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This week’s conversation is with Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, where he specializes in the theory of distributed systems.

Cal is also a New York Times bestselling author who writes about the intersection of technology and culture.

He’s the author of seven books, including Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, which have been published in over thirty languages. 

In his latest book titled, A World Without Email, he makes the case that our current approach to work is broken, then lays out a series of principles and concrete instructions for fixing it.

And that sets the tone for this conversation.

We discuss how the modern work ecosystem has created the hyperactive hivemind… where everyone just grabs anyone as needed.

As Cal puts it, it’s convenient and flexible, but it’s melting our brains and it’s burning us out.

“Focus is trainable. The crazy thing is that almost no one trains it.”

In This Episode:

How his book “Deep Work” set the foundation for his latest book, “A World Without Email”

Deep Work was really much more about, let’s not forget the value of focused effort. When you’re concentrating on something intensely without switching your attention and looking at email and looking at the internet, looking at your phone, you produce much more value, the type of value that moves the needle. We’ve forgotten this. We’re too busy and distracted. But that book just basically said, “We’re distracted because of things like email. You should make sure that you’re not too distracted by it. Now, let’s get into why. And let’s talk about how to train your ability to focus.”Almost immediately after that book came out, I’m really talking to people. I’m asking a question, “But why are we so distracted? Why do we work this way? Why is it so hard when people read a book like Deep Work, like, ‘Oh yeah, we should have much more unbroken time,’ and then they fail to get it, what’s going on?”

Why our most prevalent distraction issues at work our workflow related, not behavior related

I think the biggest problem people have when they look at their life right now and say, “Slack owns my life. My inbox owns my life,” is they see a book like A World Without Email, and they just think, “Without changing anything else, if I just stopped using email and Slack, it would be a disaster. This is how all of this work happens. This is how we coordinate. This is how we talk to clients. I can’t not use it. This is how we use it.” And the whole point of this book is like, yes, because underneath that, you’ve implicitly chosen a workflow that I call the hyperactive hivemind, but a workflow based on unstructured ad hoc back and forth conversations is the main organizing principle.

The Hyperactive, hive mind

There’s an underlying workflow that’s been implicitly decided on that makes all that email and Slack use unavoidable. And if you want to solve it, you can’t stay at the surface. You be like, “Well, let’s change our norms and our etiquette and have some rules and have better expectations about responses and have email-free Fridays.” That’s at the surface, it’s not going to fix the problem. Eventually, you have to go down and look at the underlying workflow and say, “This hyperactive hivemind where everyone just grabs anyone as needed is convenient and it’s flexible, but it’s melting our brains and it’s burning us out. We’re probably going to have to replace this with other workflows that still get the work done, but in a way that much more respects how our brain actually operate. So we have to drill deep and we have to get below the level of hacks and we have to get below the level of norms and etiquette and get down to the basic question of, what are the core processes of your business? How does information come in and out of them? Can we optimize it?

What the data says about the impact of tools like email and Slack

There’s a ton of different data sources. The one I like the best comes from a company called Rescue Time, because they have software that tracks all of your apps on your computer. And they had all this data coming in from tens of thousands of knowledge workers about what they were doing on their computer, and so they hired some serious data scientists. They found, on average, their users were checking an inbox, so Slack or email, once every six minutes. Like other ethnographic studies where they actually would put observers in the office to watch you at your computer screen, they would take out like meetings or lunch or times where you couldn’t check it. This includes periods where like you’re talking to someone and you couldn’t check it, it’s once every six minutes. Look at the research on what that does. It’s devastating for the human mind. The human mind cannot context-switch efficiently. There’s a lot of work that happens when you take your semantic networks that are all primed to be thinking about a memo, and then you shift over to an email inbox and expose yourself.

The biggest problem with the “hive mind”

The worst case scenario from a context-switching perspective to dozens and dozens of unresolved, socially charged obligations, so people who need things from you, completely different things to one you’re working on, expectations being set, you see it all without resolving most of it, you try to turn your attention back to the memo. Your mind is now in a complete cognitive gridlock. It tried to start switching over to this and you tried the wrench it back, and your performance drops, your ability to think drops, it makes you anxious. It exhausts you from a cognitive perspective. We cannot do those type of fast shifts. So the biggest problem with the hivemind is that it requires you to do parallel processing that your main work and monitoring all these ongoing asynchronous ad hoc unstructured conversations, you have to keep monitoring back and forth, because if you don’t, it all falls apart. This is how coordination happens. And it just devastates our mind. And so I’m not surprised that the hivemind is very popular because it’s incredibly natural. When you don’t have a lot of objectives and you don’t have a lot of people, it’s how we naturally coordinate.

Coordinating ad hoc works in small groups, but it doesn’t scale

If there is five of us on a basketball court or we’re an offensive line in a football field, there’s a group of us of working on one objective, there’s not that many of us, we are going to coordinate ad hoc, unstructured, on the fly. “You go there and watch for that, watch if they’re pulling an odd ball,” whatever. In the paleolithic, this is how we would hunt a mammoth, “You go that way, I’ll go this way.” It’s how humans do it. But when you scale this up to, well, there’s 15 or 16 different types of things happening with our company, and now I’m trying to switch back and forth and service all of these and there’s 20 people now who are connected to the same email system, not just three, it doesn’t scale. And so it’s incredibly natural. There’s a reason why it became the default, but it just simply doesn’t scale when you get through to the level, the number of objectives and the number of people involved, the knowledge work, it just melts our brains. It’s not a tenable way to coordinate brains to produce value.

Blending mindfulness with your professional work

I was a real follower of Jon Kabat-Zinn for awhile, for example. And I took the core mechanism of mindfulness meditation, the noticing, the noticing of the attention wandering and without judgment, bringing it back. And then I melded it with a professional training exercise, I called it productive meditation, but it’s very, very effective. And what you do is you go for a walk, because walking, for whatever reason, it silences some parts of your brain, it makes certain things better. And in this exercise, you have one professional problem, “I want to make progress on this professional thing.” And of course your mind is going to wander, it’s going to be all over the place. It’s going to think about emails that you have to write, it’s going to think about what’s coming up. And you deploy the mindfulness meditation thing again and again. You notice it and bring it back to the problem, notice it, bring it back to the problem. That particular exercise turns out to be very, very effective for rapidly increasing people’s ability to focus on professional tasks. And if you think about it, what is that exercise? It’s refocused training. All you’re doing is, I want to practice refocusing, but in the very specific context of, “I’m thinking about something relevant to my work, and so I’m getting refocused practice exactly in the setting in which I’m going to want to apply it.” And maybe for that reason, it’s very effective for people.

Focus is a trainable skill

All of this stuff is trainable. The crazy thing is that almost no one trains it. Like in athletics it would be crazy if you’re like, “Oh, I know it’s important to have good lungs, I’m playing basketball or something, but I don’t train cardio. I don’t try to do anything to make it better.” And if you’re a knowledge worker or you’re creative worker, concentrating on one thing is like your equivalent of having good cardiovascular health, it’s crucial to what you do, but we just think of it as… For some reason we think of focus as this like intrinsic trait that some people are just good at and other people aren’t, and you’re like, “Oh, I guess I’m not a focus person.” That’s like if I went out and ran a mile, if I’ve never done any running, it would be wrong for me to conclude, “Oh, I’m not a running person.” It would be, “No, I’m not trained to run. I got to lease up the shoes.”

Why focusing isn’t a “part-time” job

Let’s say you’re in a sport where the athletes are young like the NBA, yeah, when I’m on the court, I’m super focused. But if you’re young, that means you’ve grown up with a smartphone in your hand, and you’re on that phone every minute that you’re not in practice. You’re on that phone in the locker room, and I’ve talked with GMs after have gone through and banned phones from the locker room for exactly this purpose, just to help people get their head in the game. You’re on it late at night, you’re constantly on there, you’re constantly interacting. We’re starting to realize that’s the equivalent of an athlete that says, “Hey, man, I run those wind sprints hard when I’m in practice, but yeah, after practice, I smoke. I eat some junk food.” No, your whole health matters even when you’re not in practice, is that’s the thing I’m starting to see come into professional athletics is your cognitive health matters, those epsilons make all the difference at the elite level. And so how you treat your mind outside of just being in practice or in the games really matters. If you’re on your phone all the time, you’re going to be heavy, weaker, focus muscle when it’s time to be on the court. And so I think this type of awareness is just starting to percolate up, but we don’t know a lot about mental focus and training it, but I think we’re just starting to realize in athletics, and in business, high stakes business they already know this, fund managers where mistakes can be millions, millions of dollars. They train their ability to focus like athletes train their muscles. So it’s starting to percolate, but it’s like a new frontier in performance.

The issue isn’t “multi-tasking”

I think when people think about multitasking, they think about literally doing two things simultaneously, I’m on the phone while I’m writing. No one does that anymore, no one keeps the two windows open. And so they think they’re doing a good job. And what I like to emphasize, the way I summarize what you just said is the cost is in the context switch, the cost is in the switch. When you do a switch and then you switch back, that’s what generates this cognitive drag, that’s what puts in all the friction. So a lot of people more recently thought, “I’m great, I don’t multitask. I just have Microsoft Word open, I don’t have other things open at the same time.” And they’re like, “Well, yeah, every 10 or 15 minutes, I glance at Outlook, but only for a minute. And then I close it, and I’ve turned off my notifications. I don’t have notifications. I’m great. I have no notifications, I’m not multitasking.” What they don’t realize is, looking over at Outlook even for a minute and then coming back to it, you have caused a calamity in your brain.

The cost of switching back and forth between different lines of work

If you read through an inbox and you see 20 new messages, most of which you can’t answer, everyone has that experience of coming away from that, just, argh, just dragging. It’s because you have just siphoned off so much mental energy that’s like, “Oh, we got to worry about that.” When you try to turn your attention back, you have these parts of your brain, they’re like, “Hey, hey, hey, wait a second, wait a second, someone here was asking us something. We can’t ignore people, we’re going to starve if we don’t have good dyadic relationships with our tribe members, and this person needs something, let’s get going.” And you know it’s true because you’re trying to get back to Word and you find yourself daydreaming, writing email responses. How many times have you just written email responses in your head for no reason? That is poison for cognitive performance, is exposing yourself, switching your context to something that is unresolved, involves people needing things. It’s diverse, it’s different from what you’re working on, and then it’s trying to switch back.

Give yourself some solitude every week

Get some time alone with just your own thoughts. Our brain needs it, I think of it like a vitamin. You don’t want to take Vitamin D all day long, you’re going to get sick, but you don’t want to have no Vitamin D. So I call it vitamin solitude. You need to have a little bit of time every day where you do something where it’s just you alone with your own thoughts. And at least once a week, I prescribe, do a significant thing just you alone reflecting, a long walk or a bike ride or something like that. I think a lot of people underestimate the degree to which reflection is crucial to structure your experience and draw insight out of it. It’s like the downtime your computer needs. You have to sit alone with your own thoughts and think about things or you extract almost no value out of what’s happening in your life. The amount of hours I have to spend to be a professional idea person thinking, that’s like my wind sprints, that’s like my drills, is I have to walk and think, walk and think, just hours and hours and hours, because no way I can get to the insights on which books are built, or this is built, there’s only one way to get there, and it’s thought hours, thinking, thinking, thinking.

What scares him about the future?

The younger generation, because I think the technologies that impede any ability to get exposure to early exposure to focus, early exposure to time alone with your own thoughts, the technologies that impede that like smartphones and all the software that comes with them, when you have a generation younger than me, I’m not too old, but I’m old enough, I didn’t have any of this stuff before. I didn’t have it in college, I didn’t have it as a kid, I am worried about their fundamental foundation of concentration ability. And our economy, the knowledge sector of our economy, which is up to 50% of the US economy is really dependent on brains. Eventually, brains have to transform information into value, and it’s as if we were an ancient Sparta, where warfare was at the very core of our culture success and we had a generation coming up that was very out of shape. So I sometimes get worried about that. I don’t think we talk or prioritize the ability to focus much.

Why he’d like to see email removed temporarily

Because we’d be forced to create new processes… you’d have more white space, there’d be a lot of things to be a lot better, some things would be a huge pain. And then when it came back, you could say, “Oh, we can keep these processes in place, we can do it this way, we can keep email, Slack just for this.” I think there’d be a ton of insight. If I could wave a wand and everyone had to spend one month every year without the digital communication tools, I just think we would be so much more, our mind would be blown about the possibilities for how you could structure work, what workflows are possible, different ways of moving information around this, not just sending emails. I just think it would be great if we could all take a temporary break, and then when we bring it back, just bring it back in a much more intentional way, servicing much more optimized processes.

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