Cal Newport is tired of the technological inundation that comes with the modern working world. To him, a deluge of Slack notifications, emails, meeting alerts, text messages—all of the things that comprise the basis of contemporary office communication are also, ironically, an impediment to working better and more efficiently. Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, but he’s probably best known for his books, which explore the relationship between culture and technology.
The evolution of technology and our growing dependence on it hasn’t exactly engineered the working utopia that Silicon Valley’s early leaders sought to create, but Newport is out to find new ways that we can take advantage of its most useful aspects, and perhaps eschew its more harmful and distracting ones. Some might find this directive revolutionary. For example, his newest book is called A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in a World of Communication Overload. I asked Newport about his ideas, in addition to how he knuckles down to find productivity in a maddeningly distracting world.
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I’m a computer science professor who also writes about the impact of technology on culture. My first big book in this space was Deep Work, which came out in 2016. It argued that we are undervaluing the importance of undistracted focus in knowledge work, and putting too much focus on shallow alternatives, like rapid communication and social media.
A big theme in the feedback I received for that book was that the communication culture in the modern office, centered on tools like email and Slack, made undistracted thought nearly impossible. Starting back in 2016 I set out to understand how we ended up in this place and whether or not change was coming. It took me five years to pull together all of the relevant threads, but the result was my new book, A World Without Email.
You’re something of a thought-leader in the area of personal productivity, so I’m wondering how you abide by the rules and guidelines you’ve outlined in your books.
The ideas in my books certainly influence my personal behavior. For example, I highly prioritize uninterrupted deep work (often conducted outside with results recorded in paper notebooks), I’ve never had a social media account, I don’t have a general purpose publicly available email address and don’t even have an email client on my phone, and I’m such a big fan of time blocking that I ended up creating and publishing my own planner last fall, as none of the off-the-shelf notebooks had exactly what I wanted.
Do you ever find it difficult to abide by the rules or ideas you espouse in your books? In thinking of your most recent book, how are you able to work without email, assuming you’re even able to at all?
The core idea of my recent book is that we must move past the hyperactive hive mind workflow, in which we use unscheduled, ad hoc digital messaging as the main way we collaborate. The solution is to instead identify the main processes in our work lives—the efforts we return to again and again—and implement them with smarter processes that require many fewer unscheduled messages.
Because my work life constantly shifts (e.g., as a book launch approaches or I take on a new administrative positive at my university) these processes are constantly shifting, and I’m in turn constantly chasing after them and trying to implement alternatives to the hive mind. It can be hard sometimes to keep up, but I do my best.
Has the pandemic helped you become more or less productive?
It’s been a wash. On the positive side, I’m not losing whole days to travel for events. On the negative side, my kids’ school was closed for a year, which is not optimal from a parent productivity perspective.
I imagine that you’re one of the most self-sufficient and rigorously self-disciplined productivity hawks out there. How much of your work routine is self-regimented versus relying on time management apps and other tools?
I’m a big believer in quarterly/weekly/daily planning. Have a big picture plan for the current quarter, use it each week to come up with a weekly plan that takes into account what’s actually on your plate and figures out what you want to try to make progress on in the time that remains. Then, each day, build a time block plan in which you give every minute of your work day a job.
The specific tools used to implement this planning is not as important as the philosophy itself. In my case: I use a Google doc for my quarterly plan; type up my weekly plan in a text file and print it out to bring with me; and use my recently released time-block planner (timeblockplanner.com) to build my daily time block plans. I usually paperclip the printed weekly plan into the front cover of my planner.
It’s kind of ironic that much of your (presumed) workday is spent figuring out how to work more efficiently. If you ever fall behind and start procrastinating, how do you snap out of it?
I might question the premise of this question. I’m a full-time computer science professor, so much of my work day is actually spent solving proofs and teaching classes! Time blocking is the great cure to procrastination because you’re never asking yourself, “what do I want to do next?” (a question for which “mess around on the internet” is always a valid answer), you have a plan that you’re executing. I stick with the plan because I have a lot to get done and I like to shut down by 5:30 so I can be with my family, so I don’t have a lot of margin for error.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the crux of your work involves understanding both the positives and negatives of our constant technological inundations. At what point do you start determining what digital tools are more troublesome than beneficial?
You should always be working to support a positive vision. In your life outside of work, for example, figure out what you want your life to be like, then choose tools you think will support that vision, and put rules around them to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. Don’t just sign up for TikTok or Clubhouse because it might be “interesting.”
Something similar holds for your professional life as well. Figure out what activities actually move the need in your job or business, and build your habits around prioritizing those activities. You cannot alchemize generic busyness into profit; not one ever built an empire based on their fast email response rate; no amount of social media freneticism is going to make a bad product good or a mediocre worker indispensable.