Cal Newport

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University & Author of 'So Good They Can't Ignore You'

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON January 06, 2016


Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
Hi - I'm Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Deep Work, which agues that focus is the new I.Q. Ask me anything...
Edmond Lau@edmondlau · Author, Engineer at Quip
@studyhacksblog Hello from a fellow MIT alum (’05) & author, and congrats on your launch! I finished your book yesterday and really enjoyed the theme of deliberate focus. I liked that you very clearly laid out and specified your principles and rules, to the point where many of them are straightforward to implement. Well done! I’m really curious to learn more about how you think about work versus play. For instance, you write in your book that you generally don’t work past 5:30pm, but you also mention that you enjoy writing blog posts after your kids are asleep. Writing thoughtful blog posts definitely takes a lot of focus and concentration. As someone who also blogs (on leverage in engineering), I would have categorized blogging as deep work, but it almost seems as if you defined blog posts outside of work? Perhaps you consider blogging to be “deep play” rather than “deep work”? More generally, there are various, intellectually challenging activities or side projects that one might consider to be fun or play, rather than work. At the same time, it’s also very common in a place like Silicon Valley for someone to fall into the trap of “I love my startup work so much that there’s nothing else I would rather do with my spare time.” Given that you’re fairly rigorous about restricting your work hours — what is your mental framework for evaluating whether or not to allow projects like book- or blog-related activities that you might border between fun/play and work to enter into your leisure time? And are you as structured with your leisure time (to the level of “schedule every minute of your day”) as you are with your normal work-day?
@edmondlau Just as a heads up: in a recent webinar he mentions how he can go from idea to completed blog post in about 40-70 minutes, so he views it as very light work in some sense. He mentioned he has been writing professionally since 20 (now 33) so he is very skilled at efficient writing. But great question.
@edmondlau PS - Edmond, your book made me such a better software engineer. I love it so much. Thanks so much for your work writing that.
Edmond Lau@edmondlau · Author, Engineer at Quip
@dain @edmondlau That is efficient writing for sure!
Edmond Lau@edmondlau · Author, Engineer at Quip
@dain @edmondlau And you're welcome on the book -- happy to have helped.
Haowen Chan@purpleturtle
Have you thought about setting up a community where deep work enthusiasts can support each other with Q&A about what worked for them during their training, and share their progress?
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@purpleturtle That would be great. If anyone has a suggestion for the right tool for this purpose, I'm all ears.
Darshan Desai@darshan_desai
@studyhacksblog @purpleturtle That's a great suggestion! I'd love to be a part of that!
Erik van Mechelen@decision_ · Essayist and fiction writer
@studyhacksblog @purpleturtle I believe I've done a decent amount of deep work in writing a novel and preparing for the 2014 USA memory championship...and I love community-building and management, would love to set up that community on Slack, for instance. May I contact you about it?
Haowen Chan@purpleturtle
@studyhacksblog @purpleturtle I've found that traditional forum/bbs formats work well for this due to their threaded nature. There are some free options listed here:
Kelly P King@kkbranddesign · Owner, Kelly King Creative
@studyhacksblog @purpleturtle I would suggest a Facebook Private Group. I have been a member of another group with a consultant and we shared our thoughts and work for one month. It was very helpful, motivating and fun.
What is your opinion on this research ( which dismisses the importance of deliberate practice particularly for professions (1% variance for professions)? Thanks!
Haowen Chan@purpleturtle
@juniusfree For those of us without access to the article, can someone explain what is meant by "professions"? Does it cover everything from surgery to grocery cashier?
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@juniusfree Be wary of the anti-deliberate practice research. Such papers began to peak after outliers mainly because academics don't like Malcolm Gladwell (my theory). Anders Ericsson wrote a rebuttal recently (cited in DEEP WORK) about why a lot of this anti-deliberate practice research is not that good.
Paolo Usero@paolo · Graduate Student
@purpleturtle @juniusfree A quick glance through and it seems that professions is woefully under represented in their statistics for such a large category.
Katie@deadacct3000 · Blowhard
I'm interested to know what you see are the supports in your life that are vital for you to be able to work at the intensity that you do, and what you do to create/maintain/renew those supports. For example, lack of any meaningful human contact in a day coupled with working in front of a screen rather than with physical objects can feel quite lonely and isolating. A couple days of this in a row becomes distressing for many of us. During the workday, we may use social media to seek out the company of others in a frictionless way that we can exit anytime as an efficient, though inadequate, solution to this. I think when we are trying to address very deep and possibly unacknowledged needs with quick fixes that break our focus and drain our cognitive reserves - social media for loneliness, meeting others' shallow work requests quickly to gain a sense of urgency to work that seems depressingly unnecessary - removing those quick fixes won't be sufficient to get us to a place where we can gather our focus and do deep work long-term. We must move towards having those very human needs met in an authentic and lasting way, along with building more mature work habits. Or, perhaps we just need to build our tolerance to negative emotions, I don't know. What's your take?
Nicolay Worren@nicolayworren · Nicolay Worren, business school prof.
@deadacct3000 Well said. I would guess personality differences play a role here, some people get their energy from interacting with other people. I would add that I also need to interact with a broad set up of people to get ideas; despite being a professor I get more ideas from talking to people in organizations, than I do from reading academic papers.
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@deadacct3000 It's a good question. I do a lot of my work on foot or in locations other than my offices because I too get drained if I spend too much time in the same room looking at the same screen. I also try to keep my life simple. I work during the normal work day and work real hard (no web surfing, no loafing, etc.) But then my evenings and weekends I can really relax, connect with people, etc. But it's worth pointing out, as Nicolay does below, that for an extrovert the intense workday might be much harder than it is for an introvert like me.
Andrew Golnar@andrew_golnar · Graduate Student, Texas A&M University
@studyhacksblog What are your thoughts on caffeine?
What should a generalist (jack of all trades) need to do to advance his/her career? Thanks!
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@juniusfree If you're not comfortable with the idea of choosing a single thing to excel at, consider instead selecting a unique collection of skills that are rare in combination and have some high value areas of application (what i called the "auction market" of skills in SO GOOD THEY CAN'T IGNORE YOU)
Fraz Ahmed Ismat@fismat · Medical Director
@juniusfree No such thing as a "generalist". If you cannot identify what you are good at, that may be part of the problem.
Laura Lee@laura_lee · social scientist
@studyhacksblog Hi Cal. What are your routines to stay informed about what's happening 1) in the world generally 2) in spheres and debates you're interested - broadly speaking, like e.g. technology or debates around issues you're writing about 3) your specific field of research. I am a social scientist and I do need to keep up with these three different streams of information in order to be able to teach and do research. I manage to find time to do deep research&writing, but I can't organize the process of getting informed without getting distracted all the time. Thanks in advance! a great book, btw!
Nicolay Worren@nicolayworren · Nicolay Worren, business school prof.
@laura_lee Same situation for me. What I try to do is to compartmentalize, so that I spend, say, 2-3 days a week on isolated deep work (e.g., writing), 1-2 on teaching, and 1 on externally oriented activities.
Cisum Listen@cisum_listen
Who is the best deep worker you know? Why are they the best?
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@cisum_listen Read THE RISE OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT. His intensity was legendary.
How can a college student integrate deep work into his life ?
Jacob Lindberg@jacob_lindberg · Student in Math Stats Finance
@phast123 It is the content of his first three books. I like "Straight A student" the most.
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@phast123 Deep work is a super power for college students. I rarely studied past 8 because I could concentrate well. Definitely pursue this is you're a student, it will change your life.
Lynne d Johnson@lynneluvah · Digital Strategist, LdJ Communications
When you have a family/kids and you're a consultant who can work flexibly around your family and whenever you feel like it, how do you make sure you make time for deep work?
Preet@preetnation · BlueLight, also enjoy QS and Parkour
two quick questions: 1) your favorite blog posts that you've written? 2) Thoughts on Pomodoro?
Chris Lines@chris_lines · Music Composer
@studyhacksblog With all the careful planning, scheduling and organisation we do in order to make better use of our time, what are some useful practices or mindsets you use to actually buckle down and WORK? Thanks.
Erik van Mechelen@decision_ · Essayist and fiction writer
@studyhacksblog Adding on to @chris_lines, how do you get in and stay in flow? Are there in-between states in your experience? Can you see yourself losing concentration but adjust your position in your chair and keep going? Cheers Cal. Been following for years.
Erik van Mechelen@decision_ · Essayist and fiction writer
PS "So Good They Can't Ignore You" was a gem. So thanks for that.
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@chris_lines When conducting deep work: (1) have clarity about exactly what you are trying to accomplish and for how long you'll be working on it; (2) have some sort of ritual you do to initiate such depth sessions (signaling your brain it's time to concentrate); (3) get up and move as needed to rest your mind, but do not expose yourself to unrelated work or obligations (e.g., inbox glances)
Jacob Lindberg@jacob_lindberg · Student in Math Stats Finance
Let us say you have a profession that is not suited for deep work – say a CEO or trader – but you believe in the arguments of this book. What can, and should, be done?
Ken Friedman@ken_friedman · Teacher,
@studyhacksblog Hi Cal - what are your latest recommendations about how to organize a large long-term research project? You have made several recommendations on your blog in the past. My project involves listening to 2000+ hours of audiotape in order to write a definitive book about the teachings of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master. Robert Greene, for example, strongly recommends using good old index cards. Also, how to incorprorate such a long-term project into your weekly/daily schedule ? Thank you!
Haowen Chan@purpleturtle
You've famously likened activities like social media and web surfing as actively damaging to our ability to focus on deep work. In your webinar you said something like, "Just as a pro athlete would not smoke, a focus-oriented professional would try to avoid social media". What are some examples of other activities that should be considered damaging to our progress in training for focus? What are the specific characteristics of such activities that make them actively harmful?
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
Hi everyone! Great questions...I'm going to dive in and start answering...
Smit Shah@who828 · Flipkart
@studyhacksblog Two questions, 1) How do you manage to deep work when the work requires constant references or look ups on the internet? 2) What are your favourite books on the subject? (aside from yours :))
Kening Zhu@kening_zhu · designer
Cal, what are your thoughts on eliminating social media for professionals who might want to use it for marketing their businesses? (For instance, creative entrepreneurs looking to build a following). Thank you!
Michael Eads@themikeeads · Founder
Hey Cal – what is your take on traditional/mindfulness meditation practices? I ask because your new book has excellent advice about "productive meditation" – and mentions that it is similar in nature to "mindfulness meditation" – but other than that, other types of meditation are not discussed.
Cal Newport@studyhacksblog · Study Hacks
@themikeeads Productive meditation is good for increasing the intensity of your ability to concentrate. Mindfulness meditation (which I have practiced off an on) is good for helping to decrease your dependence on distraction. Both are useful. I don't know much about other meditation types, but generally, the more activities you can do that require undistracted attention (whether it be playing a sport or meditating or stamp collecting), the better.
Nicolay Worren@nicolayworren · Nicolay Worren, business school prof.
@studyhacksblog @themikeeads I have enjoyed practicing the Alexander Technique for years, it's simple and really works (should be learned from a teacher initially)