Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Cal Newport on finding focus in the age of distraction

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Published on February 26, 2019

Illustration by Justin Tran

Before he turned 30 years old, Cal Newport completed his PhD, authored three books and released dozens of peer-reviewed papers.

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However, as his thirties loomed and Newport neared his transition to professorship, he worried that his new demanding schedule would leave little time to explore high-value work like original research and writing.

In order to prepare for his transition, Newport spent his final two years at MIT honing and improving a unique productivity philosophy called deep work. He carefully blocked out his day, and created space for long, uninterrupted hours to write papers and do research. He also experimented with tactics like travelling on foot to give himself more time in isolation and actively sought out isolated spaces to work without interruption. Quickly he began to see positive results. 

After taking a job as a computer science professor at Georgetown University, Newport’s professional obligations did drastically increase, but he continued to produce original research. “Not only did I preserve my research productivity, it actually improved. My previous rate of two good papers a year… leapt to four good papers a year, on average, once i became a much more encumbered professor,” he wrote in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He attributes this success to the unique philosophy he described in his book.

While deep work sounds simple, Newport believes most people have trained themselves out of this way of working through addictions to disruptive social media and technology. Every notification you check and feed you aimlessly scroll through makes it harder to work without distraction for an extended period of time.

Throughout the late-2000s and early-2010s, Cal Newport wrote countless articles on the dangers of these distractions and social media more broadly. Each time, as soon as he clicked publish, the comments section would swell with detractors voicing the same handful of objections time and time again. 

But then something changed.

On June 3rd 2016, Newport gave a talk at TEDxTysons titled, “Quit Social Media.” Newport’s message was largely the same as the articles he had written over the past decade but the response couldn’t have been more different. The video’s view count soared into the millions and the comment section buzzed with supporting voices. “Guys, wish me luck. I’m quitting Facebook today and hope I’ll never use it again,” wrote one viewer. “I quit social media on my birthday, what a gift it was to my soul,” wrote another.

That same year his book Deep Work quickly climbed the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. In Silicon Valley—home to many of the tech giants he criticized in his TED Talk—CEOs gave copies to their entire company to inspire better productivity and peace of mind.

Earlier this month Newport released his latest book, Digital Minimalism, in which he expands on the once controversial, but increasing popular idea that people should be more intentional about the technology they use and abandon apps that don’t improve their mental well-being.

Dropbox caught up with Newport to ask for tips on creating the space for more deep work, what he learned running an experiment on people who quit social media for 30 days, and how managers can find deep work despite the communication demands of their team.

"In knowledge work, we don't quite have the right management structures in place so there's an implicit reward for the shallow because it's visible."

When I was reading Deep Work, I was struck at how stark the comparison was between shallow work and deep work. It seemed to me a little bit confusing that when people were presented with both options, that they would choose shallow work over working on something significant and important. Why do you think this is?

I think there's a couple things going on. One, deep work is hard and it's something that also requires practice. Let's say you're an accomplished fiction writer, you're actually like an Olympic caliber, Deep Work thinker at this point. Let's say that's what you do is you write literary fiction, which is incredibly cognitively demanding. To you, it would seem like you want to do the deep work. It feels very comfortable, it feels very fulfilling. But if you're young, and you've grown up in an age of smartphones and you've never had to spend more than 15 minutes focusing on one thing at a time without some distraction, Deep Work is very difficult. In fact, if you try it, not much is gonna happen. It actually takes a lot of practice, which is why in Deep Work I really get in a lot of detail about how you train this skill. I think that's one aspect of it.

The second aspect is in knowledge work, in particular, we don't really quite have the right management structures in place so there's an implicit reward for the shallow because it's visible. Let’s say I work at this company, I sit in this cubicle, my title is confusing, I don't produce this one thing, I'm just involved in a lot of meetings and sending emails back and forth. I seem to do a lot PowerPoint. It becomes ambiguous what it is exactly that I do. If you're visibly busy then you can make the argument that at least I'm not slacking off. I'm doing something. Look, I'm answering all these emails, I'm jumping on calls, I'm having coffee. There's something comforting in that. Managers feel like they know this person isn’t taking advantage of me.

There's also these structural biases in favor of publicly visible busyness that we haven't yet figured out. This is actually a new book I'm working on now. We haven't yet figured out how do we restructure the modern knowledge work organization to actually be focused on optimizing cognitive output. As opposed to what we're doing now, which I think is a lot more tentative, arbitrary, and ad hoc than we would like to admit.

In roles like project management or account management, where interruptions are almost a core part of what you do, does deep work make sense?

Well, there's two relevant points. One is that it's certainly true. I talk about it in the book that different roles require different amounts of deep work, with some roles requiring none and some roles where basically if all you did was deep work it would probably be the optimal configuration. There's a whole scale, but I've also noticed that people, especially in management positions, tend to, I think, misestimate where they fall on the scale. They tend to push themselves more toward the fundamentally can't do deep work side of the scale than they need to be.

Project managers are an example that I would get a lot of pushback from. They say, "No, I have to constantly be communicating because I can unlock a log jam that's stopping three other people from getting work done. That's my highest bit of contribution."

But some of this is actually just locked into the actual work flow with which you're doing project managing, which is what I call hyperactive, highline workflow. It just takes the paleolithic model of working it out on the fly—just the three of us trying to hunt the mastodon—scaled up into knowledge work. We use email and Slack as opposed to talking to people in person. It's the same idea, let's just keep the conversation going. If you need something let me know. It's this flexible, unstructured way of communicating.

As long as that's your underlying workflow, if you're a project manager, you have to tend that ongoing conversation because if someone needs something, and you're not there, there's problems. But the deeper response to it is, well is that the right actual structural workflow for the projects you're running? We've seen a lot of disruption on this, especially in software because software is really producing a product that actually has a lot of overlaps with the industrial sector where they figured this stuff out about a century ago. Process development. You have to think about processes and what works better than others. They're much more innovative in industry, than we are in knowledge work.

In software, where you have all this overlap, what you're starting to see is alternative workflows. Alternatives to just the hyperactive, highline, let's just keep talking. There you see things like agile methodologies, or scrum, where who is working on what is transparent, and everyone can see it, and everyone knows what they're working on. They have these synchronized meetings twice a day, standing up, so they don't last too long. Okay, who's working on what, who needs what from whom? So everyone knows what everyone is working on, and who they owe what to who. There's no actual need to have an ongoing conversation in between. By making tasks and obligations transparent and structured, it's a completely different experience if you are running a scrum as opposed to being a software knowledge worker that just uses email.

It's a long answer to a short question, but in a big sense yes. Different jobs do different amounts of deep work. But in a small sense, there's a lot of these positions where the reason they require little deep work right now is because the underlying workflow I think is way suboptimal. You could restructure the whole way this type of work happened in such a way that it still is very effective, but people get a lot more concentration. And by doing so, actually a lot more value is produced.

"Once people started looking at [social media] critically, it was like the floodgates opened."

Is there a way we could shift some or all of the shallow work to AI and simply not have that as a human task anymore?

AI is going to eventually eat most of it. That's my prediction. It's gonna take a while, but there's a lot of money being invested in this right now. This is potentially bad news for people who are in creative fields. On the face of it, it seems like this is gonna be great because in the future of AI handling shallow work-type scenario, it's gonna be like you have your own presidential Chief of Staff. This is the vision that I get from the industry when I research this. Everyone has their own agent and the agents talk to each other. So when you come in, it can say, "This is what you should be working on today. I've gathered the information you need. I already booked your tickets for this thing you're doing next week. Don't worry about it. I'm talking to other people's AI on your behalf. There's no email you have to answer, there's not phone calls you have to go on. You're working on your article today. I'll set up interviews for you of these people who you want to talk to. Great, I'll go take care of that for you." You'll be able to get substantially more value out of your brain per hour spent working.

That seems like it's great, except for the problem is it's gonna reduce the number of people we need in the creative field. I'm actually potentially worried for the creative fields because we've been so inefficient because of the shallow work and the impact it has on our cognitive performance. We have been so inefficient that if we actually remove that inefficiency from the system, it's gonna require drastically fewer people to get the same amount of work done. So it's possible that, even if you're in a job that is never gonna itself never gonna be automated by AI, you still might be having to worry about losing this job because when the AI comes, one of you is gonna be able to do what it used to take three. There's potentially even a concern here for the very high and creative class because of how inefficient we've been. That's been our implicit Achilles heal from a technological perspective.

So AI won’t wipe out skilled work but it will condense it?

If your AI chief of staff took care of everything else, here it all is, come in, spend three hours, write, take a break, come back in, here you go. You have a 10 minute back and forth interaction with your agent each day and that's it, you would probably be producing at a two or three X faster rate. 

It's possible the other response to that is that's just gonna free up a lot of highly creative, cognitive surplus, and the economy might adapt. We might just find many more places in which we can now insert high and creative thinking. Where, once we have a surplus, maybe the economy will adapt and find other places that this type of thinking is useful. That's the optimistic way of looking at it. But I think it's an interesting point that people think, I'm completely fine if I'm in the high and creative field, and I don't think that's at all assured.

I've listened to a couple of your interviews where you talk about how we're a fulcrum in our use of technology; is there something that happened over the last two or three years that made you think that way?

I noticed a shift starting a little bit less than two years ago. As best I can tell, it's connected to 2016 Presidential Election. My running theory is that the 2016 Election gave everyone in the country, regardless for example their political stance, something to be upset about regarding social media. The impact of this is that it changed the place that social media occupied in most people's minds.

Before they tended to see it as Bill Maher joked—a gift handed down from the nerd gods. You have to use it, it's weird to criticize it. But once they shifted its location to something that had some pros and cons, I think it completely changed the cultural zeitgeist on social media. Once people started looking at it critically, it was like the floodgates opened.

So for me I used to get a lot of pushback and confused shrugs when I would talk about social media being problematic. But starting about 18 months ago, I began to get much more engaged head nods and requests to tell me more, so I think there's been a shift. I think the shift is pretty recent.

You've been talking and writing about digital minimalism for quite a few years now. Was it the changing in culture attitudes that prompted you to write this book, or is this something that you've been wanting to write for a while?

It was definitely the changes. Earlier in 2016, I had published Deep Work and I began starting to get feedback from those readers who said, "Okay, I buy your argument about technology in the workplace, but you're also missing out on this bigger picture, which is technology in our personal lives." There's something here. I kept hearing that message. Then I noticed that shift in the fall of 2016. It was the week after the election I had this op-ed in the New York Times that was saying something critical about social media. I got a lot of negative pushback, like I usually do. But about a month or two later, I noticed that talk I had given on quitting social media had jumped up to millions of views. So sometime in that fall, there was some sort of transition. So it's not coincidental that in late 2016, I began to experiment publicly with some of these ideas about digital minimalism.

Reading your new book, you had quite a lot of people in your self-selecting experimental group who weren't able to complete the process of quitting social media and distracting tech for 30 days and then adding back in only what they deemed valuable. Do you see society, out of its own volition changing its relationship with technology?

I think there needs to be some sort of philosophical framework. The example that I look to is health and fitness. We figured out in the 20th Century that processed food and junk food make people sick. It makes you obese, it gives you diabetes, it gives you heart disease. But simple advice—eat less, eat healthier—wasn't getting it done. [The pull of processed food] was so powerful that it wasn't making a significant dent in people's health and fitness.

"Everyone has read the same article about turning off notifications. Everyone has read the same article about doing a digital Shabbat once a week and it doesn't seem to be working."

Whereas, if you think of the healthiest person you know, it’s almost certainly someone who has a named philosophy of health and fitness. They're Paleo or Vegan or they're a Crossfitter. They have some sort of philosophy that's based on values they can believe in and it gives them a consistent way of dealing with these issues in their life. It's ground into their values and doesn't require them to make a lot of decisions on the fly.

I've noticed that the same thing is happening digitally. So everyone has read the same article about turning off notifications. Everyone has read the same article about doing a digital Shabbat once a week and it doesn't seem to be working. So I became convinced that we basically need the digital equivalent of Veganism or Paleo or crossfit. Something that's an actual philosophy of technology use. Something that you can say I am a digital minimalist, and this is what it means because it typically requires something like that to overcome strong cultural and biological forces. At least that's what we've observed in a lot of different areas in human life.

You have previously defined digital minimalism in a number of ways. Is it an idea that's evolved over time? And do you see it evolving into the future?

Yeah, I think so. In some sense, there's two things going on here. The first contribution is more fundamental, which is just let's start thinking in terms of philosophies. In that sense, I'm completely happy if another philosophy comes along for tech users. If a dozen philosophies come along for tech use, I would still be completely happy. What I would define as success is that we get to a place where when you ask people about how they use tech in their personal life, they have some philosophy. The idea is that you don't just do this in an ad hoc fashion. I think if we get there, we're gonna be in a much better place.

Now, is digital minimalism the right philosophy? Well, probably not for everyone. It seems to be working pretty well. I think it's a good one. I came up with the term, but there were a lot of people who were doing this and just didn't have a name for it. The people [who] take this on seem to be having a lot of success. So as a first philosophy, I think it's a good one. But more important to me is the idea that most people have some philosophy when it comes to this part of their life.

There are a lot of people who try and frame you and digital minimalism as anti-technology, which is obviously not true. Are there any services or tools that you use that you think facilitate concentration, and deep work, and your work life?

As a computer scientist it would be self-defeating if I was anti-technology. That'd be a self-hating career case that I'd made. What I'm pro is critical engagement with technology.

In a period where we get away from that, like industrialization, or like we did during the Dot Com exuberance, we tend to get into trouble. Then when we come back and say, "Let's be a little bit more critically engaged and figure out what are we trying to do and how can we make tech tools." I think that's the pendulum were on.

In terms of my own engagement with technology, especially in the personal sphere, I've never had a social media account. I do really like blogging though, I'm a huge booster of blogging. I think the social internet, which has been around since the early ‘90s, is a great way to express yourself, connect with people, and find interesting ideas. When I'm against social media, for example, I'm not against a social internet. I'm against the idea that we need to have one or two companies build their own private internet, behind a wall, guarded, in which they watch everything we do. I'm an old fashioned net nerd. I mean, learn some HTML! I have my own server with my own WordPress instance running on it. No one's tracking any data on it and it's all mine. That's the type of thing that us old tech geeks get a lot of interest out of.

I have a smartphone, an old generation iPhone, but it doesn't really have much on it. It's my wife's old phone. I'm on a laptop right now. I don't web surf for the most part so I don't have a cycle of sites I go through. I also don't believe in bookmarks because my idea is it's a perfect filtering tool. You can only remember so many websites so the ones you like the best will be the ones you remember. Whichever ones I happen to remember, those are probably the ones worth checking out anyways.

I have a tech footprint that is pretty similar to someone in the year 2001. I don't look at my phone a lot. I don't entertain myself with my computer that much but I have tools. I connect, I do things on the Internet, and so I’m like a circa 2001 tech denizen at this point.

In the past one or two years, we’ve seen a handful of tech companies going against the grain, taking a step away from what Facebook and Instagram are doing with attention economies. They're maybe trying to build products and tools that make people happy rather than hold their attention. Is that something that you've seen as well?

These ideas are definitely out there. Essentially what happens is when you get away from social internet companies that are based off attention and support a 500 billion dollar valuation and say, "We don't necessarily have to support ourselves off of attention. We don't necessarily have to be one of the five biggest companies in the world" then a lot more breathing room is opened up.

I think that it's good for the internet. The more that we have smaller, more agile companies, and products, and people are piecing together more heterogeneous collection of tools. I think it is for the better.

There's not a clear winner in this space yet, but there's a lot of interesting movement going on. One thing I've been tracking has been this broader IndieWeb movement, which is trying to push people back towards this idea that you should have your own domain. You should have your own server. You should have your own WordPress instance. There could be tools to make this easier, but you own your own stuff, you're posting your own stuff. Then there could be other services that come along that can help aggregate this.

Now, with the IndieWeb movement, there might be some sort of portal that you log into to help arrange content from a lot of people's privately owned servers into a way that maybe it looks like a social media feed but they don't own any of the information. That's all on your server and you push your information to ten other services if you want to as well. I'm interested in this IndieWeb movement, of getting back to individuals owning their own data, expressing themselves not through the auspices of another company. It’s the original vision before the social media guys came along. I think that's kind of interesting.

Also, I think different models, more niche social media where you pay. I think there's a lot of interest in that. Where they don't make money off trying to get you compulsively use it so now they can focus on things you actually care about.

The final thing I've written about recently is this network effect argument that the large social media platforms use to justify themselves, I think is largely built on hot air. This idea says that you have to have everyone on a service like Facebook before it's useful, therefore no one else can compete because no one else will ever get a billion users. This is largely untrue because everyone always has access to the infrastructure that allows you to connect with people, communicate with people. It's the internet and the associated protocols.

I think there's a lot more room out there for niche and interesting behavior because we have this underlying universal framework already. We have email and HTML, and all these protocols that already exist and are free and completely decentralised. They already exist, so you don't actually have to have a new private internet in order for people to find each other and communicate. I think there's a lot more room for smaller and niche plays than the larger companies would want you to believe.

You're talking about decentralization of power, which hasn’t been the way things work, historically. Do you see the tech space, and internet in particular, do you see that as being different?

Well, I think the social internet is largely decentralized and actually works really well. I came up in the age of the blogosphere, which actually worked out to be an incredibly effective decentralized publishing platform. People owned their own servers, people posted their own stuff, they connected to other people with hyperlinks. And reputation and visibility within this world grew as more links came to you, and those links came from people that themselves were more linked to. It’s the same logic that Sergey Brin and Larry Page used to come up with the original Page Rank algorithm that runs Google's search engine. It worked really well, and it was a decentralized trust hierarchy, and it was pretty good at finding voices that were interesting and letting new voices in.

There was no centralized editorial overview or censorship. And yet, it did a really good job of implicitly censoring out the crazy stuff and giving emphasis to the good stuff because it was all humans making decisions. I want a link to this, this person that has a lot of links to them, which gives them social capital. Now they're linking to this person, which gives them the social capital. It worked really well. That was essentially the original vision of the internet. Humans linking to other humans, information linking to information, itself creates this web. That's where we got the original name, The World Wide Web. It’s really effective for expression and spreading information.

Maybe it's because I used to work a floor above Tim Berners-Lee when I was at MIT but I think his vision is actually a powerful one. And stands in strong contrast to the alternative, which is that we need a company to build its own version of the internet. We all have to use this internet version two. But the difference between internet one and internet two is that also the company who built internet two watches every single thing you do.