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Cal Newport on taking your life back from technology

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I was asked recently to name a book that changed my life. The book I chose was Cal Newport’s “Deep Work,” and for the most literal of reasons: It’s changed how I lived my life. Particularly, it’s led me to stop scheduling morning meetings, and to preserve that time for more sustained, creative work.

Which is all to say that I’m a bit obsessed with Newport’s work right now, and particularly his account of how the digital environment we inhabit is training us out of concentration and into distraction in ways that are bad for our minds, bad for our work, and ultimately bad for the world. So I invited him onto my podcast for a long, searching conversation about the role technology is playing in our lives.

In conversation, Newport doesn’t disappoint. For him, the idea of deep work isn’t a mere productivity hack — it’s a path toward a better life, and a way of retaking control from technologies that are built to addict us more than they’re built to aid us:

Ezra Klein

There can be a way in which this conversation sounds like it is about making people into hyper-productive widget makers. One of the things I thought was interesting in the book was that your argument is that this is the way to work less, to have gotten enough done that at 5:00 pm, or whenever it is you leave, you can actually go home and spend the time with your family.

Cal Newport

If you prioritize depth, focusing intensely on things that matter, being skeptical of the shallow things that don’t, it doesn’t make you into an automaton. Actually, it embraces, and I think, amplifies, what makes you human. Doing deep thinking, for example, is a deeply human activity. It’s something that only humans can do. It’s immensely satisfying.

I’m a long advocate of what I call “fixed schedule productivity,” where I fix my work schedule first. That’s the stake in the ground I start with. Everything else about my career decisions, how I work, what I take on, what I do in the day, all works backward from I want to be done at 5:30. I think my life is the opposite of hyper-scheduled.

I end the book with this quote. “A deep life is a good life.” It’s not just about making you more productive. A lot of the discussions that are just starting to emerge around technology in this time and its role, not just professionally, but in our lives, in our politics, are fascinating. I think people like Jaron Lanier and Douglas Rushkoff are writing books that are going to be seen as classics 25 years from now.

But Newport isn’t just a philosopher of technology. He’s intensely practical about how to wrest your time and attention back from all the programs built to distract and obsess you.

Ezra Klein

Let’s say you’re listening to this, and you’re persuaded, but you don’t really know where to begin. What are the first three steps you would urge somebody to take?

Cal Newport

In terms of trying to actively promote depth in your life, start putting on your calendar some appointments with yourself to do deep work. Go a couple weeks out and treat those appointments like you would a doctor’s appointment or a meeting with an investor. If someone tries to schedule something during that time, you say, “No, I’m busy from one to three, but here’s when I’m available.”

People understand the semantics around the meetings and appointments. They’re willing to work around it. You don’t have to explain why. Start with a moderate amount, say three or four hours a week. Have it on the calendar. Have it protected. And during those prescheduled times, maintain the zero-tolerance distraction policy. During those times, not a glance at the internet, not a glance at the phone.

The second thing is, take some step to start gaining back cognitive fitness. Most people are not willing, for example, to just blanket quit social media; but I would suggest a couple things. One, take social media applications off your phone.

I’ve had a lot of people who say, “I can give you 19 reasons why I have to use social media, why it’s so important in my life,” and then they do this experiment where they take it off their phone so it becomes 10 percent more difficult to log in to Facebook or Twitter. They stop using it altogether.

They realize, “Okay, wait a second. Maybe I was telling all these stories about the key role it plays in my life, and why I always have to be looking at it, but once I added just a slight impediment, I stopped using it altogether.” I think it helps sort of reassess the value, but more importantly, you take the addictive aspects out of the service while still maintaining your access to the information or other value that you get out of it.

The third thing I would recommend is starting to schedule the time you do novel, distracting, stimulating things. You could schedule lots of times, but it should be scheduled times. Maybe after work, you say, “From 8 to 10, I’m going to break out the laptop and just go nuts, no holds barred. Social media, whatever. But until 8, none of it.”

Or, “Okay, at work, I’m going to check my email, check on all of this at this time, this time, this time, this time.” All the other times in between, even if you feel like you want to do it, you don’t. This is all about just practicing that muscle of “I want stimuli, and I said no.” Even if you’ve scheduled 25 blocks during the day when you’re going to look at stimuli, that still gives you 25 blocks between those times where you’re going to feel like you want to check stimuli and you say no. Every time you do that, that’s helping to break the Pavlovian connection. That’s usually how I get people started. Get it on the calendar, start cleaning up your cognitive fitness.

Most of the conversations on my podcast are how to think about things differently. This one is too, but it’s more importantly about how to do things differently, and why you should do them differently.

I can say, with no exaggeration, that talking to Newport has changed how I spend my time — and how I think about the flashing icons on my toolbar. You may not agree with what he says, but it’s a perspective worth hearing.

You can listen to my full conversation with Newport (not to mention my past conversations with Chris Hayes, Tyler Cowen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Arlie Hochschild, and more) by subscribing to The Ezra Klein Show on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can stream it off Soundcloud.


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