How many times a day are you distracted by email, Facebook, Instagram, Slack? Do you ever feel like all of these notifications are making you less productive? That’s why I invited Cal Newport onto the show. In his latest book, Deep Work, Cal argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the knowledge economy, and that individuals who cultivate their ability to concentrate without distraction will thrive.
Deep Work was selected by Amazon as one of the best business and leadership books of 2016. The Economist called it, “The Killer App of the Knowledge Economy.” Yes, it’s potentially life changing. In this episode, you’ll learn why deep work is the number one super power you can have in our economy today. If you want to do better work and not waste your days in a frantic blur of emails and social media, then this episode is for you.
An Introduction to Cal Newport’s Deep Work
Charlie Hoehn: If you had to pick a soundtrack for your book, what’s the first song you would pick?
Cal Newport: Obviously, all authors originally imagine the Last Mohican soundtrack. But for Deep Work, I would imagine something jazz. I think I had jazz on a surprising amount of time when I was doing certain parts of writing. I definitely had some Miles Davis going on. There’s something about that soul instrument. It unlocks things.
Charlie: Do you think certain music’s more conducive to doing deep work?
Cal: What I’ve learned is you have to train or habituate yourself to whatever the music type is. For example, I interviewed a self-published author who was incredibly prolific. I think it was a million words in one year, which is a crazy amount—and it was fiction.
“He had trained himself to write to Metallica. “
He would blast it in these huge NASCAR style headphones. It blocked out all sensory inputs so that he could really be focused on the writing. If I put Metallica on tomorrow, I’d be unable to produce anything. It would be completely distracting to me. But he habituated to it.
I’ve found this again and again—people habituate the different types of music, and then the actual content of the music doesn’t really matter. It’s the ritual they built up.
This is what I listen to, this gets my energy up, or this blocks the sound, or this inspires me. It’s the ritual you build around it.
I think the ritual probably matters most in the long term.
Charlie Hoehn: What led you to write Deep Work?
Cal Newport: In 2012, I had written this book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and it looked at career satisfaction. It studied people who were happy in their careers, looked to the science, and said, “Okay, what do you have to do if you want to be really passionate about your career?”
One of the big ideas was this: You have a preexisting passion that you should identify and follow. That’s the key to being happy.
I debunked that. Really, what seems to matter for most people who love what they do is that they get really good at things that are valuable. That’s the foundation on which they build really satisfying careers.
There’s a natural follow-up question: Let’s say I buy that you become really good at all those things, but how do you actually produce things that are impactful and valuable? What’s the secret sauce to creating a passionate career?
“Deep Work was the answer to that question.”
As I looked into it in my own life and then more broadly, this ability to focus intensely on something that’s demanding and pushes your skills was the key. You really can’t get around that step.
One book led to the other.
A Practical Look at Deep Work
Charlie Hoehn: How did you find Deep Work changing your work style?
Cal Newport: It made me more systematic about how I prioritize deep work. By the time I started writing this book, obviously, I was onboard with the idea that deep work was really valuable. This was something that I had been exposed to pretty early on as a theoretical computer scientist.
I did my graduate work at the theory of computation group at MIT, which is this famous place where famous theoreticians sit around and stare at whiteboards.
It’s one of these places where the ability to concentrate is a talked-about, tier-one skill. People are proud of how well they can concentrate. This was always on my radar.
“But when I was writing the book, I got much more thoughtful and systematic.”
It’s almost like when you know, as most people do, that fitness is important. I should be in good shape. I should eat well. You’ve been around that message, but actually figuring out how you’re going to do that has a lot more impact than just understanding it.
During that year when I was writing the manuscript, my academic work should have reduced. I was writing a book in addition to my normal academic work as a professor.
Actually, my output—as measured by peer-reviewed publications—doubled in that year as compared to any previous year.
That’s solely because as I was writing this book, I got more thoughtful and systematic about getting the most out of deep work, and the effect was big.
Charlie Hoehn: What could the readers reasonably see in their productivity if they’re applying the system of deep work to their own work?
Cal Newport: I want to underscore that point that it is something that requires training. It’s not just a couple of hacks you can do tomorrow.
If you take the time to train the capability, then two-times, three-times improvement and measurable high-value output is common.
It’s not a book about being a little less distracted or maybe getting a little more done.
“For the people who embrace this skill, it’s almost like a superpower.”
The Economist called it “the killer app of the knowledge economy.” It’s something that brings massive increases to what you’re able to produce.
Charlie Hoehn: What does your average day really look like?
Cal Newport: During the week, I start with deep work. Just by default, that’s the first thing I do. What varies day to day is how long that deep work goes before I then switch over to shallow work and everything else.
On a day I teach, the deep work might be three hours in the morning and could be focused pretty intensely on preparing a lecture or presentation. Another day might have eight hours the whole day that I’m thinking deeply. Maybe another has just a couple of hours first thing in the morning and the rest of the day is tackling other things—meetings and emails and things that aren’t deep.
It can vary, but I like it to add up to be 30–60% of my time in a given week.
Charlie: What are you doing when you do deep work?
Cal: There are different types of deep work, and it really helped my practice to recognize that. It’s easy to lock in to one image of what deep work means.
If you lock in to one image, you get upset or discouraged during other times of the year, week, or semester when other types of deep activities take prime seats. I’m not getting in the woods anymore. I’m not on my thinking rock anymore.
“I learned not to have one approach.”
As a theoretical computer scientist, I do a lot of math proof. For me, that’s often walking on foot, often outside, often in the woods with no books, trying to crack math proofs.
I also have to write up these proofs, write up grant proposals—this type of work that is very hard writing and takes place at a computer screen.
Then of course as an author, there are two types of deep work. Sometimes it’s reading and thinking, processing, trying to understand information. And then other times, it’s staring at the proverbial blank screen, trying to fill words.
All of that is deep work, and all of it is supported in different types of environments with different types of rituals.
Deep Work Gives You an Edge
Charlie Hoehn: What is one major takeaway that listeners could remember going forward?
Cal Newport: The big picture hypothesis is this notion that we think too much and we worry too much about distractions.
Is distraction bad, is distraction good? I like to flip the equation on that. I’m not that interested in distraction. I’m interested in the value of its opposite.
I think the ability to focus deeply is being systematically undervalued right now in our economy.
In terms of the behaviors we promote and reward and lionize, we’re systematically undervaluing the ability to concentrate deeply.
“If you were one of the few to systematically cultivate this capability, there are big rewards to be had.”
Really, I’m not about scolding people for being distracted. I’m trying to encourage people to recognize how much value there is if they can develop an ability to be focused.
Charlie Hoehn: What does that value look like?
Cal Newport: There seems to be two main reasons why the ability to focus intensely is becoming increasingly valuable.
The first is that it helps you learn hard things quickly. The act of learning complicated information depends on intense concentration.
The more comfortable you are with intense concentration—and the higher levels of intensity that you can get to—translates to the speed and effectiveness with which you can master new things that are complicated, such as a new programming language or business strategy or complicated suite of marketing analytics.
That is an incredibly valuable skill right now, especially in the knowledge economy where things are complicated and can change very rapidly.
The second reason why the ability concentrate seems like it’s increasingly valuable is that it allows you to produce a higher quality and higher quantity output per unit of time spent working.
“If you give me three hours of intense, deep concentration, I can produce more stuff of higher value than someone who takes the same three hours but scatters their attention.”
There are stories in the book of people who are able to out-produce their peers. It’s because they rely on concentration to get more out of each unit of time spent working. That is very important in this economy.
If you’re not producing at an elite level, you’re increasingly in danger of automation, being outsourced, being eliminated or replaced.
It’s the stars that are going to win in the digital knowledge economy. Deep work is almost necessary if you want to become a star in most fields.
Charlie Hoehn: Do you find that deep workers have an easier time checking out and not feeling guilty about it?
Cal Newport: Deep workers in general are better about that. Some of it is just vocabulary. If you have this vocabulary, there’s deep work and there’s the other type of work, which we can call shallow work.
Just having that vocabulary makes a really big difference, because if you don’t, you mix all those things together, and then your only real measure of productivity in some sense is business. The more I work, the more productive I am, the less I work, the less productive I am. You’re always going to feel guilty when you stop or take a day off or don’t check your email at night.
Deep work, on the other hand, will say, “Shallow work is fine and is necessary for me to keep my job or to keep my business afloat.” It’s not producing the new value, growing my business, going to get me a promotion. It’s sort of a necessary evil.
“I want to keep it contained and make sure it doesn’t take over too much of my life.”
Now, the deep work on the other hand, that’s what really matters. I want to give that a ton of attention.
Once you can make that division, it’s much easier to say, “I have done a healthy amount of deep work today. I was very efficient about keeping the shallow work under wraps, and now I can take off the rest of the day without worrying about it.”
It separates you from this notion that generic business is somehow a good proxy for your value.
Deep Work Strategies
Charlie Hoehn: What are the first steps that people should take in order to really start doing deep work today?
Cal Newport: It’s helpful to think about the practical steps in two categories. There’s the actual strategies you can deploy in terms of how you actually approach your work day—how you approach your time, how you schedule deep work, how you get the most out of the deep work sessions.
But there’s this whole other category of cognitive fitness—the things you do in your life that set the foundation for you to succeed long term with deep work.
If you want to train to run a marathon or triathlon, there’s the actual training you do—I’m going to run this many miles today and then this many miles tomorrow. But there’s also the general fitness stuff—try to get more sleep, not eat junk food, not smoke. You have to have both.
The same thing holds for deep work. We have these two big categories—cognitive fitness and then the actual training and strategies you deploy in your everyday life.
If you look at the cognitive fitness side, it is really important to break your addiction to novel stimuli. You’ve trained your brain. At the slightest hint of boredom, you’re going to deliver it novel stimuli, usually from your smart phone or perhaps from a web browser on your computer if you’re at work.
“It builds up this association, this Pavlovian connection: Boredom means stimuli.”
This has become a huge problem in the last 10 years because smart phones allow us to do this Pavlovian training everywhere we are. From the bathroom, the wait in line, wherever. If you have that addiction, when it comes time to sit down and think deeply, you go to your cabin in the woods, you lock the door in your office. This is it, I’m going to think deeply and produce something that’s valuable.
Your brain is not going to tolerate it because it’s been taught to get novel stimuli.
Deep work is boring in the sense that there’s not a lot of novel stimuli.
“If your brain has been taught that boredom equals stimuli, you’re not going to be able to do deep work with any success.”
Doing different tactics that can help you break that addiction is a key foundation for becoming a deep worker. There are some simple things to do there. Take social media apps off your phone, for example.
It is not stopping you from using social media. It’s not stopping you from all the benefits everyone is always telling me that they need on social media. But it prevents you from using it as a quick pull slot machine when you are bored, standing in line. So take that off your phone and force yourself to actually wait to get back to the computer to use it.
Two: schedule the times when you are going to expose yourself to lightweight distraction online. I put aside two hours tonight where I am going to get the iPad and curl up on the couch and go nuts. But outside of those times, just be comfortable being bored.
Regular exposures to boredom where you don’t get stimuli will help break that addiction, and that’s a key foundation if your brain is going to be ready to train to do deep work.
Charlie Hoehn: Can you talk about Adam Grant’s strategy for deep work and being productive?
Cal Newport: He’s a business professor at Wharton, and he became full professor at a very young age, which is the top rank that you can get to in the US system. He’s the youngest full professor at Wharton, and he did this in part because he publishes a lot. I studied his CV and talked to him about it, and he publishes a lot more peer reviewed journal papers than his average peer.
I asked him, “So how do you do this? How are you actually producing almost a factor of two more peer review journal papers than your peers?”
“The answer is very clearly his embrace of deep work.”
He has this bimodal approach to his work. When he’s entirely in shallow work mode, he is incredibly accessible. The door to his office is open, he is answering emails.
When he’s in deep work mode, he’s completely inaccessible. He has an out of office responder in his email as if he is on a trip somewhere where he can’t be reached. When he does this deep work carriage, he’ll do them for multiple days in a row. So it’s not, “I am going to spend the morning doing deep work,” it’s, “I am going to spend the next four days doing deep work.” He also does this at a higher, slightly higher level granularity, too.
He stacks all his classes in the one semester and basically does no deep work that semester. Then, he can do a lot of deep work in the other semester. When it comes time for him to do work on a paper—let’s say, an academic paper, he can get lost in it hour after hour, day after day.
He produces a massive amount of quality and quantity in that period, and I don’t think he spends more total hours than his peers working on these things.
It’s just that he concentrates the hours into these long sessions where he works with deep concentration. Because of that, he is getting a lot more out of the same amount of time.
Charlie Hoehn: Can you explain the Eudaimonia Machine?
Cal Newport: David had this thought experiment. How would you, as an architect, design a building that would optimize your ability to produce value with your brain? The design that he came up was called The Eudaimonia Machine, Eudaimonia being a term out of Aristotle. It’s a Greek term that has to do with a state of human flourishing.
“You are doing everything that a human can do. You are pushing your capabilities as a human so that you are flourishing in your existence.”
So David thought about what that means in a professional setting, if you’re really pushing your brain to its limits to create new things of value. That’s the state of Eudaimonia. He designed this cool architecture of a series of rooms you have to pass through. One to the next to the next to the next.
Each of them prepares you more and more to get to the very last room, which is the sound proof chamber where you actually do the deep thinking. In the early stages, you are in a room where you are seeing other people’s projects and drinking coffee or beer, and you’re inspired and talking to people. Then you move to a room for some more reflection and preparation, and then finally you move to this final room.
That resonated with a lot of people, not so much that they’re going to build that exact design, but because it emphasized this notion that the spaces that you’re in and the rituals surrounding your work in the field of cognitive work and knowledge work are vitally important.
Yet, we’re not giving that any attention. Instead, we build open offices and connect people to Slack channels and do all of these things that basically keep you away from that type of flourishing.
I think people really resonated with this thought experiment. What if we actually designed our work spaces and work days to produce as much value as possible out of our brains?
Response to Deep Work
Charlie Hoehn: What opportunities or unexpected things have come into your life because you wrote this book?
Cal Newport: It’s opened up a lot of interesting opportunities. I got to spend some time, for example, at the capitol with a US senator. He was showing me the room he had set up off of his office for deep work in the morning. I got to hang out there for a while.
A lot of companies were very interested in discussing it. There are some companies who have pretty big products who are now integrating the term “deep work” into the product design itself, so that’s been interesting.
There are a couple of other well-known large companies where I had a chance to talk with executives. They are talking about rebuilding their products to emphasize deep work as a tier one skill.
People in places that matter are starting to recognize this activity as something that is important and plays a big role in our economy. It plays a big role in human satisfaction. That’s been really exciting.
Charlie Hoehn: Have people reached out to you and said, “Hey I implemented deep work and it’s transformed my life”?
Cal Newport: I was talking recently with a well-known songwriter. She writes songs for a lot of the big pop names that you have heard of, and she was really having a hard time with distraction. I mean I guess it’s a weird world. I don’t really understand the world of pop music and producing. But she was telling me how she was just spending so much time obsessively checking social media and email. It was hard.
“I convinced her to have work be completely separate from anything social, anything online. She was very worried about it.”
It took two weeks, then she said, “I’m incredibly productive now. I work in a place where I don’t have my phone. That stuff didn’t really matter.”
Also, I was talking with a standup comedian that had this idea that you’ve got to be doing all of these things on Twitter. Otherwise, you are not going to have an audience and no one will know who you are.
He went back and said, “You know, I reflected on this, and I have never gotten a gig off of Twitter. Any important connections have always been that someone saw my show and liked it. I was talking to them backstage, and they saw the quality and wanted to work with me.”
He quit social media and he finished the movie screenplay, a spec script for a TV show, and a proposal for a book all in one month or six week period.
Once you’re in that world, you’re going to have trolls and attacks and controversies. He said it was just emotionally draining. He walked away and was suddenly very productive.
Keep Up With Cal Newport
Charlie Hoehn: Can you tell us about your follow up book?
Cal Newport: There are two ideas that are bouncing and still evolving. One has to do with this philosophy of digital minimalism, which I have been writing and talking about recently. It is basically a philosophy for how to handle all the technology in your life. What is the right way to approach technology so that it makes your life better and doesn’t overwhelm you?
“We’re drowning in a sea of little tips and tricks right now. We need some big philosophies as an approach to life.”
Not that it has to be the right one, but I think we need to start talking in that way. We have to move past tips. In fitness and eating, we have vegetarianism and paleo and big name philosophies for trying to tackle these things. We need the same thing in our tech lives.
And then other one is called A World Without Email, and it’s more business focused. It’s making an argument that the way we work now, with all of this constant unstructured communication, is not fundamental. In fact, it is going to disappear in the future as we move toward more efficient knowledge work. So the only question is whether you get out in front of that trend or not.
Twenty years from now, we are not going to sit around with an email inbox and an email address associated with our name and instant messenger and chat windows. That is not what work is going to look like. This trend is coming whether or not you are going to get out in front of it.
Charlie Hoehn: What’s the best way for readers to follow you and keep abreast of what you are working on?
Cal Newport: I blog at calnewport.com, so you could dive into those archives or look at my new postings. You can watch me exploring these and related ideas on there. You can also find out more about the books. It’s such a good place to learn about me and see what I am doing.
On the other hand, I’m very hard to reach, but that’s by design. I am not on social media. I don’t have a general purpose email address, but that is the necessary tradeoff to support a life of depth.