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Cal Newport: Ditch the distractions

You could call Cal Newport a contradiction. He’s a millennial and a computer scientist, yet he refuses to create a profile on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Newport, a professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, says he’s simply mirroring the brutal calculus of the technology revolution. If a tech tool seems more likely to distract him than to help him focus, Newport refuses to allow it into his life. 

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The author spoke with getAbstract about how he deals with distractions and about his next book.

Since Deep Work was published, we have even more things to distract us. How has the world changed since you wrote your book?

Cal Newport: It’s true that since I wrote the book, people are probably more distracted. The technologies that distract them are better at doing it. However, since I wrote the book, people’s skepticism of technology has increased. People have gotten more aware. They’re a little more self-reflective about the costs and benefits.

Social media has emerged as a huge distraction. How do you manage it in your life?

Cal Newport: I’ve never had a social media account.

Isn’t that difficult?

Cal Newport: People think that would be difficult, but social media’s benefits have been way overhyped in our culture. People have told themselves it’s vital to have social media accounts to advance in their careers or to stay in touch with people. I push back against all those points. That’s something that used to be very controversial, but now people are more open to that argument.

What advice do you have for those of us who don’t want to disconnect entirely from social media?

Cal Newport: The first thing I suggest is take it off your phone. No one benefits from having social media apps on their phone – except for the shareholders of the social media firms. They’ve spent massive amounts of money engineering those apps to be highly addictive. If it’s just on your computer and it’s harder to access, then you’ll only go on social media to do something specific.

The second advice is to do a cost-benefit analysis. If you can’t find something for which social media is crucial, you should get off it altogether. People say they need social media to stay in touch with their friends, but unless social media is somehow crucial for you to be part of a friend group, then you shouldn’t use it. There are other ways to wish someone happy birthday. There are some exceptions. If you’re stationed overseas and social media is the most cost-effective way to stay in touch with friends and family, then it’s crucial. But I suggest a more severe cost-benefit analysis.

In the corporate world, we’re hearing more pushback against meetings. How should organizations manage meetings?

Cal Newport: What I often talk about in the corporate setting is, are you actively managing the work? In a knowledge organization, deep work is one of the most effective ways to get a return from the human brain, so you should be explicitly managing for that. How much work are you getting from the human brain that you employ? Once you start specifically managing for deep work, it leads to lots of changes in how you manage the workflow.

What kinds of changes?

Cal Newport: Say you’re running a software company. You’d say, “Our main capital resource here is people producing code. Having meetings is not producing return on capital. Or, instead of having every programmer have their own email address, maybe we could hire one young assistant and have them be in charge of communicating on behalf of the entire team.”

How do you manage email in your life?

Cal Newport: I start the day with deep work, and then later in the day I shift to shallow work. It depends on what’s going on. Sometimes, I might be doing six or seven hours of deep work. Other days, it might be just a few hours of deep work. I do the deep work until it’s done, then I shift to shallow work.

What’s your next book?

Cal Newport: I have a book coming out in February called Digital Minimalism. Deep Work dealt with technology in people’s professional lives. Digital Minimalism deals with technology in people’s personal lives. I argue that people should be much, much more selective about what technology they let into their lives, and that by using less technology, they’ll get more out of the technology they do use.

About Cal Newport

Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to researching cutting­ edge technology, he also writes about the impact of these innovations on society. Newport is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Digital Minimalism, which argues that we should be much more selective about the technologies we adopt in our personal lives, and the bestseller Deep Work, which argues that focus is the new I.Q. in the modern workplace. Since its publication, deep work has remained a getAbstract top read.

 

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