Have you ever spent an entire day at work feeling really busy, clearing out your emails (and sometimes looking at Facebook) — and yet at the end of the day you realize you weren’t very productive at all? And when you resolve to do better the next day and dig into deeper work, you find that you can’t focus. You still have an overpowering itch to check your email or scroll through your Instagram feed.
If that sounds familiar, today’s show is for you. My guest, Cal Newport is the author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and our last podcast together on how you shouldn’t necessarily follow your passion is one of our best and most popular of all time.
Cal now has a new book out called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and it’s just as insightful and paradigm-shifting as his last. In today’s podcast Cal and I discuss why being able to concentrate deeply on hard tasks is the skill that will set you apart in today’s marketplace and how deep work can lead to a more meaningful life.
- The difference between deep work and shallow work
- Why deep work is becoming increasingly rarer and consequently more valuable in today’s world
- Why the productivity metrics that businesses and individuals use actually make them less productive
- How the concept of deep work and craftsmanship are connected
- How deep work can bring more meaning to your life
- How to develop the deep work habit
- How rituals can encourage deep work
- Why taking time away from work can make you more productive at work
- Why you should consider quitting social media
- How embracing boredom will strengthen your focus “muscle”
- And much more!
Deep Work is now one of my all-time favorite books, and I’m not joking when I say it was a life-changing read for me. I think it can be for you too. If you’re looking to become more focused in your work and your life, you’ll find sound principles and tactics in this book on how to do so. I especially recommend Deep Work if you’re a student. It will dramatically change the way you approach studying. And be sure to read Cal’s blog for even more great advice on how to have more deep work in your life. It’s one of the few that I follow regularly.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition to The Art of Manliness podcast. Have you ever spent an entire day at work and in your life feeling that you’re really busy? You’re doing all this stuff. You’re sending emails. You’re getting to-dos done. You’re checking stuff out on your newsfeeds. At the end of the day you look back and you realize man, I really wasn’t all that productive. I didn’t get much done even though I felt busy. On top of that, my brain feels fuzzy. I feel distracted. I can’t really focus. I have this anxiety that there’s stuff that I need to be doing, but I don’t know what it is. If that’s you, this podcast is for you. My guest today is Cal Newport. I’ve had him on the show before. He talked about his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Anyways, Cal is back with a new book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Guys, this is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s a big life changing book for me. I’m not exaggerating with this. In Deep Work, Cal makes the case that we live in an environment and in a culture that promotes shallow work, distracted work that doesn’t really get a lot done and it keeps us away from deep work which requires focused, intense concentration for long periods of time. This deep work, if we’re able to develop this skill of doing deep work will set us apart in our career, in the economy and also give us a more meaningful life. Today on the podcast we discuss Cal’s case for deep work as well as practical nuts and bolt tips to help you have more deep work in your life. Really great actionable tips in this podcast. Get a pen and paper. You’re going to want to take notes. Without further ado, deep work with Cal Newport. (music) Cal Newport, welcome back to the show.
Cal Newport: Hi, Brett. Thanks for having me back.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We had you about a year ago, I think a little over a year ago for your book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That was a really well received podcast. I still get emails about that podcast. You’re out with a new book that I think in a way takes So Good They Can’t Ignore You and extends on it a little bit. Not a little bit, but a lot. It’s called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Loved it. One of my favorite books that I’ve read. Let’s talk about what is deep work? Your book is called Deep Work. Let’s talk about what is deep work?
Cal Newport: Deep work is the term I coined to describe the activity of focusing without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.
Brett McKay: Okay. How did you stumble upon it? You flush it out more. We’ll talk more about it, but how did you stumble upon this concept of deep work? What’s the opposite of deep work?
Cal Newport: Yeah. The opposite of deep work is shallow work, which I define to be work that it doesn’t require intense undistracted focus. It’s work that tends to be a little bit more logistical in nature and that doesn’t really leverage your skills at a high level, that is someone else could replicate it pretty easily. That would include things like answering emails, meetings, maybe optimizing your social media analytics setup. These type of things that are logistical, but don’t require a lot of intense focus. It’s an important dichotomy, I think. You have deep efforts on one hand and shallow on the other. It’s not that one is good or one is bad, but they’re two different types of work.
Not all work is work. They both have their value, but recognizing that you need to do both, just having a different term for each. Making that distinction at least in my own life was a real step forward. It got me out of this trap of hey, anything that possibly has a benefit is work. I should just be doing stuff and be busy all the time. It gave me a more nuanced understanding of work where I see it more that shallow work is a necessary evil. It’s the stuff that allows you to keep your job, while deep work is the stuff that’s going to help you get promoted. It’s the stuff that’s really going to make a difference.
Brett McKay: What are some examples of deep work from your own life and maybe from the lives of other people you’ve looked into?
Cal Newport: Anytime you’re applying your skills with essentially at the limit of your ability to try to produce the best thing you’re currently capable of producing with your skills that’s deep work. In my own life, my day job is I’m a computer science professor. I work in theoretical computer science which is essentially proving math proofs is what I do for a living. Certainly, it’s a clear example of deep work when I’m grappling, for example, to get a mathematical proof to work. Or, in my life if I’m trying to read someone else’s academic paper and understand their techniques trying to figure out what they’re doing. That’s something that requires deep work.
In other fields this shows up in different guises. It could be, for example, in your life, Brett, when you’re trying to actually write a compelling and well researched piece of content. That’s going to be an example of deep work or if you’re into a business context really trying to understand say the business landscape and come up with a new strategy. It could be deep work. Finally, I think it’s worth noting that the act of learning things that are hard necessarily requires deep work. Anytime you’re actually trying to pick up a new skill or master a new piece of information or technique that’s also going to be deep work.
Brett McKay: That segues to that deliberate practice. You’ve written a lot about this.
Cal Newport: Yeah. Deliberate practice is what’s required to pick up cognitively demanding skills. Deliberate practice we know from both psychology and neuroscience requires intense concentration. If you’re good at deep work, one of the things you become good at is learning things very quickly. This is one of the advantages you get from the skill.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s talk about that. You make the case that deep work is becoming more and more rare today, which makes it more and more valuable. Let’s talk about first why it’s so rare. Why is deep work becoming so rare in today’s economy and environment?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think this is the core idea behind this book. I call it the deep work hypothesis. The whole reason for this book to exist is deep work. This thing I’m talking about is becoming more rare at exactly the same time that I think it’s becoming more valuable in our economy and because of that, that means if you’re one of the few who actually cultivates this skill who actually tries to systematically develop a deep life, you’re going to thrive. It’s going to be like a superpower. If you’re someone who actually systematically trains your ability to focus, you can become deeper and deeper and higher and higher intensity when you concentrate and it aggressively protects and supports time in your schedule to do deep work. My whole argument is you are going to thrive in almost any knowledge work job. If we go back to this deep work hypothesis, the two elements are it’s becoming rare while it’s becoming more valuable.
You’re asking why is it becoming more rare? I think this is one of the big stories in business in the last one to two decades is that as work is becoming more competitive and more complicated, as work is getting to this place where the ability to focus and to learn things and to produce things at high level values becoming more valued, we’re actually seeing most of the trends in the workplace being antithetical to depth. We’re seeing things always on email culture. We’re seeing the rise of OpenOffice. We’re seeing the rise of Office Instant Messenger tools. All of these things make it almost impossible to work deeply. I think this is a huge trend in business. I have several hypothesis for why this is happening, but I think we all agree that it is happening that most people probably find it harder today by an order of magnitude that might have been 20 years ago to find time to really focus hard on things that matter.
Brett McKay: Right. For me, I have the trouble with living within my inbox. The problem with email the way the inbox are set up is that everything is treated as equally important.
Cal Newport: Yeah. We could step back and say, “Why would businesses ever promote behaviors that makes businesses run worse?” Right? It seems a little bit paradoxical. My hypothesis, the one I lay out in the book and I think there’s other reasons, but my hypothesis is a defining feature of knowledge work that it’s very difficult as the economist would say to measure the marginal productivity of an individual. What that means is because of the complexity of the work, it’s very hard to isolate one person and say, “Here’s how much value they’re bringing to our company.” In a way, that would be easy to do if you were say a door to door salesman. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Cal Newport: You bring in this many dollars or if you’re on an assembly line you process this many widgets. Knowledge work is complicated. My conjecture is in the absence of this type of direct feedback of, “This behavior is making us more profitable. This behavior is making us less profitable,” what’s going to thrive? I claim what’s going to thrive are behaviors that are easier for you in the moment. This is the reason, for example, why a culture where everything is done in email, everything goes in the one inbox and you’re just expected to respond pretty quickly to any email you receive. Why does that thrive? It makes your life in the moment easier. You don’t have to sit there and plan in advance. “Okay, how is my work going to unfold this week? What am I going to need to get my work done? Let me make sure that I’ve sent this memo to this person a few days in advance so I can get the stuff I need.”
You don’t have to manage your workflow in a complicated way. You can just get there in your inbox and just start rock and rolling and figure things out with messages as you go around. Now, it turns out that this is incredibly ineffective. It’s also psychologically incredibly draining, but it’s easier. Right? You don’t have to think that much about your work. You don’t have to have a master of workflow. You just get in your inbox and do things. I think this is why we see deep work being squelched. It’s hard to directly measure its impact on the bottom line. Therefore, in its absence things that are easier in the moment are going to thrive. A lot of the behaviors that are easier tend to be behaviors that fragment your attention and hurt your ability to focus.
Brett McKay: Right. You talk more detail about that. That was interesting about there’s a culture where yeah, if you respond to your email fast or quickly and you respond to a lot of emails it shows to the rest of your co-workers I’m working. Right? I’m doing my job. Or, having that green dot on all the time even when office hours are over. It shows I’m really dedicated, but you might not be even doing anything at all like anything productive.
Cal Newport: Yeah, that’s right. Deep work is what allows you to produce things of real value. It’s what uses your skills. If your attention is constantly fragmented you can’t do deep work. From a cognitive perspective, you’re operating at a severe disadvantage. I think it’s worth emphasizing that easy is not the same thing as productive. Making your life easier does not necessarily make you better at your job. I think the right analogy to understand how a lot of organizations work today would be to imagine if you had an assembly line back in the industrial age. Let’s say it’s a complicated assembly line. There’s different materials and tools are needed at different stations. They’re used up at different rates. Imagine you said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. It’s too complicated to try to figure out in advance the inventory and the distribution of tools. Let’s just put all the resources and all the tools in a big pile in the parking lot.”
That was really easy. No one has to think about workflows and change of inventories. If you need something you know where it is. You just go to the parking lot to get it. As stuff comes in, we don’t have to think about how to distribute. Dump it in the parking lot. It would be much easier. People would not have to think at all about the complexities of logistics. On the other hand, it would be an incredibly inefficient way to run an assembly line because everyone would constantly be walking out to the parking lot to get what they need. That would also be very frustrating. I think that’s exactly what’s going on with our connectivity culture. Sure it’s easier. Whatever the problem is, whatever the issue is, just send an email to your one email address into your inbox and we can just work it out. That’s easier, but walking to the parking lot for every tool is an incredibly inefficient way to work.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s amazing. You talk about it becomes such an article of faith. This connectivity culture is what you’re supposed to do. No one questions it, but then you highlight research where researchers came into a company that was really connected. Right? They use their BlackBerries and their email on the phone even after office hours. They asked them, “Don’t do that anymore.” They took away their email. What happened when they took away their email capabilities after office hours?
Cal Newport: Yeah. This was research by Leslie Perlow at the Harvard Business School. She did it at the Boston Consulting Group which was an incredibly connected, high pressure management consulting outfit. At first, actually it was called Planned Time Off. At first, she was just getting groups to take a … everyone had one night a week in which they weren’t working, which tells you a little something about how connected these guys were. It’s just one time a week and it was the nighttime.
Brett McKay: They were freaking out about it.
Cal Newport: They’re freaking out about it. She pushed it farther and had people taking one full … every member of the team would take one full weekday off during the week where they’re unreachable. Not only did their happiness go up, but the client satisfaction went up for these teams. If you read her book on this, it’s called Sleeping With Your Smartphone. What they learned was the key was communication, that once they had this common thing they would meet. These teams would meet and talk about it about trying to make these one day off or one night off and what was working and what wasn’t. Once they started having this conversation, they realized that there was all of these other behaviors they had just accepted as necessary, a lot of behaviors surrounding email and connectivity that were actually very arbitrary.
Once they opened up these lines of communication, a lot of the benefit came from … once they talked about it they said, “Well, this is stupid. Why? We shouldn’t have to do this. It doesn’t make sense that we would answer emails at night. It doesn’t make sense.” In fact, they even ended up after having these conversations they changed the email software at Boston Consulting Group. For example, if you tried to send an email after 6pm it would pop up and say, “The default behavior here is that we’ll hold this for you and send it to the person in the morning, unless you specifically tell me, ‘No, no. I still want you to send it at night with an urgent tag on it.'” The conversations opened up the fact that a lot of this behavior we have in the workplace is not somehow the cornerstone of our productivity. It’s really just arbitrary.
Brett McKay: Arbitrary. It’s just us using the path of least resistance.
Cal Newport: Yeah. She even has this great thing called the cycle of connectivity where she calls it a vicious cycle. She walks through how does a company like BCG get to a point where everyone is always connected? It’s not something anyone ever sat down and said, “Here’s what we should do. This would be the most productive.” It’s actually just arises in a feedback loop where, “Well, this person is on a little bit more so if I answer him that’s good, and then you need to answer me.” Then, it’s this cycle and then next thing they know, this behavior is ingrained even though no one ever decided this is what they should do and there’s no real evidence that it was actually a productive way to work.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about what makes deep work so valuable, because on the surface people … it would seem, I don’t know, maybe controversial? Not controversial. I think it’s intuitively understand it would be valuable, but in this age where the economy, we’re having this great disruption. Right? There’s a great restructuring. You have to be able to put on different hats. Right? You’ve got to be able to answer your own email, be a social media guru, do your own marketing, do it all. Right? Multi-task. You’re saying, “No. Actually, it’d be more. You’d be able to provide more value to the economy by picking one skill that you want to focus on and do it deeply.” How is deep work valuable in today’s economy?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think you hit on that just right. What’s valuable in today’s economy which is very competitive is that you’re able to do something that’s very valuable very well. Something that it’s not easy for them to find someone else to do it or to outsource. You do something very valuable very well. That’s what’s valuable. If you’re really quick at email, if you use a lot of social media, that’s easily replicatable. Right? That’s not actually something that valuable, but if you have some hard skill that you can do well, that’s going to be the currency for thriving in this economy. Deep work is like the mint that prints that currency. When you’re in a state of deep work, here’s what we know about it from the research. All right. First of all, you need to be in a state of deep work to learn hard things quickly.
If you develop your ability to concentrate to be very intense and you regularly have time to apply that concentration, you can really quickly pick up complicated new information and skills which is hugely important for being someone who’s valuable in the economy. We also know about deep work that when you work in a state of intense concentration, you produce work at both a higher rate of quality and quantity, as compared to less intensely focused, more fragmented attention. Someone who regularly does deep work is able to produce a lot and do so in a little amount of time. I profile some of these deep workers in my book. A lot of them to the outside world seem superhuman, but they’re not Superman. The main thing they’re doing that other people aren’t that their peers aren’t doing is they are actually just treating their ability to focus like a muscle and they’re giving it a lot of reps. Then, they’re going out there and doing feats of strength.
Brett McKay: Got you. Yeah, some of the people you highlight. For example, someone who used deep work to learn a very hard skill that’s valuable in today’s economy is the fella who taught himself coding in a few months because he needed a job or something like that. What was his name again?
Cal Newport: Oh, yeah. Jason from the beginning of the book. Yeah. He was in a job here in northern Virginia making $40,000 a year filling out spreadsheets. He hated it. He said, “I need more valuable skills.” He wanted to learn how to computer program. He gave himself a crash course in deep work by locking himself in a room without any electronics and just these programming books. It was hard at first, but over time he increased his ability just to focus hard on these books and he was able to teach himself programming in a very fast amount of time. Then, went out to San Francisco to get a six figure job at a startup. Then, once he’s out at that startup, he’s really been crushing it because he comes in early. He puts on his brown noise headphones and is able to just focus like a laser beam on his coding. He’s also a very productive member once there. That’s a perfect case study. Brett, what I’m going at for this book is that it’s not social critique.
It’s actually a guidebook for those … if you want to be one of the few who recognizes the value of the skill, then you should actually be happy that most people are ignoring it. You should actually be happy that most people are on their phones all the time and that people are focusing on shallow activities, because there’s this huge economic opportunity that if you take deep work seriously, which again I think means you have to train your ability to focus and then go through great efforts to protect and support periods to do this work throughout your work week. If you do those two things, essentially do CrossFit for your mind, make that same type of commitment, it’s a blue ocean playing field out there. The few people who do that are really thriving. If you’re hearing this podcast, you should be hoping that not too many other people are, because I’m telling you this is one of the big opportunities out there. Yeah. Focus is the new IQ, but unlike regular IQ it’s something that you can get substantially better at in a short amount of time.
Brett McKay: Right. That’s a great point because in today’s economy, particularly where I’m at. Right? I produce online content. The barrier to entry is extremely low. Anyone can do it. Right? You buy a $10 domain. It’s all WordPress for free and you can get going. What separates the people who are really successful, one of the things that separates people who are really successful is they are able to just focus all their time on creating the content that people actually want to read. Right? That’s one of the reasons I don’t do a lot of traveling or go to conferences because it takes away from writing. I don’t do a lot of social media or a lot of tweeting because that takes away from writing. The writing is what’s important, what’s valuable. A lot of people in this sphere have this idea you have to be all over the place, go the conferences, network, do the social media, do the Instagram. All that stuff dissipates your impact a lot.
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think that’s a perfect example because there’s a ton of shallow tasks that surround running a media company like Art of Manliness, but the stuff about the WordPress configuration and making sure that the mailing list and this and that, all of that stuff is low value in the sense that it doesn’t require a hard one skill. It’s something that could be outsourced or someone else could do with no real effect on the success or failure of your business, whereas the producing of the content is at the core of it. By focusing on the content and doing that deeply, that’s what produces value for your business. At first, maybe you had to batch and try to handle the shallow stuff as efficiently as you can, whereas now as you’ve grown you can probably have other people do it.
I think there’s an underlying trend going on here, which is in our culture we’ve lost an ethic of craftsmanship. I think in the absence of this ethic of craftsmanship for people who are in for example your position running small companies or online media companies, there’s this anxiety about what does it mean to be doing my job well? I think that anxiety drives a lot of this frenetic, low value, shallow activities. The frequent attending of conferences, the obsessing about your email funnels and getting the configuration just right on your social media share buttons. To be really busy and to be doing lots of stuff and to be doing lots of coffees and emails and all these things, at least you feel like okay, I’m working. I can feel a little bit less anxious about this company and its success.
We used to have this culture, this ethic of craftsmanship that placed a lot of value on we have this ideal image of The Art of Manliness. We could say this ideal image of the man is you sit there with your skill. You apply your craft and you produce something in the world that’s valuable that did not exist before. That was a noble task. That ethic if you subscribe to it, it allows you to release a lot of that anxiety and to be less worried about am I busy all the time? Say, “I can be very satisfied and confident really putting my attention on crafting something very valuable.” Ultimately, that’s what matters. If you can reclaim this older manly virtue of craftsmanship, I think it’s easier to start really prioritizing depth and being okay with that.
Brett McKay: Not only does deep work make you economically valuable, it can also provide meaning, philosophical, spiritual, existential meaning in your life.
Cal Newport: Yeah. I have a long chapter in the book where I go through all the different evidence for why that’s true. In fact, I was surprised. I had experienced it in my own life that the more I focused on depth and the less I focused on shallow, not only was I more successful, I found my life more meaningful. When I started looking into the research for why that might be true, I was surprised by how much evidence there was from different fields that all pointed towards the same conclusion that a life of focused attention on something that is valuable is really a much better life than one in which your attention is frenetically moving around. If anything, there’s this rising hypothesis in psychology and neuroscience that our brain is really not evolved for this type of frenetic constant content switching. It essentially is messing up your chemicals. It gives rise to anxiety and the anxiety related issues. Our brain is really not made for it. Our brain is much more wired to spend long amounts of time concentrating on a small amount of things. A deep life is a good life.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. That’s from Winifred Gallagher. Right? Or, from Rapt. She wrote Rapt.
Cal Newport: Yeah, Rapt, the book that Brett and I are big supporters of. In 2009, this great book. She’s a science writer. She just went through the science of attention all the way back from William James through fMRIs today. It’s fascinating. Ultimately, her conclusion is she says, “I choose to live the focused life because it’s the best type of life there is.” That’s her conclusion after going through all this science is to live a life where you’re deliberate with your attention. All the different science points to the conclusion that’s a really good way to live.
Brett McKay: Right. William James. He said all the way back in the 19th century, “Wisdom is knowing what to overlook.” Right? I think something like that he said to the extent. It’s just part of living a good life is just knowing what to focus on and what to ignore. I think in today’s environment we think where everything is … There’s that book, Present Shock. Everything is important. Everything is now. We lose that insight. Like you said, our brain is not evolved for this new environment. It just creates anxiety and distraction and it’s not healthy and it’s not productive.
Cal Newport: Yeah. In fact, in the beginning of my chapter about that reality I said, “Let me just paint you this picture of a craftsman. It’s a guy who works near the shore of Lake Michigan and Wisconsin in an open air barn and forges metal.” I paint the picture of this guy and his life. I say, “You probably have no interest in metal. You probably have no interest in blacksmithing, but if you’re like most people there’s still something deeply attractive to you about this image of this guy who’s there in the open air barn and all of his attention is on doing this fine crafting of it.” I say, “Forget all the science. You already know deep down that our souls resonate with this idea of paying rapt deep attention to do things valuable.” We’re wired for that, whether it’s at a blacksmith’s forge or at a computer screen running computer code. That doesn’t really matter. It’s the underlying rapt attention craftsmanship giving your full focus on producing something valuable. That’s what resonates.
Brett McKay: Right. I feel when I was reading this section of your book, I felt it really connected or extended your argument you made in So Good They Can’t Ignore You on a deeper level. Did I read that right or was I reading it the right way? Yeah?
Cal Newport: Yeah. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I was asking the question, “What makes people happy in their careers?” I said, “The leading hypothesis that they followed their passion is wrong. The evidence seems to support how most people end up loving their work is that they get really good at something valuable. For a lot of different reasons that makes you happy.” In some sense, deep work was a followup to that because people said, “Okay. I get that. So, how do I get good at something valuable?” The answer was, “Deep work.” As you just pointed out, there’s obviously overlaps. I noted in So Good They Can’t Ignore You that craftsmanship creates a lot of value. People seem to really enjoy their lives when they’re doing it. In this book, Deep Work, I got to follow up on the science of why that’s true.
Brett McKay: Okay. We’ve laid the foundation of why deep work is important, valuable, it’s becoming increasingly rare and why you can provide meaning. What I love about your book, though, you don’t just stop there. Right? Like you said, “It’s not a critique,” Jeremiah against the current state of things. You actually provide some actionable things that people can do to practice deep work in their lives. What do you think are the things that people can start doing today that would allow them to start having more deep work in their own lives?
Cal Newport: Right. This is the key question. What does it mean if you agree with this premise that deep work makes you better, makes you more competitive, makes you happier? What does it actually mean to embrace a deep life? The way I like to think about it is there’s three types of commitments you have to make if you want to live a deep life and get all these advantages. One, you have to commit to training your ability to focus. There’s any number of different things you can do, but focus is a skill like playing a guitar, not a habit like flossing your teeth. It’s not something that you know how to do. You just have to spend more time doing it. It actually has to be practiced.
Most people if I just took you and locked you in a room and said, “Concentrate for the next three hours,” would be bad at it if you haven’t actually been practicing and increasing your depths of intensity. The first type of commitment to living a deep life is you need to train your ability to focus just like you would have an exercise routine. There’s several strategies we can talk about there. The second commitment is you need to actually fight to protect and support deep work in your schedule. That means you have to put in the effort. It takes a lot of effort to put aside and protect on a regular basis time to actually apply this deeply focused work. You need to support it, meaning you need to put things around this deep work that helps you succeed with it, where you do the work, how you do with the rituals. There’s specific strategies we can talk there.
Third and perhaps most controversially, I think if you really want to embrace the deep life I think it’s important to take some semi radical steps that demonstrate to yourself that you take your attention very seriously. Right off the bat, make some bolder move that signals to yourself hey, you know what? My attention, my ability to concentrate is very important to me. Just as when people want to make the bold decision to get more fit, they might choke up the money you need to join a CrossFit gym. I’m recommending if you’re going to take deep work seriously, you want to do the attentional equivalent which might be something like quitting Facebook or leaving your phone in the car after you get home from work.
Brett McKay: Got you. Let’s talk about this one by one. Developing the skill of focus. What are some things that people can do to develop that skill?
Cal Newport: A couple quick ideas. One is you need to embrace boredom. A big thing that makes it hard to focus is if your mind is addicted to getting novel stimuli at all times. It’s very difficult to then focus when it comes time to focus because doing deep work is by definition boring in the sense that deep work is a period where you’re not going to have a bunch of novel stimuli because you’re concentrating on just one thing. If your mind is addicted to always have novel stimuli, never have to go without them, which is easy to get to this day because your phone can deliver novel stimuli at any moment in any place. It’s going to be hard to focus intensely. One thing I recommend is giving yourself tons of practice of being bored, by which I mean just a lot of practice of being somewhere and not having any novel stimuli.
It could be something somewhat drastic. I just got back from Christmas holidays at my parents, brought my family up to New Jersey for four days. I left my phone at home. There’s four days where I just didn’t have a phone. I had no portal to any entertainment. I couldn’t get novel stimuli whenever I wanted it. That’s great practice, but it could be something less radical just taking certain times. I’m going to put my phone away for the next hour or at work saying, “Here’s the next time I’m going to use the internet,” maybe an hour and a half or two hours from now. Just give yourself that one or two hours to just work and to be a little bit bored and then not having novel stimuli.
Getting yourself used to not having novel stimuli is a key way to train your focus. A second quick thing I’ll recommend is productive meditation which is where simply you go for a walk, you give yourself a hard problem to work on and you just try to give it as much attention as you can. Just like in mindfulness meditation, if you find your attention wandering away from the problem, notice that and then bring your attention back to it and keep trying to push yourself deeper and deeper. I started doing this in 2009. After about six months of that training I found that I had a significant increase in my ability to concentrate to the point now where I can do a lot of my mathematics work on foot.
Brett McKay: That’s awesome. Yeah. I’ve done this. After that whole embracing boredom thing that really helped me out a lot. I found opportunities now. The other day there was a long line at the post office. Instead of pulling out my phone from my back pocket, I just said, “Okay. I’m going to do what Cal says. I’m just going to embrace boredom.” I just stood there. I was probably in the line for 20 minutes. It was long. It was tedious, but I was like okay, I’m training my brain to be used to boredom. I’ve also done things on my phone. I have an app that blocks my phone off in the morning and in the evening when I’m with my kids because look, kids are fun, but sometimes it can be really boring when they’re five, two years old and they want to play Legos all the time. Sometimes I had to get in the habit like, “Okay. I’ll just … while I’m playing Legos I’ll check Instagram. I’ll check email.” I don’t do that anymore. I’m training my brain to be bored. Thank you for that whole idea of embracing boredom.
Cal Newport: Yeah. It also reduces anxiety. Boredom’s great. I’m a big boredom booster. I’m bored a lot. I think that makes my life better.
Brett McKay: I think it stimulates you to actually find ways to make your life better in significant ways or meaningful ways. Right?
Cal Newport: I think so. Let me ask you. You’ve probably noticed. You do this for enough time. Then, when you sit down to write the complicated blog article you probably find it easier. Right?
Brett McKay: Right.
Cal Newport: You don’t have this oh, I need to see email real quick. Your mind is sounding off the alarms like stimuli, stimuli, stimuli.
Brett McKay: Right, right. Yeah, yeah. Exactly. Yeah, exactly. When I experience deep work at its best when I can remember … I have it now. There’s been moments throughout my writing career where it’ll be really great and then as soon as I get off, the wheels will fall off the wagon and then I have to get back on. When I was in law school, that’s when I really … when I experienced the deep work that you talked about in your own personal experience where from 7:00 until 8:00 at night I was pretty much just studying all the time. I would just have to go through these very obscure poorly written 19th century legal cases and suss out the case law or what’s the law from that? Apply them to the facts. Seriously, I would get so zoned in on it, to me it felt like only a few minutes had passed by, but it’d be an hour. I was in the flow. I really did well in law school because of that. I attributed that to the whole deep work concept.
Cal Newport: I love it, the image of sitting there with a 19th century law book. For those of us who are deep work proponents, that’s like deep work porn right there.
Brett McKay: Right, right, right. Exactly. The walking thing. That’s great, too. There’s research that shows that taking breaks and doing something else that might not be super focused, but you’re thinking about the thing you’re thinking about, but while doing something else like walking or doing a walking meditation. You actually get insights that you otherwise wouldn’t have if you just tried to brute force get at it. Right?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think that’s true. To give you a recent example, earlier this month my family did … we spent a week at the Bahamas for our vacation this year. I showed up there. I just had this hard proof that I knew I needed to prove this thing. I had no idea how to prove it. I just walked a beach. I walked a beach for a week. It wasn’t until day five of the trip that I see how to do this. It wasn’t that hard once I had actually identified it. You couldn’t have brute forced it. My mind needed to just come at it from different angles, work at it. That’s the type of thing that if you practice that at first you’ll find it hard.
It really only takes a few months before you find that you’re able to actually hold things in your mind with practice and work on them. I also do a lot of writing in my mind. Many of the chapters of So Good They Can’t Ignore You, for example, were outlined on my walk back from the campus where I was a post doc at the time to my apartment across the Charles River. You can write in your mind. You can solve problems in your mind. It takes practice, but maybe not as much as you think.
Brett McKay: Yeah. That’s what both my wife and I do when we both write. Sometimes I’ll be like, “What are you thinking about?” She’s like, “Oh, I’m writing,” or I’ll be doing the same. I’ll zone out. She’s like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m writing like the first paragraph.” When you’re actually at the computer you can sit down and write it.
Cal Newport: Yeah, exactly. I love it. As opposed to staring at this computer screen and trying to force it and you have all the distractions a couple of mouse clicks away. It’s not always the most conducive thing for getting work done.
Brett McKay: Right. Let’s talk about that second aspect of setting up structures to protect your deep work time.
Cal Newport: Yeah. Now, once you have your ability to focus honed, the next thing you need is to actually have the opportunity to apply it on a regular basis. You don’t get the benefits of deep work unless you’re actually regularly doing deep work. I’ll give you three quick things that can help you protect and support deep work in your routine. One, having rituals and routines surrounding deep work sessions really helps, some ritual or routine you always do right before you start deep working. That helps your mind transform into that deep work mindset easier. By contrast, if you just in an ad hoc fashion try to wrench your attention away from something you’re doing and say, “Now, I’m going to concentrate,” that takes a lot of willpower and energy and it’s going to be less successful. I talk about a lot of routines people have.
They’re as simple as you change the lighting in your office and put a Do Not Disturb sign to as elaborate as relatively long walks through certain locations or going to a cabin in the woods. There’s a whole scale there. A basic strategy that works really well is at the beginning of the week, schedule your deep work sessions on your calendar like you would any other meeting or appointment, and then treat them like any other meeting or appointment which means if someone says, “Hey, can you jump on a call on Tuesday at 9?” You can say, “Oh, no. I have a thing from you know, 9 to 12 on my calendar. I can’t do it then. Let’s do it later.” Or, if someone says, “I sent you an email. Why didn’t I heard back from you?” You’re like, “Oh, no. I had a thing.”
Brett McKay: It’s a thing.
Cal Newport: We have a semantics already around appointments and meetings in the modern workplace. People understand that when you have an appointment or meeting that you’re inaccessible during that time. That’s a simple thing. The third thing which I think is a little bit more complex, but I think is important is that you open up a dialogue with your boss, be it an actual boss or if you’re self-employed a dialogue with yourself about how much deep work you’re doing, how it’s going and what it’s producing. In fact, I even recommend in the book that you ask your boss, “What percentage of my hours should be deep work hours versus shallow work hours?”
Agree on a ratio there and then have a regular conversation with them about, “Okay. What help do I need from you? What do I need to do in order to hit this ratio? I only had two hours of deep work last week. We agreed that I should have 15. This isn’t good for either of us. What can we do?” On the flip side, also discuss, “Hey, my 15 hours of deep work last week produced X, Y and Z which I’m really proud of and I think is really valuable for the company.” I think having that dialogue be it with yourself or with your actual boss is really important if you’re going to try to get the accommodations you need to really integrate this type of work, and to do so in a way that everyone’s happy about it.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Now, I’m going to make a plug for your blog, Cal. If you guys are looking for more information about planning deep work and time management, Cal’s got some great stuff on his blog, CalNewport.com, really great stuff. It’s one of the few blogs that I subscribe to. Go check that out.
Cal Newport: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, definitely. I’ve been writing. Yeah. I have this deep habits series on there where once or twice a month I just talk about nuts and bolts things that help you build the deep life.
Brett McKay: Right. Really good stuff there. That’s a great supplement to the book. That last thing, making a bold move to show to yourself and maybe to others that you take your focus and attention very seriously. You suggest one of them quitting social media. That’s crazy talk. How can you quit social media in today’s media landscape? How are you going to keep track of your mom and your cousins and how are you going to market yourself? Right?
Cal Newport: That’s right.
Brett McKay: How are you going to brand? You got to get a personal brand, Cal. What are we going to do about our personal brand?
Cal Newport: Yeah. Hey, I’ve never had a Facebook account. I’ll tell you. I haven’t heard from my mom in three years. I have no friends and I haven’t sold any books. I should be on Facebook.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I know. What a failure.
Cal Newport: Yeah. In my own life here’s what I do. I’ve never had a social media account because honestly, these companies hire very high priced people. They pay them a lot of money to sit there and to try to think out how can I grab and disrupt as much attention as possible from our users? It’s called attention engineering. They have world class experts who are working on how can they get as much of your attention? How can they get you coming back to the phone and looking at it as often as possible and for as long as possible? To me, if you’re someone who recognizes that your attention is your main tool that you use as a knowledge work craftsman, to use a tool like that it’s the equivalent of being a professional athlete who smokes. It doesn’t make sense to me. I think this idea that these media companies in California that sell ads or somehow at the core of our modern culture and what it means to be a citizen of the digital world, I just think that’s somewhat preposterous.
I’ve never had a social media account. I’ve never had any negative ramifications. It just doesn’t factor into my life. It hasn’t really been an issue. The way I like to think about it’s not that social media is intrinsically bad. I just don’t understand this notion that it needs to be universally used. I think the analogy should be like Game of Thrones. Right? It’s something that a lot of people are really into, but a whole lot of people could care less. To me, that’s where tools like Facebook or Twitter should be, that yeah, there are some people who are techie and they really like it, but most people say this has nothing to do with my life. That’s not the way it is now. That’s my own crusade which a lot of people push back on.
Brett McKay: Tilting at windmills, Cal. You’re tilting at windmills.
Cal Newport: Probably tilting at windmills, though. I just don’t understand these, at least attention economy. Also, I don’t use the internet to entertain myself, by which I mean I’ve opted out of the whole attention economy out there of these websites with the algorithmically engineered headlines made and easily accessible and made to grab your attention. I wrote about this a couple years ago that I don’t know how to web surf. I don’t have a stable of sites to go to. People usually have their cycle. You go and you click there.
Brett McKay: My wife and I call it the wheel.
Cal Newport: The wheel?
Brett McKay: You’re stuck. I can see her clicking or she sees me clicking. “You’re stuck on the wheel, aren’t you? Get off the wheel.”
Cal Newport: Yeah. I don’t have a wheel. I’ve got rid of that and it’s great. In other words, I don’t have these things pulling at my attention. It’s not the fact that if I joined Facebook tomorrow at my age, I’m not going to suddenly be using it 30 hours a day. A lot of people make this argument, “Well, it’s not like I use it that much anymore.” For me at this point, it’s really about the signal to myself. It’s just when I want to take my health seriously, I stop smoking. I stop even having the occasional cigarette. Same thing. I treat my attention like a tool because I think it generates a very rich life and a very successful life. These type of things are commitments. Now, it could be something different for you. Maybe for some people social media is key to their job. If for example, you run a media company like Art of Manliness, okay. Social media is great for companies because so many people use it.
It’d be folly, for example, for you not to be on there. Just other things like this that could help this demonstration. I found lots of interesting examples. There’s this whole underground movement, for example, that no one knows about, the dumb phone movement where relatively high level executives are getting rid of their smartphones. There’s this one dumb phone you can get on Amazon that they love. It’s very simple and it’s become the cornerstone of this movement. There’s hedge fund managers and all these people, but no one knows this. They all use the same simple 1980s style phone purely to gain back their attention so they can make better decisions in the workplace. There’s all these interesting things that people are doing, but to me it’s the intent that matters.
Brett McKay: Right. I’ve actually contemplated getting a dumb phone a few times, but what I’ve done instead I’ve made the compromise. Maybe this will be useful for people out there who aren’t ready to go full hog and just quit social media. Yeah. Be intentional about it. I make my devices dumb temporarily. There’s different apps out there that you can use that’ll shut down the internet or shut down certain apps for a set period of time that you set. With my phone I can’t access it in the morning when I’m with my kids. Certain apps like Instagram or Gmail those are two ones that are really distracting in the evening. Then, during the day I only give myself … there’s an app that allows me. It’s called StayFocused that only allows me 30 minutes on each of those apps. Once I use that 30 minutes up I can’t get on them anymore until the next day. That’s helped out a lot.
Cal Newport: Those are clear commitments. That’s great. Another simple thing you can do is once you’re home from work you’re there, your family is there, your kids are there. They don’t need to reach you. You just leave your phone in the car. Then, if there’s an emergency you can go get it, but no one needs to reach for you in an emergency. Then, you just don’t have this thing that you need. When we go out or go out to dinner or something like that, I’ll often just leave my phone behind. I say, “Well, my wife has hers so if there’s an emergency she can call.” I want to make sure that I don’t have outlets. There’s simple things like that you can do. Again, it’s the intentionality of it. You have to signal to yourself there’s some behavior. That’s a little bit difficult. It’s not trivial to do and it respects my attention. By doing that, I’m signaling to myself this is something that’s valuable.
Brett McKay: Right. Then, also I thought it was interesting. It’s on the same line. You cite our good friend, Antonio Centeno, who’s written a lot of style content at The Art of Manliness, how he manages the influx of email that he gets. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I have a whole chapter in a book called Drain the Shallows where the idea is most people can’t get rid of shallow work obligations in their work life. It’s part of what just helps their job function, but you have to get your arms around them and constrain it or you’ll never have any time to do deep work. I really get into how can you minimize shallow work and then take what you have and do it more efficiently? One of the examples I point to is how do people, especially people who run their own companies or solo entrepreneurs, what are strategies they can use to try to reduce the amount of back and forth communication that they have to do? That’s a huge killer of time to concentrate if you’re constantly having to communicate with people.
I found there’s this cool subculture that includes myself, but then I discovered there’s a lot of other people doing this, too. Public figures or people who run their own companies who have this notion of a cinder filter. That’s my terminology, but instead of saying, “Hey, anyone can contact me for any reason. Here’s just an email address. Have at it,” they instead put a filter that the people who want to contact them essentially are going to filter themselves. They say, “Here are the different reasons why people can contact me and here’s how I want you to actually do it.” In essence, “If you don’t fit into one of these categories, maybe you shouldn’t contact me.” It can be simple. In my case, I just don’t have a general purpose email address you can use. I have an [email protected]
I have rules around it where I just say, “You can send me opportunities you think I might be interested in, but the rules I don’t really respond to them, except in a couple of rare cases.” It’s just setting expectations for conversation. Antonio had this great online form you had to go through. You had to click things and select things. It walked you through this process of who you are, why you wanted to contact him. You had to certify this is not something that I could find on Google. This was not something that was in the FAQs. I looked at the FAQs. Then, finally if you made it through this process it was like, “Okay. Now you can put the information that you want to send to me.” I think those type of trends maybe will be more common in the future, things to reduce the constant back and forth communication.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Our filter that we have on our site is you have to mail us a letter. We’ve had that up for a few years now. We took down our contact form. Now, yeah, we have our P.O. box. “Hey, if you want to contact us, write us a letter.” That in itself filters people out immediately.
Cal Newport: How many letters do you get?
Brett McKay: Not very many, actually. It depends. It fluctuates from week to week. I go to the post office once a week. There could be 5 to 10 letters in there a week. Here’s the interesting thing, Cal. The nature of the communications I get have changed dramatically. When I had a contact form, I was just getting a lot of PR stuff, PR pitches, emails from angry people who had read a post and they were just angry and they wanted to tell me how they’re angry and how they disagreed with me, how it was a piece of crap, people who had questions. They would ask me these really complicated questions. Right? Here’s the thing. I would spend hours answering their email and then I’d never get a response back. I’m like, “What the heck?” Or, the worst was they entered their email address incorrectly into the form. When I responded to them I spent an hour on this email. I got a bounceback. I was like, “Geez, Louise.” When I took down the contact form, what I get now is just primarily thank you notes.
Cal Newport: I love this. Let me ask you this. Has there been any negative ramifications on your business’s profitability?
Brett McKay: No, not at all. We still continue to grow and to prosper. The thing is if people who really have a business prop for me, really want to get to me, there’s ways to get to me. Right? If they really want to make it happen then they’ll make it happen.
Cal Newport: Right. If they’ve gone through these extra efforts and have found your email address hidden somewhere the expectations are different. I’m not expecting a response because I’m going in through a backdoor here. Yeah. It puzzles me that there’s still this mentality out there that your business will flounder if you don’t make this habit of responding to everyone’s emails. Then, you write people who are in your situation, but on other websites and media companies. You get back these autoresponders about, “I’m going to try to answer everything.” What’s his name? Pat Flynn at the Passive Income podcast, massive blog, massive podcast.
He had this post recently about he now has this full-time assistant, a former executive assistant, a high level assistant that just sits there with him to help him make sure that all his emails get answered. The underlying assumption under this is 1 to 2,000 emails a month he gets or whatever. Answering those is at the core of succeeding in his business. I love your example because it just tests that hypothesis. What actually happens if you just can’t email me? Nothing. In fact, your business is probably better because think about the time you gained back, the attention you gained back to write better blog posts.
Brett McKay: Right, exactly. It reduces our amount of anxiety completely. We have more time to do podcasts, read books for podcasts, get questions ready for podcasts or write content for the blog. Yeah. It is really weird. We’ve all bought into this idea that you have to be connected, you have to answer emails, that it’s an article of faith. Right? It’s apostasy that it isn’t, but I think the apostasy is actually our salvation. Right?
Cal Newport: I think so. Yeah. Then, I think maybe having a term like deep work helps. I found that it’s difficult to just focus on the downside of distractions because it’s complicated. Things that cause distractions also have value and if people get defensive and it’s just a little bit messy. When you focus instead on the value of the opposite of distraction it’s a different conversation. That’s what I’m trying to do with this book is give people a template. Okay? If you’re just fed up with this frenetic distracted whatever, what is the alternative?
I think the deep life is an answer to that question, this life where you train your ability to focus, you spend a lot of time in intense focus. You really try to cut down and be efficient about anything else. You treat your attention like a tool. Instead of just saying, “Here’s what’s bad about Facebook,” it’s, “Here’s what life would look like if you didn’t spend all your time on Facebook.” This is a very positive thing. There’s a positive thing you can do. If you’re one of the few to embrace the deep life, it’s an actual positive step you can take and the distractions will work themselves out.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Cal, where can people learn more about your book?
Cal Newport: CalNewport.com. My website you can learn about it. Otherwise, you can find it Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever else you find books.
Brett McKay: Cool. Cal Newport, thanks so much for your time. This has been an absolutely fascinating conversation.
Cal Newport: Yeah. Thanks, Brett.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Cal Newport. He’s the author of the book, Deep Work. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Really, go out there and get it, one of the best books I’ve read. Just following a few of the principles in it will radically improve your life and your work. Believe me as someone who’s done that. Go check that out. You won’t regret it. Also, for more information about Cal’s work on deep work and productivity and time management, go to CalNewport.com. He’s got a great blog there. That wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, I’d really appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher that help get the word about the podcast as well as give us feedback on how we can improve. As always we appreciate your support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly. (music)
Last updated: December 7, 2017