[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host Matt Bodner. Welcome to the Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind in what makes peak performers tick with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss why you should not follow your passion. The two biggest pitfalls people struggle with trying to build a career they love. The incredible importance of deep work, why deep work is so valuable, and how we can cultivate it, as well as how you can structure your lifestyle to obtain autonomy and mastery with Cal Newport.
The Science of Success continues to grow with nearly 700,000 downloads. Listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting number one New Noteworthy and more. A lot of our listeners are curious about how to organize and remember everything. I get tons of listener emails and comments asking me how I keep track of all the incredible knowledge I get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to podcast, and much more.
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In our previous episode, we discussed the incredible power of kindness, showed how kindness triggers the helper’s high and causes dopamine and oxytocin to flow through your brain. Looked at study data from a 136 countries showing the science behind why kindness is so powerful. We walked through several concrete examples you can use right now to take action and be kind to someone today, and much more, with John Wang. If you want to take small, immediate action to make the world a better place today, listen to that episode now.
[0:02:31.5] MB: Today, we have another amazing guest on the show, Cal Newport. Cal is an associate professor of computer science, at Georgetown University. He previously earned his PhD. from MIT in 2009. He’s authored several bestselling books including So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. Both of which have received incredible praise form the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and much more.
Cal, welcome to the science of success.
[0:02:53.7] CN: Hi Matt, thanks for having me on.
[0:02:54.6] MB: We’re so excited to have you on here today. Before we dig in to some of the topics that you’ve written about, for listeners who may not be familiar, tell us a little bit about you?
[0:03:02.9] CN: My day job is I’m a computer science professor. I study sort of the mathematics behind the algorithms that run a lot of the computer systems at the heart of our digital life today and then my sort of side gig, as you might call it, is to actually write books and that’s where I tackle these type of issues around this technologies affect our life and how people can thrive and succeed in this sort of new world.
[0:03:26.0] MB: In one of your earlier books, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you talk about the concept of sort of pursuing mastery versus pursuing your passion and finding your passion. I’d love to kind of share that with the listeners and for those who haven’t read it, sort of explain to them kind of the core premise of that book.
[0:03:40.6] CN: Yeah, the core idea, which is an idea that got me in some trouble and I like that is that follow your passion is bad advice. That if your goal it to end up passionate about what you do for a living, that advice that you should follow your passion is probably going to reduce the probability that you end up succeeding with the goal. That that career advice that we’re told almost ubiquitously, at least in recent American career conversations and culture, is actually way too simplistic and quite flawed and doesn’t capture the more complicated and more interesting reality of how people actually build careers that are satisfying, that are motivating, that generated a true source of passion.
[0:04:16.0] MB: Why do you say that it’s bad advice to follow your passion?
[0:04:19.5] CN: Well, this idea that you should follow your passion is dependent on two core assumptions being true for it to work. The first assumption that has to be true for this advice to actually make sense is the idea that most people have an identifiable, preexisting passion that they can then use as a foundation for career choices. If you don’t have this clear passion that exist in advance, the advice makes no sense because there’s no passion to follow.
And it turns out we don’t have a lot of evidence that his is really common, especially for younger people. We don’t have a lot of evidence that most people should be expected, to be hard wired with an identifiable passion that’s somehow relevant to the jobs that happen to be available in the 21st century knowledge economy. That first premise is required for this advice to be true, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily hold up.
The second premise that has to be true, the second assumption that has to be true for this advice to make sense is that if you really like something and then you do that thing for your job then you will really like your job, that sort of passion or interest in a subject will transfer over to a professional engagement in the subject and again we don’t have a lot of evidence that that’s true either. It’s one of these syllogisms that kind of makes intuitive sense when you first hear it, “Oh yeah, I really love this so if I’m kind of doing that for my job, I’ll really love my job.”
But we don’t actually have a lot of evidence that that’s true. In fact, think about all the clichéd stories we hear about the passionate amateur photographer, or the passionate amateur baker who ends up miserable when they open a professional photography studio or a bakery. Those type of stories alone tells us that what leads people to be satisfied in their work is much more complicated.
So with those assumptions destabilized, this idea that “oh just figure out what your passion is and do it for your job, and you’ll love your job” goes from seeming like self-evident, great advice to instead being something that seems simplistic and not supported. I think we need to move on to something that’s a little bit more sophisticated if we’re serious about actually crafting meaningful careers.
[0:06:01.5] MB: You know, the second assumption especially kind of rings so true to me that that’s fundamentally flawed. One of my favorite things, one of my favorite kind of hobbies is to play video games. And you know, if I thought about it, if I was forced to play those 12 hours a day and I had to do that in order to kind of earn an income, I think eventually you kind of reach a place where you sort of resent what used to be something that you’re really passionate about and really enjoyed.
[0:06:23.7] CN: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. Because there’s a big difference between what makes you enjoy an activity that you do in your leisure time and what makes people enjoy a profession. What makes you enjoy an activity in your leisure time is its’ own sort of thing, but we have a lot of research on what leads people to find motivation, passion or satisfaction in professional endeavors and it has nothing to do with matching that activity to preexisting interest.
The things we know matter in the professional world is for example, a sense of autonomy. You control what you do, how you do it, when you do it. A sense of mastery is also important. You’re good at what you do, you have a craft that you’re respected for. A sense of impact on the world is very important. A sense of connection to other people on things that matter. These types of traits are what consistently lead people to say, “I’m passionate about what I’ll do,” and you’ll notice that none of those traits have anything to do with you match the job to some sort of preexisting, intrinsic trait you had before you chose the job.
Again, this idea that we’re wired to do something and if you get a job that matches it, you’ll really like that job, it makes sense, it’s intuitive, it’s easy but it really couldn’t be further from the sort of the reality, the psychology of how people actually develop this passionate motivations for their professional endeavors.
[0:07:32.2] MB: I’d love to dig a little bit more into that and kind of the idea of instead of following our passions, I’d love to explore kind of the concepts that you said, what can we do to end up with a job that we’re passionate about?
[0:07:42.1] CN: Once you understand, okay, the types of traits that lead people to love their work or things like autonomy, like mastery, like impact, like relationships and connections, the question then is, “What is the most effective and time efficient way to get those traits in your career?” Now we have a much more specific question that we can actually tackle more technically. If you study this, you study people who have succeeded in obtaining those traits and building passion in their career, you see there are many ways that people get there.
There’s one path in particular that comes up the most often and is probably the most consistently replicate-able and it’s a pretty simple path, though it’s hard to execute, and it basically says, “Skills are your currency.” Those types of traits that make your job great, the type of traits that make people love their work are rare and valuable. If you want them in your career, no one cares that you want them, it’s not enough to say, “That would be great, how can I get them?” You have to have something valuable to offer in return in a job market that’s almost always going to be rare and valuable skills.
So the most consistent path to building passion your career is to go through an aggressive and intense apprenticeship phase, where you are trying to build up rare and valuable skills, things that are unambiguously valued by the marketplace. Step two is you then use those skills as your currency or as your leverage to obtain in your work, these highly desirable traits that lead people to great satisfaction; the autonomy, the impact, the mastery, the connection with other people and so on.
So it’s really this kind of two step process. You build skills and then you invest those skills to try to gain more control of your career and steer it towards this traits that we know you really enjoy. So if someone says, “I really don’t like my work,” the right question is not, “Well, let’s do some introspection and see if this is your true passion. If not, you need to switch your job.” The right question is, “Well how much rare and valuable skills do you have? How valuable are you to your field of your marketplace?”
If your answer is “a lot”, then go out and use that stuff as leverage and if the answer is, “Well, I’m not really that valuable, I don’t have any rare and valuable skills,” then the right answer is not “Switch your job and follow your passion.” It’s, “Well we got to build up that capital quick, we need to get you good at what you do, we need to get you some leverage and authority in the job market place as quickly as possible.” So it’s really a focus on not what does this job or the world offer me, it’s instead a focus on what am I offering to the job, what am I offering to the world of value?
[0:09:52.1] MB: I think that’s such a critical distinction and you hit the nail in the head in the sense that people are often asking the completely wrong question. Sitting there thinking, “Well what about this job that I’m not passionate about, should I be changing?” When in reality, what they really should focus on is, “What can I do to better serve this job so that I can then build leverage and create a job that will give me autonomy and mastery and the things that truly lead to a living and passionate life?”
[0:10:15.6] CN: Yeah, and the hard part about it, the reason why a lot of people fall short is that there is two pitfalls in actually executing the strategy and a lot of people who are sort of aspirational to have a really meaningful job falling to at least one of these two pitfalls. The first pitfall is trying to make a move to get these great traits in your life before you have the skills, or what I sometimes call the “career capital”, to back it up. If you say, “Okay, I want autonomy in my life I want a ton of mastery and connection and impact,” and you’re 21 years old, you have no particular skills built up and you quite your job and go start an ill faded online business venture or some such, without anything to back it up.
Well you say, “If I was really successful at this, I’d have all these traits,” that’s a pitfall. You haven’t built the skill yet, you haven’t built the career capital. On the other hand, something you see just as commonly, is people who build up a lot of really rare skills or invaluable skills but they never step back and use it as leverage. We have how many sort of miserable workaholic lawyers you know for example who are actually incredibly valuable to the world and to the job market place. They have this very valuable skills they built up, but they never stepped back and used them as leverage. They’re good without actually using that to build a good job.
So I think what’s hard about it is avoiding both pitfalls. It’s first of all making sure you have enough skill to actually have real leverage before making the big changes. But then two, when you get there, having the courage to actually pull the trigger on that and use the skills and take them out for a spin and so if you can navigate both those pitfalls then I think you have a pretty consistent path to passion.
[0:11:41.2] MB: So for somebody who is listening now that feels stuck in a job that they kind of feel like they’re not passionate about, your advice would be focus first on developing a truly valuable skill set before you think about kind of getting to the next step of building the pillars of what actually, create a passion and career?
[0:11:58.1] CN: Yeah, that’s right. There are two things you have to have, you have the career capital, which is again my metaphor for these rare and valuable skills; the more skills you have, the more career capital you have. You have to make good investments on the capital once you have it. Those are the two questions you have to ask if you're unhappy in a position, “What are my career capital stores look like and am I ready to be making investments?”
If you have good career capital, you need to start thinking about investments, which is, “How do I use my skills as leverage to change my situation in the way that resonates?” If you don’t have good career capital skill stores, the question is, “What can I do to build those up as quickly as possible?” Now of course, I’ll give you the caveat; it’s not the case that every person can be passionate in every job, but I think the threshold is much lower than we like to think. We like to think right now in our current culture conversation that there’s one job in which you can be passionate. That’s what I think is nonsense.
I think for most people, there’s many different paths in which if they build and invest career capital, they could be very passionate. That being said, there’s obviously some that aren’t going to be, right? If there’s a job where you hate the people, you’re not going to be able to go passion in that no matter how much per capital you get. If there’s a job that is doing something that is actively against your values. You’re not going to be happy in that no matter how much career capital you have.
If you have a job in an industry that is not going to allow you to invest career capital, they say, “I don’t care how good you get, this is the path you have to follow and you have no flexibility. There is no investment that you can make in your skills to change things.” You’re probably not going to be able to build passion in it. So not every job is going to be a source of passion but many jobs will.
So you first kind of want to do this filtering, “Hey, is this a position where if I got really good and use that skill as leverage, I could see a lot of opportunities for me to build compelling paths?” If the answer is yes, that’s good enough. Now you can buckle down and execute this strategy, which is assess your career capital stores, get them large and then start making investments.
[0:13:45.3] MB: So we’ve talked a lot about building skills and developing career capital, I’d love to transition into talking about a skill that you’ve written extensively about, which is deep work. I’d love to kind of begin with how do you define deep work?
[0:13:57.9] CN: Deep work, which is a concept that came in part out of this conversation we just had, sort of a reaction to people asking, “How do I build up career capital really fast?” It is a very specific activity, which is when you’re focusing without distraction for a long period of time on a cognitively demanding task. So you’re giving something hard, your full, completely unbroken mental attention. If you’re doing that, you are executing deep work.
[0:14:23.0] MB: You write about the idea that deep work is both rare and valuable, tell us a little bit about that?
[0:14:27.6] CN: What’s interesting about this activity of deep work in our current moment is that, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. That is, the better you are at performing deep work, the more intense levels of concentration you can obtain, the more time you’re able to spend in these states of concentration, the more valuable you’re going to be to the economy, especially in the knowledge sector.
The term the economists used was “deep work is like the killer app for the knowledge economy”. At the same time, it’s becoming more rare. People are becoming worse at performing deep work. People’s ability to concentrate is diminishing, people’s tolerance or scheduling ability to actually have long bits of unbroken time is also rapidly going away. So we have an economic mismatch.
A skill that is becoming more valuable at exactly the same time that it’s actually becoming more rare, which any economist will tell you, means that it’s going to be really, really valued in the marketplace. So I see it as an opportunity that if you’re one of the few to systematically cultivate your ability to do deep work, you’re going to have huge value in the marketplace just like if you’re back in the early 1980’s and getting out ahead of I’m going to really learn computer programming and advanced level.
You’d have a lot of value in the marketplace. You’d be out in front of a trend. I think deep work is that sort of killer app of our current moment. That those who systematically train that skill can take advantage of that economic mismatch and find themselves with a whole bunch of career capital in the marketplace.
[0:15:50.5] MB: So, the implications of this are that for the fact that it’s both increasingly rare and increasingly valuable, it’s something that’s going to become really in demand and people who focus on kind of developing this ability to focus on deep work are going to be rewarded substantially?
[0:16:07.4] CN: Yeah, I believe that to be true.
[0:16:08.8] MB: So for a listener who kind of thinks about this and says, “Oh, you know, he’s kind of a luddite, he doesn’t really get the importance of social media and staying connected and being plugged in to everything,” how would you respond to somebody like that?
[0:16:20.5] CN: The marketplace is pretty simple. It rewards things that are rare and valuable. If you can do something that people value and not a lot of people can do it, it will reward you. If you can’t, it won’t. There really is no shortcut around it. There really is no way to take something that’s kind of fun and easily replicatable and if you just do a lot of it that it’s going to somehow make you very valuable to the marketplace.
This, for example, is my issue with social media as being seen as some sort of key to your career. Being on social media, doing hash tags, retweeting things, putting things on the Facebook wall is fundamentally and easily replicatable, low value activity. There is no hard earned skill involved in doing that and you can wave around a lot of terms like network effect and connectivity and serendipity and connection and opportunity.
But it doesn’t change the underlying fact that it’s just an easily replicatable, low value activity and that cannot be the foundation of the marketplace really rewarding you. My observation, especially when I was researching So Good They Can’t Ignore You, I was going out there in all sorts of different industries, all sorts of different fields, to find people who were very passionate about their work who were at the top of their game is that the way they got there is that they built up, systematically and deliberately, a craft or a skill that was very valuable.
As they built up the skill, there is plenty of opportunities, a lot of interesting things happened in their life, they were connected to interesting people, a lot of things came across to trans them. That was not the issue. The hard part was building up the skill and if being on social media is getting in the way of doing that, you have the equation entirely backwards.
Rare and valuable skills is what’s rewarded. Building a craft, applying a craft, that’s what the market wants to see. that’s the foundation of a life of passion and meaning and satisfaction and anything else, it could be fun, it could be diverting, but it’s not going to be at the core of that success.
[0:18:02.9] MB: I’d love to dig into some of the data about why deep work is so valuable.
[0:18:08.2] CN: There’s really two big reasons why deep work has this growing value, the first reason has to do with learning complicated things. So in order to learn something that’s new or complicated, you have to enter a state of deliberate practice. A state in which you’re giving intense concentration to the task at hand because we now know from decades of psychology research that to learn something new, you essentially have to stretch your comfort level with that information just like you would have to stretch your muscle past where it’s comfortable to actually get muscle growth.
That’s a state of deep work. So the better you are at concentrating intensely and maintaining intense concentration, the easier it will be for you to master cognitively demanded or complicated to do things. Now, the ability to quickly adapt and learn complicated new things is crucial in the increasingly competitive knowledge economy. If you can’t keep up with the new systems and ideas, you're going to fall behind. So that’s one where deep work is really becoming more valuable.
The other is, it helps you produce higher quality work in less time. The amount you produce per hour spent in deep work and the quality of what you produce can be significantly more than if you’re working in a more fragmented state or a state with lots of just checks of inboxes and phones. So if you’re very comfortable concentrating intensely on something, giving something your full or cognitive attention for long periods of time with no distraction, you can produce at an elite level.
This too is becoming very valuable in the increasingly competitive knowledge economy because if you’re not producing at an elite level and whatever field you happen to be in, you’re going to be at increased danger of being automated, outsourced, or replaced. So deep work is like this meta skill. The meta skill that fuels the more concrete skills that are necessary to stay on the right part of the sort of growing my modal divide in our increasingly competitive knowledge economy, if you want to be on the winning side of this increasing divide, you’ve got to be able to pick up parts quickly, you’ve got to be able to produce an elite level. The better you are deep worked, the more you prioritize it, the better you're going to be at those two things, which we know are going to be crucial to staying ahead.
[0:19:58.5] MB: So the idea that you can produce higher quality work in less time, is deep work the kind of thing that you need to be working for 12, 15 hours a day, totally concentrated? Or can it work in shorter bursts?
[0:20:10.6] CN: 90 minutes is about the lower limit where you’re going to start to get a lot of use out of deep work. The reason is that what deep work helps combat is an effect called attention residue, which says when you shift your attention to another target and then back to your original piece of focus, that new target can leave a residue in your head that actually reduces your cognitive performance for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears out.
This is especially true for sort of open loop style targets. So if you shift real quickly and see an email in your email inbox or you know you need to answer and it’s semi-urgent but you don’t want to answer it right now and then you shift back to the hard thing you're trying to do, that’s going to be a sort of a very strong layer of attention residue which is going to, we now know from studies, is going to really significantly decrease your cognitive performance. Your brain is going to be operating at a lower level. You’ll produce less and it’s going to take you longer to produce things and this can take a while to clear out.
So if you aside 90 minutes for deep work, for example, you might spend the first 20 or 30 kind of clearing out every last vestige of that attention residue and then the next 60 minutes you’re really operating at a high level and actually getting some things done. That attention residue effect, however, is also why deep work requires by definition zero distraction. A glance to an inbox, a glance at a social media feed invalidates that period of work is being deep work, it’s no longer deep work and the reason is, as we know, those quick glances can have an impact for 15, 20 minutes.
So if you’re glancing like most knowledge workers do, you say, “No, I’m single tasking. I’m just trying to write this thing, I’m giving it my full attention and I’m only just glancing at my inbox every 10 minutes just to make sure nothing important is in there or just glancing at Twitter just to give my brain a little bit of a break,” You’re essentially keeping yourself in a sustained state of reduced cognitive performance.
It’s like taking an antineurotropic. A drug that’s optimized to make your mind worse or perform at a lower level. So that does it all to keep work, you're not going to get the benefits of high level production. For those reasons, you need at least 90 minutes to do deep work but certainly 15 hours. You absolutely have to be completely distraction free for a period of time to actually count this step and get the true benefits of that.
[0:22:12.0] MB: Personally, how much time do you schedule either sort of daily or weekly for deep work and how do you escape all of the kind of the myriad of distractions, everything from phone notifications, to emails, to colleagues coming down the hallway and asking you a question?
[0:22:27.5] CN: I spend two and a half to three days in a five day work week doing deep work on a typical week. The way I make that happen is I actually schedule my deep work on my calendar about one month in advance. So it’s on their far enough in advance, that time will be protected before people start asking, “Hey, can you do a meeting, can you jump on a call, can you do an interview?” So I know that time is protected but before people are going to start requesting for that time.
I used to just try to schedule it the week of, but the problem is, by the time you actually got to the week, you would have agreed to a lot of things, each of which is reasonable by itself but spread out enough that you have no unfragmented pieces left in your schedule. So I like to do at least one or two full deep work days where it’s essentially that’s all I’m doing and maybe get another half day of deep work in there as well.
When I’m doing deep work, I’m doing deep work. If someone tries to contact me, they don’t get through to me until I’m done with the deep work and if someone’s like, “Hey, I couldn’t get through to you.” It’s like, “Yeah, I was in a thing and now I’m not. Now I can get back in touch with you.” That’s okay. It could be annoying for some people who are used to working in this sort of reactive way where everyone’s available all the time and you can have these back and forth conversations, too bad.
I guess if that’s your work flow that you require this sort of ad hoc, on demand communication with everyone you work with, you’re not going to work well with me. That’s how I do it. I protect it very seriously. I see it at the core of succeeding on what I do and it makes other things clear. How do I schedule meetings, how do I schedule this other things? Well, if today is not set aside for deep work then it’s fair game for that. So I have plenty of time still available for meetings or for interviews like we’re doing right now or for calls or coffee. I’m not cut off from the world, but it’s a clear division for me. This is when I’m doing deep work, this day is open game for other types of things.
[0:24:06.1] MB: I’d love to look at some sort of successful people who have used deep work and some examples that you talk about in the book of kind of people who leveraged deep work to produce incredible outcomes. Are there any particular stories from the book that jump out at you as kind of some of your favorites?
[0:24:20.6] CN: Well one of my favorites, because it’s kind of close to what I do, is the work habits of the professor and author Adam Grant. He’s a business professor at Wharton but your audience probably knows him from his more popular books like Give and Take and Originals is his current book. The thing about Adam is, in addition to being a very successful and bestselling writer, he’s also a very successful academic.
He became a full professor at a very young age and was the youngest full professor at Wharton and one of the youngest full professors in the history of Wharton. If you wonder how did he do this, how did he become the youngest full professor at the best business school in the country, l at the same time he’s also this bestselling writer? It turns out if you ask him that deep work is at the core of his strategy that he leverages deep work and by doing so is able to produce a lot more than his peers. In particular what he does is at the high granularity level, that’s sort of the high level, he puts all of his courses into one semester.
So instead of teaching some in the fall and some in the spring, he puts all of his courses typically in the fall. When he’s in the fall, he says, “I’m teaching, I’m there, my door is open, I’m focusing on my classes, my students can come in.” He’s won best teacher award at least once at Wharton, which is very hard to do so it works fine. Then that means the spring and summer that follows can be dedicated much more purely to working on his research, which is the key obviously to success at a school like Wharton.
Within those research periods, what he then does is he’ll put aside periods of time that will be multi days in length where he’ll go deep with zero distraction on whatever the cognitive task is required to make progress on his current research projects. So, “I’m going to go deep, I’m going to figure out this data or I’m just going to write the whole paper. One, two, three, maybe four days in a row.”
During those periods, he puts an out of office responder on his email so that his colleagues will see it as if he’s overseas. “Look, I’m out of office until Thursday, I’ll get back to you then.” So he’s completely unreachable and he just goes deep when he’s working on his research. Now if you actually count up the total number of hours that Adam Grant spends in those sessions working on research, I don’t think it would be more than what sort of his average peer spends on research year round at a competitive or comparable elite business institution. Yet, if you look at Adam Grant’s CV, he’s publishing almost the factor of two more peer view journal articles in the typical professor at a typical elite business university. This is how he became a full professor at such a young age.
So what’s happening is, because he’s prioritizing deep work, long sessions of completely undistracted time, he is producing more quality and more output per hour spent working? In the same number of hours that one of his peers works, he is producing almost twice as many papers and because he’s focusing on deep work, he wants to concentrate intensely, he protects his ability to concentrate, he does it for long periods of time. He’s getting a lot more out of his time.
[0:27:02.3] MB: The kind of opposite of deep work, you talk about the concept of shallow work. How would you define that?
[0:27:07.8] CN: I just define shallow work to be anything that’s not deep work. So if it doesn’t match the definition of deep work, it is shallow work. There is nothing intrinsically bad with shallow work and obviously almost every job requires different degrees of shallow work just for your position to operate. You don’t do shallow work, you’re going to lose your job. But I think it’s important to make a distinction between deep work and shallow work because they’re not the same thing.
So it’s not just enough to say, “I’m busy. I’m working all the time.” The real question is how much your work is keep work versus shallow work because the right way to look at it is if you work for someone else, shallow work is what’s going to keep you from getting fired, deep work is what’s going to get you promoted. So if you’re busy, that means nothing if what you’re mainly doing is shallow work because you’re actually not doing a type of stuff that’s going to get you ahead.
If you run your own business, it’s the same sort of idea. Shallow work might be what keeps you from going bankrupt in the next few months, but deep work is what’s going to 10X your revenue over the next year. So the distinction is important not because shallow is pejorative or shallow work is bad, but it’s because you have to treat both type of efforts differently and recognize that shallow work might be necessary but deep work is the whole ball game in terms of moving ahead.
It’s where you master new skills, it’s where you produce those skills in elite level to produce things that are valuable. The stuff that gets you noticed, the stuff that gets you promoted, the stuff that gets your company to grow. So the question is not how busy you are, how much work you're doing. The question is, how much deep work are you able to do in your typical week, because that’s really what’s going to move the needle.
[0:28:29.3] MB: In many ways, that seems very aligned to me, of kind of the concept of urgency versus importance and the idea of that in many cases the kind of not urgent but important items are often the biggest, most high leveraged items that can have the most substantial impact on your life and in your career.
[0:28:46.2] CN: Yeah, it’s the same type of idea that’s come up before. This is actually just getting more specific about what the actual work activities feel like. For an artist, this is obvious. An artist knows the time he or she spends at the canvas is the time that matters, right? Producing art, trying to produce better art, that creative struggle is everything in terms of the artists success. And the other stuff, like doing their taxes or sitting with the catalogs and order new paints and canvass, it’s obviously something, though a necessary evil, is something that they know clearly, “This not helping my career. If I spent all day doing my taxes and ordering new paints and easels I’m not going to get anywhere.”
The reality in the competitive knowledge economy is essentially everyone’s an artist and so you really have to worry how much time am I actually spending struggling with a blank canvass and how much time I’m spending in doing my taxes and ordering the paints? And I think for a huge segment of the knowledge economy, people are spending all of their time on a proverbial taxes and paint ordering side of things.
Email, meetings, PowerPoint, social media post, engaging with people in social media, that’s all the equivalent of the artist doing their taxes and ordering new paints and brushes. You’ve got to do it at some, but it’s the time that you spend at the canvass the only time that’s actually going to help you produce value, succeed, to grow, to make money, all the stuff that you actually care about.
[0:29:59.9] MB: And I think you use a phrase in the book where you talk about the comfort of the artificial busyness of shallow work of sitting in your inbox and firing off emails. When in reality, that’s not really creating a lot of value.
[0:30:11.6] CN: Yeah, it’s not rare and valuable. Anyone can CC an email, anyone can reply to an email, everyone does it. There is over a trillion sent each year. There’s no way that sending emails is going to ultimately lead you to more value or producing more advancements in your career or in your company’s growth. It’s producing things that are valuable require a sort of sustained, intense concentration and the knowledge economy, your brain is the tool you have.
So using that at a high level is absolutely the biggest return activity you can do and I think our cultural conversation has veered away from this too much and we really love secondary benefits. “Well but if I connect with this person on Facebook and then it could turn out down the road that they become a client and that client becomes a big source of revenue,” and then from that observation suddenly you are spending 99% of your time on Facebook connecting to people, doing things on Facebook and not actually producing things of value.
I think that focus on secondary benefits is a real issue because their value is being way over emphasized and it way under emphasizes the value of actually producing stuff that requires skill and that pushed your brain to it’s limit. That’s 90% of the whole thing. That’s the whole ballgame in some sense. There’s no amount of seeking out the secondary effects of connectivity and networking and communication and opportunities and all these sort of things. None of that is going to even hold a candle to the value that is produced by doing things that are rare and valuable. Honing your skill, applying your skill that produce things that are valuable.
So I think we’re in this moment right now where inspired by advances and network technology that we’ve adopted a lot of that terminology in the business world and we are focusing way too much attention on the importance of connections and serendipity and out there selling your services and letting people know what you are and not nearly enough attention on the thing that we’ve known for millennial of skilled labor, like the core to success and satisfaction, which is actually honing the skill and applying it to the produce things that people care about. No amount of social media posting in the world can compensate for “I don’t really have something to offer that is all that rare in value”.
[0:32:09.1] MB: For somebody who’s listening that is caught up in the world of shallow work and busyness, is it possible for them to train themselves to transition to a world of deep work?
[0:32:21.3] CN: It is possible and I think the keyword is “train”, because this is something that people often get wrong. People often think about deep work as a habit like flossing their teeth. Something they know how to do is they need to make more time to do it. They’re like, “I should probably turn off my devices more. Do some detoxing, spend more time doing deep work.” The reality is that deep work is a skill much more like playing the guitar. It’s something that gets better with practice, and if you haven’t been practicing it pretty seriously you’re not going to be very good at it.
So if you take the average American knowledge worker who spends very little time in a state of intense concentration and you whisk them away and you put them in a Faraday cage in a cave somewhere where no electronic signal can possibly penetrate it and you give them, “Here, you’re going to do this one hard thing and you have no possibility of distraction. You’re going to be here all day.” They would probably struggle and probably not produce much because they haven’t actually developed their ability to do deep work. Just like if you took someone off the street and put them on stage with a guitar and said, “Okay play a concert,” they would struggle to do that too because they haven’t practiced the guitar yet. They don’t have any skill at it.
That distinction is important to make because a lot of people who don’t recognize that dabble with deep work and then it doesn’t go well. It’s uncomfortable. They don’t like it, their attention is fragmented and they say, “I must not be a deep work person,” and they give up on it all together. But if you recognize that it’s a skill that you have to train, then you say, “Well yeah, of course this is uncomfortable and didn’t go well, I’m new to it. How do I get better?” So a long preface to my answer, but you’re asking the right question when you say, “How do you transition or train into deep work?”
And I can tell you the very high level there’s two things involved. One is the active efforts you can do to actively stretch your ability to concentrate. So there’s actual activities you can do such as Pomodoros focused on intense focus. You start at a small amount of time and gradually move them up productive meditation or you go on walks and try to hold a single problem in your head and make progress on it and so on.
There’s also passive things you have to do, which is changes you make to your lifestyle the sort of set the foundation where it’s possible for you to develop a deep focus ability. So just like if you wanted to be a professional athlete, let’s say you want to be a professional triathlete, there’d be active things you do. Particular training runs, training rides, training swims you do to increase your athletic ability. But there would also be changes you did to your lifestyle so that you would be more generally fit. You would eat well, you would get a lot of sleep, you won’t smoke, for example.
The same split holds we’re getting better at deep work. The active stuff is important but so is the passive stuff and to me that means restructuring your lifestyle in particular so that you don’t live in this constant exposure to novel stimuli. You have to structure your lifestyle such that you’re bored more often and that you break the cycle of addiction that at the slightest hint of boredom you whip out a phone or a computer screen to get yourself bathed in some sort of quick novel stimuli so you’re not bored for a moment.
If you do that, if you’re bathing yourselves in this distractions, your keeping these addictions going. It’s like drinking milkshakes or smoking if you’re the professional athlete. It’s the things that you are doing outside of work are making it much harder to succeed with the sort of active things you’re trying to do inside work. So you’ve got to train your ability to do deep work. It’s going to require active activities to stretch your ability but it’s also going to require passive activities, changes to your lifestyle that set the foundation for it to be possible for you to use your brain at a high level.
[0:35:26.9] MB: What are a few of those active activities? I know you mentioned Pomodoro, what are some of the things for somebody who’s listening that wants to start training their concentration?
[0:35:35.9] CN: Yeah, so a couple of things I would suggest. One, start scheduling some times on your calendar for doing this deep work training. Don’t just count on the time being right, don’t just count on being, “Hey, I think I don’t have too much to do and I’m in the mood to concentrate.” Don’t count on that. Schedule it in your calendar. At first it doesn’t have to be much. Do two or three hours a week, one or two sessions, put on your calendar, treat it like a meeting or appointment.
So if someone tries to schedule something during that time, treat it like you have a doctor’s appointment, “Oh, I have a thing from one to 3:30, but we could do it after that or before it.” People already understand the semantics of appointments and schedules and they’ll respect that. Two, during those times you can do a variety of different exercises. The Pomodoro thing is important. The key thing there is increasing the amount of time and during the Pomodoro itself, giving as intense concentration as you can on what you’re doing.
A key caveat is that even a slightest glance of at inbox means that Pomodoro doesn’t count. That was a failed deep work session and so what you want to see is that you’re having consistent success with a given timeframe. That you are able to do Pomodoros of that duration that are non-failed with no glancing at distraction and which you also kept your concentration high. Once you are regularly succeeding at a given time interval, then add 10 or 15 minutes to it.
So you might want to start with 20 minutes. If you’re new to it, it might take you a couple of weeks to get comfortable with that and then you go to 30, then you go to 45 and so on. Productive meditation I mentioned, that’s about you go for a walk and you try to hold a single professional challenge in your brain and make progress on it, just in your head. The meditation pieces are referenced to mindfulness meditation, which says if you notice your attention wondering off the problem you are trying to solve, which it will do, you just notice it and bring it back. Notice it and bring it back. It’s pull ups for your brain. Do it for three weeks, you will be surprised by how much more steadier you are able to keep your concentration.
The final thing I will mention is essentially any activity, whether it’s professional or not, that requires sustained concentration and that you get immediate negative feedback if you are concentration slips, is also like calisthenics for your brain. So playing a musical instrument, playing a skilled sport, playing a skilled board game or card game, anything where you have to really concentrate and if you let your attention slip, you’re going to miss your chord on the guitar or miss the pass in the touch football game, or make a bad bet in the poker game, that’s also training.
You are training, you are giving your mind practice with focus on something hard, and if you slip your concentration at all, you are going to know about it. So those are three examples of many that I think could actually just like pushups, like pull ups, like going for sprints but for your brain you can see pretty quick improvements to your abilities to sustain concentration.
[0:38:11.3] MB: So potentially something like a video game could actually be a tool that could help you maintain concentration if it really draws you in and creates a lot of focus?
[0:38:20.1] CN: Yeah, even a video game could be, right? If it was a cognitively demanding game and you get clear feedback, which you often you do in these games, right? If your attention slips bad things happen. You get killed or your ship crashes or — you can tell I don’t play video games but absolutely. So all of those things can help you actually train your ability to concentrate.
[0:38:36.5] MB: You touched on the idea of cultivating or embracing boredom. I love to dig into that a little bit more.
[0:38:40.5] CN: Yeah, so this comes back to this general cognitive fitness idea that you have to set the general background capability for your brain to succeed and perform at a high level and to me, embracing boredom is the cognitive equivalent of living a generally healthy lifestyle in the world of sports and what I mean by embracing boredom is that you need on a regular basis every single day occasions where you’re bored, you would like to see other stimuli and you don’t. So you don’t look at your phone, you don't look at the computer screen you just keep doing what you’re doing and you’re bored.
Why this is important is that if you don’t do this, your brain will build up this addiction in which it demands and expects stimuli at the slightest hint of boredom. The reason I care about that is because deep work is boring. At least in the technical definition of the term of being an absence of novel stimuli, if you’re focusing on one thing for a long period of time, it’s not novel after the first 15 to 20 minutes.
So if your brain has learned, it gets a shiny treat when it gets bored when the stimuli gets boring, it’s not going to tolerate deep work. It’s not going to keep its focus on something. It’s just going to refuse. It’s just going to say, “Well, wait a second, we get a cigarette every 15 minutes. Where’s my cigarette? No, I am not going to concentrate on this, give me my tweet or internet break,” and so you have to break that addiction.
You have to break that addiction if you’re going to succeed with using your brain at the elite level and the best way to do it to give yourself plenty of opportunities to be bored during the day, then your brain loses this association that it always gets stimuli. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that you get rid of your technology. What it means it that your technology no longer gets to be ubiquitous in your life. If, for example, you really like Facebook then great but say when are you going to use Facebook.
“I really like it and tonight at seven I’m going to go on it and I’m going to check out on what’s going on, I’m going to check up on people, check in on my groups but until I get there, I don’t check it.” If you really like Twitter say, “Okay I’m going to put aside some time in the day to go through my Twitter feed and see what’s going on and check in with people and tweet some stuff,” that’s fine but it is not a background ubiquitous activity.
If you like web surfing or MLB Trade room or some type of thing that keeps people like me occupied these days, that’s fine but there’s a particular time in which you do it. So it’s not necessarily embracing boredom about rejecting technology but about rejecting the premise that it gets to be ubiquitous presence in your life and say, “I will decide when I’m going to use technology just like I don’t keep a TV with me at all times during the day and turn it on at the slightest hint of boredom. It’s a completely reasonable thing to do and it has very positive consequences.
[0:41:00.5] MB: Yeah, I think that is something so important and it’s so easy to get trapped in a mental addiction of, “Oh I need to look at my phone. I need to click the newest thing on Reddit. I need to see who’s messaging me.” It’s so easy to, you know, your brain really develops an addiction to these new shiny objects and I think taking a detox from that is something that would benefit everybody.
[0:41:21.2] CN: Yeah and the key thing here is it’s not about occasionally taking a break from it. In fact I switched the script there. Because imagine we’re talking about losing weight and imagine I said, “Okay, here’s the key. The reason you’re gaining weight is because you are eating all this terrible food and you are not exercising enough. So here’s my plan, you’re going to take one day a week and on that day, you’re going to eat healthy and you’re going to exercise.”
People say, “Okay, I’m still going to gain weight,” right? It’s like six days out of seven I’m eating crappily and not exercising. It’s the same thing with the addiction of the stimuli. If you say, “Well, every once in a while I want to put away my technology. I’ll take the Sabbath, on Saturday and not use my technology.” That’s not going to cure the problem. You have to flip it and you have to say, “I’m occasionally take breaks from not having all of these stimuli to expose myself to it.”
So I don’t like the detox term or the digital Sabbath term because it means your standard state is exposing yourself to these addictive stimuli and then you occasionally take a break. That’s not going to change digital addiction any more than taking one day a week to eat healthily is going to change weight gain. It really needs to be your default state is one in which you are not exposing yourself to the stimuli and then like sweets or drinking whisky or something like that, it’s a scheduled activity you do occasionally. It’s the thing that you occasionally do not the thing you occasionally take a break from.
[0:42:32.0] MB: Putting in that context makes it so clear that it’s so easy to delude ourselves and think it’s okay to constantly be in these mental addiction loops. But when you put it in the context of food and dieting, it becomes fairly obvious that it really is a transition that almost everybody listening would benefit from making.
[0:42:49.6] CN: Yeah and once you see it that way, I think it becomes a lot more clear but it’s very hard to see these things when they’re new and I think this is the issue. The addiction is strong and I’ve noticed this, it’s the same thing you see when people have addictions in other parts of their lives when you start to push back on it, you sometimes get defensiveness and “it’s not about this, it’s about that” and it’s exactly the reaction I often get when I’ll say like I did recently in the New York Times column, “Hey, I don’t think social media is helping your career as much as you think it is. More people should quit.”
A lot of people got upset and it reminded me a lot about, you are telling the smoker, “I don’t know if you should be really smoking the cigarettes.” They’re like, “Ah, it’s about this and that and liberty and freedom,” and really it’s “don’t take away my cigarettes”. The same thing happened when I said, “I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that this is helping people’s careers as much as they say it is, and I know the distraction is hurting it, so I really think a lot more people should quit.”
I got a lot of pushback but very little of the pushback was, “Let me tell you particularly where you’re wrong. Here are the ways in which this is massively helping my career and massively helping other people’s careers.” It was more just sort of “You don’t understand social media and it’s the future and you’ll never know and people are on it and I know this guy who got a book deal,” and it was this frenzy of anger and response. That’s typical with an addiction. I think we should be more scared of this stuff than we are. We’re not going to leave technology behind. I’m a computer scientist for god sakes, but I think we can absolutely say, “I get to determine how I use it and not the other way around”.
[0:44:07.5] MB: The crux of this argument in many ways is that we’re going through sort of economic transition and a technical transition and we’re still learning how to adapt to it. What groups do you think will be the biggest beneficiaries from this transition and the rising importance of deep work?
[0:44:26.6] CN: Well certainly people who have embraced deep work is going to be the group that benefits. Now are you asking for where we are going to see like what types of groups are we going to see that split the deepers and non deep happens sort of more pronounced or first?
[0:44:39.5] MB: Yeah, for sure.
[0:44:40.6] CN: Yeah, well I don’t know for sure. It’s very hard to predict economic trends but there’s a couple of places where we are going to see this divide happen quickly and I think one of those is going to be in the world of computer programming and software development. Right now, there is not a major emphasis on protecting and cultivating people’s ability to do deep work, especially computer programmers, which are essentially brains your hiring to do this highly skilled thing at the highest possible level they can do it.
My prediction is we’re going to see a split in the next 10 years or so where there’s going to be a leading edge of companies that really aggressively start to prioritize deep work. Forget open offices and we’re starting to see now. Like Fog Creek Software is really good about this. They build these individual offices that are optimized to increase your ability to concentrate but I think we’re going to see more companies like that.
And maybe some of the big Silicon Valley companies will make the first shift where they’ll say, “Forget open offices, it’s going to be incredibly quiet private offices, and you know what? Maybe our programmer shouldn’t have email addresses. We can hire someone for your team to handle all incoming messages and they can tell you once a day what you need to know. I don’t want that distraction and forget Slack. I certainly don’t want my programmer with a Slack thing going, right?
That’s like buying a piece of expensive factory equipment and running it at 10% of it’s capacity because it makes your life a little easier. And a couple of companies I think in that place first are going to make the shift first because you really see, in computer programming in particular, giant differences in ROI depending on how skilled the output is. Really great code is really much better than okay code in terms of the value of the software. That’s where I think we’re going to see this split first. There will be some small companies and followed by a couple of big companies that really push towards more of a deep work-centric approach.
Suddenly, they’re going to have a much easier time hiring people. They’re going to become much more productive. They’re going to produce more innovative software. They’re going to do so in smaller teams and then there’s going to be this tipping point where 10 years after that, everyone in that industry is going to be better. So that’s the bell weather I am looking through right now is where we’re first going to see some people get huge advantages by embracing these ideas.
[0:46:36.8] MB: What roles or positions do you think might kind of be the exception to deep work hypothesis?
[0:46:42.6] CN: Basically any role where honing and applying a cognitively demanding craft is not at the core of the value that you offer. So there’s a bunch of different things that fall into this category. There are a lot of, for example, entry level jobs that fall into this category where you are not hired — right out of college we hire you, you’re an assistant for this group or something like that. You are not hired for a hard one skill that they want you to apply to produce craft. You are there to make everyone else’s life easier.
So that’s a case where long periods of time spent in deep concentration is actually not bringing any value. However, if you are in one of those positions you should be trying to build up rare and valuable skills on your own time so they can move out of that as quickly as possible. I think high level management positions, it’s debatable the value with deep work. I’ve argued, for example, in the book that CEO’s of large companies are better understood as decision engines.
The right way to understand the role of a CEO in a valuable company is that they have a lot of experience so they have a large base of experience but also they have a consistent vision for the company and then other people bring them decisions, should we do this or should we do that? And based on those experience and that consistent vision they make decisions and that’s probably a more effective use of their time than them actually trying to do the deep work behind the decisions by themselves or spend 10 hours thinking deeply on a consistent basis.
Also of course, I think people that are in primarily communication oriented roles. I mean if you’re in sales, you’re schedule is going to be fragmented in the sense that it actually calls and touches and contacts the core. Now you can do that deeply in the sense of, “I want to do this as well as possible and really study up on sale success,” but you’re not going to have long periods of unbroken time. There’s other areas as well. There’s a lot of people who do social media professionally.
All they do all day is social media on behalf of brands. I mean obviously it’s a position in which you’re best serving people by actually just being on social media communicating with people to go on these tools. So there’s certainly jobs where deep work doesn’t help but I think it’s much more rare than people imagine and essentially, the key question is, is the biggest value you can offer to yourself or your organization you applying a hard one craft that produce things that are rare and valuable? If the answer is yes then the more deep work you do, the better.
[0:48:52.0] MB: What’s one piece of homework that you would give our listeners to implement some of the ideas we’ve talked about today?
[0:48:57.1] CN: I always tell people to do two things. The first is to drop on your calendar for the next few weeks, those deep work blocks I talked about. Make it like a doctor’s appointment, protect them and just get some practice, two to three hours a week doing deep work. Two, make some passive lifestyle changes and I think one of the most important easiest changes you can make is start scheduling the time that you’re going to spend receiving entertainment or distraction from the internet.
Maybe at first you are scheduling a lot of time for that, fine. But have some autonomy over it and start scheduling when you’re going to look at social media, when you’re going to look at the internet, when you’re going to stream entertainment and start to gain some control about when you do that, when you don’t. So make that lifestyle change, drop two to three to four hours of deep work into your weekly schedule in your calendar.
Do that for a month, I think you will lay a good preliminary foundation from which first of all to judge whether you really do want to get serious about deep work and two, you are well suited to actually act on that decision if you decide yes.
[0:49:50.9] MB: And where can people find you and your books online?
[0:49:54.5] CN: So I have a website, calnewport.com and you can find about the books there. Also I blog on there about a lot of these ideas. So if you want to explore some of these ideas, you can there. The books themselves are available anywhere books are sold, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and so on. The one place you won’t find me is on social media because I’ve never had an account.
[0:50:13.6] MB: Well that makes sense. Well, Cal, thank you so much for coming on here and sharing your wisdom. This was a fascinating conversation and I think listeners who really apply deep work will see huge dividends from focusing on it.
[0:50:25.7] CN: Well thanks, Matt. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about it.
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