Cal Newport Takes on a Distracted World
At Box of Crayons, our bigger purpose is to help people in organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. So it’s a real pleasure to be talking with today’s guest, Cal Newport. Cal is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University who specializes in the theory of distributed algorithms. He’s also the man behind the popular blog Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success, as well as the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
In his book, Cal makes the distinction between deep work and shallow work. And what I found when I read it, and certainly when I talked to him, is that there’s a strong parallel between the whole idea of Great Work and the whole idea of deep work.
Join us as we discuss:
- The three core principles of deep work.
- How to make doing deep work a regular habit.
- Four tactics for making deep work a big part of your life.
Or bookmark it here to listen to later.
Michael: I am pretty sure that you have come across my basic concept, the foundation for the work that we do at Box of Crayons, which is simply this: there are three types of work in this world. Bad work, good work and great work. Bad work: waste of time, life-sucking bureaucracy. Good work: your job description, productive, efficient, getting things done, so important. And then great work, great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. And of course at Box of Crayons our bigger purpose is to help people in organizations do less good work and more great work. So it’s with real pleasure I’m talking to today’s guest, which is Cal Newport.
Cal is the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. And he makes the distinction between deep work and shallow work. And what I found when I read his book and certainly when I talked to him is there’s a very strong parallel between this whole idea of great work and the whole idea of deep work. The difference I think is that Cal is not just about the impact, but actually has a range of different tactics about how do you have the discipline to make doing deep work a regular habit? And that’s what we really get into in this interview. We talk about the three core principles of what deep work is about. We talk about the kind of four main approaches, the main tactics to actually making deep work a big part of your life. Now Cal is an academic. He’s got a very popular blog called Study Hacks: Decoding Patterns of Success. And he is also an academic at Georgetown University where he is an assistant professor for computer science as well.
So really interesting guy, and I think you’ll enjoy this conversation with me and Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Alright Cal, so I’ve given you the big intro. Everybody’s on tenterhooks. But I start all these calls by asking, you know, what are you up against? What are you taking a stand against?
Cal: Well, you know, there’s a lot of talk in our culture right now about distraction. And it’s a bit of an ambiguous topic. We’re a little bit uncomfortable with how distracted we are, yet there’s value in the things that are distracting us. And what I’m taking a stand against is this notion that we’re looking at this whole issue from the wrong angle. It’s really not about whether distractions are bad. It’s about how good its opposite is, that we have forgotten how much value and satisfaction there is in the ability to focus and to think deeply. So I’m taking a stand, I guess I would say, against the society that has lost touch with all that can come from re-engaging your ability to put your mind on one task and keep it there.
Michael: Yeah. I love that. And you call that deep work. And, you know, as you set up in the book, that there’s kind of three core principles to deep work, that it’s valuable, that it’s rare and it’s meaningful. Value we’ll get into, for sure, because it will just come out in the conversation. But why is it so rare? I mean, you would think that even just sort of sitting with the concept of doing deep work, you’re, like, “Ah, that feels great. Important. Necessary.” Why is it so rare and perhaps growing even rarer?
Cal: Well it’s hard.
Michael: That’s great.
Cal: And it’s …
Michael: That would be the answer then.
Cal: Well, but if you dig a little deeper, it’s actually an important point, because people think about deep work, the ability to concentrate often incorrectly, like a habit, like flossing their teeth. Something they know how to do. It’s just a matter of, like, “Oh I should go do more of that.” But the reality is that it’s more of a skill, like playing the guitar. Something that, if you haven’t practiced, you’re not going to be good at it. If you pick up a guitar and have never played the guitar before, you’re not going to find it very enjoyable.
On the other hand, musicians who have learned how to play the guitar can find great satisfaction in playing a song or jamming along with the band. So it’s the same thing with deep work. Before you can really enjoy the sort of addictive satisfaction of true depth, you’ve got to put in some effort to get there. So I think once people recognize that, then maybe they’re more willing to realize, “Okay, I am going to have to put in some work here, but there’s probably something on the other end that’s worthwhile.”
Michael: That’s really interesting. You know, actually, what I realize we should probably do for folks listening in—and I’m already into this because I’ve just reread your book. So I’m, like, I’m there. But maybe we could just set some definitions. So we’ve got deep work. We’ve got shallow work. What’s the difference between the two?
Cal: The deep work is cognitively demanding tasks that you give distraction-free concentration. So you are giving it your full abilities. Shallow work is essentially everything else.
Cal: So anything that is, in some sense, doesn’t require your full concentration, something that would be done in a state of distraction and something that would be relatively easy replicatable by someone else. So it’s not good and bad; there’s value to shallow work. Shallow work is not something that, you know, needs to just be dismissed. But it’s deep work in our current economy that’s going to produce the type of outcome that the market values. It’d deep work that’s going to produce true satisfaction. So shallow work in some sense is like the necessary glue to life in the digital age. But it’s the deep work that actually lets you get ahead.
Michael: Yeah, you know, through our lens here, Box of Crayons, we talk about three types of work: bad work, good work and great work. Bad work: sort of waste of time, bureaucracy. Good work: best and most easily described as your job description. But great work is the work that has most impact and the work that has most meaning. So kind of speaks, I think, quite closely to what you’re talking about with deep work.
The difference being, though—and what I like about your book is that it actually focuses on the process and the experience of deep work, not just the outcome of it as well. Speak to me about—you know, when you talk about deep work and kind of give us those outcomes that really matter in today’s economy, what do you see that deep work produces that shallow work can’t produce?
Cal: Two things. The first is a state of deep work, where you’re giving something your full concentration, that’s the state required to efficiently master complicated new systems or ideas or skills. So if you want to keep learning, if you want to keep getting better learning new things that are valuable, the better you are at deep work the easier that’ll be. And we know that this is increasingly important in our economy because the systems and ideas that matter are rapidly changing. The second thing deep work produces is it will generate much higher quality and much higher quantity of output per hour spent doing actual work.
So in other words, if you’re able to lock in and focus without distraction for three hours on something that’s important, you can produce significantly better and significantly more output than if you instead took ten hours that you worked in a state of sort of distraction and frequent just checks of your email and then kind of back and forth. Deep work is like a superpower for knowledge work. It just produces at a level that people who aren’t used to it are often surprised by.
Michael: Yeah, it reminds me of Dan Coyle’s work and his—I loved his book called Talent Cove. And he talks about deep practice there. And I think that’s, you know, derived from the work of—is it Anders Ericsson? He’s got a new book out called, I think, Peak. And people are saying it was like the difference between focused practice and deliberate practice and thoughtful practice is, you know, ten-X over the impact of kind of going through the motions practice.
Cal: That’s right. I mean, what we know from Anders’ research, what Danny talks about in the Talent Code is that it’s actually hard to get better at things. It’s hard to master things. It’s not enough just to do things. Like, if you just do your job again and again and again, you’re not going to keep getting better. If you write a thousand blog posts, it’s not going to make you a better writer than if you wrote a hundred blog posts necessarily. If you code for 50 years, you’re not necessarily a better coder at year 50 than you were at year three.
Cal: Just doing something does not make you better. If you want to improve in any cognitively demanding task, you have to do what Danny calls deep practice, what Anders calls deliberate practice. And that’s where you actually are giving something your full attention and you’re pushing yourself and your skills just past where you’re comfortable. You would have an activity that’s designed to stretch your ability. Just like if you want to get bigger muscle, you have to lift big enough weight that you’re actually stretching and straining the muscle that’s a little bit too hard for you to do. Deep work is what you need to do to that type of practice.
If you’re not comfortable with intense concentration, you’re really not going to able to leverage the mechanisms of deliberate practice, which we now have 30 years of psychology research that says this is the way you get good at things. There’s really no shortcut. So again, in our current economy, it’s not enough to just say, “I learned this skill when I was 23 and I’m going to do it for the rest of my career.” Whatever technologies you were using then are going to be gone five years later. So those who can keep mastering complicated things quickly can really write their own ticket. But you’ve got to do deep work to do that, right? No amount of social media use or fast email responses …
Cal: Or carefully curated contact networks are going to make up for, are you going to make up for—are you actually learning valuable things and producing things that are valuable to the world?
Michael: So I know you have heard this kind of perhaps objection to the way you’re thinking here, which is, like, “So Cal, tell me. Isn’t this a bit of a kind of—I’m an academic, I’m in an ivory tower, I have a luxury and a different rhythm to the way I work than other people. You know, are you really attached to reality or not?”
How—I mean, I’m being a bit provocative. But how do you counteract the point that some people have, which is, like, “Sounds good, but in reality, we are just fragmented into a thousand different pieces and that’s actually what our organizations reward and encourage?”
Cal: Yeah, it’s—if your day is built on fragmentation, you should be worried. So to quote The Economist, “Deep Work is the killer app of the 21st century knowledge economy.” And what’s …
Michael: That had to be a good moment when you read that.
Cal: Yeah, it’s a better quote than I came up with. But I think they were hitting at this core notion, which I really try to hammer home. Especially nowadays I’m out on the road talking to people about this, which is, deep work has transformed from, you know, say a hundred years ago being an activity that was relevant to a very small fraction of the working population. Essentially like professional thinkers and artists and poets.
Cal: To today in the 21st century, it’s relevant to almost everyone in the knowledge sector.
Cal: And that’s because there’s a sort of neo-consensus among economists that the way the economy is going forward is that if you want to thrive, you want to be on the winning side of the equation, you have to be able to first keep up with very complex, rapidly-changing systems and ideas, and two, you have to produce at an elite level. You have to produce rare and valuable things and you have to produce these at sort of a superstar-type level. These are the people who are going to get ahead. If you spend all of your day in meetings and doing email—I mean, I can tell you as a computer scientist, that type of stuff we’re going to automate in the next five or ten years.
Cal: That’s the easy stuff. If you’re a human network router, you’re in trouble. The network routers are the cheap part of the network stack, the commodity hardware, right? You want to be the application layer, you know, the layer that’s actually working with this information and producing things that matter. So it is true that organizations in the knowledge sector right now are being run often in just a terribly unproductive way. But don’t give in to that, because all of the economic trends are saying those who can produce things that are rare and valuable will thrive, and those who can’t, you’re increasingly at risk of being automated, at being eliminated or being outsourced.
You know, don’t be a human network router. You want to be someone who produces things of value, and that requires deep work. And I think right now, the right way to see it, is as a huge opportunity. Because we have this weird paradox going on right now where deep work is becoming more and more valuable, but at the moment it’s still becoming more rare for various reasons. So there’s a mismatch. That’s going to be corrected, right? The market’s going to figure this out. That has to be corrected. But right now there’s a mismatch which means if you’re one of the few to cultivate the ability to do deep work, you’re really going to have a huge unfair advantage over most everyone else.
Michael: Okay Cal, so we’re going to dig into these three questions I like to ask my guests. And the very first one is, what’s the decision, what’s the crossroads you came to that when you made that decision, changed everything for you?
Cal: Well when I was 20 years old, I was a college student, I was really seeking about whether I should start writing books. And, you know, I was really thinking at the depth(?).
And at some point I was having drinks with an entrepreneur I knew who was an incredibly successful, very effective entrepreneur and he said to me, “Stop talking about it, right? If you’re going to write a book, go write books. If you’re not, you don’t get to talk about it anymore.” Four or five months later I had the deal for my first book. And that kicked off a part of my life that’s been really valuable ever since.
Michael: I love it. That’s a great story. Second question, whose work has influenced your work? You know, it could be an author, it could be an academic, it could just be a role model. But whose work has influenced your work?
Cal: Well I have a lot of influences. But one that popped in mind recently when I’ve been thinking about deep work in particular is the philosopher and author Matthew Crawford, who wrote this great book called Shop Class as Soulcraft.
Michael: Oh yeah.
Cal: And in this book, you know, he’s making an argument for the sort of dignity and satisfaction of doing, sort of, craftsmanship. And from his writing, I think I really picked up this appreciation that, you know, work can be seen as craft.
It can be seen as a source of pride and satisfaction and contribution to the world. And I think it’s important because we really are getting more caught up these days with sort of busyness and connectivity and online branding and all this sort of anxiety-producing busyness behaviour. And so it was really transformative to me to have this vocabulary when this book came out, which I think was, like, 2007, to have this vocabulary for thinking about transforming your work to craftsmanship. And that ultimately that’s what matters. And all the digital busyness that’s sort of thrumming along below the surface, that’s really not so important.
Michael: Yeah, it’s a great book. I remember—I’m surprised it’s, like, almost ten years since it’s come out. But I think you’re right. And it is influential going, you know, be (inaudible) about what you produce.
Cal: Yeah, it’s a great idea.
Michael: Third and finally, you know, and this may be easy because we have parallel models, you know, Great Work, Deep Work. But what’s the great work that you’re currently working on?
Cal: Well, so in the realm of writing and ideas, the, sort of, the great work I’m trying to tackle right now is understanding this work culture that we’ve evolved in the last 15 years that’s surrounded by or fuelled by constant connectivity, constant communication. This always be emailing, everything takes place in email. I’m trying to get my arms around this reality and make the point that this is not a great way to work and more importantly, there are alternatives. Now it’s sort of a big topic. I mean, I’m trying to tackle basically how we think about work in the age of knowledge work. But I think it’s an incredibly important topic, because it just affects hundreds of millions of people around the world. You know, the current way that we approach work is dominating the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. And if we could change that for the better to make people more effective, more productive, more satisfied …
Cal: … that would be a great outcome in my mind. So that’s why my great work right now is trying to convince people that there’s something—there’s a notion of knowledge work that doesn’t have to involve 500 emails a day.
Michael: Brilliant. Let’s get back to the interview. The second section of the book after you lay out the kind of core principles about deep work being valuable, rare and meaningful, is about getting into kind of the tactics of how do you set yourself up so that you get better at doing deep work? And, you know, the first one sounded almost paradoxal because to do deep work you need to work deeply. And one of the things you said right at the start is this little piece around, decide on your depth philosophy. And I love this. This is one of my very favourite bits of the whole book, because it said, “Look. How we find the rhythm for us to do our own deep work is different, and there are different options that you have.” So I’m wondering if you can take us through some of the options around different ways of finding that deep work philosophy.
Cal: Yeah, it’s an important point, because it’s founded on the foundational idea that if you don’t have a philosophy or scheduling routine that you depend on for making sure that deep work happens regularly in your schedule, it’s not going to happen.
Deep work is the type of difficult, draining, non-urgent activity that you can’t just expect.
Michael: Yeah, it’s not going to happen accidentally.
Cal: You’re not just going to say, “You know what? I have nothing to do this afternoon and I’m really in the mood to focus hard.” Like, that’s not going to happen. You have to have a system in place that forces deep work into your life in a way that’s compatible with your life. So that’s why I took us time to say—I’ve been studying people doing deep work for a while and there’s no one size fits all solution. And I think it’s important because, otherwise what might happen is you take person X’s solution and you try to put that in your own life. It doesn’t work. And then you think, “I can’t do deep work.”
Cal: So I really want to say …
Michael: So not everybody can be a Neil Stevenson who just goes, “Look. I’m just vanishing into a cave and you’re never going to hear from me until I produce another 4000-page novel.”
Cal: Yes. Yeah, right. Tell that to your boss.
Cal: Like, “I find email inefficient. You can no longer contact me.” Neil Stevenson did this. Probably most people would not last long at their job. So there’s different philosophies, so just to summarize a few. It’s a spectrum. Right?
So on one end of the spectrum, you have the monastic philosophy, which is what professional thinkers can sometimes get away with, where you basically say, “All I do is deep work and I don’t want to do any shallow work. You can’t contact me. I don’t want to be—just leave me alone.”
Cal: Alright, that’s kind of extreme. But then there’s other options. So then there’s—when we move along the spectrum, the bimodal philosophy, which is this philosophy where either you’re just doing normal, shallow-type work or you’re in a multi-day period where you’re completely cut off from the world just doing deep work.
Cal: And so you’re in one mode or the other. You know, I talk about a professor who does this, that when he writes papers, he disappears for three days at a time.
Cal: Where it’s as if he’s travelling to the Antarctic. You just can’t contact him. But outside of those periods, he’s got this open door policy. Students love him. He seems very accessible. Then you have the rhythmic philosophy, which is same time, same days every week. This is when I do the deep work.
I don’t want to think about it. It’s not a discussion. It’s always Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings from seven to ten or whatever your rhythm is. And then finally you have the journalistic philosophy which is, you look a few days ahead, you look at the week ahead, you look at your schedule and you say, “Where is deep work going to fit in here for this week and for the realities of my schedule this week?” And then maybe you schedule and protect it, like you would a doctor’s appointment. And so it’s a little bit more ad hoc. They’re all different approaches. And yet what works for you is going to depend on your job and your personality.
Michael: Do you have any tips, Cal, for people who go, “Well I’m going to try that.” I know my experience so I’m just going to pretend it’s universal, is I’ll try something and go, “Okay, that sort of scheduling piece sounds pretty good. I’ll set a set time, you know, seven until ten every morning to do my deep work.” And then I find ways to hack myself immediately so that I find that, you know, I’ve now got scheduled time just to do my email or whatever it might be. Do you have strategies to help people find and stick to the rhythm?
Cal: Yeah. So a routine plus ritual seems to be the key. So you have some sort of scheduling routine, so that this takes care of when you do the deep work, not to think about it. You then have to couple that with what I call depth rituals, where you have a set ritual that you do surrounding deep work when you do deep work blocks, right? This is like Charles Darwin, for example, had this great depth ritual where at his estate in London where he did all the work on the origin of species, he had this path built that he called the sand walk through his property.
Michael: Yeah, I love this story.
Cal: And he would do a very set number of circuits on this sand walk at the same time every day right before his essentially deep work. And he even had this ritual down to the point where he had a rock he would place. And every time he passed it he would kick it to the other side of the path. And he could use this somehow to basically count the number of laps he’s done without having to actually waste the mental resources to just remember the number.
Michael: That’s great.
Cal: And the point is, there’s nothing about sand or trees that’s, like, core to doing biological thinking. It was the ritual. And the ritual helped put him into the mindset. So what I recommend is that you have some sort of ritual you do to start your deep work sessions and to end your deep work sessions. I also recommend that you have some sort of rituals and rules within the session itself. So you just have to have exact clarity about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. So, for example, you have to have the steadfast rule, if any distraction happens, so any glance at any communication medium happens, the session doesn’t count as deep work. I might as well cancel it and move on and do something else. Like, you have to have that rule or you’re going to dilute it. It’s not going to be deep work. But I profile people that had their interwork rituals down to the point where they knew at exactly what minute of their deep work blocks they were going to go refill their coffee.
Cal: And there’s a reason that people get obsessed with these rituals, is because deep work is really, really hard.
Cal: I keep coming back to that. And so the rituals help you shift into this mindset and makes you much more likely to succeed with depth than if you just hope to wrench your attention away from the Internet and just kind of white knuckle it and say, “Just—I’ve got to try to concentrate as long as possible.”
So your scheduling routine and then your depth ritual surrounding the actual blocks.
Michael: Yeah, that’s really nice. You know the story you told about Darwin just makes me connect to the kind of whole schematic nature of how we work. And, you know, the way I tend to think of it is, your body leads your brain. If you want to think differently, you have to move physically differently. And I’m wondering, do you—I mean, the story of Darwin makes it sound like that might be true. But I’m wondering if you have an opinion on how important is the kind of the physicality of it all in terms of trying to elevate or deepen your thinking?
Cal: Well there definitely seems to be a lot of evidence from the sort of recent historical record that deep creative thinkers leverage movement, they leverage walking, they leverage being outdoor, especially when they’re in the stage of thinking or they’re trying to form new ideas. You know, so there’s different types of deep work. So if you’re writing, for example, you’re trying to—that’s hard. You want to write something clear, that’s also hard to do in the forest while walking, right?
So you’re probably, you know, in an office doing it. But if you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, I’ve been reading for a while. Now what am I trying to say? What do I want to write about?” To get on your feet and to get to a quiet environment like a path in the woods or Darwin’s sand walk, that makes a big difference. So I do this in my own work. I mean, as a computer scientist and as a writer, there’s different phases to my deep work. But when I’m in the ideation phase and I’m trying to crack the puzzle and I’m trying to pull together the ideas, I do that on foot. And when I’m in those types of weeks, I can do five, six miles a day, day after day, a lot of it in the woods. And there’s a reason. It really does help unlock your thinking in a way that if you’re just sitting in your office and you have an email browser open, you’re never going to get there.
Michael: Yeah, I love that. So the four kind of ways you clustered the approaches to helping you find and stick with your deep work, first is work deeply, which you kind of touched on a bit. You’ve got embrace boredom, quit social media, which is quite provocative. But I want to take you to the fourth part, which is about draining the shallows, because that feels like it’s full of interesting insights there. Why drain the shallows and what do you even mean by that?
Cal: Well if the quantity of non-deep work obligations in your life is so large that you just don’t have time left to get deep work done, this is a problem situation, right? It’s a problematic situation, because shallow work by definition does not produce a lot of value. It’s easily replicatable. It’s not applying your skills.
Cal: So draining your shallows is about taking the shallow work obligations in your life and trying to reduce them as much as possible and then take what’s left and be as efficient as possible with them so that you have the breathing room, the margin required to actually get deep work, the stuff that’s really going to make a difference, done.
Michael: So can you give me some examples of how you would go about draining the shallows?
Cal: So one tactic that, you know, I promote a lot, is this notion of time blocking.
Cal: Which, to me, people who work at a high level tend to move their obligations and move their time around like a chess master moves pieces around a chess board. You rarely find high performers who just sort of go about their day and they maybe have a to-do list and say, “What do I want to work on next?”
That’s an incredibly inefficient way of actually getting the most out of your time. So what I recommend is that when you’re thinking about your day, for example, you actually block out all the hours and assign what you’re going to be doing during those different blocks. You’re, like, “Well from 8:30 to 9:30 I’m trying to, like, get a jump on all these tasks here. I have a list over here of the tasks I’m trying to do. Then from 9:30 to 12, I’m going to be working on project X. Then I have a half hour for lunch here. Then I have a meeting at two, so if that only leaves an hour in here, what am I going to do with that hour?” You actually the reality of hours in your day and you try to—how many you have, how fractured they are, when you actually want to do work. And this type of exercise is important for two reasons. One, it helps you squeeze more out of your day. It helps you see where the proper openings are to do deep work. For example, it helps to consolidate and batch things. But two, it gives you a much more realistic and visceral understanding of the impact of things you say yes to on your schedule. You get the sense of, like, “Wow these meetings that I used to say yes to, they’re fracturing my schedule.
It doesn’t take many…”
Cal: “… before I’d never have a three-hour block open.” And so it gives you a lot of scheduling wisdom that allows you to make smarter decisions going forward.
Michael: I love that. I mean, I think it’s wonderful to highlight the price you pay for casual yeses. You know, the way the, you know, yes you say because you’re a nice person, because you want to be nice because you’re afraid of conflict, because you’re trying to help, you think you might add value, whatever. You know, the price you pay is that you often sacrifice your deep work on the altar of, you know, over-commitment.
Cal: Yeah, so something else that’s important to have and comes out of that chapter, is you need hard rules or limits to push up against, to help you say no to things or make decisions, right? If you don’t have a hard edge to push back against, it’s very hard to say no, for example, you know, if it’s a perfectly reasonable request and there’s no reason you can think of to say no unless you have these hard edges to push back. So that’s why I recommend that people, for example, have an answer to the question of, what should my ratio of deep to shallow work hours be in a typical week?
And if you work for yourself, answer this for yourself. If you work for someone else, have this conversation with your boss. You know, what should my deep to shallow work ratio be?
Cal: And then measure and fight to hit that target. And having this hard edge to push back against is what’s going to allow you to start making the changes needed to really drain the shallows. It’s what allows you to say, “No I can’t say yes to this meeting on Friday because the only way I’m going to hit my ratio is I have to keep this Friday completely open.” Like, you have something hard to push back against when saying no or it allows you to consolidate things more smartly or be much more aggressive about how you schedule or tackle tasks. So having these numbers, these rules, these things that you’re trying to hit, these targets you’re trying to hit, really makes it easier to get a control of your schedule.
Michael: Do you have other strategies for saying no? Because I know it’s something that many of us struggle with. One is having that kind of ratio, going, “I’m going to hit my ratio, so this is why I need to say no.” But do you have any other approaches that will help people get better at doing that?
Cal: Yeah, well partially, you know, just telling people—you know, there’s a of couple things I’ve seen work. So partially just telling people, “Hey yeah, this sounds great. I don’t really have the cycles for it now, but certainly feel free to keep me posted.” That’s an easy, soft no. Another is putting some sort of task or roadblock up. You know, so if someone reaches out and is, like, “Hey, I want to pick your mind about this,” saying, “Yeah, you know, in general that’s good. But I’m going to ask that you, like, follow up with me at the end of this semester or in April.” And you give some challenges that try to weed out the sort of requests that aren’t as serious so that it’s not someone just at the spur of the moment.
Michael: Right. It’s true.
Cal: Because it takes ten seconds to write an email that could then fracture a whole day of yours and require a lot of your time. So you want to have some filter set up. Also I recommend, if possible, where possible, being worse at email.
Cal: You know, just don’t respond or don’t respond quickly.
Cal: You know, apologize later, I think, is better than letting the inbox rule your life. In some jobs, you can’t get away with this. But I think people could be a lot worse at email. And then when people say, “But why didn’t you get back to me?”
You say, “Well because I don’t actually look at my email that often.” There’s not really a good response to that, right? When people say, “But you should be looking at it every thirty minutes,” they know it sounds stupid as soon as they say it.
Cal: So they don’t. And so this—I’ll often end up saying these things to people, like, “Well I didn’t check my email yesterday. I don’t always—it’s not something I do everyday.”
Michael: That’s a great line, going, “I’m just going to get worse at email.” It kind of—you can feel productivity gurus around the planet twitch in response to that.
Michael: But it’s about serving the bigger purpose about why you’re doing this work.
Cal: No one ever changed the world being quick at answering email.
Michael: Right. Exactly.
Cal: So, I mean, so be worse at email. And also, you can also get better at email. You know, I talk in that chapter about …
Michael: You do.
Cal: … process-centric emailing, which is, basically someone writes to you or you write to someone. And you know this is something you need to deal with. Identify what’s really the project here that we’re trying to solve? And the project could be something as simple as setting up a coffee or something as complex a, we have to get this article, like, edited and sent out by a deadline.
And then say, “Okay, if this is the project that this email is kicking off, what would be the most efficient process for completing this project where the metric for efficiency is minimizing the number of back and forth messages?” And then just when you reply, explain that process. “Okay, here’s my suggested process for how we tackle this project.”
Cal: “And here’s the different steps. I put the steps below. We’re at step one. This is what I think we should do. Go.” Right? So, like, if someone says, “Hey, we should grab coffee,” you say, “That’s great. See below for how I think we should do this.” And then below, you’re like, “I’ve listed dates for three different days that would work and here would be the location. And if you just respond with one of these dates that works for you, I’ll just take your response as confirmation. No more communication needed. If none of these work, let’s work this out over the phone. Here’s my number. Generally you can reach me at these times.” You’ve sent one message. That’s the only message you have to send.
Cal: In setting up the coffee, right? The reason this is so effective is what kills you about email is not the time you spend in an email inbox. So this takes more time to write these messages. That’s not what kills you about email. It’s the number of times email forces you to context switch away from what you’re doing to the inbox.
Cal: That’s what kills you. So what you save when you write one of these long messages is four, five, six necessary context switches to keep that project going. And that’s what you’re trying to save. That’s what you’re actually trying to get better. So there’s a lot of different tricks in there.
Michael: Cal, it’s been a great conversation. Now I need to let you and me get back to our deep work. For people who want to find out more about you and more about the book, and the book is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, where can they find that on the Internet?
Cal: Right. Well you can find the book on Amazon or wherever you buy books. You can find out more about me and read my blog where I get into a lot of details on these topics at calnewport.com. Unfortunately I’m not actually easily to reach because of my priority of deep work.
But I’ve never had a social media account. I don’t have a public email address. And again, that comes back to the central point that I guess we’ve been talking about today, which is—ultimately it’s producing things that are really valuable, that makes 99% of the difference. And, you know, I fully believe that’s where you should put your attention. And hopefully I can convince some of you out there to consider doing the same.
Michael: Cal, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for talking to us today.
Cal: Sure, thank you.