“I start by cataloging why the high rate of back-and-forth communication … really is a problem. It’s really making us worse at our jobs. It really is making us miserable.” Author Cal Newport discusses A World Without Email with host J.T. Ellison on NPT’s A Word on Words.
I’m Cal Newport and this is A World Without Email, a book about how we got to that point in which work has devolved into constant communication, why this is a problem and what we can do about it.
J.T. Ellison: I can’t believe I am here with the world-famous Cal Newport today on a Word on Words. Cal, thank you so much for joining us.
Cal Newport: Well, J.T, thanks for having me. It’s my honor to be joining world-famous New York Times bestselling novelist, J.T. Ellison on the air. So it’s a treat for me as well.
Ellison: Thank you. I’m beside myself excited to talk to you. I’ve got a million questions. We’re going to cover a lot of ground, so just be warned and I’m going to try to respect your time because I know how incredibly busy you are. I’ve been a fan of your work for a very long time. I’m a productivity devotee myself and I feel like every layer you bring to the conversation opens another door for me to think about. Is that what your overarching goal is, to just give people incredible things to contemplate?
Newport: Well, I’m a fan of using the word ‘deep’ too often probably, but in general, I guess if I’m going to apply it in the widest possible way, I’m interested in this vague notion of the deep life and there’s just all these different things that come under it. Having control over all the obligations in your life as part of that, so that you’re not completely cluttered with it. Working deeply, that’s producing work that you’re proud of that stands the test of time, that’s part of it. Deep leisure, really getting the most out of the moments in your life that have no instrumental value at all. That’s also part of it. So that’s my broad mission. I want to inject more depth into my life and as I think about how to do that, I write about it. And that seems to be what I’ve been doing in recent years.
Ellison: You’re a bit of a departure for our audience. They’re used to mostly fiction novels. They’re used to seeing me talk to somebody about a finished product but your finished products, which you’ve got a number of them now, are a catalyst for other people to finish theirs and to start theirs, which I think is an incredible gift that you’re giving to us. I am sorry that you’re not getting royalties for other people’s creative work that they’re finishing. [[laughter]] But are you giving people the tools just to be better at what they’re doing?
Newport: I maybe would say that. Yeah. I mean, in some sense, I’m trying to be better at what I’m doing, but as I try to figure out how to do that, I write about what I’ve discovered and then I think that does end up being more useful. I mean, I do wish… that would be nice if I cut royalties, mainly because Phil Mickelson once cited Digital Minimalism as an important part of his training and he’s made quite a bit of money as a professional golfer. So I think I’d be doing pretty well with that particular route. [[Editor’s Note: Rory McElroy has as well.]]
But I think this is what sets me apart slightly from other people who write about things like organization or productivity. I also have a job as a professor where I’m working on computer science research, in particular, the theory of distributed systems.
I’m not someone whose main job is to write about how to work, I’m someone who works in an intellectually demanding field and is trying to figure out how to do that field better. I think that foundation is what adds some authenticity to what I write about. When I write about things like Deep Work or Digital Minimalism or advanced productivity ideas, they don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s not self referentially ideas that I’m writing for the sake of writing these ideas, a lot of it actually came out of trying to understand this other classic intellectual career that I have.
Ellison: You just answered my next question. You’re a computer science professor at Georgetown, you published a number of academic papers and that has led into writing the books, all the research that you’re doing, also you’ve got a wildly successful podcast and you’re writing now for the New Yorker on a regular basis. And of course, you’ve now designed a Time Block Planner. Can you tell us how you got here? And then I want to talk about the congruence of your study of distributed systems and your writing and how the whole thing works together.
Newport: Yeah, it’s an interesting tale. I actually started writing professionally before I began, in some sense, professionally training to be a computer scientist. I signed my first book deal right before my senior year of college. So I was a big writer in college. I was the editor of the humor magazine at our college. I was a columnist for the newspaper at our college, and I began writing professionally as a college student. And then after college I went on to begin grad school to begin training to be a computer scientist. You don’t get paid a lot of money in stipend to be a doctoral student. So I kept writing professionally at the same time. So these were very separate tracks at first. I was at MIT in the theory group studying to be a theoretical computer scientist and then also writing books. At that point, they were mainly aimed at students. They were advice guides, student advice guides, writing books. I’d travel the country and give talks at colleges and they were both happening basically at the same time.
At some point, once I became a professor, some congruence began to happen between my writing and my work. Once I started at Georgetown as a computer science professor, I wrote Deep Work, which really was about technology and its impact on the world of work, and then I wrote Digital Minimalism, which was about technology and its impact on our life outside of work. And then more recently the new book, A World Without Email, which is back to the theme of technology in the world of work. And these two different identities began to come together. So now I was a professional technologist who is also writing publicly about the impact of technology on society. And the two roles began to merge more. I think once those roles began to merge more, my academic life became a sensible foundation for my public-facing writing life. I think it really actually helped my impact take off. And that’s why I think I now write for the New Yorker and do a lot more public-facing writing for a lot of publications is that the worlds finally came together in a way that made sense. And that’s where I am right now.
Ellison: Which is incredible. So perfect segue. Let’s talk about A World Without Email. Everything that you’ve done so far to me feels like it’s more for an individual benefit. Now you’ve gone to the collective. Let’s reanalyze how the business world is working and find a better way for it to work. Can you tell us more about how you were trying to get people to re-imagine email and layout the book for us in a little more detail?
Newport: Well, first of all, I’ll say the premise of the question is good and a useful point to underline, which is that when I’m tackling a particular topic, the impact of technology in a particular area and how we should understand that and what we should do about it, I come in agnostic with respect to what form will those solutions take. I want to see what actually makes sense. And because of that, I get this interesting back and forth with my writing where on some issues I write about, the solutions I come up with are deeply personal. I think Digital Minimalism, for example, which was about tech in our personal life, was a very individualistic approach not because I came into that saying, “I believe in individualistic approaches now, let me see if I can apply it,” but when I studied the issue of why we’re looking at our phones too much, what’s the issue, what we should do about it, the most impactful solutions could most quickly be deployed by individuals themselves. They could rapidly change their relationship with their phones.
Then when I shifted over to look at the world of communication, what the role of digital communication was doing to work and work productivity, this is the theme of A World Without Email, the motivating question, the answers that made the most sense, were much more systemic and organizational. It had to do with how we even think about organizing work as a whole organization. Sometimes this whiplash draws the ire of journalists who covered my work. They’ll say for example, “Digital Minimalism is too individualistic, you should be systemic,” or they’ll look at A World Without Email, “You’re too systemic, it should be more on the individual,” and I think it’s important to not come into these inquiries with a style of answer already in mind. I like to see where it takes me.
And so to get to the original question in A World Without Email, I start by cataloging why the high rate of back and forth communication that I find so much in knowledge work really is a problem. It’s really making us worse at our jobs. It really is making us miserable. And then I asked the question of what we should do about it, and all of those answers tended to be about how we collectively understand how work should be organized and that we should understand that we have implicitly come to an agreement that the main way we’re going to organize knowledge work is through ad hoc back and forth communications. This approach I call the hyperactive hive mind, and I made the argument that there are alternatives, we could decide as an organization, no more hyperactive hive mind. We’re not just going to rock and roll on Slack to figure things out. I’m not just going to shoot you an email that says, Thoughts? Let’s put in place an alternative.
So that’s where I ended up when I began thinking about this issue of communication overload. It’s an issue about how organizations even conceive of productivity and work and we have to start there, what is our agreement about how work should get done.
Ellison: Which is a heady topic and something that… It’s going to take a major cultural technological shift to get everybody on this same plane. But I have to say on the individual versus the collective, when I first saw the thesis for this book, I was like, “This doesn’t really apply to me. I’m a sole practitioner. I’m just doing my thing,” and then as I read it, I like, “This is definitely for everybody.”
Newport: Well, yeah. And I think that’s true because here’s the quick pitch, basically, is the easiest way to collaborate in the context of knowledge work, whether you are a solo practitioner, collaborating with other people that you work with, or you work for a big company and these people that you collaborate with are employed by the same company, it doesn’t matter. The easiest way to collaborate is just let’s rock and roll in an ad hoc fashion with all these easy communication tools, just I’ll shoot you email, you shoot me back, I’ll hit you up on text or Slack. I don’t have to overthink things. We don’t need much overhead. We don’t need much structure. We’ll figure things out on the fly. The very natural way of collaborating, it’s how we’ve always done it in the context of you and I are in the same room trying to figure something out. We just go back and forth as needed on demand.
The issue is it doesn’t scale. Once you have more than one person you’re talking about and more than one or two things you’re trying to figure out, the sheer volume of communication becomes unmanageable. And your day then devolves into just trying to keep up with all of these different asynchronous back and forth conversations because each one is like a virtual ping pong match and as these balls come over the virtual net, you have to hit it back really quick so that the game continues. And then we end up checking email, checking Slack, checking text messages once every six minutes just to keep up, and no other work can happen. So how do we fix that? Well, if you’re an individual, you can begin rethinking. You have full autonomy to begin rethinking well, what are the alternative ways I want to collaborate with all these different people I work with?
If you’re in an organization, there’s a collectivity to this because you can’t probably just dictate to everyone around you who you work with or to your boss: This is how we’re now going to work. People are going to have to work together to make those decisions. But ultimately the thing we’re trying to do is the same, replace ad hoc informal back and forth communication as our primary collaboration tool with more structured approaches that require less of this context shifting.
Ellison: I want to talk a little more about the hyperactive hive mind workflow and what that means exactly. And then also let’s talk about context switching, how incredibly damaging that is.
Newport: Well, the villain of the book is not email as the tool, so the name is a little bit misleading. You can go back and study the history of the adoption of email in the office environment. And there’s a really good reason why it spread so fast, it had a pragmatic promise. This is a better way to do asynchronous communication than the fax machine is better than voicemail, it’s better than interoffice memos. And it’s more flexible and it’s cheaper and it’s faster and has more features. So it spread very fast because it was replacing stuff we were already doing. In the wake of email spreading came a new way of collaborating. This is the hyperactive hive mind. Email was a necessary precondition for the rise of the hyperactive hive mind, but the hyperactive hive mind is not a necessary consequence of email. So I want to keep those logical implications clear.
Email spread for a pragmatic reason. Once we had it, we began collaborating with this method that I call a hyperactive hive mind. I said, “Hey, as long as I have very low friction communication channels between everyone, can we just figure everything out on the fly?” This became the dominant mode of collaboration in most types of knowledge work and as I mentioned, it necessarily requires that you’re going to check these inboxes all the time, because once you have two or three dozen asynchronous back and forth conversations going on, you have to keep hitting the ping pong ball back over the net or things get delayed. And so you have to check all the time and to wait for messages to come so you can send them back over the net relatively quickly. Why is this a problem? Because the brain can’t switch back and forth between inboxes and other types of work once every five or six minutes. It takes us more like 10 or 15 minutes to properly change our target of attention from one thing to another.
When we go back and forth, back and forth, as the hyperactive hive mind demands, the result is a significantly reduced cognitive capacity, cognitive fatigue, and anxiety because our brain simply can’t handle all of those rapid back and forth shifts. And so this is why the hyperactive hive mind is a problem. It quite simply makes us much worse at using our brain to do work and it also makes us much less happy.
Ellison: And knowledge workers need to be able to use their brains to create new and wonderful things. You use a couple of really great examples, can you just give us a scenario in which a company doesn’t have email or is not dependent upon email?
Newport: Yeah. And we could even… As long as we have this new terminology, we can even clarify it as, okay, an example of a company that does not use the hyperactive hive mind workflow as their primary mode of collaboration. You can see by the way why my publisher simplified all these concepts into my titles. They weren’t happy about the idea of a book called A World Without the Hyperactive Hive Mind Workflow is the Dominant Mode Between Which Knowledge Workers Collaborate, very accurate title, I should say.
Ellison: Very accurate.
Newport: Yeah, but I guess the marketing folks thought that that might not roll off the tongue. So yeah, there’s a lot of examples. They typically tend to be smaller companies or smaller teams for the moment. Teams that have a lot more flexibility and impetus to innovate that do not use unscheduled messages as their main way of collaborating. One of the primary things you’ll see in these types of companies is that they have clearly defined alternatives for where information lives, where they keep track of who is working on what and how they actually communicate about this, they update each other, make decisions or get information they need. So you might see, for example, a company that now has a task board for each project. The task related to that project are all on this board, under columns that indicate their status. It says clearly, “Okay, here’s the ones we’re working on now and who’s working on it.” If there’s files or information or transcripts or links that are relevant to a particular task, they’re on the back of that virtual card. So everything is in one context.
And then they might have a highly structured status meeting at set times on set days where everyone gets together, let’s look at the board, how did it go? What were you working on? What are you working on next? What do you need to get that done? Let’s update the board. Great. Talk again tomorrow for 15 minutes. Right? So clarity about where the information is, organization of that information, explicit structure for how communication and collaboration about that information happens. This is the type of thing you see. And now suddenly you have projects that are executing very seamlessly and very effectively with very few unscheduled messages involved at all. There’s these boards where all the information is you’re updating boards, you’re watching the board, you’re collaborating in a very structured, short status meetings for example, in this particular example, and the work gets done without 30 or 40 context shifts every day of trying to knock back and forth various emails.
Ellison: Well, I’m going to tell everybody that this actually works. My team is now using Trello. And I mean, we might send one or two emails a day, tops and that’s more of a forward. Somebody is sending us something like, here’s the collateral for this boom. It’s seamless and it’s easy and it makes a lot more sense. So bravo.
Newport: Though I will say to you sometimes it’s not easy, which is one of the reasons why switching away from the hive mind is a little bit hard is that I’m sure with your team, it took some upfront overhead, right? To figure out how exactly is this going to work and are we going to use Trello? Okay, what’s going to be on the board? You probably… I’m assuming probably had to tweak this for a little while. People had to get used to it, but let’s say one of the messages I pushed though, is that, yeah, there’s some pain in overhead and when you put these alternatives into place from the hive mind, but the long-term benefit is where you win. And it’s a hard week to get it up and running properly but for the rest of the year, you’re getting a win every day.
I really like to push that point that sometimes it’s a pain to figure out these alternatives. Sometimes things get missed and bad things happen because you’re not in your email to something, you didn’t see some urgent message and a client got mad, but it’s also worth it if day after day out, you’re minimizing constant context switching.
Ellison: I couldn’t agree more. But that’s a good jumping-off point. Let’s talk about Deep Work. That was my entry point to your philosophies, and it was something I was practicing without realizing it because you can’t write a novel without having a moment of deep work, but the book resonated incredibly deeply with me and with all of my writer friends and I push it on anybody who will listen, “You got to read this book, it will change your life.” Can you talk about Deep Work and why it is so universally helpful for everyone?
Newport: Yeah, this really was the book that transitioned me more into the space of thinking about work and technology in life. And it came from an interesting place, which is I had written a career advice guide essentially in 2012, that was called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And it was a contrarian look at this idea that ‘follow your passion’ is the primary way that people end up passionate about their work and it argued that’s not actually the case for most people. A passion is cultivated over time. It’s not a preexisting thing you use to determine your career choice. And one of the big ideas of that book was becoming very good at rare and valuable skills really is a fantastic foundation for building a working life that can be a real source of passion. There was a natural follow-up question, which was how do I get really good at things that are rare and valuable? Right? So my readers were really pushing me on this question.
At the same time, I’m now a professional theoretician, I had just finished my training in the theory group at MIT. So I had been in this world, one of the few worlds where concentration is explicitly identified and promoted and lauded. This was the tier one scale. So I just was in this mindset. I was just used to, because of my idiosyncratic job, thinking about concentration as a very particular skill that theoreticians need to use, because that’s the only way you can solve theorems. And I was a writer and as you know, you can’t write without concentration because you’re trying to coax out of your brain unnaturally structured and poetic prose. This is not something that you do casually while also watching TV. It requires a lot of training of that inward spotlight of focus.
So I was used to this idea of concentration as a isolatable thing. And I was trying to answer this question of how do you get good at things. A light bulb went off at some point, I wonder if these two are related? And as I really began to look into the issue, the big revelation I had is: wait a second, focus without distraction is not just the thing that theoreticians and novelists and non-fiction writers need to do, it’s basically relevant for anyone who’s trying to do anything valuable with their brain. And yet we are accidentally creating workplaces which it’s very hard to do. And that was the whole premise for the book, Deep Work was making the case, “Hey guys, our current economy now is really based in this country on elite level or non-entry level knowledge work, undistracted concentration is the way to actually get human brains to produce this.” We don’t seem to realize this because we have everyone on Slack and email and in constant meetings and no one ever talks about concentration and we all just talk about the velocity of information and speed and convenience.
And so the book was this argument that unbroken concentration is critical, it’s deeply human, it’s at the core of any intellectual or knowledge endeavor. So we really should start paying attention to this training, the ability protecting the ability. That book hit a huge chord and I think it’s because the timing was just right. We were reaching the saturation point with overload of information, the velocity of information was so fast, distraction had become so ubiquitous. The social media companies, for example, had just finished their three or four year transformation to optimize the distracting nature, to try to optimize more eyeball time on the screen. All of this was all happening. All of this was all coming to a head. And I think it just resonated with a lot of people, this idea of like, let’s take a step back, just slow unbroken concentration. That’s more important than we remembered. We forgot about it. Maybe it’s time we start thinking about that again as a tier one skill.
Ellison: So why is there so much resistance to that? You’ve talked on the podcast about how productivity is getting a lot of resistance from people, a lot of pushback.
Newport: Yeah. Okay. There’s an interesting landscape here. So the idea that concentration is important, the interesting paradox here, and this is why the book was successful, is everyone basically agrees. Everyone likes it. They don’t like being distracted. Managers agree, workers agree, everyone’s on board with, yeah, I don’t want to just be distracted all the time. So why is it so hard in the workplace? Well, that’s basically the question I picked up with A World Without Email. I look into that question—If the work is so valuable, why are we now in this world where we are constantly distracted? And the answer I come up with in the new book is, it’s an accident. So this hyperactive hive mind workflow was not designed, no one thought it was a good idea, it is not some sort of setup where it benefits these people, but screws these people. It was just human nature. We just emerged towards this for a lot of reasons, they’re complicated I get into, but it’s arbitrary. It’s an arbitrary, emergent artifact of social-technical interaction, basically.
So that’s why we don’t do Deep Work and work, everyone wants to. I talk to CEOs, I talk to CTOs, I talk to people on the ground, I talk to the lowest level on the hierarchy of employees, whoever I talk to says, “Yes, we want to do more of it.” So it’s an interesting thing. And I think it’s why Deep Work is my best-selling book, is that everyone just agrees. Yeah, that’s great. I love it. I didn’t have a name for it before but I’m on board. But you’re pointing out something I think which is really interesting, which is the semi-related notion of productivity. Just think about that vaguely, as I’ve been talking about a lot in my podcast and in some of my New Yorker writing, this has been generating a pushback reason. There is certainly a growing anti-productivity movement that is basically suspicious of any effort to think about increasing optimizing or improving production, whether we’re talking about in the world of work or whether we’re talking about in our personal lives.
And I think it’s a very consequential movement and it’s important to understand what is going on and what it tells us about our efforts to do this type of work. And we can get into it, but I’ll say the baseline explanation for it is that there is a high level, I think, of burnout and overwork that just exists right now in the world and this is one of the natural consequences—I feel completely burnt out from my work. The last thing I want to hear about is how to do more work or how to be more organized. And I think that is really the foundation, that fundamental reaction that the current anti-productivity movement is probably born out of.
Ellison: You’ve been talking also about ‘Slow Productivity,’ which is the idea of you don’t have to do everything in one day, it’s the accretion of the work over time. When you look back on the year, you can see how much you’ve accomplished whereas the day to day is… That’s where we get frazzled and stressed. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Newport: Yeah. It’s a new concept I’m just working on, I’m considering maybe one day writing a book on it. So it’s still in its embryonic stages, but I am intrigued by this notion of slow productivity which to me has to do with the timescale. So when you’re talking about productivity, it’s important to qualify what timescale you’re talking about. So when we’re at short timescales this day, this week, I want to optimize how much I get done today, how much I get done this week, that what I call fast productivity. It can really help support the sense of overload and fanaticism, which basically runs counter to the way our human brain actually functions. This is a key precept of this embryonic slow productivity philosophy is that the human brain is wired to want to set a goal, go out there and accomplish it. That makes us feel good. If we’re not doing that, we feel bad, right? We know this and that when you subvert this impulse by let’s say putting onto your plate more goals than you can ever even imagine accomplishing, it short circuits all that wiring and makes us particularly anxious or particularly uncomfortable.
When we shift instead to a much larger timescale—I want over the next three years to produce things that I’m really proud of. It really changes what the day-to-day feels like. So the produce over the next three years, something you’re really proud of might involve many slow days, many days where you’re doing nothing at all, other days where you’re completely lost on one thing. And I’m coming to this conclusion that productivity pursued at the large timescale leads to lifestyles that are probably way more congruent with the way that we are wired as humans to want to pursue goals but not really being able to handle this modern artifice of 78 different things you need to try to get done today and it’s impossible to keep track of. And so, again, it’s an early idea, but I think there’s something there.
Ellison: I think there’s something there too. Especially for artists who… you can’t create 100,000 word novel in a day, you can’t, it takes time to do that. So I’m fascinated by that. I’m excited that you’re going there. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you talked about career capital and the idea that you mentioned of not following your passion, which got a lot of pushback from a lot of people, right? Because that’s what they tell us, do what you know, do what you’re in love with.
Newport: Yeah. So that was the beginning of my contrarian streak was saying, “Yeah, don’t follow your passion.” It did and it didn’t. It definitely got some pushback, but also is one of these topics where I think a lot of people were ready to hear it. And one of the things that was most interesting about looking into ‘follow your passion’ as an idea was actually tracing its history. And I think this really helped a lot of people to learn that it is very new. I mean, the phrase ‘follow your passion’ is really the invention of the 1990s or perhaps the late 1980s. So it’s actually a pretty new phrase to enter the career vernacular. My generation––I was born in the early 80s––was really the first generation to grow up and have this phrase be ubiquitous during our childhood.
And you can trace its sources. I trace it back a little bit, the Richard Bowles and What Color is Your Parachute combined with the popularity of Joseph Campbell and follow your bliss, and how these two things came together in the 1980s and this was the advice love child that was formed, this follow your passion notion. But it’s relatively new and is relatively arbitrary. And what I basically argued was we don’t have a lot of evidence that most people have preexisting innate passions that should be used as the foundation for their career choice, and that the main source of enjoyment and satisfaction in your career somehow comes from matching the nature of the work to this intrinsic preexisting inclination. That’s really what’s being claimed when you tell someone to follow your passion. Those who got upset about my pushback typically were actually thinking about a different interpretation of this term, which is actually the interpretation I think most people implicitly have in mind when they give this advice, which is when you talk to someone late in their career, who loves what they do when they say follow your passion, what they usually really mean is follow the goal of ending up passionate about your work, right?
Life is too short to not enjoy your work or get deep satisfaction out of it. So you should make that one of your objectives in our current time and our current culture as possible for most people. That’s what they really mean, but it gets simplified to ‘follow your passion.’ That extra word in there makes all the difference, because if it’s ‘follow your passion,’ that means you’re wired for something and if you can’t find it, you’re broken. If you say, ‘follow the goal of being passionate,’ that’s a process that I need to work on and I’ll get better at over time. And so that’s the shift I was trying to make to people’s thinking. And I think once it was clear that’s what I meant, I wasn’t saying you should dislike your work. I wasn’t saying passion is bad. I was just saying, “Look, you weren’t wired from birth genetically to be a social media brand manager for a mid-level whatever pharmaceutical company,” right? You weren’t born… There’s not some genetic thing that’s going to tell you, this is your exact job most likely. And once people understood that’s what I was saying, I think also it was pretty widely acceptable.
Ellison: And so let’s talk about Digital Minimalism for a second. That is ,in a very simple way, if you could set down your phone for a month and take all your apps off it, it could actually change your life. Can you elaborate?
Newport: Yeah. And the timing of Digital Minimalism is important because it would have made a lot more sense if I had written A World Without Email right after Deep Work. I mean, they go together. Deep Work talks about the importance of focus, A World Without Email talks about why it’s so hard now and how we can change our organizations to have more of it. And I actually started writing A World Without Email in 2016, immediately after Deep Work came out. But then I noticed in the culture all around me, this sharp discontinuity in the zeitgeists where people were rapidly shifting from enthusiasm towards their phones towards exhaustion or trepidation, it was happening very quick. It happened in less than a one-year period. And I thought, “Okay, what’s going on here? This seems important. I need to understand what’s going on here and figure out what we might do about it.”
That was the impulse that led me to put A World Without Email on hold and write Digital Minimalism. So it’s all about life outside of work and our engagement with technology, why do we get trepidatious about this? What should we do about it? The answer I proposed was this philosophy of Digital Minimalism which says you should be much more intentional about how you use technology, deploy it for specific ends. When you know why you’re at a point of technology, you can put rules around it so it doesn’t get out of control. To do this however, you have to figure out what those ends are, you have to figure out what you’re all about, what you want to spend your time doing. And the best quickest way I could come up with to do that was step away from all that tech for a month. Social media, online news, streaming videos, video games, step away from that for a month, get back in touch with what matters to you, what you care about, what it feels like to not have constant stimulation. And then, only after you’ve gone through that cleansing exposure of one month of this reflection experimentation, then you’re in a good position to say, “Okay, what tech do I want to bring back and what reasons I want to bring it back for?”
Ellison: Well, it’s wildly coincidental that yesterday we had The Great Pause. All of social media was down except for Twitter and everybody was cheering and saying, “I hope it never comes back.” Okay. We have a problem.
Newport: I mean, I think this is accepted now. And it wasn’t. I talk about this. I just did a… I was recording my podcast right before we’re coming on the air here and I did a monologue about this. I mean, it’s hard to overemphasize in 2014, 2015, early 2016, how eccentric I was considered because I was saying you shouldn’t maybe use social media. I mean, it was just considered a really weird point of view. I gave this TEDx Talk about four reasons why you should not use social media. They changed the title. They changed it to something like ‘How to Work Deeply in a Distracted World,’ because they said we can’t possibly with a straight face, put out a video that was called quit social media, right? That’d be like putting out a video that says, you should ride a horse or something, but I demanded, I said, ‘No, no, no. Trust me, call the video, ‘Quit Social Media.’” And now it’s 8 million views or something like that. Same thing I wrote in New York Times Op-Ed back then, it was saying, “Social media is not as important to your job as you think, young people so don’t spend so much time on your profiles.” You want to think that I was trying to ban baseball or something. I mean, it was a huge uproar.
The New York Times commissioned the response Op-Ed the next week in the paper, just to argue what Cal Newport was saying is crazy. Of course, social media is really important and everyone should be using it, right? So it was like very eccentric.
Today Facebook crashes, Instagram crashes and people are just universally applauding. So I don’t know, I think this is progress. At the very least, it makes me seem less weird. So at least I can get some individual benefit out of it, but I think our society has changed radically on this. We realized, “Should I be looking at this thing 185 times a day? What value can I possibly be getting that is worth that much fragmentation on my life, that much sapping of my available time?” And I think the culture writ large is really coming around on realizing that this is a problem.
Ellison: They absolutely are. So we’re going to run out of time, of course. Let me ask two more quick questions. One is I’m interested in is the idea of the Great Resignation and what’s been going on with the pandemic. Can you talk about that?
Newport: Yeah, it’s an interesting phenomenon. I got into it for a New Yorker piece I wrote earlier in the Fall where there’s a broad-based leaving of the workforce that covers many different economic sectors and has many different explanations, right? So it was very complicated. But if you drill down within this great resignation in particular to looking at knowledge, non entry-level knowledge workers, right? The type of people that work at a computer screen, the generic knowledge worker jobs, there’s quitting happening there as well and it is less for economic reasons. It’s less for reasons such as there’s better opportunities or the marketplace is more competitive and seems more to be about people reacting to the disruption of the mitigations put in place by the pandemic to completely rethinking the role of work in their lives. And people are leaving jobs to either leave the workforce or to radically reconfigure their engagement with the workforce to be less hours, to be more autonomous, to be in better locations.
And so there’s this definitely this interesting effect is going on that for a particular fortunate segment of workers out there, there is a potential silver lining to the other terrors that have happened over the last year and a half, which is that it has induced this critical reflection. What do I want to do? What do I want to do with work? What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want to happen in my life? And look, you see it in my own podcast, right? I start this podcast early in the pandemic by the second episode, half the show is on the topic of the Deep Life, which is a term that I had never used until the month prior. All of this stuff just emerged. It was the huge interest of my listeners and my readers almost immediately after these disruptions occurred. So I am an example of the same shift in thinking is that there’s this disruption that knocked us out of the rut of, well, of course I have this job, this job is fine, how do I keep moving forward? How do I advance properly? How do I organize myself? Knocked us out of just asking those questions to asking the bigger questions. I think for the sector, probably a very positive development.
Ellison: Perfect segue. Tell us about the podcast. How did you end up podcasting?
Newport: Well, it was the pandemic. So I do quite a bit, or, I used to do quite a bit of travel. I do a lot of talks. I do a lot of media appearances. Maybe I’d be down in Nashville right now if not for the pandemic. And I’m in the classroom, I’m a professor. So I’m surrounded by students. I’m surrounded by colleagues. And so there was intense isolation that was felt when all of that went away. I wanted to have more interaction with people, especially my readers. And so I said I’ll start a podcast. I’ll do it as a summer project, the first summer of the pandemic. And at the very least, I’ll do two months’ worth. And it’ll just be a way to talk, talk with people, talk with my readers. And because I was using a Q and A format, it was a way for me to hear from them and go back and forth.
And that was the idea, a project so that I won’t too feel lonely. And then it picked up a bit of a life of its own and I think it’s in part because we do focus on deeper issues, what are you trying to do with your life, what you’re trying to do with work? And we mix that in with down and gritty details of like, well, this is how you should organize your task board and exactly how you should do your plans. And we connect this whole swath of our… From our deep aspirations down to the nitty gritty details of how I’m organizing my day. We connect that all together. So I think that hit a tone. I think the Q and A format maybe hit a tone because it’s real people, they’re real issues, it’s all dealing with actual people’s questions. And so it’s been a lot of fun. It started as just, I was recording on a cheap mic and why not? And three and a half million downloads later, there’s a really exciting conversation happening with the show and I’m just happy I tried that experiment.
Ellison: It’s incredible. It really is. I love it. It’s my favorite podcast. We have covered a lot of ground and I’ve thrown a lot of your work at our viewers. Where do you recommend they start?
Newport: Well, I guess it depends to some degree on where you are in life. I’ve written a lot of books over time. And if you’re a student, for example, I wrote books for students. My first three books were for students. You should read those. If you’re very early career, you might consider So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which is my philosophy of passion and how to build a successful career. But really, I think the core of my writing is the trio of tech and society books, I’ve written over the last five years, which is Deep Work, Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email. And the way I separate those is if you worry about the impact of technology on your interest in living a deeper more fulfilling life, especially personal technology, social media, YouTube, et cetera, Digital Minimalism is the book to read.
If you’re worried about technology in the workplace and distraction and you’re not getting the work done you want to do, you’re not making the impact you want to have. You feel completely burnt out and overwhelmed by the nature of modern work, then I would pair together Deep Work and A World Without Email. Those are the books focused on the world of work. If you want to dip your toes into any of this, just grab a few random episodes of my podcast because as you know, we go all over the place and I answer questions from readers in all sorts of topics so you can see what you’re in for, I suppose, by dipping your toes into that world.
Ellison: That’s fantastic. Cal, I’m so honored that you were able to take the time to be here today. Thank you so much.
Newport: Well, thank you. It was my pleasure and I really enjoyed the conversation. Again, there should be more shows like this. We need more shows about reading and thinking and books and focusing on writers. So thanks for doing this show.
Ellison: Keep Reading!
Cal Newport Recommends
The Intellectual Life, by A.G Sertillangers, O.P
Genius, by James Gleick
Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman