you don’t successfully do that, you won’t love your work and you’ll know it was the wrong choice. And that particular advice, “Follow your passion,” without the proper caveats was leading a lot of people in my generation into anxiety.
So this was sort of the big conclusion I came to in researching that book is that passion for most people is something that’s cultivated. It’s not the starting condition.
Mark: That’s fascinating. And I totally agree with you. But, you’re right, it is often conceived of as the other way around. That passion must pre-exist. And in many cases it does or it can, and I think those are the fortunate cases right? So what were some of the ways that you recommended or you found that people find passion in their work, once they’re in their work? Regardless if they were passionate about it, to begin with or they even thought they needed to be.
Cal: Yeah, so the framework that I found that was common… so not one size fits all but the most common framework I saw people who were currently passionate about their work having had followed, I called “career capital” theory. And the idea was essentially you take a skill that’s interesting to you and you become very good at it. And as you become good at something that’s rare and valuable to the world, what you gain is what you can call career capital. Which is really just a metaphor for the idea that because you’re able to do something rare and valuable you have more leverage over your career. Because you have something people need.
Then what happens in this framework is that as you acquire that career capital you can then invest it in the traits that make great careers great. So career capital gives you the ability to start shaping the career toward things that resonate and away from things that don’t. And it’s at some point in this process that really your passion and deep meaning you find your work in life really starts to deepen and blossom. So I generally tell people you don’t follow your passion as you let passion follow you in a quest to become so good you can’t be ignored. Your quest to master rare and valuable skills and then take that capital out for a spin to actually start investing in your career. It’s a much longer but I think ultimately more fulfilling craftmanship style model.
Mark: No, I actually love that. And I think that it’s not so much what we do as how we do it. And the purpose that we bring to it. And this is a common question I get from a lot of folks who train with me is like, “Hey, you talk a lot about clarifying your purpose. And then aligning that with passion.” And so if you take that in a sterile sense, it could be, “I’ve gotta know all this before I head out the door or on the mission.” And the reality is often we’re out the door, on the mission, but we can’t figure out why. And if you can’t figure out why you’re doing something, or why something’s happening, or exactly what the heck the next step is then you’re going to be confused and you’re going to end up having a lot of anxiety around it. And the stress is really going to start eroding your confidence. And then pretty soon you’re going to wake up and say, “I’m miserable at this. I don’t like this.” It’s all because you didn’t ask the right question, and you didn’t have meaning so you understood what direction you were heading every day and why. And how it was going to impact the world. And you’re mission was important. So ultimately it seems to be the quality of the questions that we ask and how we architect our vision and mission in our minds and then we can apply that to pretty much any career. Any career path can be made very meaningful. If you ask the right questions.
I love that. And so that sounds… when did you write that book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You?” That sounds like really good and practical work. Is that fairly recent?
Cal: Fairly recent. That came out in 2012.
Mark: 2012. Okay. I’m gonna get that. I’ve got a copy of “Deep Work,” but this one sounds really good too. I think that’d be fun to do a follow up on.
But what I wanted to… I really…. you know I’m chomping at the bit to get into “Deep Work,” because this is what I kind of prepared to talk about. And you just put this book out recently. And I think it’s an important book because… and your subtitle says it best. I’m gonna read that again. “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” And so that last part is critical. I don’t need to tell anyone, or to harp on how distracted we all are. Through social media, and through just email and disruptions. And really just the massive amount of opportunity and clutter in our lives. All these tools have allowed us to do more, but not necessarily to do more of the right things. And so let’s talk about how you came about thinking that this was a really critical idea that needed to get out in the world. And I imagine… and then I’m gonna shut up and let you talk–but I imagine you were dealing with every time you wrote one of these books, while you’re getting your doctorate or while you’re working as a computer scientist, you had to go and do Deep Work. There was a time when you literally had to shut out the world and just dive in and get it done. And so you were practicing Deep Work I imagine and so a lot of this was probably self-exploration. And then you said, “Who else is doing this,” right? Is that how this book came about, essentially?
Cal: Yes, in the sense that–I think I trained in one of the few places left where deep work–which I define more formally to be when you focus without distraction for a long period of time on a cognitively demanding task. So it’s where you giving something your full attention with really no distraction, zero distraction. You know, I came up training in one of the last places where this skill is still explicitly talked about and prioritized. Where people still say, essentially, “how good are you at this?” And the better you are at it, the more you’re respected. So when I was doing my training in the theory group at MIT, deep work was everything. I mean, who did you respect? You respected the guy who could stare at the whiteboard for seven hours.
Which would happen. I mean, I literally… crazy place, crazy place and I was glad to be able to at least pass through, but the faculty there is just brilliant people. But there literally was a MacArthur Genius grant winner who had gotten tenure at MIT at the age of twenty. And he would sit there, and he’d have a team of people… people would come from all around to visit. They’d stand behind him, and he’d be standing at a whiteboard, and there’d be some diagram on it. You’d go to lunch and come back. And staring at the same whiteboard.This guy publishes something like thirty papers a year. Not on social media, you can’t really reach him on email. He’s not accessible, he doesn’t care. But this is what he does.
I always knew about this skill, and it’s been certainly the key to my professional life. I mean, I ruthlessly prioritize it. I have no social media accounts. I don’t web surf for entertainment. I read the physical paper in the morning and listen to the radio. I’m like a 1930s farmer when it comes to my information consumption.
But on the other hand, I don’t work in the evening. I’m home with my family. I can get tenure early and publish at a fast rate and publish books on the side. And I can do this all in a 9 to 5 workday. And all of that underscores how powerful this particular skill is.
And so this is really the message I want to spread. When we talk about distractions in our culture, it’s a complicated conversation. Because we’re uncomfortable about how distracted we are, but it’s not as if the individual things that distracted us are clearly bad.
Mark: No, they’re pleasurable.
Cal: They’re pleasurable and there’s value and this and that, so it’s a very ambiguous, muddled conversation and essentially I wanted to flip it. And say I’m not so interested in talking about what’s bad about distraction, I’m interested in reminding us what’s so good about it’s opposite. And I think our culture had forgotten this notion that the ability to focus very intensely–which is as much of a trained skill as being able to do 35 pullups, or play the guitar–you really have to train it. You’re not going to be able to white knuckle it and do it the first time. But it’s a skill that if you cultivate, it’s almost like a super-power. I mean, this is why I can accomplish so much without working at night.
Mark: How much is nature versus nurture, though? I mean, I agree, pretty much anything is trainable. But the guy at MIT who was standing at the white board, did he specifically train his concentration? But he was twenty when he got his doctorate. Like, where did he learn it? It’s more like a natural skill it seems like for him.
Cal: He trained. His dad took him around like Mozart. At a young age they toured the college campuses, like nomads. To sit and work with different… he’d show up and it was very unorthodox childhood. They would show up and say, “I’m here with my son. He’s a bright guy. Can you give him a problem? We’ll stay out of your hair and work on it.” And that’s… His life, if you look at it, is a prodigious amount of focused concentration training. I mean, so there is nature/nurture piece and people who think at the very highest level–so if you’re on the faculty, the theory group at MIT, it’s like being an Olympic athlete in athletics. Genes matter to get to the very elite level. But, at the same time, almost anyone can get really, really fit if they workout. And this is the case with concentration. It’s like we live in a world where almost everyone is cognitively obese. And so we’re not talking about becoming a cognitive Michael Phelps, right? We’re talking about just being like in good shape like the guys at Crossfit or something like that. I mean, the one-eyed man is the king in a world of blind people. If you have pretty good deep work ability relatively speaking to your colleagues at firm X, it’s going to be like a super-power. It’s incredibly, incredibly trainable. And I don’t think we have to scratch the elite levels of it–the Newton levels, the Einstein levels, which really is just a gift.
Mark: Right. So we’re not talking about becoming someone who can go to MIT and stand next to that professor and solve the same problem. We’re just talking about being able to drop in and do what we’re meant to do more powerfully and get more done. Be more productive.
Cal: Lock in for three hours and reach intensity. You know, most people just don’t have an experience of what true deep work feels like, but it can be a rush and it’s incredibly productive. I mean it’s a multiplier of productivity. It’s like 2, 3 X multiplier in terms of how much you get done per unit of time.
Mark: You know, and back to your other conversation about purpose, you know, I find that deep work naturally comes when we’re really excited and we’re driving toward something. We’ve got a goal, like a very specific goal. Right now, I’m kinda… this is why this is so interesting to me, is like, I’m sucked into building two businesses simultaneously and with business structures, you know, it’s like I’m teaching a class and doing research at the same time. And there’s a lot of… There is a lot of distraction. But it’s not social media. It’s not stuff that is naturally pulling me away that most people deal with. It’s like, very specific meetings and training events, and so it’s pulled me away from my creative work and I’ve got like 4 books that I’ve scoped out mentally and got massive notes on. But I don’t have the time or the creative space to drop in. And the last time I did that where I was more free to drop in, I wrote two books in 9 months and got them out the door. And it was one of the most rewarding periods of my life to be able to be that productive. Anyway, so I guess I’m kinda supporting your whole notion of how valuable this is. But maybe what I’m missing is that I can structure that time, and even while building two businesses, I can do the deep work. And so I guess there’s… you know, I want to get into how do I personally do this, and how do people learn from this, so that without having to walk away from, or take a sabbatical, how do we do this in our daily lives, and continue to perform our other functions?
Cal: Right. Well, there’s two halves to the answer to that question, right. We have the half that is, “How do you become better at deep work?” And then there’s the half of, “How do you make this a regular and important part of a diverse professional set of obligations?”
Three Schedules for Deep Work[26:07]
Mark: Okay. Well, let’s start with the second half. ‘Cause everyone here listening has a busy professional life. And what they’re gonna be… the first thought, the knee-jerk reaction is, “I don’t have time for one more thing.” I’ve always thought about writing a book, but I don’t even know where to begin. So how do we structure and begin to work with… you have four rules, maybe those are a good framework to work with.
Cal: Yeah, those could be helpful. First of all, there’s an important mindset shift to have in trying to make this transition is to understand that deep work is what produces things that’s hard to replicate and valuable. It’s what take your skills and actually has you apply them like a craftsman, at the highest level you’re able to. Non-deep work or what I call shallow work, is almost by definition easily replicable. It’s like emails and meetings and passing memos back and forth. And therefore it does not produce much value. So shallow work is necessary to keep the lights on, but it’s not what’s going to get you ahead, it’s not what’s going to get you promoted, it’s not what’s going to grow your business. It’s like, maybe shallow work helps keep you out of bankruptcy, where deep work is what helps the business triple in size. So the notion of saying, “I don’t have time for deep work,” what you’re really saying is, “I don’t have time to actually produce value. Or do things that produce value. I just wanna do things that are probably relatively easily replicatable by any sort of reasonably bright 21 year-old right out of college. Any reasonably bright 21 year-old can bounce emails back and forth, and set up these type of things. So it really is… to think about deep work is the core thing that produces value. And therefore by prioritizing it and making it a regular part of your working life, you are ensuring that you’re producing value, that you’re going to keep advancing, that you’re going to get better, that you’re going to get promoted and the business is going to grow. So it’s almost, you can’t afford not to do it.
Now, in terms of how you get it in, what’s crucial is there has to be scheduling routines and rituals surrounding the work. Deep work is cognitively very expensive. It’s something that your mind is going to naturally resist in the moment. And so if your idea is, ” I wanna wait ’til I get to a time where it seems like I’m in a mood to do deep work, and I have a lot of free time, and maybe right now I’ll concentrate really hard,” you’re essentially going to get none of it done.
Cal: So, it really does require routines and rituals. So a very specific scheduling routine, “this is how I schedule deep work into my life,” has to be in place. And then rituals surrounding the actual deep work sessions. “I do these five things before it starts. Here’s where I do the deep work, here’s the rules while I’m doing it. Here’s how I shut it down.” So that you’re mind can slip into that mindset without having to necessitate an excessive investment of willpower, which is finite. So you need scheduled routines, and you need depth rituals around the actual deep work periods if you’re going to succeed on a regular basis.
Mark: Right. And structure. You know, in your book you talk about Carl Jung’s cottage in the woods and Mark Twain, you know, locking himself in the outhouse basically. And another professor of yours at Georgetown. Or maybe it’s not Georgetown. But who would lock the door and basically say… Or maybe this was you? Lock the door and say I’m out of the office and then you would just do your work there. But having… structuring your space and time, right? And closing off all communications, and then just being clear about that. I’m reminded of Eisenhower’s decision matrix where he’s saying, you know, you gotta do the urgent, important, but you can’t do it at the expense of the important but not urgent. So deep work is important and not urgent from a time sensitive standpoint, but it’s urgent to advance our career and ourselves in life. To grow ourselves.
Cal: There’s really three main types of routines people use to schedule it. And the type that fits best depends on just the realities of your job.
So one type is what’s called the bimodal philosophy. It’s what Carl Jung did, it’s what the professor you’re talking about, Adam Grant, this is what he does. Which is where you set aside the occasional multi-day period where you’re completely off the grid and working deeply on just one thing. So in Adam Grant’s case, you might just be going through a week and he’s just there and he’s accessible, he’s working with the students. And then from Friday to Tuesday, he’s off the grid. He’s just doing deep work.
Carl Jung actually would leave Zurich and go to the house he built on the shore of Lake Zurich that had no electricity and no running water. It had a meditation room and he would just go there, and just think and just work. And then he’d come back to Zurich and you know, he’s busy. The clinical practice he was really busy. So that’s the bimodal…
Mark: Is it the same as what you call “batching” in your book?
Cal: Yeah, so it’s extreme batching in the sense that it’s… you know the bimodal philosophy you go multiple days. So really, you clear out almost everything from your head and you really are wholly enveloped in the depth. And you can really produce quite a bit in a small amount of time.
The second of the three philosophies is the rhythmic philosophy, which is, “I’m gonna put aside the same time on the same dates. So I don’t want to think about it, it’s just… I know that time is always dedicated to deep work. I don’t need to make a decision or expend willpower. It’s Monday, Tuesday, Wednesdays, seven to eleven.
Mark: It becomes a ritual.
Cal: It’s my ritual. Then the final philosophy–I call it the journalistic philosophy–if, as I recommend–you have pretty fine grain control over your time at multiple levels or granularity, so you know what’s going on this month, you know what’s going on this week, you know what’s going on your given day. You can survey the week ahead of you, or the next two weeks ahead of you, and say, “Okay, what’s happening this week? I’m traveling for these two days, I’ve got this meeting this day. When am I doing my deep work? And you go in and you put it on your calendar and you treat it like any other appointment or meeting. Something that once set is inviolable. Someone else wants to do something at that time, you say, “No, I have a thing. I’m not free ’til three.”
Those are the three different philosophies for scheduling deep work that come up if you study people who do this. And it’s really a mix and match to the what are the realities of your job or personality.
Mark: That’s fascinating. And as you were talking through these I realized that I’ve tried all three of these. In particular the bimodal and the rhythmic. So bimodal in setting up a writing retreat, where I’m gonna go somewhere and write for a week or so. And then the rhythmic, I remember reading a really neat book about fifteen years ago. It’s called “The Diamond Cutter” and it’s about… it’s Buddhist philosophy. And they recommended that you take an entire day for just pure creative time in the middle of the week. You draw a circle around it and you don’t do any work. It’s just pure creativity and pure time away, and they call it the “circle day.”
And so I’ve tried that as well. And the problem I have is just encroachment, and so maybe this is a discipline issue, but what are some of the strategies for ensuring that other people and life just doesn’t encroach. And all of a sudden you find out that it’s circle day, or it’s your day to retreat and you’ve been scheduled over. Have you experienced that? Or do you have any strategies or recommendations for how to handle the clutter from… or how to keep the clutter at bay?
“Drain the Shallows”[33:30]
Cal: Yeah, it’s a big issue. And it’s why one of the rules of the book is called “drain the shallows.” And the idea is that some shallow work is necessary just to function professionally. But shallow work has to be viewed with some suspicion and with some care, as more like a necessary evil. And that there has to be a pretty aggressive containment of the non-deep portions of your life. Because of it’s no holds barred, it will encroach. It’ll encroach on almost anything. There’s multiple things that are relevant here. One thing you can do is have what I call an attention charter. Where you essentially work out in advance, “here are my rules for who gets access to my time and attention and under what circumstances.” So you deal with, “what if someone wants to have a coffee, or what if someone emails me about this, or what if I get asked to do an interview for that, or what if someone wants to do this meeting?” You just have these hard rules that you can push up against, and so you don’t have to think about it. Because the issue is, those type of external encroachments–every single one of them is reasonable in isolation.” You take any single one of these–maybe a reader emails you and it’s like, “Hey, Mark, can we have a coffee? I’m in the area.” You look at it in isolation, you say, “This is imminently reasonable. This seems like an interesting person. It could be a good conversation.” But you multiply that by X and suddenly you look at the schedule and it’s all pock marks. This is scheduled, that’s scheduled, this is scheduled. There’s no way, there’s no time in there, and you’re divided so to actually work out in advance, “here are the situations in which I’ll do a meeting with someone I don’t know. Here are the situations in which I’ll agree to do this. Here are the situations in which I’ll agree to do a speaking arrangement with travel.” You have these things worked out. So that’s helpful.
Another thing that’s helpful is to actually be much more aggressive in eliminating sources of shallow work from your life. I mean… so I don’t use social media, that’s an example of the calculus was not “is there some value I could get from social media.” Because of course, the answer is yes. Just like it is for any tool. Any tool has some value. But you don’t go to the hardware store and buy every one of em. Right? It’s which tools do I really want to use?
So this notion of what produces the most value for me. And I’m willing to eliminate sources of shallow work and encroachment if they’re not a primary and substantial producer of value for me. So you just take out these channels. You know, a long time ago on my website I got rid of the general use email address that just said: “I want to hear from you.” Instead, I have very specific channels for more narrow type things that I’m interested in. It cut down on my email by a factor of ten. And it was fine because, yes there’s some things I’m missing out on, that were interesting before, but it was a sort of a triage. I’m trying to get down to what are the things that produce the most value. So this notion of being… having hard limits on who gets access to your time and attention. Being very careful about allowing into your workflow things that pull at your time and attention but are only offering some value or maybe just providing insurance against missing out. Which is not a good investment. It costs too much and… it costs too much in cognitive capital for a lot of these things too. Monitor a social media service at great expense to your time and attention because you might miss out on something, it’s not a fair investment. And so it’s this notion, of then what’s left, “Okay, what’s my workflow for what’s left? And how can be as efficient and minimally invasive of my time and attention as possible with the shallow work that’s left?” So it’s a battle that requires a lot of energy.
Mark: No doubt. It almost seems like this is the first step, even though it was your rule number four to “drain the shallows,” to me it seems like in order to even… I guess to know what is distracting you, we need to take a look at that, and begin to have an honest assessment of how you spend your time, and all the different distractions and the meetings, and say, “Okay, what is necessary, what can I delegate, what can I just say no to?” And then that becomes a practice in and of itself. It reminds me of Scott McKeown’s book “Essentialism” which I recently read. I’m trying to get him on the podcast. Because this is such an important skill “to do less better” is the way he said it. I love that. And what I’d been working on was learn to say no in service to the bigger yes. So in your context, the bigger yes is the deep work, it’s the project, it’s the paper, it’s the book, and in order to do that–to create the space both creatively, cognitively and structurally–we need to say no to a ton of things that we’re saying yes to. And I was smiling because I do get a ton of people who email me and say, “Hey, let’s have coffee.” Or they just drop in, and all of a sudden I’m in a conversation. And they’re all very enjoyable and meaningful, and I feel like I’m serving a visitor from Europe or wherever. But then, you’re right, at the end of the day, I’m going like, “Oh my God.” All that time that was spent with all this stuff and I didn’t get anything done.
Cal: And you can control some of those things. So, like for example in my own life, I was worried at first about cutting off the general access email address because I did a lot of interaction with students. And it was meaningful to me. I liked being more in touch with students and what are their issues, and how I could help, but it was a hundred emails a day.
But I didn’t eliminate it from my life, I just eliminated that massive, uncontrolled tap on my time and attention. And now what I do is on a semi-regular basis, there’s various student groups in the area at my university and nearby universities that I go to on a regular basis, and I’ll talk to them, and I attend… a few times a year I speak at the graduate student organization here at Georgetown for example. And it satisfies that same urge. It’s meaningful to me, for example, to interact with students and be helpful, but on my own terms. Terms that allow me to still honor the bigger priorities which for me professionally speaking is all proving powerful theorems and writing powerful writing. Like that’s it. That’s the whole thing and so that allows me to still service that while still scratching that itch. So you can find things that you’re finding value from and then turn around and say, “If this is valuable for me, then what’s the best way for me to add that value to my life.” And it might not be, “I’ll just be very accessible on Twitter.” It might be, “I’m gonna do once a quarter an open meet-up with my readers. Or I’m gonna have office hours once a month and like anyone can come in.” So it’s just a different way of thinking. Once you start to explicitly value unfractured time and attention, it’s a different way of thinking.
Email and Organizations[39:54]
Mark: I love that. Do you use email, by any chance? How has email affected you? This has been one of my struggles too. I’ve been thinking, “How do I get away from email and my iPhone.” And I haven’t been able to do it yet, but I’ve got certain strategies for like… turning it off, and not looking at it, and only checking it three times a day, but what about you? It’s a primary form of communication these days it seems like.
Cal: It is. It is, in fact, this is probably my next book. So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading and research on this issue and what I really believe is going on with email in the professional context is the technology itself is very neutral. It’s a set of protocols for asynchronous messaging. I mean, fine, I’m glad it exists.
Mark: It reduces the friction to the amount that’s allowed… a massive more voluminous amount.
Cal: It’s reduced the friction. That’s absolutely right. And also what is happening within the knowledge work context, it provides a very lightweight, low-overhead solution to the issues of how do we manage our organization. And what’s happening in a lot of organizations of a lot of sizes, the primary workflow is we’ll get an email address to every individual. Everyone has one inbox. And we’ll just rock and roll with the messages. We’ll just figure it out.
Mark: Right. Exactly. There’s this false feeling of productivity, and I think that’s what you mean by shallow work. This ton of shallow work. People think, “Oh, I sent an email out so that’s getting something done.” Check.
Cal: But it also… it’s the primary mode for most organizations to actually coordinate and communicate about their work. So it has the advantage that it’s very low overhead in the moment. In other words, you don’t have to have a lot of carefully engineered processes or workflows in place. All you have to do is just give someone an email address and you just start sending these messages back and forth. You figure things out in an ad hoc way. But it’s incredibly incompatible with our brains. Because it fragments our attention, and the only way that this type of workflow works is you have constantly be a part of it. If you step out of the conversation, the whole organization grinds to a halt. So what I’m increasingly believing is that we’re going to see an evolution in knowledge work, where we say, “That’s kind of a lazy way, an ineffective way to manage our work, and what we’re going to see is much more explicitly engineered workflows start to show up in knowledge work. We’ll say, “What are you, you’re a computer programmer here at Google? You don’t need an email address.” The whole thing is we want you to be able to concentrate hard on the code. So you have no email address, and you’ll have a team leader who handles all communication on behalf of your team. And you know, we’re going to see these custom built engineered workflows. And the reason I think… not to digress, but I’ve just been reading about this a lot. The reason I think it’s going to happen is we saw the same thing happen in the industrial sector. And if you go back and read the history of management and the history of the industrial revolution, what you’ll find is in the first stage of the industrial revolution, these factories were being run sort of surprisingly ineffectively. In fact, most of the work was being done on the subcontracting system, where you’d just say, “Okay, here’s some raw materials. I’m gonna pay you to process them into wool. And just kinda bring it back when you’re done.” And this was sort of the system.
And the thinking at the time was, “This is convenient, and it would be too complicated to take more control of this process, to be more specific would just be too complicated. We just can’t handle it.” Eventually, we got over it, and said, “We just have to embrace the suck.” ‘Cause we had forgot how to do it. And what we got was the assembly line and it was ten times more productive.
But the thing about the assembly line is that it’s incredibly inconvenient. I mean, now you have all these hard edges in your workflow. Literal hard edges. And it was so much easier to just say, “Okay, team. You go over there and build a car. And team B will go over there and build a car. And just go and get the parts as you need em and let us know when you’re done.” That was incredibly convenient.
The assembly line’s incredibly inconvenient. You have to stand right here. And what if the parts aren’t in time. And what if you’re going slower than this… But it was massively more effective.
I think the same things going to happen in knowledge work. This sort of email based workflow is just incredibly convenient. You don’t have to think about it. But it’s really ineffective. And convenience is the wrong metric to optimize. So I think, what’s the cognitive assembly-line going to be, I think that’s going to be the big question. But I think 15 years from now, this notion that most work is communicated and coordinated through an inbox is gonna go away. We’re going to have the knowledge work equivalent of the assembly line, by which I mean, well thought through workflows that actually maximize the return you get from the main capital investment in knowledge work, which is human brains. And so we are just in, I think, the early, naive phase of knowledge work.
Mark: Artificial intelligence is going to play a big part in that. There is certainly a large part of our daily communication which AI will be able to do more effectively, more efficiently and with less overhead. To free ourselves up, like you said, to do something of a higher order.
Cal: Yeah, I think it’s true.
Mark: I’m thinking about the SEALs right now and when you’re a SEAL on a team in a combat zone, I mean really the only people who are using email are the key leaders, and then we also use secure chat, which is much more timely. But the guys who are getting the job done, they’re laser-focused on the mission, and they’re planning… the only email they might be is to gather information, research by communicating with an outsider. But it’s not the type of email that an organization experiences on the staff level. But the staff people are addicted to it, just like a corporate staff is. And so you have this kind of bifurcation of the organization where you have the field operators who are just like really deeply immersed in the mission of naval special warfare. Fighting the war on terror at the pointed end of the spear.
And then, everyone else in the rear echelon who’s emailing back and forth thinking they know what’s going on out in the front, and they don’t.
Email in the Navy[46:01]
Cal: It’s crazy. You know, I was shocked to learn that… I’ve done some work with some naval officers, mainly from the surface fleet. But I didn’t realize, you’re on a destroyer, you’re on an aircraft carrier, you have Outlook.
Cal: And like a lot of the communication is happening and there isn’t… which also surprised me… there’s not a lot of formal given all the investment and optimized routine and systemization in the military, no ones sitting down with these officers and saying let’s talk about workflow. Let’s talk about how you handle incoming tasks. Let’s talk about… I’ll do some consulting with naval officers and even just basic task management type philosophies come across as revelations.
Cal: I mean, “There’s thinking here?” As it is now it’s just chaos. It’s just white knuckle it. You know, go for it. Give up sleep if you need to. Try to keep it all in your head. Have some notebook that you’re not quite sure what to write in.
Mark: And frankly managing… running a ship or SEAL platoon, or a SEAL team is managing on the edge of chaos. It really is. Always has been. And that’s one of the reasons why they’re so effective. You get very comfortable doing that. But we definitely want to take the time to do the deep work, and some of the best leaders in the military and all around either do this naturally or they’ve learned to practice it. And I think your book is really going to help people not only understand the importance of it but give some practical tools and tips for how to do deep work. How to structure your lives.
So, wow, you know, we’ve been cranking at this for like fifty minutes. Probably should let you go back to writing your next book. So “Deep Work” it’s out right? It’s available at Amazon, and Barnes & Noble and all those places?
Mark: Okay. So people can find that. So obviously you don’t use social media so I’m not even going to put out any handles or anything like that, but is there any other place where people can learn about this? Have you written any papers or is there anything else besides the book that people should be exploring?
Cal: Yeah. Well if you go to calnewport.com, I blog there. I’ve been blogging for ten years. And so you can actually dive into that blog, and see years of articles and ideas and case studies about deep work. So if you’re intrigued, that’s a good starting place.
Mark: That is a good starting place. Awesome. I super-appreciate your time today, Cal. I hope we can do a follow-up someday. And as we were talking about before the call, if you’re interested in getting wet and sandy and you wanna come out and do some SEALfit training, please come as my guest. I think you’d find it enjoyable. And it might give you some idea for some of your work.
Cal: Yeah, I love it. I gotta do some… get some PT in first so I won’t be dying…
Mark: (laughing) Depending on which program you dive into, you’d want to do some preparation. All right, thanks again.
Cal: Thank you, Mark.
Mark: All right, everyone, that’s it. So Cal Newport. That was fascinating man. I am… like I’m gonna need to recommit to looking at what’s sucking up my time, what are my shallows? And continue the process of draining those shallows. That’s a practice isn’t it Cal? It’s something we’ve gotta do all the time.
Cal: Oh yeah.
Mark: I’m gonna take another run through the book. “Deep Work.” And I’m also gonna take a look at his other book which is “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” ‘Cause I think for all of us at SEALFIT and Unbeatable Mind really finding passion in our work and just mastering our game is really important.
All right, so thanks again Cal. We’ll be watching. Let us know how we can help you and serve you. And folks out there, train hard, stay focused, and do the deep work.
Coach Divine out.