READ ON TO DISCOVER
- How to find work you love
- What the “Eudaimonia Machine” is, and how it can help us do deep work
- Why social media is designed to threaten your productivity
Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and the author of Deep Work, a book which argues that focus is the new IQ in the modern workplace, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which debunks the long-held belief that “follow your passion” is good advice. He recently joined Ryan Hawk, host of The Learning Leader Show, to discuss how to truly focus in an age of eternal distraction.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Cal and Ryan’s full conversation, click here.
Ryan: From your perspective, what are some of the common characteristics that great leaders who have sustained excellence all seem to share?
Cal: The meta-level characteristic that I observe [in those who have] sustained excellence is that the leader respects how hard everything worth doing really is. In other words, if I was ever asked to give a commencement address, the title would be, “Everything’s Harder Than You Think.” Those who recognize that real, impactful work is not just going to unfold with a clever combination of life hacks are better prepared to get satisfaction out of their craft.
“Those who recognize that real, impactful work is not just going to unfold with a clever combination of life hacks are better prepared to get satisfaction out of their craft.”
Ryan: I’d love to dive into your story because you’ve accomplished quite a bit at a relatively young age and have put out some really impactful work. You’re a computer science professor, but you’re also writing books like So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work, and impacting all these people outside of the classroom setting. What brought you to this field of work?
Cal: I don’t do research as a professor on the topic that my last two books were about, but the timing of those books coincide with fortuitous points in my own career path.
I wrote So Good They Can’t Ignore You [about] how people develop work they love. That book was actually pitched and written when I was leaving my graduate training and making the decision to move to a tenure-track professorship. Since that could be a job for life, and it was possible that I was going to be doing the first and last job interviews of my life, I figured if there was any time that I needed to have an answer to the question, “How do people find work they love?”, it was right then.
Once I was a professor and looking ahead to getting tenure, investigating those topics for my own improvement led me into the topics that became the core of my latest book, Deep Work. So, I don’t study the topic those books are about directly in my research—these books are about my quest to do my day job better.
Ryan: Why is the phrase “follow your passion” really dangerous advice?
Cal: Because it is inaccurate. It [presents] an inaccurate picture of how most people who are passionate about their work ended up there. If you give people an inaccurate idea about how you end up loving your work, you’re going to cause confusion, anxiety, self-doubt, and all the rest. The idea that you should “follow your passion” is based on the assumption that most people have a clear, pre-existing passion that they can identify and use to make career choices. It’s also based on the assumption that if you really like a topic and get a job related to that topic, then you’ll really like your job. Both of those assumptions are flawed.
Ryan: What’s the right strategy to implement?
Cal: I studied a lot of people who are passionate about their work, and there are a lot of different strategies they followed. There is no one-size-fits-all, but the most common strategy I saw was one in which passion evolved over time. As they crafted their career in the right way, passion for the career actually grew.
The formula underpinning that growth tended to be the following: Someone would pick a field that was interesting to them and had interesting options if they did it well. Then they worked really hard to get good at what they did, to build up rare and valuable skills. Once you have these rare and valuable skills, you can start using those as leverage to craft your career, and real passion arises. My contention is that we get that advice backwards. You don’t follow your passion—passion follows you as you work to get good, to craft a really compelling career.
“You don’t follow your passion—passion follows you as you work to get good, to craft a really compelling career.”
Ryan: [Say] somebody pulls you aside and says, “In a practical sense, how can I be so good that they can’t ignore me?” How do you answer that question?
Cal: That question was asked so much of me that it is what motivated my most recent book. “Deep work” is an activity that I define as when you’re concentrating without distraction for a long amount of time on a cognitively demanding task. It’s where you give something hard your fullest attention and try to do it as best as you can. For almost any field, the ability to do deep work is like a superpower.
Doing this type of very intense, unbroken concentration produces two things you need to really excel in knowledge work. First of all, if you’re good at deep work, if you give things intense concentration, you can pick up complicated things quickly, which is incredibly valuable right now in our economy. Second, the amount of work you produce, and the quality of work you produce per hour is significantly higher when you’re using deep work, as opposed to a more distracted flow. So, if you want to stand out in the knowledge economy, if you want to be too good to be ignored, the number one skill that you can master and promote in your career is deep work.
“If you want to be too good to be ignored, the number one skill that you can master and promote in your career is deep work.”
Ryan: All right, I’m a huge believer. From a practical perspective, how can an employee, somebody who works for somebody else, schedule and do deep work every single day?
Cal: The short-term, practical answer is to plan your week. At the beginning of every week, block off a reasonable amount of time on the calendar like an appointment or meeting, and treat it the same that you would treat any other appointment or meeting that would show up on your calendar.
The long-term solution is to have a conversation with your supervisor. Say: “Here’s what deep work is. Here’s what shallow work is, work that doesn’t require you to concentrate intensely.” Acknowledge that both are important. And then ask and discuss, “What should be the ratio of deep to shallow work hours that I aim for in the typical week?”
Once you’ve had this conversation, start measuring so that you can come back a few weeks later and say, “We were going for 50:50, but I’m really only getting 10% deep hours to 90% shallow hours. What shall we do here?” Having clear numbers and an ongoing dialogue about this issue can lead to significant changes to the culture of your organization or team.
“What should be the ratio of deep to shallow work hours that I aim for in the typical week?”
Ryan: That’s great practical advice. This morning, I read a study [about] a group of 12 people in different roles in a company who all decided that they weren’t opening email for one week. All of them were extremely nervous—they thought they’d get left behind. But, as you can probably guess, the exact opposite happened. They were more happy, less stressed, and got so much more deep work done that it was something that they started to implement throughout the company on a regular basis. What [are] your thoughts about emails and the culture around it?
Cal: That was an amazing study. The other key part of that study was that nothing bad happened. One of the big fears is, “If I’m not reachable, I’m going to miss out on important things!” Nothing bad happened. They got their work done more productively.
I have some strong thoughts on email. This is why it’s important to divide the work that’s on your plate into deep and shallow work, because then it’s easier to say, “Ah, both are necessary. I have to do shallow work to keep from getting fired, but deep work is what’s going to get me promoted.” It’s only when you see that separation that you can actually start promoting deep work.
I wrote an article a few weeks ago for the Harvard Business Review titled “Eliminate Email,” which should give you some sense of where I stand on that. I think that the presence of email in knowledge work has changed the way that people approach work. People tackle their work with a very unstructured work flow [and are] getting minimum capacity out of their brains. It’s like running an expensive piece of machinery in a factory, but not oiling the gears and having it produce at a fraction of its potential. In order to design better work flows, we’re going to have to severely limit, if not eliminate altogether, the role email currently plays in our work life.
“In order to design better work flows, we’re going to have to severely limit, if not eliminate altogether, the role email currently plays in our work life.”
Ryan: When I was getting ready to read Deep Work, I took a note from Ryan Holiday to listen to the same song over and over. I listened to a song called “So Flows the Current” by Patrick O’Hearn, and there are no words, which is good for me when I’m writing and reading because it doesn’t confuse my brain. And I felt like I was really able to digest what you wrote. There are so many experiments you could do in order to go deep, and for me it’s specifically around the combination of music and reading.
Cal: Routine and ritual are very important for getting the most depth out of deep work. What you had with the music is an example of a deep work ritual. So, it’s something that tells your brain, “We’re doing deep work now,” and it allows you to go deeper. Having a routine about when you schedule deep work can be useful. Having a set location you go to can be useful. Other people have more elaborate routines, usually involving walking outside in nature. Once you’ve really developed the ability to concentrate, your experience of doing work, what it feels like, what you produce, how good it is, is majorly transformed.
I profiled Adam Grant, who is an incredibly successful professor. His secret was also deep work. He’ll go like four days at a time, where you just can’t reach him because he’s just working deeply. He only works on his academic work in a state of true depth, and he publishes about twice the number of competitive journal articles as other elite professors at elite business schools. That is the type of productivity gain I’m talking about.
“Routine and ritual are very important for getting the most depth out of deep work.”
Ryan: What do you think about meditating?
Cal: I think meditating can be good training. I talk about a particular type of meditation called productive meditation as a tool for training your ability to concentrate harder. I like to do it while walking. The basic idea is that you take a concrete professional problem, and as you move, you try to hold this problem in your head, and make progress on it. Just like in mindfulness meditation, when you notice that your attention wanders away from the problem that you’re trying to solve, you just bring the attention back to the problem, and try to push deeper.
Ryan: Really interesting. Another thing that caught my eye when reading your work—you spoke about architect David Dewane and his plan for a “Eudaimonia Machine.” Could you tell us about his story and the Eudaimonia Machine?
Cal: David is a big proponent of deep work, but he’s also an architect, so he likes to think about how you can capture ideas with building. He showed me this design for what he called the “Eudaimonia Machine” based off of Aristotle’s notion of living a flourishing life. It’s dependent on taking your skills and applying them to create things of value.
David designed what would be the ideal layout of an office to essentially promote really effective and satisfying deep work, so that you could reach the state of eudaimonia. His design is a linear series of rooms, where you have to pass through one room to get to the next. From each room to the next, you’re getting more and more prepared to do deep work. And in the final room, you go into these sound-proofed chambers and do your deepest concentration. He had this whole building built around maximizing deep work and eudaimonia.
Ryan: One of my pre-conversation routines is to go on social media and look up some recent things that my guests have tweeted. I did the same for you, but you’re not active on any social media platforms. Why?
Cal: If you want to take your ability to produce value really seriously, you have to treat your mind with respect. Social media is designed by attention engineers, people who are professionals at distracting and fragmenting your attention. So I don’t use the services because I feel superior to them—I don’t use the services because I’m scared of them. I’m scared of the impact they would have on my time and attention.
I don’t doubt that any social media service has some benefits, but for me, some benefits are not enough. If this social media tool brings significant value to my professional life, then it’s worth using. Otherwise it’s not.
Something that I emphasize is that if your mind has lost all tolerance for boredom, you’re going to find it incredibly difficult to concentrate for a long time on a single thing. If you want to do deep work and get these massive productivity benefits, you have to re-embrace boredom. You have to retrain your mind that there are going to be long periods of time every single day where you might be craving novel stimuli and don’t give it to your brain.
“If you want to do deep work and get these massive productivity benefits, you have to re-embrace boredom.”
Ryan: I think of my children and feel like this is an area where a lot of us have failed, because we have iPads and phones that we let them borrow all the time. From a parental perspective, what would you say to kids to promote creativity and deep work when everyone is growing up on electronic devices?
Cal: It’s something that I’m concerned with, and I wrote an article on this exact topic called “Focus is the New IQ.” Essentially, we should be thinking about the the ability to focus without distraction, to do deep work, [in the same way] we used to think about IQ. This is an ability that’s going to open up doors if you’re good at it. Unlike IQ, however, this is something that can be trained and improved.
Especially when it comes to raising and educating kids, I think right now people are too quick to say, “Well that’s just kids these days. They’re born with the device—what can we do about it?” I think it’s important to make focus and deep work an ethic that needs to be respected, trained, and promoted.