Speakers

Greg McKeown, Cal Newport  


Transcript

Greg McKeown

Well, I’m absolutely delighted to have Cal Newport here. Best Selling Author extraordinaire computer science professor, perhaps best known amazingly, as never having owned a social media account of any kind. And we’re going to get to that. But first welcome.

Cal Newport  

Greg, it’s my pleasure. 

Greg McKeown  

I want to get to a question right from the beginning. And it’s this, I want to give you a scenario. I was asked once to work with an individual who was completely I mean, really addicted to social media, you know, digital clutter all over the place, had a business that he really wanted to get off the ground was putting some investment in, but he has the problem of all this digital clutter almost being like adding up to a part time job. And so, here’s my scenario for you is you have seven days to fix him to solve it, what would you do? Where would you start? And what would the process look like?

Cal Newport  

If I had seven days, I would attack the phone as the primary vector for the distraction virus. In this case, I would say, let’s assume that many of the things drawing your attention to your phone all the time, let’s say social media has a purpose for your business that you are maybe promoting it on Instagram, maybe Facebook advertising is being used, whatever. Let’s say social media plays a real role doesn’t have to be on your phone, do it on your computer, have a schedule for it, do it like professional social media branders deal with social media that is with specific plans at particular times, and more generally understand that these tools have this interesting dichotomous nature where on the one hand, from a business perspective, they give you this ability to do almost miraculous things from the marketing advertising standpoint. I mean, you could pinpoint people in a way that let’s say someone buying newspaper ads 50 years ago would just salivate over. But the whole reason these systems work so well is that they have this entire ecosystem of addiction so that when users use it, you get sucked into this world and use it much more than you want to. So, if you want to have these tools in a competitive business environment, you have to somehow sidestep that whole ecosystem that makes them valuable in the first place that gets all those user engagement minutes while still deploying it for your needs.  So, take it off the phone will solve 90% of those problems, have a computer, have a plan for it.

Greg McKeown

So, in this case, social media can make a poor master but can still be a great servant. 

Cal Newport

And this is a trap that a lot of people in the entrepreneurial or small business world fall into is because of that dichotomous nature the very same product that is great for advertising is by definition that the whole secret to its success is that it’s engineered to get people to use it way more than they need to. So, it’s almost like you’re the exterminator laying out rat poison. You want to be careful not to get that on your hands. When you eat the sandwich or during your lunch break, you’re gonna solve some problems and you have to see it with that same level of care.

Greg McKeown 

You have precisely why you think it’s valuable is why you can become a victim of it. 

Cal Newport

Absolutely. Yep. 

Greg McKeown  

Oh, I like that. So talk to me like, okay, so I get he gets his phone out. And then what I mean, give me like, what should he be doing physically next?

Cal Newport  

Yes, I think you want to take off your phone, any application where someone makes money off of your time and attention. Right. So that’s going to be social media, but it’s also going to be if you have apps that feed you news headlines or sports insider rumors, you get the MLB trade rumors app off of there, you get the games off of there that are designed to try to get you as much use all the stuff that you haphazardly downloaded for relatively minimal or innocent reasons that are all now sitting there pulling at out your attention. You basically want your phone to look like a circa 2008 iPhone, or like my iPhone looks today, which is, you know, you can listen to books on tape, podcasts and music on it. It’s great for that good interface for text messaging, great interface for making calls and voicemails. It has on it a really good map for when you’re lost and you want to see where you are and get redirected back and there is a web browser there if there’s some sort of information you need on the fly like what’s the address of this restaurant I’m trying to go to that 2008 circa iPhone usage is really probably its sweet spot. I had this this op-ed in the times earlier this year, that basically talked about that original model and said this is what Steve Jobs originally had in mind. Make your phone that. The constant companion is a much newer behavior and it serves very little benefit to your business.

Greg McKeown  

I read that excellent article and tell us just a little more about what you articulate in the article about Steve’s vision when he announces the iPhone compared to what it has become for many of us.

Cal Newport 

So what I did here is I actually went in, and obviously I couldn’t talk to Steve Jobs, but I did talk to the head designer for the original iPhone. And the way he described it is that jobs wanted to do two things. He thought that the quote unquote smartphones on the market were painfully bad interfaces. He just hated the phone interfaces and he thought it was inelegant to have a separate iPod in your pocket. Next to your phone. You know, we used to all have to have our Nokia razors next to our iPod, just two things your pocket that’s not elegant, his vision for the iPhone, we will put those two together. It’ll be the best phone interface you’ve ever had. It’s going to be a beautiful iPod interface is going to be in the same box and you know what, there’ll be a web browser on there, if you need to look something up, there was no App Store. No one looked at their phones 100 200 times a day the idea that it was a constant companion that you would always be looking at it, it was always be in your hand. None of that was in the original vision.

Greg McKeown    

Do you think that we’ve only had diminishing returns since that original vision?

Cal Newport 

I think yes. I think the key innovations really, I would say the bulk of them happened in that 2007 to 2009 period where the key elements came together for what we think of as a smartphone today. I mean, the core technical innovations that have happened since then tend to just be in camera quality. The big shift that I think significantly reduced the value we got from our phones and increased harm was this period, roughly 2010 to 2012 when the major social media platforms re-engineered their experience, built around social approval indicators like likes, but also around endless timelines as opposed to actually going to the profile of someone you know, to see what they’re up to with was the original sensical model for digital social media. When they shifted to endless scroll, algorithmically generated timelines and social approval indicators like likes and favorites, we began to look at the phone exponentially more. And that’s when we transformed from this elegant device that took things we already really liked and made the experience even better. It’s switched from that into these companions that are just constantly had their claws into our cognitive space. And we’re just pulling in sucking away time and energy and making people eventually just straight up exhausted.

Greg McKeown   

What’s the current data for this, like when you say exponentially more? What’s the current data?

Cal Newport 

Well, it depends how you break it out. It depends, in particular, what age demographics you’re looking at. I mean, essentially, if you’re under the age of 20, how often do they look at the phone the right way to summarize that data is just constantly when they actually try to break it out into hours. It the numbers can be ridiculous, you know, eight hours a day or something which basically just translates into, there’s never more than a minute or two, where they’re not looking at it, I would say for the standard, you know, 25 to 45 year old, there’s a bunch of different numbers depending if you’re looking at data that came from, like the moment or data that comes from screen time, or there’s a bunch of different data, but somewhere from between, you know, 85 to 200 or 300 times a day checks in terms of raw hours. We know that like Facebook usage alone for their products was up to close to an hour a day, a few years ago, and it’s probably even higher now. And that doesn’t include all other uses of the phone. So, I would say most phone users are rarely go very long outside of somebody certain exceptions without looking at their phone. So it’s something that sucks on the order of hours out of their day on average. 

Greg McKeown  

So step one, let’s clear off maybe even every app from the phone and put it back on one by one deliberately strategically, as it actually helps us fulfill You know, what is essential to us. Is that fair?

Cal Newport  

I think that is fair. And I think even more effectual than that is, you know what I, what I typically recommend to say you take everything off, you figure out and you talk about this very well in your book, you spend the time to figure out what you do care about what does matter what’s not always obvious. And then you use that to make those decisions about what goes back on. And that’s a key distinction, because once you know why you’re using a particular tool, you can optimize. If you don’t know why you’re using a particular tool, then it can just suck you into its ecosystem and three hours go if you on Facebook doing this and that, but if you know, like, no, I only use Facebook because I need Facebook groups because this particular group that is important to me, organizes on Facebook group, then suddenly you can optimize and say I don’t need to see my phone I seen on my computer, I can use newsfeed eradicator. So I don’t have to see the endless scroll news button to timeline and all I do is click on the browser and go straight to the group and it takes nine minutes of my time a week and I get 98% of the benefits. Like when you know why you’re using these things. You can really optimize miter use and get a much better rewards the cost ratio.

Greg McKeown  

So take it all off the phone, then pause what really matters. Why would you use these tools, and then you can not only choose which items to have back on there, but how you’re going to use them rather than just okay, I use every function that this particular app offers.

Cal Newport  

That’s 100% it, you put those pieces together and you get what I call digital minimalism. That is the digital minimalist philosophy, technology put to use for intentional purposes, in intentional ways, that’s digital minimalism.

Greg McKeown 

If you have more than a week with this individual, where do you go next?

Cal Newport  

Well, so what I ended up actually recommended in my book was to make this pause last 30 days. So if you have the time and I walked 1600 different people through this experiment when I was when I was doing the research.

Greg McKeown  

What does that mean? How did you do that?

Cal Newport  

What I actually said to this process of the participant in the process, and the way I describe it is that for 30 days, what you’re stepping away from is what I call optional digital technology. So this is not about mission critical tech for your work, it doesn’t mean that you can log off email for a week, as much as I wish that was true. If there’s, let’s say, some particular social media engagement you have to do as part of your job, it’s fine, keep that in, but you’ll do it on your computer. And you’ll have pretty careful rules about it. But basically, anything you can step away from you do for a month, and during that month, you do the very aggressive reflection and experimentation to try to figure out what is it that I really care about? What do I actually want to spend my time on? What do I value and then it’s at the end of that 30 days that in this particular approach, that you do that careful reintroduction, where you let the values drive what comes back in.

Greg McKeown  

what exercises Did you have the 1600 people do to figure out what actually was important to them?

Cal Newport 

I had them go do things. So action was a great predictor of success with this process. I would say one of the biggest predictors of people stopping before the 30 days were up was trying to white knuckle it. That doesn’t work. It’s why I don’t like the word detox in the context of digital tools. I don’t think it appropriately describes what needs to be done here. I think this notion of just these things are bad. And if I just get away from them, somehow, I’ll detoxify myself and I’ll be healthier, very ineffectual, because essentially, people just get bored and antsy and things crumble, and they go back to what they were doing instead. The people who succeeded didn’t see it as a detox. They saw it as a rebuilding process. They’re trying to build a better life and they got out there and did things so they did activities, they signed up for things they actually went and talked to people in person they went for long walks and reflected and thought they were okay being bored while they were driving from here to there. So the people who got out there really experimented with things you could actually tangibly get their fingers In the metaphorical dirt and say, Oh, I really enjoy this at a much easier time then of saying, Oh, I’m going to make these changes to support these things that I just experienced, really valuing. Those changes were more likely to stick. 

Greg McKeown 

Tell me this, it seems to me that what you’re really going for in your work, both deep work and also with digital minimalism is a mindset shift. It’s more than just these specific behaviors that we’re talking about here. Talk to me about that.

Cal Newport 

I agree with that. I think I think tips are useful when deployed on the behalf of a much more important goal that you fully inhabit. So, in deep work, for example, so deep work is 2016 is when that came out. So just to set the timeline. That book is really about the world of work and unintentional consequences of technology in the world of work and It’s really about the bigger mindset shift there, which is, you know, as the knowledge sector in our country gets more complex and more competitive, it’s actually uninterrupted thought is one of the core activities for producing value. And so, it’s kind of crazy that we’re building workflows and workplaces that that due to side effects of technology makes it harder and harder to do. And, and so there was a mindset shift there, which is uninterrupted, concentrated thought, hey, that’s the activity that ultimately moves the needle. So that’s something you have to think about prioritizing. Once you believe that deep in your bones, then all these different types of tips about like, how do you prevent email from taking over your life or different hacks for scheduling or doing time block planning versus list-based planning? They all have a context, and they’re much more likely to be effective for you than if they’re just a sort of tips and same thing with digital minimalism. It’s about are you a maximalist? Right, are you someone that just lets tech into your life because it could be interesting, you don’t want to miss out on something it could be valuable or Are you a minimalist? Are you someone that deploys these tools on behalf of things you really care about? If you’re the latter, you’re going to be much more satisfied in your life. Again, it’s a mindset shift. And once you have that, alright, the tips about like, how do you configure your phone and notifications? Are these plugins that help you sort of defang the addictive properties of social media websites, those all suddenly can be deployed for a purpose. And I think a great analogy would be like physical fitness. There’s a ton of advice about different ways to I don’t know, lift weights or do what have you. But it’s not that useful until you’ve made the mindset of Oh, I’m someone who’s going to be in really good shape. And now suddenly, that whole world of advice on power sets and whatever, you can tell I’m not a weightlifter but whatever that whole world of advice in all the fitness websites and podcasts suddenly becomes incredibly useful and relevant. So, I think you’re absolutely right that I’m about fundamental mindset shifts. And then you can start making practical changes which is why my books typically have two parts. This is true of digital minimalism. This is true of deep work. Part one is always the ideas. And Part two is always the advice. And there’s a reason why I have that split. Because without the first part, I don’t think the second part is that useful.

Greg McKeown  

And really, you have to try to strip out the old mindset in order to be able to even start on a new experiment in the way that you’re describing. You’ve written it this way. You said the problem is that small changes are not enough to solve big issues with new technologies. The underlying behaviors we hope to fix are ingrained in our culture. They’re backed by powerful psychological forces that empower our base instincts to reestablish control, we need to move beyond tweaks, and instead rebuild our relationship with technology from scratch using a deeply held values as a foundation. Let me ask you this deep work is it’s a powerful concept. It’s an important principle. Let me just inverse it for a second. Look at, you know, using version what is shallow work? And what is a shallow life? And how would you accomplish it?

Cal Newport 

Yeah, this is an interesting question because in the book deep work, I originally actually defined shallow work as the antonym to deep work so, so it’s actually a non-trivial question to answer because what I actually did there was say, this is what deep work is everything else is shallow work. So, but let me invert it. So essentially, shallow work in the knowledge work context, are activities that you’re not leveraging hard won or rare and valuable skills to create new value so much as you are handling things related to sort of the logistics of your work, things that that aren’t necessarily highly skilled endeavors, but like you need to set up this meeting you need to file this expense report you have to put together this PowerPoint deck about the research you did this type of stuff. So, anything that’s not I am producing new value using my hard won skills, but instead everything else that surrounds us in work. And so that’s the shallow end sort of the work concept. But then I also as you point out I do have this notion of let’s generalize this to a deep life versus a shallow life and a shallow life is one. This is much broader than just work. So now this in companies encompasses minimalism, everything else. A shallow life is one in which you, you aren’t working backwards from what you care about. So it’s just a sort of random assemblage of momentum and routines and in the moment seeking of positive chemicals and avoidance of negative, it’s sort of non-resilient. Not necessarily bad. I mean, it might feel good in certain moments, but I sort of like non resilient, low foundation life. The that you’re just sort of haphazardly bouncing from this to that. 

Greg McKeown 

Hmm, that’s very interesting. I like that phrase, let’s make sure we get that clear. You said, we aren’t working backwards from what you care about. How does somebody do that, practically? So this case study I gave you at the beginning, let’s say that he has managed to remove this distraction, these non-essential items off of his phone. He’s now you know, he’s been experimenting with his business a little bit, he realizes that this is more meaningful, satisfying for him. How would he go from that experimentation to clarifying this is the deep work that really matters.

Cal Newport  

Well, there’s a couple aspects here like there’s the actual sort of minimizing of activities you don’t need and I think this is where your book is basically the blueprint, right? So, you essentialize. This notion that more is not necessarily better in the business context. You do like the quarterly review process, you talk about what are the activities that really move the needle in my business. Now, once you figure that out, now you can come in and apply the lessons of deep work to help you then execute those things in the way that’s going to be most valuable. So they’re the deep work philosophy would come in and say, Okay, once you’ve really pared it down to the activities that really matter and really move the needle, it’s important to recognize that even within those categories, uninterrupted concentration, that’s the thing that really produces the value in the knowledge sector context. And so now you want to start thinking about your days and your schedules and your rhythms to work to be to be around this this separation between there’s protected time for deep concentration, and then there’s the shallow work that happens otherwise tut these are two separate entities.

Greg McKeown

How does someone do that right now? There may be someone listening to this says, well, look, I have already lots of noise, whether I used to be as I went to the office, and there’s lots of noise there, or whether I’m now at home, even involuntarily at home, and you mentioned having children, how do you achieve uninterrupted concentration in this kind of reality?

Cal Newport 

First of all, it’s worth noting that it’s hard. And I often get this pushback from some readers who says, you know, hey, it’s very difficult in my in my situation to do that. To which the answer is essentially, I’m sorry. It doesn’t change the underlying reality that like, the deep stuff is what actually moves the needle and really understanding that at least will give you the foundation on which to fight for it. So then what do you do? Well, some situations can be easier than others. It’s hard. I document a lot of professional writers, a lot of professional thinkers. They literally have a location they go to adjust for deep work, more practically.

Greg McKeown 

Yeah, I want to hear these other more practical things, but  I just want to make the point that when you want to do, I think you make this point, when you want to do deep work, you generally don’t go to work. You know, you go to that place, wherever that relatively uninterrupted place is including when people were flying an airplane. Yes, you can maybe get Wi Fi on there, which I wish you couldn’t. It was one good place left for all of us to actually concentrate. You know, I just wanted you to talk about that a little but that when we want to do real work, most of us have a place to go. And it isn’t the place we call work. 

Cal Newport

It’s really common that people have a place at home where they do their deep work and a place at the office where they do their office work or they have another location they go to. You have something I like to point out is that there’s a lot of full-time professional writers who Out of Pocket pay for private office. On paper, it doesn’t make sense financially, I mean that they have a home office probably at their home, there’s no reason for them to have to pay to lease, you know, an office space, but they have the location that is separate, where they go to concentrate. And that’s what they do there. It can be very powerful.

Greg McKeown 

Give me an example of somebody who has reached out to you to say, hey, this helped. And give me a little more detail if you have it.

Cal Newport   

So one example I heard was from someone who did in Silicon Valley, he was in marketing, but what he did was white paper. So you know, white papers for a software product that these are these detailed research style papers that are an important part of the sales process for b2b sales software. And he was well paid to do this for a Silicon Valley company. The problem was that he said their culture was if you don’t respond right away on Slack, it’s assumed that you’re slacking off. And so he was having a tough time. He’s like, I have to write these hard reports is the main thing I do that’s valuable. And I if I’m not doing it, well take a lot of time. So he went to his CEO and he, he did the script. Here’s what deep work is, here’s what shallow work is both is important. What’s the ideal ratio? And what he told me was that it was clear in that room as soon as he explained that setup that, you know, his CEO saw that it would have been absurd for her to say, I really want you doing hundred percent shallow work. When it’s presented that way, it just seems like a inefficient deployment of an asset. So they settled on 5050. All right, so like, well, how am I going to do this? How am I going to get 5050 time because you know, we’re on slack all the time. There’s all these meetings and so they had a particular number to hit. So the solution they came up with is she’s like, Okay, I’m gonna was put aside a two hour period in the morning and a two hour period in the afternoon, and I the CEO, I’m gonna go talk to your team. During those two-hour periods in the morning and the two-hour periods in the afternoon. He is not going to respond to a thing. So make sure that if there’s something urgent, you get to them by 955, or you get me started at 10 in the morning, or you get to them, you know, right before his afternoon session, but I’m telling you, he’s off the this is how he’s, this is how he’s working. And he said it took the team about a week to get used to it. And now it’s 50% of his hours every day is uninterrupted. He thought there would never be a change to his culture there. This was one conversation and one week of adjustments and is a massively more effective approach to his work. And by the way, nothing was really lost. You know, they have to wait two hours to maybe get in touch with someone you can easily work around that once you know that’s what the expectation is. So, it’s not as if he is annoying everyone in his in his professional circles, now they quickly adjusted to it. So those type of changes are really possible if you’re working with specificity.

Greg McKeown 

Well, and also something I love doing what you just said is that by starting with the positive by positioning it around, look, how do we create the most value. You enter a negotiation from a positive position, instead of what I think a lot of people feel is they either have to say a polite yes to whatever their organizational culture is, or it’s like a rude No, you know, they have to be that person, which they want to be because that’s a career limiting or they have to leave the culture altogether. What you’re providing there is a structure a format, to be able to have a negotiation that I think seems really plausible.

Cal Newport

And it’s a theme that runs through a lot of different things I do so I mean, that example is from the world of work and from the book, deep work, but this is basically the same idea in the world of tech in your personal life in the world of the digital minimalism book where that’s kind of the same idea there, which is if you approach technology in your personal life from a position of negativity, man, I hate how much I’m spending looking at this stupid thing and I want to do it less. It’s actually very hard to have lasting change but if you instead flip it and say man I really want this deeper life that I’ve experienced during my 30 day declutter. I’ve just been thinking about it, man, what can I do to get to this thing I really want. Suddenly, there’s a huge success rate. So, it’s interesting in both the world of work and in the world of your life outside of work. In both of those worlds, I found basically the same thing that the right way to approach technology is from the positive like, What are you trying to get to and figure out then how to deploy these things to get you there, as opposed to what don’t you like and then rage against those?

Greg McKeown 

Yeah, I one of the things that I wouldn’t call frustration, but, but certainly something I’ve noticed is that when I teach about Essentialism, people often hear the idea of eliminating non essentials. And the idea of you’ve got to say no, and say no to your non essentials, even though I don’t lead with that. And I’m always wanting to point out to people that no that if you say no to everyone and everything, that’s Not that I’m suggesting that, you know, that would be a book called no ism. You know, Essentialism is different. This is about how do we focus on what really matters. But something you said, is intriguing to me. A question I wanted to put to you, which is, is doing deep work also hard work.

Cal Newport 

I, I like to use it. Yes, it’s very hard. But I put a distinction between hard and hard to do, if that makes sense. So, in some sense, like deep work as an activity is very difficult in the moment. It’s cognitively very straining. It’s no joke that people who do this at a high level really practice doing it at a high level, they get amazing results. But it’s like doing an athletic feat at the high level. You know, when you’re running the 400 meters in the Olympic trials, it’s hard. You know, but it’s not necessarily hard to do. And what I mean by that is that it’s also very satisfying. So we’re, we’re, we seem to be wired for it, it matches more, I think the way that we’ve evolved to understand actually making our intentions, concrete in the world, that you’re, you’re focused on one thing at a time, and it’s hard, but to overcome that difficulty and do it, that’s immensely satisfying. So it is much harder in terms of the energy expended than, let’s say, going through your inbox. But it’s also much more satisfying, much more sustainable.

Greg McKeown  

Yes, that’s, it’s an interesting question. And it’s not even one that I think that has to be answered in this conversation. But I still want to wrestle with it a bit, because the more I’ve thought about this subject of you know, is it hard? I’ve come to question the, the basis, the assumption that, that yeah, to use your vernacular that deep work has to be harder than shallow work. There’s an assumption that it that it is. But even in the example you just gave of a Olympic level athlete, for example, I was just talking to Bob Bowman, the coach to Michael Phelps, about those eight gold medals that he has that you know that Phelps achieved in Beijing, you know, never been done before the most extraordinary physical feat. And one of the things Bob said in passing was, what I couldn’t believe when he suddenly did it, and we’ve done it was that even being so effortless. And so there we are with an example of something that surely is like the always the, you know, has taken years of uninterrupted concentration. It’s taken deep work for years, and yet the actual achievement of it is just surprisingly shockingly easy. And I just wonder if you can respond to that?

Cal Newport 

Well, it’s human. I think we are. We’re wired to do hard things that we think are important. Like, that feels natural to us. And this is where you get the sense of effortlessness. It’s not that it’s not that he’s, you know, not expending any effort. Obviously, when he’s doing lap 9000 of the day in his pool as he’s as he’s training for the Olympics, but it doesn’t conflict with our fundamental human nature. And I think that’s when things become hard to do. Versus actually just, you know, being hard. And so, I think it’s the thing we do instead, the sort of frenetic thing, the on my phone and my email and jumping back and forth and jumping on calls and zooming back and forth it is it’s, it’s exhausting. Because we’re conflicting with our fundamental wiring our brain doesn’t know about an inbox with 700 messages that short circuits our brain. Right our Paleolithic social circuits are, for example, very wary about what they call dyadic social connection. So pairwise social connections have been very careful about how you treat it. Because if you didn’t very carefully manage your social connections in a tribe, you’re going to starve next time they were short on food. There’s a lot of research on this and extent hunter, hunter gatherer tribes. So we care a lot about that. That brain goes crazy when it sees 600 unread messages. Now you can say, Well, my prefrontal cortex knows that well, that’s not those aren’t also important. It’s okay if I don’t answer them right away. There’s norms, everyone likes to talk about norms, and it’s okay, but there’s the deeper part of your brain that says, Man, we’re going to starve. We’re going to starve in the winter, we’re ignoring tribe members, they’re going to get pissed when it comes time for them to share their food and we’re just anxious and upset, which is a small example of this broader point that the shallow frenetic stuff is very non instinctual and it really runs against the grains of the context in which we evolved. Deep hard stuff one thing at a time, difficult but you’re good at it, and you get better at it and you know about it and you identify with it. That makes us easy. And there’s a I’m kind of paraphrasing Matt Crawford here, Matt Crawford and shop class as soulcraft, a brilliant book about the about the satisfaction of complex manual trades. He has some quote in there, he talks about an electrician that was very good at bending conduit for industrial circuit breaker boxes. He said there’s something that about seeing the the, the concrete manifestation of your skill that can sort of quiet the mind and provide an easy pleasure. And I’m sort of paraphrasing, but I think what he gets out there is that this is human. You do hard skilled things that you’re good at one at a time. It’s not going to feel that hard. The other stuff is incredibly artificial, which is why I think we’re all dealing with just low-grade backgrounds of anxiety most of the time is because we’re not living in the way that we were designed to actually function.

Greg McKeown 

Well, and right, that is kind of what I’ve been wrestling with myself is this language around? Well, important things are hard. And unimportant things are easy. And that explains why we are pulled to the trivial things, I think might be sitting on top of a very deep set assumption that actually is false. And I’ve spent the last few years trying to trying to wrestle with this because I’ve noticed that in our language, we almost universally communicate this. So someone will say, Well, I mean, of course I should be writing my treaties, my book, my whatever project, but it’s much easier to go on, you know, go and check email and go to email and go on the next zoom thing that people say that all the time. But actually, I’m not sure it’s actually true. I think that everything you just articulated says that going onto all of this trivial stuff is exhausting, frustrating, draining. And when we actually do deep work, focused work, concentrated work, meaningful work, it’s actually easier. And so, what I wonder is whether this assumption that deep work is hard work, might not be one of the primary obstacles in is actually doing it more.

Cal Newport 

Now, I think you’re onto something. I mean, I think what we do instead once we understand that to be not just unproductive but exhausting, and misery inducing, which really, really can be misery inducing, then makes the alternative seem like the logical, the self-evident, the self-evident preference, you know, obviously, I would rather be doing less and be doing it better, which is why, by the way, I think, like Essentialism, that book really resonated with people. I think it’s why, you know, deep work resonated with people, because they feel it. They know that this whirlwind chaos thing is not natural. Now, the big question is that, why then why do we do it and there’s a lot of elements there that are important, although I’ll throw just one of many into the mix. Because again, my specialty is really the intersection of tech and culture be at work or personal culture. And in that world. If you look in the academic study of the philosophy of technology, there’s, there’s these two competing philosophies and one is called technological instrumentalism. And one is called technological determinism. And technological instrumentalism says, tech is neutral. Right? All that really matters is the people who use it. And they use it for particular purposes. And so, tech is only interesting studying it because you can just reveal things about people. technological determinism says, well, sometimes tech can actually change your behavior in ways that you didn’t intend to. It’s not solving some problem. It’s not part of some master plan. It’s not because it’s better for you. It just does it. It just changes your behavior in ways that are unexpected and unplanned. Right now, technological instrumentalism reigned supreme, especially in academic circles. And if you believe in technological instrumentalism, then this easy hard dichotomy makes a lot of sense. You say, yeah, that so the reason you’re on email all the time is because well, obviously you’re in complete control of that. So, the only reason why you must be doing is must be serving some purpose for It must be because it’s, for example, easier. But I’m a big proponent technological determinism. I’m convinced it plays a big role. And the technological determinist would say no. But also, maybe part of the reason why you’re using email is that when this tool was introduced, it completely up ended the way that we worked in knowledge work in ways that no one really planned. And we fallen into this rut as a sector that it’s kind of hard to get out of. And it’s forcing us to in this this sort of tragedy of a common style setup to all be on the email all the time. And actually, what we need to do is step back and make some pretty bold changes to fix it. But it completely changes the picture. And it says, Well, some of these behaviors then are not just us making choices, hey, this is easy and as hard that there might be these other things at work just like we look at our phone all the time, not because it’s easier than the other things we want to do. But there’s these other forces the like button turned out to play with our social psychology in such a way that made Facebook and this relay services incredibly irresistible. That was actually an accident. They realized it and purified it and added more of these addictive elements but actually the original introduction of the like button was very good. innocent and they noticed like my God, people are using this much more. But again, there’s these forces at play that push us into these ruts and away from the things we really care about. And I think that’s really important to understand. Because as long as it’s just seen as like, look, it’s just you’re just making decisions. So if you’re not doing something must be because either you’re lazy or you think it’s easier. Like there’s a lot of other forces that play once you recognize them. You can actually gather up a posse and say, Well, maybe it’s time to take him down. Like maybe we need to get our whole organization together and say, what’s better than all this email nonsense? Or maybe you need to throw that phone out for a month and say, wait a second, let’s reset and get away. And so, I think those that philosophy philosophical framework is one of many elements that’s important for understanding why we do more of the harder thing. Even though the other thing would be better for us.

Greg McKeown   

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. Um, let’s, let’s do this. Tell me what Haven’t we covered it? You would want somebody to know about not, you know, not so much the individual books, right? Which we’ve only talked about two there were others before that. But, you know, you’re not thinking about your life and your life’s work as discrete books. Yes, I suppose in a way you are when you develop these and you send them out into the world, but you know, you’re pursuing something broader than all of that. And this new book is going to be an extension of that too.  So, what is it you want to say currently, to anybody listening to this, what is it you want to express that you haven’t expressed?

Cal Newport 

I think the, the umbrella under which all of this work lies is the I’m a technologist. I’m a computer scientist, computer science professor, but I am really interested in the intersection of these tools in our culture. But what’s the impact of these tools? How do we interact with them? What’s our how does it affect our culture? This nexus of tools in our current moment, and our society in our culture, I think is incredibly fertile. And I think we need to spend more time trying to understand it. Because we have capabilities now that would astonish someone 40 years ago, we just all have this power. And you just cannot get even a fraction of the potential. Out of all these innovations unless you also obsessively and relentlessly and thoroughly really think through how do these change us? How do we want to use them? How does it fit into a vision of a better workplace or a better life? And so, I mean, that’s the bigger vision I think I am obsessed with and I want to promote which is, it’s not just enough to turn out the innovations we have to be thinking way more than we have been recently. about what happens once those innovations are out there. And it’s that second step, that you really get those sorts of utopian visions fulfilled. It’s not just enough to put out the tool and hope it’s messy observational philosophical and technical work. And so that’s what I’m interested in. I want there to be more engineer types like me, people who are trained in technology to be thinking about these things. I think there’s, there’s some, like, I think Jaron Lanier, another computer scientist has been brilliant in the way that he’s thinking about some of these issues. But that’s my umbrella is the intersection of tech and culture has never been more important. And we’ve never needed more people thinking hard about it.

Greg McKeown  

It’s a fabulous way to tie us together here. This this really, I think, both responsible and optimistic sentiment that these tools this that we’ve been given, have tremendous intended and unintended consequences. There’s presents challenge but also an opportunity. And we as if we’re thoughtful, if we step out of the system and not just work in the system, then we can work on the system and create something that can produce tremendous breakthroughs in that will then allow us to solve many of the problems that are currently outside of our reach. Thank you, Cal Newport, for an excellent and enjoyable and inspiring conversation.

Cal Newport   

I enjoyed it, Greg. Thanks.


Essentialism Podcast

Greg McKeown

Wheelhouse Entertainment

Credits:

  • Hosted by Greg McKeown
  • Produced by Greg McKeown and Wheelhouse Entertainment
  • Executive Produced by Greg McKeown, Avi Gandhi, Brent Montgomery, Eric Wattenberg, and Ed Simpson
  • Edited by Emma Gladstone and Deanna Markoff