Cal Newport: Deep Work and What Matters
At Freedom, we want to give our customers the freedom to do what matters most to them. In a world saturated with digital distractions begging for your attention, finding the focus to do what is most important has become increasingly difficult.
That’s why we decided to sit down with the leading expert on this very subject – Cal Newport.
Cal Newport, renowned author and assistant professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, spends much of his time studying theoretical foundations in our digital age and the impact of these technologies on the world of work.
His most recent book, “Deep Work,” argues that focus is the new IQ, and that the ability to concentrate without being distracted has become an increasingly rare and valuable skill.
In addition to ‘Deep Work,’ Newport has also written three popular books of unconventional advice for students, and in his spare time, maintains the popular blog, ‘Study Hacks.’
A graduate of Dartmouth and MIT, Newport’s work has won the praise of many publications including The New York Time’s Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The Guardian.
How did you know that you wanted to be a professor/writer and what were your first steps in making this your career?
I was a writer in college: a columnist for the paper and the editor of the humor magazine. I thought it might be fun to write a book, so I signed my first deal during the summer after my junior year. From there, my career as a writer began. As for being a professor, I liked computer science at college, and was pretty good at it, so I went on to graduate school where it was made clear that becoming a tenure-track professor at a research institution was the most competitive and interesting thing you could do as a computer scientist — which naturally piqued my curiosity.
What advice would you offer less experienced writers/academics – especially in regard to staying productive, motivated, and focused?
There are two types of work: deep and shallow. Deep work is when you focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task and push yourself to create something new and valuable. Shallow work is everything else. Some amount of shallow work is unavoidable, but try to maximize the amount of time you spend doing the deep alternative. The market does not reward you for being busy. It rewards you for producing things that are rare and valuable. This requires depth.
What is the biggest mistake you have learned from as a knowledge-worker/writer?
Hacks are overrated. They might make you slightly more productive or organized. But there’s no substitute for long hard hours of deep work.
What excites you most about your industry?
As a computer scientist I work on cutting edge technologies. As a writer, I explore the impact of modern technologies on the world of work. I think this latter topic is fascinating. The way most knowledge workers “work” right now is fundamentally broken and disastrously unproductive. I think big changes are coming and I’m trying to report from the front lines of this revolution…
What piece of productivity research (for lack of a better term) have you found most astounding?
If you want to get the most performance out of your brain you have to avoid context shifts. Even a quick glance at an email inbox can slow down your cognitive performance for a long period to follow. This is why the current knowledge work culture which emphasizes the need to communicate throughout the day is absurd. It takes the most important capital investment in most such organizations — the human brain — and runs them at a fraction of their capacity.
When/where are you most productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?
I spend a lot of time on foot, and usually in the woods, when I’m cranking on a hard problem.
What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your writing process?
I stay analog as long as possible. I read paper books for research. I outline in my head while writing. And only once I really know what I want to say do I sit down at a computer to type.
What project are you currently most excited about?
I’ve been working on a writing project concerning the future of knowledge work. As mentioned, I think big changes are inevitable. Here’s a glimpse at one: the era of the personal email address (e.g., every employee has a single email address associated with their name through which all communication passes) will soon come to an end.
What are your biggest distractors?
I make a living thinking so I generally stay away from things designed to distract me and make me worse at thinking. I have, for example, never had a social media account and generally do not use the web for entertainment. The biggest distraction left in my life is email. This is why applications like Freedom are so vital…
What are you hoping to accomplish in 2016?
I want to think deeply about things that matter.
Where are you currently based?
Because I’m a professor at Georgetown University I live right outside Washington D.C.