- Cal’s Background
- The Definition of Deep Work
- Why True Productivity Has Been Hard to Come By
- How Lack of Focus and Solitude Deprivation Could Be an Existential Threat
- The Difference between Work-Life and Personal-Life Technology “Addiction” and the Attention Economy That Fuels It
- Finding Your Own Philosophy around how you Approach Technology
- How to Face Solitude and Boredom
- Shifting Out of a “Hyperactive Hive Mind”
- How Cal and Chris Practice These Strategies
- Slow Productivity vs. Fast Productivity
In this episode, we discuss:
- Cal’s background
- The definition of deep work
- Why true productivity has been hard to come by
- How lack of focus and solitude deprivation could be an existential threat
- The difference between work-life and personal-life technology “addiction” and the attention economy that fuels it
- Finding your own philosophy around how you approach technology
- How to face solitude and boredom
- Shifting out of a “hyperactive hive mind”
- How Cal and Chris practice these strategies
- Slow productivity vs. fast productivity
- Deep Work, by Cal Newport
- Digital Minimalism, by Cal Newport
- A World Without Email, by Cal Newport
- Reclaiming Conversation, by Sherry Turkle
- Deep Questions, by Cal Newport
If you’ve been listening to my show or getting my emails for any length of time, you’ll know that I’ve become increasingly concerned about the impact that digital technologies like smartphones and social media are having on every aspect of our lives, from our productivity to our relationships, to our happiness, to our health and well-being.
For the vast majority of human history until the invention of the first smartphone, human beings had periods of time each day when we found ourselves alone and without input from other “minds” like books, radio, TV, podcasts, or any other source. While these periods could provoke loneliness and boredom, they also helped us to generate new ideas, solve difficult problems, regulate our emotions, and better understand ourselves and the world around us. And they helped our nervous systems to shift out of that fight-or-flight stress response and into a state of relaxation, which is critical for our health. Yet today, for most of us, smartphones have become nearly constant companions. A 2013 survey found that 80 percent of adults and almost 90 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were on their phones within 15 minutes of waking up, and often immediately after waking. And without intervention from us, our smartphones and the technologies that they enable like social media, video games, etc. can prevent us from ever being alone with our thoughts and our experiences. They provide a steady stream of interruptions, distractions, and demands on our attention.
And as the Zen teacher Cheri Huber is fond of saying, “The quality of our experience is determined by the focus of our attention.” If our attention is constantly fragmented and split in a million different directions, then we’ll end up feeling frazzled, distracted, and exhausted, which is exactly how many of us feel now by the end of the day.
In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I explore these issues with Cal Newport. Cal is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, a journalist, and a prolific author. His three most recent books, Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email, specifically explore the impact of digital technologies on our work, our productivity, and our health and well-being. In this episode, Cal and I discuss:
- How digital technologies like smartphones and social media interfere with our ability to focus without distraction and why that mattersThe link between our attention and focus, and our physical and mental health and well-being
- What deep work is, how it helps us solve our most important problems, and why it is being threatened today
- Why email led to a way of working that Cal calls the “hyperactive hive mind” and how that destroys our productivity and hijacks our attention
- Why multitasking is a myth
- The most effective strategies for reclaiming our attention, creativity, and peace of mind
- How to embrace what Cal calls “slow productivity and anti-busyness” to dramatically improve the quality of your life
I think this is one of the most important shows I’ve ever done in over 11 years of podcasting, and nearly 300 episodes. I’m sending it to all of my friends, family members, and people I care about, and, of course, I’m excited for you to hear it. I’m not exaggerating when I say that listening to this episode and putting the strategies that we discuss into practice will have a dramatic impact on your work, your relationships, your health, and even the way you experience yourself and the world around you. This is life-changing stuff. So, without further delay, I bring you Cal Newport.
Chris Kresser: Cal Newport, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. I’ve really been looking forward to this.
Cal Newport: Well, I’m a fan of the show, so it’s my pleasure to be able to join you, as well.
Chris Kresser: Great, well, for the few unfortunate souls who are not yet aware of your work, let’s do a brief background because you have perhaps a slightly unconventional career path. So tell us a little bit about the various hats you wear, your day job so to speak, and the other roles that you play, and then we’ll go from there.
Cal Newport: Well, the main two hats I wear is a professor hat, so I’m a theoretical computer scientist, a tenured professor at Georgetown University. And then my other hat is as a writer. So I’ve been writing books professionally since I was an undergrad. I signed my first book deal pretty soon after I turned 21 years old. So I write and I’m a professor.
In recent years, those have come together to some degree. I just finished this trilogy of books. I think of it as my techno culture trilogy. Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and A World Without Email. And it was three books that were really about the impact of tech on different aspects of culture, which makes sense, I think, for a technologist and computer scientist to be thinking about. So those worlds have come together, but they at other times in my life have been quite orthogonal. And I move back and forth between them.
Chris Kresser: Right, and you’ve got your start writing books for other students on how to be a better student, right? Study habits, how to optimize, you know those and perform better in school. So it wasn’t necessarily obvious that you would end up where you are now. How did that come about, and what was that transition like for you?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I got started, I was writing a lot in college, right? I was a columnist for the newspaper and I wrote for the humor magazine. I was eventually the editor of the humor magazine at the college I attended. So I had been a writer. And I was interested in writing more professionally. So the question is, okay, if a 21-year-old wants to sell a book, what are the possible topics on which a 21-year-old will be allowed to sell a book? And that’s a very narrow list. And writing a book for other students as a student was one of the very narrow doorways through which I could probably walk.
And I had another bit of background though, that made those first books make a lot of sense, which is I had been an entrepreneur in high school, because I had been in high school in the late 1990s and this was the first dot com boom. I had run a company. So I was very familiar as a teenager with business advice books, self-help books, productivity books, because I had needed those books as part of running my business. And so at college, when I was looking for similar books for being a student, they were mainly lacking. At the time, most student advice books were really concerned about being cool and fun and funky. There was this sense that if you’re too serious about success, that students would be turned off, that young people wouldn’t like it. And so I also had always harbored this idea, hey, someone should write an advice book for students like a business advice book, just no nonsense. Like, okay, you want to be a good student? Here’s what the very best students do. We’re not going to talk about the naked roommate or having fun with duct tape or the cafeteria food. Let’s just get down to business.
So I had that idea in the back of my mind; I wanted to be more of a professional writer. Student books was the narrow door I could go through. So I put those two things together and that’s how I sold my first book, which was I will write a college advice book in the exact same tone and format as a business book.
Chris Kresser: Right. That’s fascinating. I’m always interested to learn more about people’s trajectories, because it’s often the case that, at least as far as I can tell, there is usually not a master plan. There’s usually not foreknowledge of what will happen 15 or 20 years in the future. And it’s usually a product of following one’s own interests and passions and with a little bit of strategy, as you just pointed out there for how you could establish credibility and authority at such a young age. What domain or field would allow that to happen? And then, so much flowed from there, and perhaps we’ll have a chance to revisit that later.
The Definition of Deep Work
Chris Kresser: I want to dive right into deep work, because that’s a frame or a concept that’s going to underlie our entire discussion. It’s been the central theme of your last three books, the trilogy, and I’m interested in it from a number of perspectives, both from a professional perspective in terms of the importance of deep work for professional achievement and accomplishment, and as a business owner myself, and someone who employs many people, what’s happened in terms of productivity in the workplace and how we can address that, which is what your most recent book, A World Without Email, looked at. But I’m also, as a healthcare practitioner and someone who’s keenly interested in our health and well-being, curious to talk about deep work from the perspective of psychological, emotional, and even spiritual health. Like who we are, how this concept influences our self-awareness, how we understand ourselves and our place in the world, and [how we] make sense of the world around us and find meaning and purpose.
And so that’s a big ambition, even for the time that we have. But I’m just setting the frame because I think there [are] so many dimensions that we could go into here. But let’s begin with deep work. What is deep work and why is it important?
Cal Newport: Well, the actual activity of deep work I define as when you are working on a cognitively demanding task without distraction. So you’re giving something your full attention with no context shifting. And just to be clear about that, a glance at a completely different information landscape constitutes a context shift. It means you’re no longer in deep work. So even if you’re mainly focusing really intensely on writing a book chapter, but you’re checking your text messages, you get a quick glance at your inbox every 10 or 15 minutes, it’s not a state of deep work. So for it to count as deep work, it needs unbroken concentration.
Now, the idea behind this, and this was my eponymous book in 2016 on this topic is that we forgot its value. And all of our energies, especially in the professional world, are going toward all sorts of other activities that are not unbroken concentration of cognitively demanding tasks. But the economy is moving toward a more and more highly specialized knowledge economy, which is the tier one activity that actually creates the new value. That is the knowledge equivalent of getting oil out of the ground if you’re in the gas and oil industry. And we were starting to neglect this fundamental activity of life in a knowledge age, and we weren’t really realizing that that was a problem.
And so starting with that book in 2016, I was sounding the alarm, “Hey, we need to be careful about preserving this activity.” Because if we’re not doing this, all the other stuff, all the marketing, all the social media, all the email checks, all the Zoom, all the memes, all this other stuff, none of that’s directly getting the proverbial oil out of the ground. We’re eventually going to get into trouble.
Chris Kresser: I can’t remember which of the three books you mentioned this in. But if we start with the assumption, or the hypothesis, that deep work, as you just mentioned, is key to actual productivity in terms of producing things that really matter and are going to move the needle, whether we’re talking about a global economic scale, at the state level, or even at an individual level. And if we also have the hypothesis that there’s been a decline in deep work, then we would expect to see a decline or perhaps a flattening of productivity over the past few decades, in spite of the increase in busyness, or the number of hours that people have worked. So is that actually what we’re seeing?
Cal Newport: Yeah, we are seeing that. If you look at the Labor Department’s non-industrial productivity metrics, which I think is probably the most relevant productivity metric for the knowledge space, it has been flat for something like 10 to 15 years now. I think it’s actually probably the real productivity is declining, but we’re compensating for it with a lot of off the books or extra hours. So we are on our phones, we can do email, we’re trying to get our non-distracted work done at night, [and] we’re doing work in the morning while the kids are still in bed. So we basically had to run a lot faster just to keep productivity stagnant. And remember, this is a period in which there has been a historically unprecedented investment of hundreds of billions of dollars into communication technology and infrastructure that makes it easier than it ever has been in the history of civilization to contact each other and find information. We should have seen as people expected, a giant jump in knowledge work productivity, and instead we could barely keep it even level.
Chris Kresser: Right. And it’s just an anecdotal experience that people have, like, “Hey, how are you?” “So busy!” That’s just the sort of default response for people at least in a certain class, who do a certain type of work. And I think if you ask people who are maybe our age and who are old enough that they can remember a time without these technologies or where these technologies were far less pervasive, they would tell you that subjectively, they feel busier, [and] they feel like life has gotten faster. They’re working on the weekends, as you said, in the morning, at night, after work, they’re never not working, they’re working on vacation. And yet, despite that, we have very little to show for it in terms of real economic gain or you could argue maybe even any improvement in [the] quality of life.
We’re hardwired to respond to distractions, and with technology, these distractions are constant in both our personal and professional lives. In this episode of RHR, I talk with Cal Newport about learning to manage and protect our attention in order to lead healthy, joyful, and fulfilling lives in the modern world. #chriskresser
Why True Productivity Has Been Hard to Come By
Chris Kresser: So one of the reasons, perhaps the primary reason for this is a decline in deep work, and then an increase in shallow work is the corollary of that. And also the rise of what you call, and I love this term, the “hyperactive hive mind.” So what is the hyperactive hive mind and what role has this played in the decline of deep work?
Cal Newport: Yeah, this really gets to the heart of the issue. And just to put this into a timeline, the 2016 book, Deep Work is about why deep work [is] important and how to get better at it. Even as an individual, how to train it, how to make this more a part of your life. Right after I published that book, I began working on what became A World Without Email, which just came out a few months ago. I actually put A World Without Email on pause and wrote another book and then came back to it. But I’ve been working on it. I worked on it for five years, and it was basically answering the question of why is this problem so bad and what’s it going to ultimately take to really solve it? The core of the answer to that question is what you just mentioned, which is the hyperactive hive mind.
And so here is my best argument for what has happened over the last 20 years. In the 1990s, email spread very rapidly through offices for a very good purpose; it was solving real problems. So it was replacing the fax machine, the voicemail, and memos primarily. These were existing modes of communication. They were important for work, and email did it better, right? So email spread, because like, hey, you’re already doing this, [and] we can do it better. So it makes complete sense. It was the killer app of the 1990s. In its wake, came this new way of collaborating that I call the hyperactive hive mind. It’s not a fundamental property of email being around, but email’s presence was a necessary condition. So once we had very low friction digital communication, in an emergent fashion, more and more offices began to adopt this way of collaborating, this hyperactive hive mind way of collaborating, where they said, “You know what? We can figure most things out on the fly with just back and forth ad hoc messaging. What about this? Shoot you a message to get this meeting. Let me just CC some people so they can see it.” It’s simple, it’s convenient,[and] completely low friction.
This way of collaborating, this hyperactive hive mind, took over much of knowledge work. Now my argument is, once you are collaborating using the hyperactive hive mind, any non-trivial amount of deep work becomes almost impossible to accomplish. Because this way of communicating, though it makes sense if there’s just two of us, why not just rock and roll and figure things out. It doesn’t scale. And soon what you have is dozens and dozens of concurrent asynchronous back and forth digital conversations that are all happening at the same time. So what this means is you have to constantly tend these communication channels be it an inbox or later, you have Slack (crosstalk 12:36), but they’re all just.
Chris Kresser: Slack.
Cal Newport: Yeah, but it’s implementing the same basic workflow, this back and forth ad hoc messaging to collaborate. After a while, you have to check these things constantly. Because if you wait four hours to do deep work, there might be 20 different conversations that are on pause while you’re doing that, and it could be a real problem. Because maybe some of these back and forths need to be resolved today. And so we can’t do that.
The hive mind made it impossible to not check communication channels all the time. The issue with checking communication channels all the time is that our brain does not context switch quickly. So it puts us into this permanent state of reduced cognitive capacity, because we keep initiating context switch, then switching back, switching, switching. Our neural hardware can’t do this. Checking an inbox once every six minutes is a disaster for our brain, and it puts us in a permanent state of reduced capacity. So we’re basically dumbing ourselves down, fragmenting our time; it’s impossible to escape as long as that’s the main way we collaborate. And the main casualty, in addition, just our health and happiness, is our ability to actually do non-trivial work with our brain.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, there’s so much to unpack there, and I want to come back to the concept of attention and attention residue, because I think that’s key to what we’re going to be talking about. But just to clarify, so email rose to prominence because it did solve an important problem, like you’re saying. There was a need for a lower friction easier way to communicate asynchronously. Prior to that, if you were in an office setting, you’d have to scribble out a memo, walk over, leave it on someone’s desk, and hope that they saw it. And then that could go back and forth. And of course, in today’s world where people are working virtually, that’s not even possible. So email really did address that issue. But what happened is we started using this tool that had a specific purpose for asynchronous communication, and then we adopted without ever choosing to do so in any kind of conscious, deliberate way, the idea that asynchronous communication is the best solution for all work-related problems or challenges or to do any kind of work such that at this point, in a lot of work settings, the default assumption is just that asynchronous is always better. But there are a lot of types of work that that’s not true for, right?
Cal Newport: Right. And the issue is not, I mean, so asynchronous is part of the issue, but even just a lack of structure, right? So it seemed, for everything we have to collaborate on, it’s so much easier just to shoot off a message. Like, why bother putting in some rules or some guidelines or we have this weekly status meeting and there’s a bulletin board, which we post up to whatever. Why bother with that if I can just hit you with an email?
So not only did everything move asynchronous, right? So we’ll just figure things out back and forth, but not in real time, [and] all the structures went away.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: All the structures and guidelines and workflows for how we actually get things done went away, because for each of those things in isolation, it is easier just to say, “Hey Chris, can you just remind me blah, blah, blah? Or we should jump on a call.” It’s like shooting you an email for everything in the moment; that is easier. But when everything goes to that type of communication, [there are] way too many of those streams that you have to keep up with.
Chris Kresser: Right. And yeah, as you said, asynchrony is one issue. But there’s a way that you could do asynchronous communication that is not hyperactive hive mind, which you talk about in A World Without Email, for example, using Trello, or Asana, or something where the communication is attached to the work itself, and it’s not just, and it’s more of a poll method where I can open Asana or Trello and check it when I’m ready to instead of a push method where that message is coming to me whether I want it or not, or ready for it or not. So let’s talk a little bit about tension.
My listeners have probably heard me say this several times, [and] I’ll say it again; it’s one of my favorite quotes. It’s from one of my Zen teachers, Cheri Huber. “The quality of our experience is determined by the focus of our attention,” she is fond of saying, and one way of looking at attention is as a resource. And that resource can be protected, it can be exploited, it can be harvested, [and] it can be depleted. And one of the best ways of depleting attention is by context switching. So can you talk a little bit more [about] (you mentioned this already earlier in the interview) what is context switching? Why does it have such a negative impact on our attention? Why is it a big deal if I spend 90 minutes writing a book chapter, but every 10 minutes, I’d even just spend a minute switching to check my email inbox? Why is that so toxic for our focus and cognitive ability?
Cal Newport: Right. Context switching is the productivity poison that people don’t even realize that they are ingesting in bulk. And the neuroscience issue here is that the way our brain actually works, it makes it so that switching attention is a relatively slow and expensive process. It’s like trying to change the direction of a ship. You can’t just turn; you’re going to be moving that way for a while until you can get the direction completely turned. And that’s because again, we have these electrochemical connections and networks that can be in parallel very effectively. But it takes a long time to actually inhibit and amplify networks.
So when we want to switch our attention from target A to target B, it’s going to take a while. We have to start suppressing neural networks that are no longer related to target B, and we have to start amplifying the signals from networks that are related to the new topic. These are going to then cascade out and amplify secondary and tertiary networks, and we have to suppress those. It’s a long process. It could take 5, 10, 15 minutes until you really feel like I’m locked in on this new thing. The problem with a quick check of let’s say an email inbox or Slack is that it initiates this context shifting. When you look at an inbox, you’re seeing very pertinent information. It’s information aimed at you, from people in your proverbial tribe, and a lot of it’s pretty urgent. There’s a boss who needs something, there’s a client that has a question. That presses all of our neurological buttons to say, uh-oh, something new and important has entered our landscape. Let’s switch over our networks to get into the context of what these issues are.
But what most people do is you look at this for a couple [of] minutes, you’ve initiated this expensive shift, and then you go back to your main thing. Now, at some point, your brain realizes that and it has to slow down that shift that started to pay attention to email, and go back to what it was trying to do where you’re looking at your main target of attention here. And the whole thing just collides. And what does it feel like? What’s the subjective experience? Well, you feel this cognitive fatigue, which I think is very common to people when they’re going back and forth to their inbox a lot. You get tired and fuzzy headed, and you get more anxious, right? It triggers anxiety, this back and forth, and you’re never really given anything allowing your network to settle. And just in general, your ability to think clearly goes down. So you have a sort of stupefy effect. I can’t really get going; I can’t really make this connection.
And what most people don’t realize is that expense. They think I am single tasking because I don’t have multiple windows open all the time at the same time. I don’t multitask. I’ve got it figured out. And what they don’t realize is that quick checking every 10 or 15 minutes can be just as bad as actually trying to literally do two things at the same time. And so we have been inadvertently dumbing ourselves down and making ourselves anxious and making ourselves fatigued without even realizing we’re doing it. And that’s why I say it’s like a productivity poison that we don’t realize we’ve been ingesting. There’s lead in our work productivity water, and we don’t realize it, but the negative aspects are building up.
How Lack of Focus and Solitude Deprivation Could Be an Existential Threat
Chris Kresser: That’s a great analogy. Yeah, just to highlight this and reiterate something here, the experience is both of increased overwhelm and anxiety, and a feeling of busyness, like I’ve got way too much stuff to do. But at the same time getting less done. To me, that’s the real crux of it, and the real threat that this poses to us as individuals, and again, on a larger societal scale. This again might seem like hyperbole, but if we look at what’s happening in the world right now, we’ve got a growing number of threats to our survival as a species; we’ve got a lot of complex problems that we’re facing. We know that deep work, we haven’t discussed this yet, but we’re going to, is pretty much required for creativity, innovation, and learning complicated things. And we know that shallow work is not easily reversible. Like once you get into a pattern of that, it’s not just a given that you will instantly be able to switch out of that and go into deep work. And we can talk about that, as well.
If you put all that together, to me, this is an existential threat to our well-being that’s maybe in line with other existential threats that we’re facing. Do you think that’s too much of an exaggeration?
Cal Newport: Well, it might at the very least be an economic existential threat. You can’t move your economy increasingly toward specialized knowledge production at the same time that you put so much energy into reducing the ability to do elite cognitive production. These two trends are hitting against each other. It’s like if we were back in ancient Sparta, so in a time and a place where martial prowess was at the core of your city state survival. If suddenly ancient Sparta got really into smoking and fast food, or whatever the ancient Greek equivalent of that would be, we would say there’s a problem here. Our entire survival of our city state depends on us all being in really good shape and being really good at warfare. And yet, we’re spending more and more time smoking and eating hamburgers. This is going to be an existential issue for us.
Economically speaking, I think something like that is going on right now. We’re going to have a whole generation of young people come up that have never gone more than six minutes at a time without constantly, not just the email, but their phone and this entire digitally mediated world, they’re completely uncomfortable with any sort of focus. Everything is constantly switching context, back and forth. I look at this as like we’re in ancient Sparta, and the new generation of warriors is overweight, we’re going to have a problem when the next Peloponnesian War happens. And I think something similar might happen with our knowledge economy.
Chris Kresser: I fully agree. We can jump around a little bit here. And let me tell you why I think it may also be an existential threat for humanity in general. So solitude, I believe, and I think you would agree, is a basic human need. And you’ve even talked about how these digital technologies are contributing to solitude deprivation. So we know, from a lot of neuroscience research, that solitude, which I love the way you define this, not necessarily as being alone, because you can be alone without solitude if you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed, and you can be in a group of people and be enjoying solitude, or be at least near people. Solitude is the absence of input from other people’s minds. Emails, notifications, listening to a podcast, whatever that input is, that’s solitude. And we know from a lot of neuroscience research that solitude is required for self-reflection, for self-awareness; it helps us to process and understand our experience, to extract meaning from it, to solve problems. A lot of the greatest innovations and works of art, pieces of music, etc. were outcomes from, produced during times of solitude. Newton, Galileo, I mean, you could just go down the list. And yet what you just said is we now have an entire generation of young people and now adults, as well, who [have] never experienced solitude. They literally from the moment they wake up in the morning to the moment they’re in bed are not experiencing any solitude. Does this concern you from a human perspective?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I think it is a real issue and one of the reasons why it’s become such a big issue is that I don’t think it ever would have occurred to anyone to think about this as something that we had to say you needed to preserve. Because how could you ever avoid it?
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: Until about 2012, the idea that you had to worry about solitude deprivation would have been nonsensical. Like, how could you possibly avoid just in your day-to-day life, having times where you’re alone with your own thoughts and observing the world around you. You’re going to have to be in line, you’re going to be stuck in traffic, [or] you’re going to be getting the lawnmower. It’s just throughout the day, it’s actually most of your time, you’re not going to be listening to something or interacting with people. Smartphones changed that completely. Smartphones made it possible for the first time in human history to get rid of every moment where you’re alone with just your own thoughts and looking at and taking input from the world around you. And I do think it is a really big issue. And I think there is an acute, psychological, neurological issue. And then there is the more large-scale philosophical issue, right? And you mentioned both, but just to clarify, the acute issue is it makes us anxious.
The networks that have to fire up the process inputs from other minds are expensive mental networks, because we take human interaction very seriously. These networks weren’t meant to be on all the time, because we evolved in a place where you couldn’t be on social media and listening to podcasts at every single moment of downtime. So we overload those circuits, and that makes us anxious. Anxiety, as far as I can tell, is the main side effect there. I remember what first put this on my radar was, this must have been 2013 maybe, 2012, 2013, I was talking with the head of mental health at a major university. And she was telling me, there had been this light switch moment, where suddenly the number of patient students they were seeing in their clinic had skyrocketed, and it was all for anxiety or anxiety-related disorders. Whereas previously, the students they saw in their clinic were for all of the standard things you would associate with that age group. There [were] eating disorders, there was depression, there was a variety of common DSM sort of things. It all became anxiety.
And I remember at the time asking like, “Okay, so what happened? Why is everyone so anxious? Not a particularly fraught time, 2012 to 13.” She said, “Oh, it’s smartphones. The first time I started seeing students showing up on campus, like really plugged into [their] smartphones, our clinic was overflowing with anxiety.” I think that’s an acute neurological issue; your brain needs time away from processing these inputs.
And then we have the philosophical issues you talked about, which is time alone with your own thoughts is how you take the information that you have consumed in the world, make sense of it, add it into the mental schemas by which you understand the world, and therefore you’re able to build on those schemas to get a more sophisticated understanding of yourself as a person, the world around you, your place in that world around you, what you’re trying to do, where you’re falling short, all of this is critical to human development; it’s critical to happiness, [and] it’s critical to resilience more than anything else. If you take that philosophically speaking out of people’s lives, what you get is an adrift soul. If you’ll mind this theological metaphor here, but you’re really just adrift; you can get pushed around by the events of the day, emotionally, psychologically, you’re all over the place. You’re much more ripe for capture into very strong ideological camps or wherever they are, just where you happen to drift ports in a way that can ultimately be destructive for you in your life and your relationships.
It’s not great when you don’t have self-awareness and understanding of yourself and your character and your place in the world. All that takes time alone with your own thoughts. A phone in your hand at all times robs you of that time.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s like an internal compass that is strengthened when we have those periods of solitude. And we know where that needle points in that internal compass, but when we are constantly exposed to other input, that needle is just spinning around wildly facing whatever direction that input is leading it to face. And yeah, that’s definitely why I’m alarmed about this. I would say that’s not too strong of a word, especially in terms of the impact that I observe it having on kids and young people. Because their brains are even more developmentally susceptible to these kinds of influences.
And I’m concerned that if they don’t develop comfort with solitude, like they don’t learn to associate solitude with pleasure and good outcomes and that solitude becomes something that they fear, and actually will do almost anything to avoid. Which, of course, is the famous experiment, maybe it might be worth talking about now, of how most people will prefer to shock themselves electrically, rather than to experience a little bit of solitude. Do you have that on the top of your head? You want to talk about that a little bit?
Cal Newport: Well, yeah. Even beyond that particular experiment, there’s this interesting tension that happens, right? So the book where I really get into this, by the way, is the center book in that trilogy. The first and last book are about work and technology. So I think of Deep Work and A World Without Email is really about tech and work, the middle book, Digital Minimalism is about tech in our personal life. So social media, our phones, the stuff we do outside of work that we’re always looking at our phones. And that’s why I talk a lot about solitude.
And one of the tensions I really bring out there is extreme solitude is incredibly distressing. If we’re kept away from people for even a moderate amount of time, we get incredibly distressed. We’re very social beings. And that goes to the experiment you’re talking about where people would rather get shocked than have to be alone for extended periods of time. On the other hand, the idea of having no solitude is an incredibly artificial condition, and that’s what’s causing all of these problems. And so the good news here is it’s relatively easily solvable. I mean, the vitamin solitude in this particular medical metaphor is just some time alone with your own thoughts every day, right? It doesn’t even require an extreme intervention, because the state of having no solitude is so artificial and difficult to maintain.
But the person I quote in that book is Ben Franklin, and Ben Franklin was coming back from his first trip to England, coming back to Boston. And it’s a long voyage. He’s on a ship, and he’s having some solitude, and in his journals, he’s reflecting on solitude. And basically, he was like, “Yeah, I see these philosophers that talk about the importance of solitude, and being alone with your own thoughts,” and he’s thinking about Rousseau, etc., and he’s like, “but I think if you kept them alone long enough, basically, they would be really unhappy,” because Franklin was experiencing this on the ship. And I think that’s true. So at the same time, we crave human connection, while on the other hand, if all of our time is human connection, it’s going to be a problem. And so it’s finding that sweet spot. But again, it’s an incredibly easy sweet spot to find. Just did you have some time today alone with your own thoughts? If not, bad. If so, good. It’s a really easy prescription.
Chris Kresser: Right. And these, as you pointed out, historically these happen naturally, waiting in line at the grocery store, or driving in a car for a while where you don’t have a podcast or taking a walk where you didn’t have a smartphone, [and] you weren’t listening to something. And they happen in smaller moments throughout the day. It’s not that we’re required as a species to go on a 30-day solitary meditation retreat in a cave somewhere in order to be mentally healthy. But I think the default now for many people, especially when they haven’t had a chance to examine this or haven’t been exposed to these concepts, is to be constantly connected.
The Difference between Work-Life and Personal-Life Technology “Addiction” and the Attention Economy That Fuels It
Chris Kresser: And there’s more than just personal or there are more than just evolutionary physiological mechanisms for this. Maybe we should talk a little bit about that. This, of course, I like to think about the ancestral perspective and the evolutionary influences that drive our behavior. And there’s a lot going on here in terms of how we interact with digital technologies. But there’s also a whole industry that is incentivized to capture as much of our attention as possible. And I want to talk about that a little bit, too, because I think one thing that happens with this when I talk to people about this is a lot of people feel a lot of shame, or like, there’s something wrong with me because I can’t manage my attention. And helping them to understand what they’re up against and the motives and incentives of these corporations helps to depersonalize it a little bit and even set up an adversary that they can feel motivated and empowered to fight back against.
So maybe let’s talk first about why our brains are so susceptible to these kinds of inputs, and then we can talk a little bit about that larger question of the attention economy and the role that that plays.
Cal Newport: Yeah, this is an important point and I want to put it in important cleavage as we get to the beginning of this conversation, that we have two seemingly related magisteria here that I’m going to separate some. So we have technology in work and technology in our life outside of work. Our broken relationship with each looks very similar. So, in the world of work, we check email all the time, we check Slack all the time, [and] we check Teams all the time, right? In the world of technology outside of work, we’re on social media all the time, we’re on YouTube all the time, [and] we’re looking at our phones all the time. These feel like very similar problems. The sources are very different, so I think this will be an important division to make.
If we look over at the world of work, which I’ll touch on briefly, but the focus of this question is really on the world outside of work. If we look at the world of work, the reason we check email all the time, for example, [is] not that we’re addicted to email. It’s not that we have bad habits, we just haven’t heard about turning off notifications or batching, it’s because of the hyperactive hive mind workflow. If your organization implicitly embraces the hyperactive hive mind as the main way collaboration happens, you’re forced essentially to have to check this all the time, because that’s where all of the work is actually happening. So in the workplace, I definitely do not like this focus on oh, the individual needs better habits. It’s like, no, no, the organization needs better workflows. Because it is completely rational to check your email all the time if that’s where the work is actually being coordinated.
The world outside of work, so now we’re talking social media, now we’re talking video games, now we’re talking online news. Okay, we’re also checking this all the time; we’re destroying our solitude, [and] it’s messing with our psychological state. The reason why we’re checking things all the time is because the attention economy has invested a lot of money to generate that outcome. So we end up in a similar place to the email world, but for a very different reason. There is so much money at stake for this non-professional attention economy interaction with tools like social media that they have been engineered, these tools have been incredibly well engineered to get us to spend all that time using them. And they play on multiple psychological vulnerabilities in the human brain; they play on our need for social approval, they play on our novelty seeking circuits, [and] they play on exactly what type of circuits gives us that strongest response in the moment. So if you can touch on outrage or absurdity, you get a stronger response. They work even with their color palettes to try to play on the alarm response; the UIs have been maximized to get an intermittent reinforcement type reaction so you scroll to refresh; you pull and refresh. It’s like pulling a lever on a slot machine.
Nowadays, if you look at the most successful modern social media platforms like TikTok, they directly socially engineer intermittent reinforcement. So if you’re on TikTok, they’ve cut out the middleman, they’ve cut out any sense of okay; you’re posting things for your friends, [and] your friends are giving comments. They got rid of all that. They now have a set algorithmically program schedule on how many views to give to you, right? And because they can control how many views you get by controlling who they show your video to. So if they want to give you a quick bolus of a lot of use for something, they can just show your video to a lot of people and make [up] that balance. And when you’re first on TikTok, for example, they have it programmed to do that a few times. So suddenly, you feel like, “Wait a second, maybe I’m catching on. I have an audience. People are really into what I’m doing here. Maybe this is going to be a thing for me.” Then they pull it back. But then they give you a little bit more at some point. Like, “Oh wait a second, that kind of caught on. I think I’m onto something here. I think there’s an audience. People really want to hear what I have to say.” It is just direct algorithmic manipulation of our social approval indicators of intermittent reinforcement.
When I was writing my book on this Digital Minimalism, back then there [were] just rumors. Instagram might be doing this a little bit with holding back likes to get more of an intermittent reinforcement. Two or three years later, it’s just in the business model. They’re bragging about it. TikTok is like, look how smart our algorithms are. Let’s just go right to the brainstem. They get you to use this all the time. So in that world of entertainment, information, and news outside of work, the reason why you’re looking at your phone all the time is because there’s been billions of dollars invested to make sure that that’s the outcome that they achieve.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah. I think Tristan Harris calls smartphones, the slot machine in your pocket. And we know from a lot of research that slot machines are among the most addictive technologies there are in large part because of this concept of intermittent reinforcement. You pull the lever, you’re not sure what’s going to happen. Maybe nothing will happen; maybe you’ll win the jackpot. And that’s what checking email is, checking Slack, that’s checking an Instagram feed to see if you’ve gotten a like on your recent post or your videos in TikTok or YouTube. And
it’s hard for us to fight against those hardwired mechanisms because they’re mechanisms that helped us to survive in our ancestral environment.
And of course, all my listeners are familiar with this concept in other worlds like food, it’s why we seek out highly calorie-dense and rewarding food because that would have given us a survival edge in the natural environment. It’s why we tend toward laziness or lack of physical activity because we had to remain physically active to survive in an ancestral environment. So anytime we weren’t required to do that, we were resting. That was a smart strategy at that time, but in an environment that’s replete with processed and refined food and where we don’t have to exercise, move our bodies in order to survive anymore, that all backfires and it sounds like it’s a very similar case with all of these psychological mechanisms that likely promoted our survival. And that’s why they’re there.
But in an environment of these digital technologies, they make us not helpless because that’s where we’re going to go next is how we can protect ourselves against this. But this is not just an individual issue, as you pointed out many times. It’s a human issue in terms of what our personal relationship is with these technologies, and then its workflow and work structure issue when it comes to the professional stuff, which I do want to touch on at least a little bit as we go. Because selfishly, I’m interested in that as an employer and someone who’s trying to address that in my own company. And I think there are a lot of people who listen to the show who are in a similar position, as well.
Finding Your Own Philosophy around how you Approach Technology
Chris Kresser: So let’s talk a little bit about moving more into the frame, Digital Minimalism, the middle book in that trilogy, which largely addresses how to refine our own individual relationship with these technologies. And one of the key factors or the key arguments that you make is that we have to develop our own philosophy of technology use. Our own guiding approach to how we use these technologies. And you distinguish between the any benefit approach to using technology and the craftsman approach to using technology. So let’s talk a little bit about that as the kind of entry point into Digital Minimalism.
Cal Newport: Right. So when we’re talking now about technology in our personal lives, social media, phones, etc., we have a lot of autonomy here. So it’s good news, bad news. The good news is that [it] gives us a lot of control over this relationship. The bad news is, we have to then figure out what we want to do with this relationship. And so philosophy, that’s my big meta idea is that we need a philosophy each individually about how we approach technology, in much the same way that we need a philosophy about things like exercise and fitness, right? And health, right? We don’t just randomly say, I don’t know; I’d like to eat this. And sometimes I feel like running. We realize that having some actual named philosophies [about] things like nutrition and fitness helps us as humans be better there. So maybe I have an ancestral health philosophy when it comes to my nutrition, and maybe do CrossFit for my exercise. I’m not just randomly exercising; I have a sort of philosophy of how I get in shape.
My meta idea is we need that for our personal technology use, as well, right? That’s the big leap I want people to make from haphazard to intentional. Now, what are the right philosophies? Well, it’s kind of like saying, what’s the right nutrition philosophy and the right exercise philosophy. There is no one answer other than having a philosophy is better than not [having one]. But I push digital minimalism as a particular philosophy that is in contrary to an any benefit, otherwise known as a maximalist style mindset of, “Hey, if some tool seems interesting, or might bring me some benefit, or if I might miss out on something if I’m not using it, I might as well bring it into my life, because I don’t want to miss out on any potential pockets of value.” Right? That’s kind of a default, haphazard philosophy people throw at personal technology. And I think for a lot of reasons, that’s really problematic.
And what we really need instead is a more proactive, intentional philosophy. So digital minimalism actually has you first figure out what matters to you in your life and what you’re trying to do and what you want to spend your time doing. And then go backwards and say, “Okay, in the universe of possible tech tools, which ones do I want to use to help this and how do I want to use them?” So you’re putting tools to use very specifically, as opposed to just letting them into your life haphazardly because Why not? Because that quickly overwhelms us and leads us to a bad place.
Chris Kresser: So are there examples, I’m thinking of perhaps the Amish, I believe you mentioned in one of your books, are there examples of groups of people that embraced more of this craftsman approach to technology?
Cal Newport: Yeah, well, the Amish did for sure. Right? So we often think about the Amish incorrectly. We think that they essentially put an arbitrary line in the sand and said, “Okay, no technology after this point. So we’re happy to use all technologies up to this year, and then no new technologies.” We think about them that way. But that’s actually, if you think about that, a pretty absurd philosophy. That’s not what they do. Instead, they’re just highly selective about what technologies they let into their lives, and they have particular selection criteria for them that [have] to do with the promotion of strong communities, what keeps people within the communities, as new technologies come along. Their typical method is let’s have a few people experiment with it, let’s observe them, and let’s figure out do we want to bring this technology into our lives or not. And they answer those questions differently depending on what community you’re talking about.
So for example, cars are very rare in Amish communities mainly because what they’ve discovered is if you have cars, you leave, and if you leave, it weakens the community. Phones can go either way. Typically, they worry [that] people aren’t going to interact in person if they have phones, so a lot of Amish communities have a community phone that they use. Disposable diapers are very common, because that doesn’t hurt community or communication, right? Rollerblades, it’s not uncommon to see an Amish kid go by on rollerblades. Because it’s not at all about is this modern, not modern. It is does this net gain or hurt the things we care about most.
Now, the Amish have incredibly extreme criteria for how they make those decisions. But that general decision-making process is not a bad one to actually think about trying to emulate. That you figure out what you care about most and then you say, “Hey, [is] this tech going to net net, make that better or hurt it?” It’s much different than saying, “Would there be some benefit if I had this app?”
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I think that’s a powerful concept, and so important for anybody to do to figure out. And it really, Neil Postman, who you reference in your books, and I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, talks about this concept of a technopoly, which is a society that essentially embraces the any benefit approach, right? That they’re just techno maximalists, I think, is the term where, any technology that comes along, we just adopt it. If it provides any benefit at all with very little critical investigation as to what the downsides of that technology might be, or even what the upsides might be, in terms of the things that matter most, just what you’re saying.
So if someone’s listening to this and they’re really resonating with it, they want to figure out their own philosophy of technology, they know that their relationship with technology is not serving their higher purpose and what they want to accomplish in their lives or the kind of experience that they want to have. Why not just do that in a piecemeal fashion, or just, tomorrow they can start experimenting a little bit and just do it in [an] incremental way. What’s the challenge of doing it that way?
Cal Newport: It largely doesn’t stick. So if you’re trying to make a change here and a change there, the changes tend to crumble and dissipate over time and you end up back where you were before. I think we know psychologically, the better way to do this type of change is to often do the more wholesale, right? I’m going to make a more transformative change to the way that I live. And one of the big ideas I preach in that particular book is that if there [are] things you’re unhappy about in your techno life, this might be counterintuitive, but focusing on reducing the negative is actually not a very sustainable way to do it.
So if you come at your techno life, and say, “I spend too much time on Instagram,” so I’m going to put in rules to spend less time on Instagram. That’s actually a pretty low probability of success style of intervention. What actually works much better with human psychology is to develop a very positive vision. This is what I want my life to be like, here’s how I want to spend my time, here [are] the things I value, [and] here’s [what] I want to be known for. And then you work backwards and say, oh and here’s how the best use technology to help this positive vision. The changes embedded in those decisions are much more likely to be sustainably maintained. Because the allure of I want this positive vision. The reason why I’m not on Instagram now is because Instagram’s not a part of this really positive vision I have. That’s much more strong than saying, “I try not to use Instagram now because I think I use it too much, and I want to use it less.” We’re much more likely to stick with a goal of preserving or coming toward a positive vision than we are to stick with a goal that’s about reducing something that’s negative in our life.
Chris Kresser: I’m smiling because this is something I talk a lot about in the context of health coaching. This is well established. [There are] methodologies like motivational interviewing, which are essentially designed to, which arose out of the addiction treatment world, where they realize that just telling people, “Hey, stop smoking; it’s bad for you,” or “Stop drinking too much; it’s bad for you,” is not a very effective strategy. What was a lot more effective was talking to them and learning what is most important to them in their life. Maybe it’s growing up or being able to play with their grandchildren when they’re older and feeling healthy and well when they do that.
And connecting them to that aspiration or that vision turns out in a similar way to what you’re saying is much more effective as a way of helping them to stop smoking than just telling them that it’s bad for them.
Cal Newport: And just as a quick interruption, this is one of my big pet peeves about the world of digital whatever, is that they look to the world of let’s use addiction recovery, they appropriated the term detox and then they completely subverted the entire meaning of that, right? And this is one of my, I think it makes this point to the extreme. It was a real frustration for me when people use this term digital detox, because in the addiction community, a detox is all about, yes, you’re separating from a chemical dependency so that you can rebuild a new life in which that addiction no longer has to be there. And you do the [motivational] interviewing, you figure out what matters to you, how you’re going to live your life; there’s a lot of group therapy sessions that happen. And of course, the whole goal is after detox, you’re no longer using that substance. It got completely appropriated and I think made nonsensical in the world of digital use, where they say a digital detox is you take a break.
What is this goal? Could you imagine if someone was having issues, let’s say with health, they were maybe overeating. It’s like I got a solution; don’t worry about it. You’re going to eat healthy for a month, and then go back to the way you’re eating. What’s the point? Or you have a problem with alcohol addiction. You’re like, “Okay, here’s my plan; you’re going to spend three weeks not drinking before you go back to drinking the way you were before.” It would make no sense. And yet, we act as if this makes a lot of sense in the world of digital. It’s like, all we need is to take regular breaks and then maybe do a few topdown hacks, like turn off notifications and take our phone out of our room.
And I think we can learn so much from all these other fields. Like no, no, no. You need a positive vision of a life; you need to transform your life through intervention toward the more positive. Taking breaks and I think turning off notifications, taking the phone out of your room and just leaving it there is like looking at someone who has an addiction issue, and saying, don’t go to the bars on Friday or I’m going to keep the beer in the garage. Or it’s slightly harder to get to than in the fridge. We know that’s not going to do much on its own.
Chris Kresser: Right, on its own. They can be part of an overall strategy. But if it’s missing that fundamental connection with what’s most important, and the positive vision that we’re working toward, it’s not going to be effective. And in my world, I see this in the 30-day challenges, the diet[s] like Whole30 and the 30-day reset, they can be powerful tools. But what often happens is people do a Whole30 and then they just go right back to what they were eating before. And then six months later, time for another Whole30, and then six months of not eating well. And it becomes a kind of crutch or almost like an escape hatch kind of thinking where I’ll just do what is not supportive of my health for a long period of time, and then I’ll do this short period of what is supportive.
And I always tell people it’s far better to just create a relationship with food that is more sustainable over a longer period of time. It might not be as strict, and there’s a reason for that, because I think human beings, there’s that saying what we resist persists, right? So if I tell myself I can’t have something, that’s a surefire way for me to do almost anything I can to have that thing. Whereas if I say, “I could have it. If I really want it, I can have it, but I’m choosing not to have it because I want this other thing more.” Right? That’s a totally different shift.
So you talk about a very powerful method and maybe right on the surface, before you explain it further, people might think that this is at odds with what we were just talking about. But it’s called the digital declutter and it’s a period of time where we radically shift our relationship to technology. So what is it, and why is this important as part of this larger frame that we’re talking about here?
Cal Newport: And I think, actually, my data on this declutter backs up exactly what we were just talking about. So the idea of the declutter was if you want to initiate this new relationship with your technology, take a 30-day break from all this technology not as a detox, but just to give yourself some space to actually construct that positive vision of what your life should be. Because you can experiment and you can reflect in this time and rediscover what it is that you like to do, what your life should be like, [and] the different activities that you miss. And then at the end of the declutter, this is sort of a Marie Kondo type thing, you say, “Okay, now what tech am I bringing back and why am I bringing it back?” And so you basically are rebuilding your digital life from scratch at the end of the declutter.
So I ran an experiment to see how this worked with a variety of different people in different circumstances. I put out a call to my readers, who wants to do this declutter for a month and send me information about it? I had 1600 people go through this. One of the biggest predictors of who actually came out of this on the other end with a sustainable new relationship and who didn’t, is that those who actually aggressively tried to experiment and reflect and figure out what they wanted to do with their time in their life are much more likely to succeed than the white knucklers.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: Those who treated it like a detox and by detox here, I mean, the sort of the subverted digital version of that term. You said, “I use this stuff too much. I’m just not going to use it for a month because it’s bad, and I don’t want to do the bad thing,” none of them made it. That’s not enough. None of them made it through the 30 days. Because it’s like, yeah, it’s kind of bad, but you know what, I’m kind of bored and I’m tired. And I want to know what’s going on. And then drip, drip, drip, you end up back exactly where you were.
So the people who succeeded were the people who got after it as soon as this experiment began. “Okay, I’m going to join a bike club. I’m going to try to hike every day. I’m going to have my brother and sister come over every week. I’m going back to the library; I’m going to start reading again. What about knitting? Did I like that? Let me try it. Let me get my woodshed opened up again.” They really were trying to actively investigate the positive. And those who could build this very strong positive vision [are] the ones who made it through the 30 days and came out the other side in a much better place.
How to Face Solitude and Boredom
Chris Kresser: Right. And this is a great segue into the next thing I want to cover, which I think is so important. Tim Ferriss talked about this a long time ago with the four-hour workweek, which was basically like, if you’re going to work less, you better have some other ways of spending that time. Because otherwise, what naturally tends to happen is you just slide back into more work. And you talk about this in a similar way with digital technologies. If you don’t have leisure activities that you’re passionate about, that are maybe even structured, that you’re working toward some kind of goal, or you’re trying to master, it’s going to be really hard for you to fill those gaps that were previously filled with digital technologies. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Cal Newport: Well, for people who are young in particular, the feedback I got is that it was actually terrifying. So saying, “Okay, I am now alone with time, and it’s me and my own thoughts and I can’t look at something.” For you and [me], if we fell out of practice, we might say, “Oh, I’m a little bored. But I have a sort of sense memory of what it’s like to go and I’m going to go work on a project. And it might take me a while to get warmed up, but whatever. I’m going to go work on maintaining a trail or reading a book.” But if you’re 22, you’ve never had that experience.
And I was surprised [at] the extent to which it basically was triggering existential crises in young people, because they had never actually been alone with their thoughts, which is difficult, right? We talked about solitude. This is where you actually make sense of your life, build these structures, augment these structures with reflection information over time, and then make decisions and understand the world off these structures. They’re starting with no structure at all. They have a jumbled pile of information and random reflections, and it’s terrifying. They’ve never actually confronted things they’re not happy about in their own lives and shortcomings that they’ve been trying to avoid or trauma that they’re just trying to shove over here, and I don’t want to really deal with this or what’s going on with their life. Things that they’re maybe excited about but don’t know what to do with that, and that’s frustrating. All these sort[s] of thoughts are very scary when first confronted and they’ve had no experience with it.
So I’ve learned to really underscore the degree to which for a lot of people this is a big lift, and it’s not something to be taken lightly or glibly, that suddenly say, “Okay, it’s now me, my own thoughts and the world around me, trying to figure out what I’m all about and what I want to do.” It can be spiritually speaking, an incredibly trying experience for those who have never done it before. Again, for you and [me]I, we’ve been there before. I went off to college, I had no smart …, forget smartphones, I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a laptop. There’s going to be existential talk in the dorm room and walking the trails. And I got to go through that whole period in nicely analog fashion. I’m used to that. Ten years younger than me, it’s a real problem. So yeah, I think that’’ worth underscoring that it’s not easy necessarily what we’re asking here.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. Then you think about what is the worst punishment when someone is incarcerated, solitary confinement? Right? And well, being without your smartphone is certainly not solitary confinement. Maybe for someone who, like you said, has no reference point, has not had an experience in their lifetime of solitude being a positive thing. They haven’t experienced the benefits that come from that. Then maybe it does feel a little bit like solitary confinement or something that threatens them on that kind of primal level that they’re not really even consciously aware of.
But I think, just intuitively, I’ve always known this, as well, in addition to having spent a lot of time in solitude, I’ve done 30-day meditation retreats in the jungle where I’m just sitting there for 18 hours a day. So it’s not an issue for me generally. But I still notice, if I don’t have something that I’m really passionate about and working on in my leisure time, then I’m just as susceptible to the next person to get pulled into distraction. So I always have, right now, it’s getting back to being fluent in Spanish, which I was before and I fell out. I’m learning to inline skate, mostly as a way to improve my skiing during the offseason. I’ve always got some kind of project like that, that I’m super passionate about and engaged in, because I’ve just learned over time that if I don’t have that, I will falter for sure.
Cal Newport: Well, there’s another aspect here, too, speaking of ancestral connections to these issues, and this is something that’s not in my books. It’s something I’ve just been thinking about and researching more recently. We have an ancestral drive toward action, right? Because there’s this interesting counterbalance in the human condition. Most animals, of course, have a default toward not expending energy unless there’s an acute [stimulus] that’s forcing it. I’m hungry, or there’s danger. Because look, if you’re burning energy all the time, it’s a problem. You’re going to run out of energy more.
Humans are somewhat unique in that we have a very strong boredom drive, as well. Other animals have somewhat similar drives, but not nearly as strong as humans, which actually will help us overcome that animal instinct to conserve energy to actually go off and make a cognitive conception manifest concretely in the real world. It’s like, I’m going to build this spear, or whatever. And it was honestly a very key development for humans, because that drive to actually go and make intentions manifest in the world is what really drove us to develop the technology. And I mean this in a very primitive sense, but what allowed us to very quickly separate ourselves in part from the rest of the animal kingdom.
So we have a drive toward action. Anytime you feel something that’s very distressing in your body, that’s usually tied to a very strong ancestral queue. Hunger is very distressing; thirst is very distressing. Boredom is very distressing. It really does not feel good. So it’s a very important drive. One of the ways I think about some of these modern distractions is that it subverts that boredom drive in much the same way that junk food subverts the hunger drive. In the moment, it seems to dissipate that really uncomfortable sense of boredom when you’re scrolling on your screen. But it’s not actually getting you what that drive is expecting. Your hunger drive was expecting food that’s not just full of sugar. Your boredom drive is actually expecting you to go out there and make an intention manifest in the real world as sort of, you’re going to apply energy and build something or make something happen or improve in something.
And so just like eating a bunch of junk food to get rid of our hunger makes us physically unhealthy, dealing with boredom with let me do this sort of cognitive junk food leaves us in that similar place. So it’s another ancestral drive I think that we really need to pay more attention to. Why do we feel bored? What is that boredom actually trying to drive us to do? And the answer upon reflection is clearly not scrolling through Twitter memes.
Chris Kresser: Right. And maybe it’s a little bit like what we were talking about with solitude, where too much solitude is maybe actually not healthy for human beings. And we want to distinguish here between solitude and loneliness, too, because we know that there are a lot of negative outcomes from excessive loneliness. It’s, in fact, [an] even greater risk factor for early death than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being obese, and all kinds of other things like having high blood pressure that are notorious risk factors. Being lonely is a greater risk factor than all of those. So we’re not sitting here promoting loneliness or solitude to a point that would generate loneliness. And on the other hand, as you mentioned, not enough solitude is problematic. Do you see a similar kind of spectrum of boredom, where having moments or periods of time where we feel bored is actually important for creativity and innovation, new ideas, making new connections that we might not normally make? But too much boredom, maybe then we’re, it puts us in a similar place to too much solitude?
Cal Newport: Yeah, so I’m someone, for example, who doesn’t glorify boredom for the sake of boredom. I think the right response to boredom is high-quality activity, just like the right response to hunger is high-quality food. Right? Okay, I’m bored. What I need is high-quality activity, right? So boredom should drive us to try to do the things that we actually crave as humans. A high-quality activity tends to be slower, complicated, skill based, or maybe highly social.
Another point I want to make though just touched on loneliness very briefly, is and this relates to it, is there’s this interesting paradox in the psych literature that increased social media usage can lead to increased loneliness. And one of the big explanations for this, which I think is also important from an ancestral perspective, is that there’’ a very limited portion of our brain that actually understands that this purely linguistic interaction that’s happening when we’re on text messages or social media [is] actually a social interaction. Most of our social brain, our brain that’s been evolved over all these different millennia, doesn’t know anything about text. And it certainly doesn’t see these characters on a glowing piece of glass and say, “Ha, I’m connecting to other tribe members.” Even though those characters are coming from a person you know, our brain largely does not interpret that as sociality.
If we actually want to satisfy our urge for sociality and therefore not feel lonely, or what our brain really craves is analog interaction. We need to see someone, we need to hear their voice, we need to see the intonations, we need to see the body language move. There [are] all these rich streams of interaction that come at us when we interact with someone beyond just a linguistic. And that’s what our brain registers as, “Ah, now I’m connecting.” If you’re not in that context, your brain doesn’t see it as social connections. So it’s another interesting paradox that people think they’re getting more social because I’m spending more time than ever before interacting with people, and yet they feel more lonely because their brain has no idea that this glowing piece of glass you’ve been looking at once every six minutes all day had anything to do with tribal connection, interaction, [or] human sociality. So one of the arguments I always make is if you want to feel social, you have to sacrifice non-trivial time and energy on behalf of someone else.
If you haven’t gone out of your way to go find them, to put aside time to talk to them, to give them your full attention, if it’s not a pain, it’s not going to be registered as really been that beneficial from the perspective of feeling like you’re a part of a community or social.
Chris Kresser: Right. It’s such an important point. And I love Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation for this. She makes, this is kind of a central argument of that book, that connection, terminology is difficult, but she distinguishes between connection, which is the text-based kind of interaction that happens on social media and in our digital world, and conversation, which is the term she’s using to point toward this more meaningful and rich and significant interaction that satisfies these deeper human needs. And that book was an eye opener for me, because at the time, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which this has gone. She talked about research she did have young people where, in many cases, they were not even able to have a conversation. They weren’t able to even get on the phone and talk to somebody because they’ve been so conditioned to just do everything digitally, where they had a chance to edit their thoughts and not have to be on the spot or not have to make that additional effort that you mentioned, which is what really is the precondition for experiencing that connection. And that was a big wake-up call for me, like, this is a pretty serious problem where this is not just, this is a non-trivial issue that we’re facing here.
Shifting Out of a “Hyperactive Hive Mind”
Chris Kresser: So I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about this in a work context. And for me, again, my interest is how do we address this in our company and shift out of the hyperactive hive mind toward a better workflow. I love the distinction you make between workflow and work execution. So I want to talk a little bit about that. But for a lot of listeners, they might be in a company that is stuck in the hyperactive hive mind, and they feel stuck because as you said, it’s not just an individual choice. You can do all the batching of emails and all the digital detoxes that you want and turn off notifications and all that. But if your boss expects you to respond to an email on Saturday night at 8 p.m. that he sent, you’re not in full control.
So how can companies shift? First of all, let’s define workflow and work execution, how they’re different. And then let’s talk a little bit about how companies and any organization can shift out of this hyperactive hive mind.
Cal Newport: Right, and this is a key shift in topic, as well, because we’re leaving this world of our personal tech, which is all largely optional, right? It’s personal preference if I’m on Twitter, Instagram, or this or that. So over there, the solution is all about your reforming sort of from scratch; you have full control over I don’t want to use this, [or] I’ll use this this way. Okay, [the] world of work is a completely different issue. You can’t walk into your office and say “I’m a digital minimalist, so I’m not using email anymore.” You’re part of a larger system here.
The key idea I have about these issues is that they are not things that can be solved with expectations or habits. These issues with the hyperactive hive mind are not because as we like to popularly think, well, this jerk I work with has these expectations of hearing from me. And if we could just change those expectations, things would be better. Like someone has a flaw in their understanding of things. The norms are bad, or, on the flip side, someone’s habits are bad. You’re not batching, you’re addicted to email. We heard this terminology a lot in the early days of the hive mind when we talked about crack berries. We tried to understand this through personal failings, why are you so weak that you’re checking email all the time?
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: This is not the issue. All of the issues have to do with the underlying workflow. If we’re going to solve these issues, we replace the underlying workflows. Nothing to do with expectations, nothing to do with habits. So if we’re going to talk about workflows, let’s make this distinction between work execution of workflows that you referenced because I think it’s really important. One of the key defining factors of knowledge work and one of the reasons why we’ve been stuck in this ineffective way of working for so long is that it’s very autonomy focused. We give a lot of autonomy to the worker to figure out how they actually do their work. And this is very intentional.
I traced this back to Peter Drucker. Peter Drucker in the 1950s and ‘60s really helped promulgate this idea that knowledge work requires autonomy. It’s creative and it’s skilled, and you can’t break it down into 10 steps that can be put on an assembly line like building a car at GM, where he did a lot of work before he started working on knowledge work. It’s too creative, too skilled. You have to give clear objectives, and he introduced this very influential notion of management by objectives. Give clear objectives, but stand back to let people figure out how they’re going to do their work. You can’t tell Don Draper how to come up with an ad tagline. You can’t tell a computer programmer how to write the code; you have to just let them figure out how to do that on their own.
The issue with this autonomy mindset is that we expanded it to also include how we organize our work: how we identify tasks, how we assign tasks, how we coordinate with each other about getting those tasks done. We left that all up to the worker, as well. That’s the environment in which the hyperactive hive mind really took off. And one of my arguments in A World Without Email is that actually, we can separate those two and say, “Hey, Don Draper or computer programmer, you have complete autonomy over how you actually execute your main skilled creative work, but [we] as an organization are going to think a lot about how we organize this work.” How many ad campaigns should you be working on? How do we keep track of what features need to be done and who’s working on what? How do we actually coordinate? Do we just grab each other? Or do we have status meetings and scrums, or do we just use email? We can think about the organizational aspect. That’s where I think all of the big wins are.
If we’re going to solve the problems of the hive mind, we have to replace the hive mind with other ways of organizing our work that [don’t] require all of those unscheduled messages that require answering. You prevent the messages from showing up in the inbox in the first place. You don’t try to then instead say, “Well, let’s just work on people’s habits and expectations about how they deal with those messages once they’re already there.” You solve the problem before it actually gets to the place where we’re used to actually encountering it.
Chris Kresser: So part of that shift involves understanding the difference between working and communicating about the work, which is another distinction that you make in that book. So talk a little bit about that and why that’s so important in today’s knowledge work economy.
Cal Newport: Well, one of the issues with the hyperactive hive mind is that we’ve created these absurd situations where we spend basically all of our time communicating about work, which seen objectively is crazy. If you have a remote work schedule where you’re basically in Zoom meetings the entire day and doing email in parallel to those Zoom meetings, and then maybe actually trying to get some stuff done at night after your kids go to bed, we don’t realize for some reason how absurd that is. It’s complete. It’s like running a car factory where you’ve turned off the lights because you’re saving money on the electric bill. And because of that, literally no cars are getting built. People are putting tires on the steering column and whatever. You’ll be like, I don’t care about the electric bill; we can’t build cars, we can’t see them. And yet, we’re completely comfortable with this right now in knowledge work that we’ll spend all of our time talking about work in meetings and on email and in Slack, instead of actually creating value.
I think it is an emergency; I think the building is on fire. I think the Ford factory has stopped producing Model Ts. It should be something that really alarms us. But because we have this culture of extreme autonomy, we’re just not even thinking about it; we’re not even looking for it. We’re like, I guess this is just what work is. Meetings [are] not work. Email is not work. That’s the coordination and arranging of work. That has to happen, but if that’s what most of your actual work hours are being spent doing, something’s got to give. We should be very concerned about that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and again, just speaking personally, it’s something I’m deeply concerned about and we’ve been trying to address in our own company for some time with varying levels of success. What I’ve seen is that there are multiple overlapping factors that influence the hyperactive hive mind. And ranging from in some cases, that’s been [people’s] only experience of work if they’re young enough. That’s basically the world that they inherited, and on a personal level, they have [a] relationship with technology that’s nearly continuous. And then that, of course, and then the first company that they work for ever probably embraced the hyperactive hive mind. And so they don’t have any other reference point for what work should feel like. Versus maybe again, someone in our generation who had the experience of just sitting in a room and working on a thesis or a paper for many, many hours over many days without really any meaningful communication with anybody else about it. It was just, we were in a room doing it ourselves.
So what are some of the strategies, and we can just talk high-level; you covered this in your book, which I highly recommend all three of these books, and all of your other books, by the way. What are some of the strategies that companies have found to be effective for making this shift? Because it’s not as simple as just [detoxing]. You have to implement new processes and workflows, like you said, and structures. And it’s something that has to take place over time. And you have to get buy-in from people. And so there’s a lot to it. What has been most successful from the stories that you’ve heard and people you’ve talked to about this?
Cal Newport: Well, the high-level approach can be instantiated, how it’s instantiated, there’s lots of different variety. But the high-level approaches that you have to understand, even in knowledge work, you’re basically like a factory that has a bunch of different processes. “Process” is my term for things that you do again and again that produce value. You have to list them. Like, what are the actual processes? What are the things we do again and again that make up what our team or our organization actually does? For example, there’s the podcast episode production process, there’s the customer support issue from coaches customer support question answering process. There’s the marketing process; there’s the infrastructure maintenance for the such and such portal process. You’re just listing, here [are] the things that we do on a regular basis that make up what our organization is. Once you see all those things, you have to start asking the question for each, well, how do we implement that process? And if you don’t really have an answer, the real answer is probably just the hive mind, [and] then we just kind of rock and roll.
Chris Kresser: Right, that’s the default.
Cal Newport: And we figure it out back and forth with messages. And so what you have to do is go process by process, with buy-in from everyone who is involved, and say, how do we actually want to implement this? How do we want to get the needed information to execute this process? How do we want to coordinate with each other [to] make decisions? How do we want to move from step to step required to get there? How do we organize that? And actually figure out an alternative to the hive mind. Here is our bespoke set of guidelines, rules, and systems for doing this process. Move on to the next one. Here’s our new set [of] guidelines, rules, and bespoke systems for executing this process.
All the time, what you’re trying to optimize, the metric you’re trying to minimize is unscheduled messages. So how can we implement this process in a way that minimizes the amount of times that someone’s going to have to get a message at some unscheduled time that requires a response. Like that is the metric because that’s what triggers all the context shifts, that’s the best lead indicator for context shifts. And you start with the low hanging fruit, and then you go to the more difficult ones, and then you have to go back because the thing you came up with didn’t quite work. And “Okay, we’ve got to revisit this, and let’s adjust it,” and you have to do that work. The advantage of doing that work, and we can talk about concrete examples of what some of these process rebuilds look like. There’s a lot of different ways what this could look like. But at a high level, as you go through and do this more and more, the amount of unscheduled messages required for your organization to get stuff done goes down and the happiness, the sustainability, and the productivity of everyone involved goes way up. So yeah, it’s a lot of work in the short term, but it makes your work much, much better in the long term.
Chris Kresser: I think it also takes more of a certain kind of focus and attention in an ongoing way. So to use an example, one of the strategies that’s been most helpful for us, which you mentioned in a few different case studies in your book, is moving communication about work away from email, and Slack and these instant messaging platforms to a context where the work itself is being organized and distributed. So a project management system like Trello, like a board type of Kanban type of system, or we use Asana, which is a similar system. So that instead of an employee waking up and having 14 emails in their inbox, or 28 Slack messages that are all referencing different projects and different things that they’re working on, they simply choose in their own time when they’re going to log into Asana and check their inbox and see what new messages have been put there. And then those messages are directly tied to the work itself that’s being done. So that’s one example.
But within that, if I have a thought and I want to share it with somebody, the easiest lowest friction thing for me to do is just zip that into a Slack message or an email. It takes a little bit more attention and time and deliberation for me to think, okay, where does this thought belong? Where’s the proper context for this? So it’s not just that upfront work; it’s also the ongoing discipline of taking that extra moment to figure out where that belongs and where it should go.
Cal Newport: Yeah, and it’s an important thing to understand that convenience is not a very useful metric when thinking about any of the things we care about with work. Convenience is not correlated with producing more, convenience is not correlated with people being happier in their job, [and] convenience is not correlated with better mental health. Convenience has very little role to play in work because work by definition is the application of force to try to move an object at rest in a productive manner. Work by definition is actually inconvenient.
Chris Kresser: It’s work.
Cal Newport: Yeah, it is inconvenient. The analogy I like to use is the assembly line when Henry Ford innovated the assembly line, right? It was incredibly inconvenient. What a [painful] way to try to build a car. The way they were building cars at the Ford plant at Highland Park before the assembly line was incredibly natural, flexible, and convenient. It’s the automotive version of the hyperactive hive mind; it was called a craft method that put a chassis on some saw horses, and a team of craftsmen would sit there and build a car. And all the different materials [were] stacked against the walls. You go get what you need and you build a car. And if you want to scale up the factory, you get more sawhorses and more teams, and they would each be building their own car. It completely made sense, completely convenient, right?
The assembly line, by contrast, man, what a pain. You had to invent all these new tools, you had to hire a lot more people, [and] there was a lot more overhead. You had to have more people and engineers just to manage the assembly line itself, and it was really hard to get the work right. We forget this, but [it was] very difficult to get the work right. Like if the magneto station was a little bit too slow, then it would stop; the whole assembly line would come to a halt, right? So what a pain. But the man hours required to produce a Model T went from 12 hours to 93 minutes, and Ford became the largest company in the world and Henry Ford became the richest man in the world.
So yes, the right way to do things can be really inconvenient compared to what the easiest things to do [are], but in some sense, that’s the whole game in work is embracing the proper inconvenience that’s going to give you the best returns, both in terms of your subjective experience and productive output. So it’s good. It is a pain. The hive mind is not a pain. It’s very easy. And of course, we’re in this era of autonomy in work because of Drucker that, hey, you figure out how to do your own work. Of course, that’s what we’re going to fall back on. If we’re each in charge of how we’re going to work, like let’s just hive mind it. What else am I going to do? I don’t want to think about this.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: But we had to step up and replace that.
Chris Kresser: It’s not a pain in the short term, but it becomes a pain in the longer term in the same way that processed food does. That’s the easy path of least resistance; just follow our cravings and do what’s easy in the short term. But there are long-term consequences of that. In the same way with the hyperactive hive mind, it’s easier for me to just fire off a quick email without thinking at all about where that should go, what better method I should use to get that point across, and my convenience is probably somebody else’s inconvenience, which you point out in the book, as well. It’s like, I just fire off a quick message and the implicit assumption, whether I’m aware of it or not, is that that other person is then going to have to take the time that’s required to figure out where that message belongs, what it means, how to act on it, [and] all of that.
So it seems like that’s part of it, too. Is under, and I don’t think it’s a conscious selfish motivation in most cases, that we’re really thinking that through in a kind of Machiavellian way. Like “Haha, I’m going to take the easy route, and they’re going to have to do all the work.” It’s just some habitual response that happens.
Cal Newport: Yeah. If we use the car factory analogy, right? If you ran a car company the way that we run the hive mind, it’s actually worse than the craft method. Really, the equivalent would be if you just had a bunch of craftsmen show up at your factory and said, “Look, we’ve invested, we have a bunch of tools, [and] we have a bunch of equipment. And what we’re going to do is have these [objectives and key results] and motivational posters saying our goal is to produce cars. We want to produce more cars; we produce the best cars. But you guys just, how you do it is up to you.”
Chris Kresser: Yeah, figure it out.
Cal Newport: We can’t just figure it out, right? “Oh, and we’re not going to really have any way of even keeping track of what you’re up to or what you’re doing.” I mean, come on, no cars would get built; you’d have a lot of people that would be like, yeah, if you could walk by and what’s going on, they’re like, “Well, you know, I’m waiting” (crosstalk 01:24:03).
Chris Kresser: They start hammering really quickly when you walk by.
Cal Newport: Yeah, or like, “I’m waiting for Bill to finish with the hammer,” whatever, right? And nothing would ever get produced. No matter how good intention[ed] or how inspired or how motivated the employees are in that scenario, you’re never going to walk into that factory in that analogy and see that they have spontaneously built an assembly line. It’s not going to arise, and it’s not that they’re evil; it’s not that they don’t care about Ford. It’s just that that is not going to emerge from just, “Our goal is to build cars. We want to motivate you; build cars. We’ll be back in a week to see how it went.” Cars aren’t going to get built.
How Cal and Chris Practice These Strategies
Chris Kresser: Right. All right, so I want to do another gearshift here and make this a little bit more real for people. If you’re willing to talk a little bit about what your day looks like, I’ll talk a little bit about how I try to incorporate all of these concepts into where the rubber meets the road. What is an actual day in the life [of] Cal Newport? How do you take these concepts that you’ve so eloquently outlined in all of these books and apply them to a life where you have multiple roles, both professionally? You’re also a father, you’ve got kids and a wife, and you’ve got interests outside of work, and all of these things have to somehow fit into this framework that you’ve created. So there are lots of different ways to do it, which you’ve talked about. Different ways for scheduling deep work, ranging from, that will suit different people’s lifestyle, depending on their profession and what kind of work they’re doing. But just maybe as an illustration, you could talk a little bit about how you set up your day.
Cal Newport: Well, at a high level, something that often surprises people is that largely speaking, I just work nine to five. And the way I’m able to keep producing is because of that constraint. I’m relentless about [it]. I want to make sure the stuff that really matters gets attention, and then I will scramble to deal with the issue of everything else. So now, you have this pressure on everything else [that] has to fit around the things that really matter, which is, I’m thinking and writing an article or a book; I’m thinking of writing, doing research as a professor, [or] maybe I’m recording my podcast. These really intellectually demanding things that really move the needle, the things that matter. A huge separation in my mind between what are the things that move the needle and what doesn’t.
My email is never going to get me another book sale, being on social media is not going to improve the quality of my magazine articles, [and] CS research is never going to be improved by having a bunch of extra Zoom meetings. And so I’m pretty relentless about what matters, [and] try to make everything else fit. That pressure then leads to a lot of innovations about, what do I do with everything else? Well, there’s going to be a lot of essentialism at play. I just have to take a lot of things off my plate. I don’t do this; I don’t do that. There’s no time for it, right? So [I’ve] got to really prioritize. The stuff that remains, I’m very organized about.
So for example, I’m a big advocate of time block planning. I’m working nine to five; I’m making a plan for every hour of that day. I’m not going to be reactive; I’m not going to say what I want to work on next. I’m doing this right now and then I’m doing this right after, then this is going to fit here. I have to give every minute a job, be incredibly intentional about how I want to use my time, and then learn how long things actually take. Those daily time block plans are influenced by a weekly plan where I look at my week ahead and try to move the chess pieces around. Friday is when I’m really going to catch up on this, and Tuesday’s really busy. So I really right away before this first meeting need to get that done because there won’t be time later. So I really look at the whole board. Those weekly plans are inspired by semester or quarterly plans where I have the vision for the whole season ahead of me, what I’m working on, [and] what actually fits in there. So I’m really intentional about how I actually move my time around.
And then I am very careful about processes. How do I reduce unscheduled messages in all the processes that I have to do? And that’s a big part of my life. So I’m not on social media. I think it’s just going to take up too much time. I’m very careful and wary about email. I don’t have a general purpose email address that’s publicly available. I have very niche addresses for particular reasons with particular rules about what you should expect if you send that message to me. I’m kind of hard to reach on purpose because I care a lot about how much context shifting [something] is going to require. How much context shifting is that going to require? So I’m constantly reengineering those processes to minimize it. So all that package comes together, and I can move the needle on the big things I care about without having to work an unusually large amount of time.
Chris Kresser: That’s the Shangri-La, right? That’s what we’re all shooting for. And I largely structure my time in a similar way. I actually have, we have a course for the coaches and the practitioners that we train and I call Busy to Balanced, and one of the things that shocks people is I show a picture of my calendar. And everything is scheduled. My meditation periods are scheduled; my exercise periods are scheduled. And one of the common reactions to that is, “Oh, there’s no time for spontaneity. That’s just so rigid. And I would feel oppressed by that type of schedule.” But for me, that actually feels like freedom, because I don’t have to deliberate every time I finish an activity and sit there and agonize over what I’m going to do next. I’ve already made those priorities clear and I’ve already decided how I’m going to spend that time. All I have to do is show up and show up for each of those activities. And that reduces decision fatigue, and it makes it so much more likely that when I get to the end of the week, I’m going to look back and feel like the way I spent my time was in alignment with my deeper priorities.
And I can’t even imagine not doing that at this point. But it’s such a foreign strategy, at least at first, for so many people, I think.
Cal Newport: Yeah, well look, if you’re not time block planning like that, you’re not operating at an elite level. It’s very consistent among anyone who’s doing something elite. And as I always tell people, if you want free time, you want relaxation, you want spontaneity, then schedule it. The best free time in my experience, the very best free time is the free time that shows up in a time block schedule, because it’s free time that you can embrace with complete presence. I have three hours and I’m just going to the woods; I’m going to go for a hike and I’m going to think. I can do that with complete presence, because I know the whole picture. And I got the other things that needed to be done, done. I know what the plan is; this is fine. I can actually be completely free here. I think the most organized people actually get the most pleasure, relaxation, and enjoyment out of time off because there’s a difference between, I’m just taking time off and my mind is furiously, [like] what about this? What about that? [Are] there emails? What’s going on here? Versus someone who has their arms around it.
So I’m with you. I actually sell a time block plan. It’s one of the more popular things I sell. It’s a planner that literally just helps people do exactly this: give every minute a day. The gap, this is the pro stuff, right? The people who jumped from I checked my email and have a to-do list. Here’s my plan for today. It’s such a huge jump in terms of how you feel and what you’re able to get done that it’s almost hard to overemphasize the benefits of it.
Yeah, it’s a pain. Everything’s hard. That’s the motto of I think your show and this episode today is everything good is hard, unfortunately.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah. No shortcut.
Cal Newport: But it’s a completely different relationship. It’s a completely different relationship with work, when it’s you figuring out how [you] want to deploy [your] attention resource versus generally in a work mode. I’m answering emails, I’m on Slack, I’m in Zoom, [and] I have a deadline coming up, so I’m going to scramble to get things done. That’s a rough simulacrum of what work really could be.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I often tell people, the more I’m able to master these kinds of techniques, the more leisure time I have. And it sounds paradoxical. The more work I get done, the more meaningful deep work I get done, the more leisure time I have. I was able to ski 100 days this season here in Park City at a time where I’m running companies and working on my next book. And my professional obligations have not decreased. They’ve increased in a lot of ways. And yet, because of all of these things that we’re talking about, like that laser focus of knowing what’s most important, and then coming up with smart processes for dealing with everything else, is so crucial to not only my productivity, but my health and well-being. I feel just like I’m enjoying my life probably more than I ever have.
And I like to talk about that because for some people, I think this seems like if it’s just talked about in the context of workplace productivity or work productivity, and not in the larger context of like, this is really about happiness and well-being, then I think some people get turned off to it. And they’re not as likely to, where they set up a dialectic where they think I can either pursue happiness or well-being or I can maximize my productivity. And those two things are somehow at odds.
Cal Newport: Right. And there’s also this current anti-productivity backlash coming out of certain cultural circles, too, that’s trying to draw this dialectic between people and then these forces, these cultural and capitalist forces, that are trying to exploit you into these sort of narratives of productivity. But then the answer is, well, what are you suggesting instead? Right? And I think terminology is an issue here. I think of productivity as what connects the universe of all the different things you could be doing to what you’re doing right now [at] this moment. Something has to connect those two things. Now, you can think that through or you can just let it unfold haphazardly, right? Letting it unfold haphazardly, however, is not undermining the capitalist system and regaining some sort of human autonomy. It’s just making your life haphazard.
When you can control it, you can actually put intention into that. How much, what type of stuff do I want to execute? How much stuff do I want to execute? How much work versus other stuff do I want to execute? What’s important to me? How do I make sure that the things that need to get done that I don’t really like but are crucial to keep the lights on have the smallest footprint possible? All of those questions fall into the rubric of productivity. Because again, you have the universe of things that could be going on and then you have you executing something right now, and something has to connect those two.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: And until you have a structure there, you can’t tune things toward what you actually care about. So I think it’s not useful to have this dialectic of, like, productivity is bad or anti-human, and then there’s like this alternative because the alternative is ill-defined and typically it just becomes let’s keep the structure between these two things haphazard. Which, hey, guess what? That’s not sticking it to the man. Probably what you’re doing there is just really helping the attention economy because when everything is haphazard, you’re just probably on your phone and social media all the time, right? You’re still helping the man? Yeah, that’s not the way to subvert your, yeah.
Chris Kresser: You’re enriching corporate profits and social media barons by allowing them to more effectively harvest your attention. Yeah, yeah.
Chris Kresser: Exactly, that’s what it’s about for me is just making sure I’m spending more time on the things that are most valuable and meaningful to me. And some of those things are work related, and some of them are not. It might be learning a new skill or spending more time with my daughter, for example. Making sure that I’ve organized my schedule in such a way where that is a priority that is scheduled into my calendar, that I know is not just going to be leftover time from whenever I get anything else done. And I can use these same tools to improve those kinds of activities, which I would argue are maybe more being related than doing related.
And I think there is a tension there that, and maybe this is where it can be easy to get tripped up is, I think the way that productivity is often talked about, and there are some people out there like in the entrepreneurial world, I’m not going to name any names, [who] almost brag about how much they work and how they don’t spend any time with their family. And I think that sometimes gets superimposed over this productivity lens that we’ve been talking about. Where the assumption is that if you’re just trying to maximize productivity, you’re only focusing on doing and things that have objectively measurable outcomes, and you’re not then focusing as much on the being skills in life, like improving relationships, or being a better parent, or even just experiencing the pure pleasure of an activity for its own sake, or being outdoors in nature or something like that, where you can’t check that off your to-do list or quantify it or measure it in some way.
But it sounds like you’re not advocating for a life without any of that stuff. And the way you talk about productivity doesn’t exclude that in any way, and in fact, may even enhance the ability to experience those being-related activities.
Cal Newport: Yeah, it absolutely does. And one of the things that I think has happened in the discussion of productivity, and this happens in other issues in our culture, as well, is that we construct this boogeyman that largely doesn’t exist, and then we pretend like it’s what everyone thinks. So then we come across as being so critical and smart for pushing back on it. And we’ve created this productivity boogeyman where I read all these books, read all these articles, see all these tweets from people, where they’ve essentially constructed an image of our culture in which most people are that sort of overworked entrepreneur you’re talking about. Where most people [think] doing more is better; I work all the time; the most important thing is getting as [many] things done as possible. I don’t know anyone who believes that. By far, the cultural standard right now, especially among the more privileged upper middle class knowledge worker type class, by far the more cultural standard is like, oh, that’s not a very desirable goal.
And yet, we create [a] boogeyman and they’re like, I’m fighting back against it. But I think largely, most people have moved past the notion of more is better than less than people are going to be impressed if I get after it. I think as a culture, we’ve all evolved to try to construct lives that we find meaningful and have that proper balance. And so yes, to me, that’s all productivity. All of that falls under productivity. You either are thinking intentionally about how you go from what you could be doing to what you’re doing right now or you don’t. And if you’re not in all aspects of your life, you’re going to come up short.
Locking in, for example, on workout aspects. I want to really build up really rare and valuable skills and really deliberately build up skills could be the very cornerstone of having huge time autonomy. Because I have built up this skill, I can write my own ticket; I work three months a year. The rest of [the] time, I’m with my kid, right? Where that comes from productivity.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Cal Newport: Moving to Park City, right? Because now you can ski 100 days a year, right? That’s thinking from a productivity lens. Like okay, of all the things I could be doing like skiing is very important to me. If I’m thinking intentionally, like okay, so where I live matters, [and] how I set up my work matters. I can pull back on this, put this here, all of that. All of that is thinking. And I think Jocko Willink always uses that term discipline is freedom. I think there’s actually a lot of truth to it. Once you have structure, or intention and control over the aspects of your life, then you can actually manipulate the aspects of your life. Oh, I want to pull, like you have control over your different businesses, your time, etc. You can now titrate things. Let me pull this back to be this much time by getting rid of this and moving this to someone else. And let me just shut down this business altogether. Now let me push this over here; let me pull this back while I push that. You can move your levers in such a way that now you have this freedom for your time. All of that’s productivity.
And so to me, the dialectic is not exploitative productivity toward happiness and relaxation. It’s toward haphazardness in how you use your time, which is almost always fundamentally exploitative, because now all these different people are going to take advantage of you—the attention economy companies, the processed food companies, etc. Or intention and control over how you spend your time.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Cal Newport: That’s the dialectic that matters. Productivity is what gets you to the intentional side versus the other. Because again, look at me, I work nine to five.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Cal Newport: I work less than most people I know with just a standard single government job who doesn’t think much about this stuff. I work significantly less than most of those people. Why? Because I think a lot about these questions.
Chris Kresser: Yes, absolutely. And I think this concept of discipline being freedom is found in so many different domains. Jocko is coming at it from his being a Navy SEAL, an area where discipline is probably at the pinnacle. And also, it’s something you’ll encounter if you study or practice Buddhism, for example. Like the concept of a meditation retreat, where you have almost zero autonomy in terms of how you spend your time. Literally every moment of the day is scheduled from 4 a.m. when you start the meditation period until it depends on the retreat, of course, like 11 p.m. You almost have no free time. And yet people report feeling freer than ever in that sort of situation, because you’re not just subject to the vagaries of your own mind, as it drifts to one thing or the other. “Oh, maybe I should do this, or maybe I should go check my email. Or maybe I should do that.” No, you’re not subject to those influences. You know what you’re doing; you’ve already planned to do it. And that’s extremely liberating and freeing for a certain quality of our attention. Yeah, go ahead.
Cal Newport: I couldn’t think of anything less free than let’s say, you go to your job, [and] it’s [the] hyperactive hive mind all day long. You feel like almost nothing is getting done, [and] you come home exhausted. It’s basically you on your phone, you have a couple [of] drinks to relax, maybe then get back on your computer and try to catch up on some Slack before falling in bed too late or something like that. Yeah, that’s someone who’s not thinking a lot about productivity. I couldn’t imagine anything less free. Where someone who’s really thinking about all the aspects of their work and their life, and how do I control it and tamp down the hive mind and bring things back and forth, and now suddenly, they can aim that energy because now I can have a deeper relationship with my kids and build up this community group that happens and get involved in this athletic pursuit and push my reading and do my Buddhist practice. And suddenly, all these different things you’re free to do because there is an intentional discipline thinking about. Here’s my time, how do I control it, how do I keep it intentional[ly] aimed at my thing?
So yeah, I couldn’t think of anything less free than the way that most people who think very little about productivity actually end up having to live their lives.
Slow Productivity vs. Fast Productivity
Chris Kresser: Right, totally unplanned, daily experience and no structure at all, is what often gets misassigned as being freedom. In a recent blog post, and this is kind of a good place to conclude, but you talked about this concept of slow productivity, which I really like. And maybe that will help us to distinguish between or address the terminology issue to some extent. Where the term people are familiar with, like slow cuisine and this idea that that adds to me a qualitative element to the concept of productivity that makes it not just about churning out as many widgets as you can, whether it’s in your own individual life or on a professional scale. But you talk about slow productivity and anti-busyness in the same sentence of the title of that blog post. So to me, it seems like that points directly to what we’re talking about right now, which is that productivity doesn’t lead to more busyness; it actually probably leads to a lot less busyness.
Cal Newport: Well, so now in my own thinking on this more recently, since I’ve written that post, I think about the alternative to slow productivity is fast productivity. Fast productivity is what people often associate with the term productivity. And that’s where you’re trying to, as efficiently as possible, move from a large plate of things you need to do, [and] move them to done. It’s like, how can I get as much stuff done as possible? How can I churn through as much stuff as possible? That’s fast productivity.
Slow productivity, by contrast, focuses on the activity selection in the first place. And it gets very intentional and careful about what you bring into your life and how that work gets done so that you reduce what’s on your plate to such a degree that the fast productivity stuff is not even really relevant. You reduce the stuff that’s on your plate to the point where I don’t even have to think that much about how do I get this all done? How do I be efficient? How do I keep track of it all? Because there’s not even that much to keep track of.
I think the slow productivity revolution, and all this falls under the big umbrella of productivity. That’s where I think there’s a lot of energy. We’ve fallen into this busyness trap recently, where for a lot of reasons, we all have too much on our plates in work and outside of work. And I think there’s a lot of complicated reasons why this is the case. But I also think it’s very bad for us. I think chronic overload is a chronic health condition that’s just as bad as chronic inflammation. It’s something we really have to think about, like cognitive inflammation, basically. And so slow productivity is solving that by actually significantly reducing what ends up on our plate for us to have to accomplish in the first place, and having more of that stuff be more meaningful that we choose.
All of that’s productivity. So now, we’re just looking under the covers of productivity and say, yeah, fast productivity is not so interesting to me. You can read David Allen if you want to sort of crank widgets. Let’s talk about the slow productivity stuff. Well, what actually makes up your life as an entrepreneur? How many projects should an office worker actually have on their plate at a time, and how should we control it? That’s where I think there’s a lot of interesting innovation to happen in the near future.
Chris Kresser: Absolutely. Yeah. The [Getting Things Done] (GTD), I think there’s a lot to be said for it. But one of the biggest risks I see in that system is it lacks a framework for determining what work is meaningful to do in the first place. Otherwise, you can just get really good at doing a whole bunch of work that is not important. And I know Greg McKeown addresses that in Essentialism, and you address that, as well. But I think that’s really important is this all starts with determining what’s important to be focusing on in the first place, and not just productivity for its own sake of getting a lot of not very important stuff done just because you want to feel like you’re checking things off your to-do list.
Cal Newport: Yeah, and some of this, a lot of this is personal. A lot of this is also systemic. I think overburdening people in the office has been a real cognitive disaster. It’s not very efficient. I like this metaphor. It’s not a literal thing to do. But imagine the equivalent of this. Imagine you’re at an office, [and] there’s basically a room where things that need to be done are all hanging up on a pegboard. And you walk into this room and the people you work with maybe walk in there with you, and you take something off a pegboard. You go back to your office, [and] you do that thing. When you’re done, you bring it back and hang it up on the pegboard and take another thing off the pegboard. You go back and do that thing. That’s actually from an analogy point of view the way that our brains work best. What we do now in this analogy is we sit in our office, and your co-workers all come in and just throw handfuls of these things into your office as they pass by, and now you’re just surrounded by them, and you’re trying to sift through them.
So I think there’s also even a systemic issue here about how we even reimagine work. Software developers do this. Hey, we’re working on this feature; you’re sprinting until you’re done with that, then we’ll figure out what’s next. Probably, most knowledge work should be that way. People should be way more specialized and be working on many fewer things at a time. It’s not up to the individual to keep track of 700 things in all these different contexts and it’s up to, no, no, no. Things should come to the knowledge worker one at a time very carefully titrated. They do it really well. They do it really efficiently, then we move on to what’s next. So slow productivity is partially about being essential yourself to do the Greg McKeown thing; it’s also about rethinking the way that even offices should run. How do we even figure out what should be on people’s plates and how much should be on people’s plates?
Chris Kresser: That’s one of my big projects and goals for this year. So I’ll let you know how it goes. What are you working on next? I’ve heard some rumblings here or there that maybe something about busyness, a book on busyness. What’s next for you, Cal?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I might write something on busyness. This slow productivity versus fast productivity dichotomy and how slow productivity is probably going to be the key to overcoming this chronic overload issue, which is like a huge issue that we don’t really realize. I think there’s a lot of anti-busyness stuff out there right now. A lot of it’s not that pragmatic. I think a lot of it is just [a] sort of social critique. Like we’re busy because bad people are tricking us to be busy. So let’s be mad at the bad people, the end. It’s like, okay, that’s nice. But let’s think about how we can actually rebuild our lives in society to get away with it without undermining the entire capitalist system or whatever, which is what I think sometimes these books are going to be a little more pragmatic.
I’m also a little bit interested in this concept of resets. So something that really came out of my writing and interacting with my readers during the pandemic, is people have this drive to dramatically reset their lives. I call it a deep reset. And it’s something that we don’t have a lot of guidance on. Though it’s something that has suffused like all of literature and philosophy and theology and through all of human history, it’s a really deeply human issue, and in our modern times, we have some memoirs on this and slogans. So another topic I’m really interested in right now at this moment is trying to understand this urge to deeply reset your life. How do you actually do that? And that probably, I wrote a book in 2012 that was about how to find a career and follow your passions, bad advice. So this would sort of be a follow-up for this.
I’m also thinking about that as maybe a one-off just because it’s really in the air right now. The lost art of radical life change is something that needs a more systematic treatment. So those are the two ideas I’m bouncing around most right now.
Chris Kresser: Love it. Great. And yeah, for all the listeners, I highly recommend all of Cal’s books, Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, [and] A World Without Email. [It] seems to me that which, do you have a recommendation for what people start with? I read Deep Work first and then I read A World Without Email next. Because this stuff with what’s happening with my company is really front and center, and I wanted to dive into that. And then I read Digital Minimalism last only in part because I feel like my relationship with digital technologies is pretty healthy at this point. And I’m not in need of a digital declutter. But I still got a ton out of that book and loved reading it in part for just helping me to frame how I talk about it with other people in my own courses and things like that. But do you have a recommendation for how most people would enter into that trilogy?
Cal Newport: Yeah, well, I would just make the separation, that if your interest is your personal texts, social media, your phone, YouTube, etc., that’s what Digital Minimalism is about. If your concern is tech in the workplace, so email overload, and Slack, and too many meetings, that’s where Deep Work and A World Without Email come in. You can really read those in any order. I mean, they go together, right? It’s basically one large book is the way I think about it.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, definitely.
Cal Newport: Deep Work is going to introduce the notion [that] deep work can be more about how you as an individual can train your ability to focus and why it’s important to you in a deep life. A World Without Email gets into the issue of, how did we end up working this way? How did the hyperactive hive mind come about? Why is it a problem? And then it gets into these principles about how to redesign the way you work. So it’s much more in the weeds about how to redesign work to get away from these hive mind issues. I will say [you can apply] A World Without Email as an individual or an organization. So it’ll walk you through as an individual how to identify your personal processes, and do what you can do to reduce unscheduled messages as well as organization. So I think Deep Work is kgoing to give you an inspirational kick, [and] A World Without Email is going to give you I guess, a game plan for okay, let’s start rebuilding things systematically.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, and like you said, you don’t have to be the founder or leader of a company to benefit from it. There are things individuals can do, and there are also suggestions for how individuals can advocate to their supervisors or managers, like hey, this is a good thing for, this is going to increase my productivity and value to the company if I’m able to shift the way that I do this kind of work.
Then you have a podcast that is relatively new. This is some, you are a type of person who doesn’t jump on the, you’re not a techno maximalist any benefit type of person. I’m sure you waited to determine whether a podcast was really going to fulfill your overall personal and professional objectives. But it did, apparently, because you’ve launched one called Deep Questions, which is a phenomenal show. What do you tend to talk about in that show?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I lost it at the end of last May early in the pandemic, because I miss seeing, interacting with my readers, because I wasn’t giving talks, [and] I wasn’t in the classroom anymore. And so it was a pandemic project. The big conceit there, it’s less about interviews. It’s more about actually answer[ing] questions from my readers about deep work and living a deep life. So all the issues we talked about today, and I go through, okay, here’s a question on, sometimes it’s mundane. Like, how do I, I have too many meetings and how do I, like productivity style questions. And sometimes it’s bigger questions about rebuilding. How to succeed as an author. And then the deep life, we get really pretty philosophical about what matters in life and how to spend time on what matters and reconceptualize your relationship with technology.
Sometimes, I have guests on. Mainly, it’s just me answering the questions. Now that the pandemic’s over though, I’m taking my studio I have here and we’re actually turning it into a multi-person studio. So I’m going to have a regular cast of characters now to join me and to help me unpack some of these issues that deal with deep work and the deep life. And it’s been fun. So yeah, I took a long time to start a podcast. I didn’t start until late last May. But we’re two and a half million downloads strong. I think it’s catching an audience. That’s been great. And it’s been a lifeline for me because I like to talk to my people, to my tribe, and I was cut off from them because of this pandemic. And so, I’m really happy I finally was pushed into doing that.
Chris Kresser: That’s great. It’s a phenomenal show. You’ve also got a couple of online courses that you do with Scott Young. One’s “Life of Focus,” which I am in right now. It’s, like I said, I’m kind of a, I want to learn as much as I can about all this stuff. Even though I consider myself to be pretty seasoned, there’s always more to learn, and I am learning more in that course, which I’m really enjoying. And then you’ve got one, and by the way, that course, for the listeners, incorporates a lot of these, the concepts from all of these books that we’ve been talking about and everything we’ve covered on the show and provides some structured guidance in how to implement it in your own life. Is that just periodically offered, Cal?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I think if you go, there’s a link to it on my website and his. Yeah, it’s periodically offered because you go through as a cohort. And so I think there’s a list; you can put your name on a list and then we email you when we’re next going to open it. But yeah, it’s three months. One month is basically Deep Work. One month is Digital Minimalism. And one month is really based on Scott’s book Ultralearning. So it’s like supercharging your brain to be able to do [it].
Yeah, those online courses have been fun, too. It’s really interesting. I like innovation [and] like trying new things. And we’ve had thousands of people go through these courses. And I think there’s something there about the future of pragmatic nonfiction writing. I think books are obviously a great way to get ideas to a broad mass. But I don’t think we have to stop there. And so Scott really [took] the lead here, but courses [are] an interesting way to take the most motivated readers from books and say, “Okay, now I’m ready to go the next step, and much more step-by-step integrate these ideas into my life.” So I’m very bullish on the idea [that] courses should have a role to play in pragmatic nonfiction.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, yeah. You won’t be surprised that I agree, as someone who has, I mean, that’s how I basically got my start with The Healthy Baby Code 10, 12 years ago, whenever that was now. First digital course. The reason I like courses is because it can be pretty easy just to read a book, put it down, and that’s the end of it. I’ve found over the years, a lot of people need support to actually implement things that they learn about in the book. There is always the 5 percent or whatever percentage it is that can, is just autonomously motivated to, and capable of doing that themselves. But courses provide not only structure and support, but they also provide community, right? The chance, especially if you’re in a cohort-based course like you do, you have a chance to go through that process with other people. And I think, from the literature that I’ve seen, behavior change is more successful when it happens in that kind of community setting.
So you’ve also got another course, “Top Performer,” which I think is more based on your book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which is about career development.
Cal Newport: Yeah, and that’s from back before I even published Deep Work. So in 2012, I had this book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Scott, and I built this course “Top Performer.” I think we launched it in 2014. I think we’ve had [5,000] or 6,000 people go through this course.
Chris Kresser: That’s awesome.
Cal Newport: It’s really, there is a huge hunger out there, more so than I realized, for people [who] need more structured guidance about how to manage their career. I’m always surprised [at] the degree to which we sort of throw people to the wolves. Here’s your college degree. Follow your passion. Good luck.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, not good advice.
Cal Newport: It’s like, okay. All right, yeah. It’s not good advice. So that’s a classic course that’s been around for a long time. It’s gone through a lot of iterations. Scott and I rebuild it every few years from scratch, and everyone who takes it gets lifetime access. So the very early Top Performers, it’s interesting to hear their perspective because they get to come back again and again and basically watch, among other things, Scott and I get older.
Chris Kresser: Right, right.
Cal Newport: We’ve all had a bunch more kids since we started that course. So we look more haggard every time we film new versions of that.
Chris Kresser: The lifetime access is great, because it implicitly acknowledges that career development is an iterative, ongoing process. Back in maybe our parents’ generation, you typically had one career. If you were a banker when you started, [you’d] probably be a banker before you retired at age 65. But that’s largely not the case in this day and age, and people are often feeling drawn to reinvent themselves at various periods and move in maybe even a totally different direction or at least an offshoot that’s not logically just the forward path from where they were in the first place.
So I know from, I haven’t read that book, but I know a couple [of] people who have, who were not just out of college, and they still felt like they’ve benefited a lot from it. And then last but not least, your website CalNewport.com. You’ve got a great email newsletter. I subscribe to it. My listeners know I subscribe to very few newsletters because, email. I’m trying to manage the input, but I really appreciate your emails and your posts. So that’s CalNewport.com, and people can find all of your books and these courses and the time block planner and the link to your podcast on that site, right?
Cal Newport: Yep, it’s all there. I’ve been writing those weekly essays for my newsletter since 2007. It’s one of my favorite things, because now it’s crazy. I have readers that have been with me on that email newsletter for well over a decade now, including readers who have gone through all of these important lifecycle events in their life, sort of following along with me and my advice. And I love that community. I feel like social media, which is like super broad, there’s a lot of vitriol on there. There’s a lot of negativity. I have this little community of my newsletter readers who send me messages and leave comments. I also post the essays on my blog. And it’s like people have been with me for years. And it’s the most interesting, considerate, smart, erudite little online community out there.
And so I have been in this happy online bubble where it’s interesting people who like ideas, and like debating, and everyone’s nice to each other, and everyone’s smart, and it’s like the opposite of Twitter. And so maybe that’s why I’ve never been on social media. I have a much better alternative I built up just around this website over the years.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, I feel the same way about my email folks and the podcast for me, which has been much longer standing I feel. That’s the way that I get to relate to my peeps and hear from them, learn from them, and develop that relationship over time, which is so, so meaningful.
Cal, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I’ve really enjoyed it. And for those of you who are listening, I really encourage you to check out CalNewport.com, subscribe to the newsletter, check out the podcast, and read some of these books. I think it’s again, at the risk of sounding a little bit hyperbolic, I do think that learning to more effectively manage our relationship with digital technology is one of the most important steps we can take for our own health and happiness and well-being and also even improving our ability as a people and as a society to be able to solve some of our most challenging and complex problems.
So Cal, thank you so much for the contribution[s] that you’ve made in all of these areas. I look forward to reading your next book and seeing what’s next.
Cal Newport: Well, thanks, Chris. As I mentioned, I’m a fan, so this was my pleasure.
Chris Kresser: Okay, everybody, thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions in [to] ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.
This last May of 2021 was the 11-year anniversary of my podcast. Back in 2010 when I first started, podcasts were the Wild West! Hardly anyone had heard of them, even fewer people were listening, and only a tiny handful of us were producing them.
I’ve had a blast doing nearly 300 episodes of the show over that 11-year period. And lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like to do with the show over the next 10 years. In some ways, I’m even more excited about podcasting today than I was when I started—and I’d love to ask for your input on how I can improve the show and make it even better and more relevant to your interests.
This survey should take about 3-5 minutes to complete. I know most of you are pretty busy, so as an expression of my appreciation for your time, everyone that completes the survey will be entered into a drawing for one a three-year membership to Thrive Market ($180 value).
If you’d like to complete the survey anonymously, that’s fine too—just don’t include your email address at the bottom of the form.
You can find the survey at kresser.co/podcastsurvey.
Oh, and one last thing… you might notice some changes or additions to the show over the next several episodes. This is just part of my process of research and experimentation to see what works best.
Thanks in advance for participating—and for being part of the Revolution Health Radio community! I’m so grateful for your help!