AL Andrew Leigh
CN Cal Newport
AL Cal Newport is one of the world's great experts in ‘attention management’ - in making sure we can become more productive and live happier lives. He is, in short, the kind of person I’d most hoped to speak with when I started the Good Life podcast. Cal has published eight books. He is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and is somebody who manages to live a life of focused attention in a world constantly competing for our attention.
His first book was How to Win at College, and his most recent book is A World Without Email. I want to talk with Cal during this conversation about the arc of his work and the way in which his focus has changed. Cal, welcome to The Good Life podcast.
CN It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.
AL When I look at the arc of your books, they seem to be moving from the kind of ‘how to win the rat race’ approach through to ‘how to change society’. In other words, you seem to be making an evolution from Tim Ferriss to Yuval Noah Harari. Is that how you feel you're evolving and you're thinking about the world?
CN It's an interesting question with a complicated answer, perhaps. The first thing that helps in trying to understand that evolution is probably dividing my corpus into three different groups. I wrote these first three books aimed at students when I was a student myself. I wrote How to Win at College, How to Become a Straight A Student, How to Become a High School Superstar. I wrote the first two primarily as a university student. I wrote the second one as a graduate student.
That was very much pragmatic, as you say, Tim Ferriss, how do we do things better. They came from a very personal place, which was I'm a student, I'm taking on a lot of student loans. I want to do this well. Why aren't there serious books about how to do this well? I'll write them. It's a classic, pragmatic nonfiction story. Then I wrote in 2012, really, a pivot book called So Good They Can't Ignore You, which looked at this question of career satisfaction, how do people really end up loving their work? I took a contrarian look at that question.
The US, in particular, there had been a real focus on this idea that you should follow your passion. I really took that out for a bit of a ride and said, wait, where did this idea come from? What's the claim mean? Do we have any data to support if it's true? Is this really how people end up passionate about their work?
That pivoted into the third group, which is the more recent group, which is a trio of books on technology and culture: Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and this most recent book, A World Without Email. And this is probably the evolution you're seeing. Ultimately, I want people's life to be better. I want them to be more fulfilled, more meaningful, more effective, more productive in work, whatever it is that people want to do. But the targets of my attention in looking at that question became very broad.
You will jump from something as narrow as, ‘here's how you should organise your time during the day’, which you might see in Deep Work, to something as broad as the influence of autonomy culture instituted by Peter Drucker. Changing the whole way we try to cite the goal of productivity in the modern knowledge workforce, and it's all over the place, from Thoreau, to turning off things on your phone. I will go wherever I find useful territory to explore.
I will be very diverse and heterogeneous in the topics of my attention as I try to understand my topics. That's really where I've been in the last three books, is technology, culture, the way it interacts, the way it affects us negatively, the way it can affect us better, how we can retake control of that, what's going on, what are the forces, what can we do personally. All of that is mixed together and that's where I really am right now.
AL You're a computer scientist rather than an economist, but I see a lot of economics in your books. In particular, that notion of doing one really interesting thing well, which seems to characterise a lot of your early books, such as the idea of the ‘relaxed superstar’ in How to Be a High School Superstar. In terms of comparative advantage, do you think that's a notion that sometimes we forget in our desire to be all things to all people?
CN I think it's a good observation. It definitely comes up in my work a lot, an economic frame for understanding things that we otherwise cast as almost mythical. As you pointed out in High School Superstar, you see this for sure in So Good They Can't Ignore You, where I'm taking something like enjoying your job and having passion for your work and trying to understand it through a more quantitative or economic frame.
It's not so much that I think economics is the de facto language we should use to understand everything. It's more than I really believe often in trying to bring some structure to things that are otherwise emotional or instinctual. Because when we rely just on emotion or instinct, we can get dragged into not optimal cul-de-sacs in our lives. We can end up in situations where we're more frustrated than we are effective.
That's definitely a mechanism I apply again and again, is let's put some sort of structure around this emotional or intuitive or subjective type of experience so that we can try to make some progress.
AL Another place where I see economics in your work is the notion that there's diminishing marginal returns to social media. You make the point in Digital Minimalism that a lot of people get plenty from ten minutes a week of Facebook, but by the time you're spending an hour a day, you're going beyond where you're getting any reasonable returns.
Then you point out that we ought to start off with a digital detox, a month off social media, and then coming back with a digital declutter. But isn't there a challenge that social media is perhaps more like crack cocaine than Coca Cola, that it's very hard to consume it in small amounts?
CN I think both of those things are true. If you look at the addictive qualities of something like social media, a psychologist would probably characterise it as a moderate behavioural addiction. Unlike a chemical addiction, there's not an actual substance crossing the blood brain barrier, and therefore, directly modifying your brain chemistry. Those, of course, are the hardest types of addictions to shake. Those are addictions in which, of course, your body is at danger when the substance is removed.
We don't have that, fortunately, with social media, but we do get a behavioural addiction with these technologies, which is typically defined as ‘I will use this more than is good or healthy for me if it's available’. It is causing harm in my life and I understand that it is. I should not use this this much, so I'm going to use it anyways. It fits really well into that category. Those are much more tameable, I would say, than a substance or chemical addiction because it's a primarily lifestyle psychological fix.
In essence, you have to fill in the hole that social media is currently papering over for you with something more substantive and then you can move past it. But the good news about that is that the process of trying to fill in these existential holes that this addictive tech use is papering over is actually directly improving your life, directly improving its depth in the satisfaction. The cure, in some sense, is actually quite positive. I am very wary about the allure that these devices have.
But I'm also very optimistic about people's ability to push back on them because again, to go back to your original point you made about this technology. The real issue I've been reporting on since probably 2013-2014 is, we are surprisingly incurious, or at least we were until recently, surprisingly, incurious about the role of these technologies in our life. We just said, I don't know, this thing exists, I can think of something that makes it useful. That's the last I want to think critically about this. Let me just turn on the phone and rock and roll.
We really had no critical self-reflection on how much we wanted to use this, what we wanted to use, why we wanted to use it. For a while, I was shouting to the wind about it. Today, I seem almost cliched in how common sense it is what I'm saying. But I've never changed what I was saying. I think the culture just caught up to me.
AL I've spoken to Jonathan Haidt on the podcast about his work, particularly on teen mental health. Was there anything that surprised you out of the Facebook Files leak recently?
CN The thing that I most noted in the Facebook Files, and it doesn't surprise me, it's something I want to underscore, and I think it's been overlooked, is that these are self-reports. This is not like a lot of the data Jonathan talks about. This is not, we sifted through a large data set and pulled out a signal that was implying a robust correlation between heavy social media use and a particular dependent variable that correlates with psychological harm.
This was a teenager saying, this thing makes me unhappy. I tried to kill myself because of Instagram. I have body issues because of this particular technology. What does surprise me about this debate, because I've talked to John about this. I'm actually working on an article about the debates going on in the research literature about this. Is there's this huge academic debate happening in the international, especially psychology community.
Where people are looking at data sets and arguing, depending how you analyse this data, how you quantify technology use and harm, you can make the signal get stronger or not strong. Maybe there is an issue, maybe there's not. Meanwhile, the teenagers are yelling to us, ‘this hurts, help’. My analogy is, when you have self-reports, this is not like, there's a benzene in the plastic that is subtly raising the background rate of cancer and we need to really look at the data carefully.
Because you don't realise it as a consumer using these types of plastic bottles that you're getting sick. This is not like that. People are directly reporting the problem. What I said on my podcast recently is if you see someone in a hole yelling ‘help me’, the right answer is not, statistically speaking, most holes aren't that deep, and for most people, holes are not a problem. You go and get a ladder, because they're right now saying, I need help.
That's the thing I underscored about those Facebook reports is, when you have the population itself saying, this is hurting me, you mobilise. It's time to stop preening about, if I do my regression differently, I can make a signal go away. Or to try to sound smart by saying, we have to be careful about the context in which we talk about social media. People are in the hole, we got to get a ladder, we got to get them out. I think Jonathan Haidt and I are probably in the same place there. This is an emergency that requires an urgent response.
AL I'll come in a moment to some of the systematic society-wide changes you talk about. But you've also been very thoughtful about what we can do as individuals to be better users of devices. You don't use social media, you don't have any social media accounts, which for somebody in their late 30s is kind of unusual. You also talk about some of the strategies around a digital detox, digital declutter, don't click the like button.
But one of the things I find most fascinating is your call for having more craft and more walks and more of these tangible physical activities. There's something quite old-fashioned about the life that you suggest we lead. Can you talk a bit about those new activities that you believe ought to fill the space that's now been taken up by us being human network routers?
CN We could replace the word old-fashioned with really human, just something that humans do. We want to stay aligned with our underlying humanity to the degree to which that is satisfying for us. Often, there's things like high quality leisure, where it's very intentional use of your time outside of a professional context that gives you great reward, but maybe also requires great effort. Humans find that the non-instrumental application of craft and appreciation, we find that to be really fulfilling.
I also argue that making interactions harder, makes them more meaningful. That's another interesting effect that we didn't think about when we design tools like digital social media platforms. Our minds use the measured sacrifice of time and attention involved in this interaction to try to assess how important it is. In some sense, to actually spend a couple hours to go out of your way to go buy that bottle of beer your friend likes or bring it over there and have a conversation and drink it with them.
It's much harder than just shooting some text messages back and forth. It's much harder than commenting on their Instagram post. But your mind says, that's because this must be an important person, wow, we're really socially connected, we're feeling more a part of something, we're feeling more connected. There's these various activities in various categories of our life in which more quality, slowness, more depth, more intentionality focused on value makes life seem more human. It makes us feel deeper. Convenience and efficiency often don't have a big role to play when it comes to some of the most satisfying experiences we have as individuals.
AL This is one area in which you seem to now deviate from standard economics. We spoke before about comparative advantage in a career sense. But you advocate spending time with cooking, fixing things around the house, having tangible physical projects, which many economists would say, no, you should just buy in all those things and focus on the one skill that you're great at. Why don't you believe in comparative advantage in this context?
CN I do in the professional context. I think for sure, if you're in a professional context, you would rather outsource out the skills that you're not as good at so you can develop or spend more time at the skill that you're actually most valuable. But in some sense, this is exactly the type of economic analysis that I'm using to justify my approach to leisure. If you'll stick with this argument for a second, I talk about this in Digital Minimalism, that the returns from different activities, say, non-professional activities are not evenly distributed.
These follow, roughly speaking, some sort of power law. There's going to be a small number of activities that are highly meaningful. And then a lot of activities that give you a small amount of value, they're a little bit meaningful. Spending an afternoon on a hike with a friend may be a very high value activity, whereas going through Instagram pictures my friend posted is a low value activity. I think the right economic analysis here is the scarcity of available time.
The issue is, if you are by default, going to your phone or these low quality digital activities, you're taking up units of time and assigning to them low return activities. That swamping out time that you could put high return activities there instead. Almost always the right way to maximise the total value in economics, since you get out of your life is to focus on a small number of things that give you a huge amount of value. Be very wary about small value things that could otherwise take up that time.
This is the essence of minimalism, and therefore, it's the essence of digital minimalism. Focus on what matters, ignore stuff that maybe has some value but not a lot, because you only have so many hours to wish to assign activities, so you want to assign the highest value activities possible. These slower, more human craft focused, intentional activities often are much higher value in terms of what they return.
AL Having started the day with a run in the bush this morning, I can certainly attest to one of your calls, which is to spend more time outdoors and spend more time doing physical activities. Certainly, running isn't my comparative advantage, but it brings a great deal of joy. I'm wondering about the class dimension here. You talk about the ‘attention resistance’ and about using devices more intentionally. My sense is that that conversation is largely at the moment an upper class phenomenon.
I think back to a report I wrote in 2001 for a Washington, DC based think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, which was on the digital divide. All of the focus in that report was about the problem that low income Americans didn't have access to the Internet. Now, it seems that the problem is that there is ubiquitous access, and those who are scaling back tend to be at the upper income end. Do you get a sense that the ‘attention resistance’ is mostly an affluent phenomenon?
CN That hasn't been my experience. I would say I was actually a little bit surprised by it. When I went on tour for Digital Minimalism, one of the concerns I had is, okay, who is actually concerned with these issues? Certainly a lot of people within my circles were concerned like, maybe this is a white issue or maybe this is an upper class issue. So, there’s both racial, ethnic and class potential divides here and it's not what I experienced when I went on the road. This is actually, it's a very universal issue.
Internationally, different economic classes, different ethnicities, different races, I found that to be quite a sort of ecumenical type of issue. That a lot of people in a lot of situations are worried about spending too much time on their phone and not putting that attention into other things. It's surprisingly broad-reaching, so I feel very good about that and bad. I feel bad because that means, yes, this is a problem everywhere. I’d be nice if it was a problem that was only affecting a small number of people.
But the good news is, is I don't think the solution in any way is isolated to only one group of people cares about it, only one group of people have access to it. That's the great thing about digital minimalism, this is not something that requires that you have to go acquire something or have abundant money or abundant free time. It's really just about intentionality, how much time do I want to spend on this screen versus other things.
Even if that definition of other things is very different, depending about whether you're talking about someone in India versus someone in Washington, DC. Whether you're talking about someone who is a doctor versus someone who is a first year university student who barely has any money to their name. That general approach, let me get intentional about how I want to spend my time, I think, is resonating quite broadly.
AL Expand for me on one of the ideas that I think is most intriguing, which is the notion of conversation office hours. How can it make a difference?
CN I talked about before, harder interaction gets more value, at least as far as your brain is concerned. What brings us back from harder interaction, it's often actually not the experience of the harder interaction, because once you're actually with someone talking to them on the phone on that hike, it's actually quite satisfying and meaningful. The real issue is overhead. The overhead of actually arranging for, when are we going to meet? How do I get you on the phone?
I'm a big believer in trying to set up structures that reduces the overhead of deeper, more meaningful interactions so that you can do more of them. Conversation office hours is one such approach. This is where there's certain times where you're just always available to take phone calls. The person I profiled who introduced me to this idea had this cue to his commute in San Francisco. It was a long commute. He would commute from down Peninsula up to the city, which is a notoriously congested route.
But everyone knew, during that hour, I'm in my car, here's my phone, call me. You don't have to set it up. You don't have to say, am I available? I'm here and I'll pick it up and I'll talk to you. It's a small example, I think, of a bigger idea, which is, what can you do to make more meaningful interaction easier to actually initiate?
AL I want to move now into your latest book, A World Without Email. Which is really looking not only at what we can do as individuals to handle the barrage of email, but also what institutions can do to better manage the way in which email has come to dominate the modern office. Talk us through why email has grown and what it's doing to office work now.
CN It's a fascinating topic because it is a tool for which we have a very conflicted relationship. We love and we hate email. We love it in the sense that we don't want to use fax machines, it's a very efficient tool. Yet, we hate it because our whole life is dominated by this tool. We have this weird dichotomy happening in our relationship with this tool, so what's going on? I think if you go back and unpack the history of email spread, is something I do in my book, it's also something I did in the pages of the New Yorker.
If you go back and trace email spread, what you see is that it's spread initially in the office context in the 1990s for very pragmatic reasons. The pitch for email was asynchronous communication is obviously necessary to run a large office. Right now you're using fax machines, voicemail and interoffice memos to accomplish this goal. Email is better. It's cheaper, it's faster, it has more features. That's right. So, it’s spread. It was a simple decision to make. We’re already using these other tools.
This tool is much better and it's cheaper, so of course, we're going to adopt it. Emails spread very fast in the first half of the 1990s. Once email was actually there and present in offices, as an unplanned side effect, it nudged us towards a new way of collaborating that I call the hyperactive hive mind. It's an approach to collaboration in which you say, we can work most things out on the fly with back and forth ad hoc messages.
Because that friction is so low now, why not just figure things out on the fly just like you and I would figure something out if we were together in the same room trying to build a piece of furniture. We just go back and forth on the fly ad hoc. Email made that possible at scale. Though no one really intended to work this way or said, this is a better way to work. There was various types of dynamics that happened and just nudged us gradually into this mode of collaboration.
The issue with the hyperactive hive mind is that if you have dozens of these back and forth ad hoc unscheduled messages going back and forth. It requires that you check these inboxes all the time because you have to tend to the ongoing conversations. You don't know when the latest message is going to arrive for most of these, so you're left by default having to check these things all the time. That has a huge cognitive cost.
It turns out, our brain can’t jump back and forth between two things like that so quickly, and it fatigues us or reduces our capacity, it makes us anxious. We love email because of the original 1990s pitch for it. We don't want to go back to fax machines. We hate email because the hyperactive hive mind is almost literally melting our minds. We cannot go back and forth between inboxes and our work so much, but the hyperactive hive mind demands it. So, we love it and we hate it both at the same time.
AL One of the things that really struck me about the book was your discussion of two great productivity thinkers, Henry Ford and Peter Drucker. How did Peter Drucker set us on the wrong path? And how might Henry Ford bring us back?
CN Drucker basically invented management theory. In the mid part of the 20th century, he invented the idea that you can study how you manage things from an academic perspective and look at different ways to do it. He introduced the phrase ‘knowledge work’. He had done this big work project at General Motors that led to a well-received book and he was very well respected in the industrial world.
He noticed this shift happening, especially in the US economy at that time, towards work that happened primarily with people's brains, so away from building tangible things and towards adding value to information. He really helped the world economy understand what knowledge work was. He coined the term and wrote a lot about it.
One of the messages he really pushed when he was introducing knowledge work to the world is that this is different than building cars. You cannot take skilled knowledge work and break it down into a seven step assembly line that you can just plug anyone in to do it. It’s creative. It's skilled. There's mystery to it. You have to give autonomy to the worker. He was really pushing this message because we're used to this today. But in 1959 when he was writing about this, it was a huge big idea. Leave them to do the work on their own. Give them objectives. Let them figure out how to do the work.
This is not building cars. This is writing ad copy or computer code or doing industrial R&D. It’s skilled and creative. He was right about that. But we took that notion too far. When we gave autonomy to knowledge workers about how they do their work, we also extended that autonomy to how this work was organised. We said that's up to individuals. Productivity is personal. How you organise yourself and get things done, that's none of my business as a manager. Read a Cal Newport book. Read a David Allen book. Read Stephen Covey. Productivity is personal.
This idea of personal productivity emerged, which was a hugely aberrant idea, in some sense, in the recent history of business. I think that's a bit of an issue. Because we leave how we organise our work to the individual, that is exactly the environment in which the hyperactive hive mind thrives. In a world where we say, it's just up to you to figure out your work, we're going to fall back to whatever's most flexible and what's easiest. I think that's why the hyperactive hive mind has taken hold.
What I'm arguing needs to happen is we need to get more systematic as organisations about looking at this question of, wait, how really do we want to identify work and assign work and keep track of where the information is for that work? And keep track of who's working on what? How do we actually want to communicate about work that's going on? What's the right way to actually do all of the overhead of work so that the people doing the work can do it at the highest level? The answer is not going to be the hyperactive hive mind.
But that's going to require a whole new rethinking of how work happens. That's why I point to Ford because that's what he did in the world of automotive manufacturing. He said, I know we're building cars in a very easy, flexible way. I'm going to try to find out if there's a better way to do it that might not be as convenient and it might be a pain to figure out. But in the end, it might produce cars faster.
We need something like a very high level abstraction here, a Ford moment to unshackle ourselves from a hyperactive hive mind and say, how do we really want to get this work done? It might be more structured and annoying than we're used to. But I think we're going to be much happier, much more productive, much less anxious, much less fragmented and distracted, and that's really what the world of work needs right now.
AL It's that part that I feel is still very much a work in progress for us as a society. But you do point to a number of firms that have implemented quite interesting strategies. Talk to us about extreme programming and how that operates.
CN Extreme programming is an offshoot of what's known as agile project management methodologies, which is a whole family of solutions to the question of what's the right way to organise work in the context of computer programming. It doesn't tell computer programmers how to write computer code. It respects that piece of Drucker. It doesn't say, we can break down this algorithm, you're writing the seven steps that anyone can do. No, programming remains very creative.
There's different levels of talent and experience, and no one tells you how to program. But keeping track of who is working on what, what tasks need to be done, how many things should you be working on at a time, when and how do we actually communicate with each other — in agile methodologies, that's all very structured. The overhead of organising work is thought through very hard. Then once you actually go off to do the work, you do it autonomously.
What extreme programming did is it really pushed that to an extreme. It is zero distraction once you're working. It's very clear who's working on what. You know what you're working on. There's a very set time when you talk to other people about what you might need from them. Then you go and actually do the coding you're supposed to do. It's one thing at a time and they sit two people at a screen because two people sitting at the same screen concentrate harder and produce better code than one person whose mind might wander.
They finish by 4 PM, because by that point they're exhausted and there's no possible way they can do no work. They're not on email, they're not on Slack. All of the admin messages that typically make up organisational life go to the team lead, who will handle it on behalf of the team, is just purified. We just want you to write great code, and everything else, we’ll figure out how to do it. Obviously, that's a very extreme example, hence the name extreme programming.
But what I like about all of these agile examples is that they show you that it's possible to separate the organisational work from the execution and make the former quite intentional and structured while keeping the latter very independent and autonomous.
AL Another strategy that seems to be used a lot in computer coding is the idea of sprints, of having a period on which you have really focused attention. Why does that work?
CN This goes down back to the fundamental critique of the hyperactive hive mind, which is that the human brain cannot switch targets of attention quickly. It takes time. If I want to change from an article I'm writing to a discussion I'm having on email, it might take ten or 15 minutes until I've completely switched over all of the relevant cognitive context to that email discussion. I have to suppress certain neural networks, I have to amplify other ones. It's a complicated long process. We can measure this directly in the lab.
If you keep trying to switch your attention and going back and forth very quickly, it just muddles the whole brain. This is the issue with, for example, checking an inbox once every six minutes, is that that glance at the inbox initiates one of these switches of your target of attention. But then before that switch can finish, you abort that switch and go back to the original thing you're trying to work on.
You screech on the brakes over there and then you try to go back to the context where you were before and get that going again, but before you can completely get lost in that new context, you look at your inbox again. Now you've initiated a new context switch. Before that can finish, you screech on the brakes and turn back to the others. This is why by 2 PM in the afternoon, we're completely exhausted. We feel overwhelmed by work.
Ironically, we only have energy left to just sit in our inbox for the rest of the day because our brain literally can't do that. It can't go back and forth so fast. In software development, where they care a lot more about how the work actually happens, they're big on the notion of sprints, where they will literally say, we are going into this room and we're going to work on this. We're going to work on this program, this team is going to work on this code and it’s all we're going to do. This is a methodology that you can apply outside of just software developing.
There's a book called Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by, Jake Knapp that looks at how Google applied sprint methodology to other projects, not just coding. The key is that you go into this room and you're just working on one thing. There's no email in that room. There's no phones you can look at in that room. You're only looking at the one thing. What this is harnessing is that in the absence of all those rapid context shifts, you just get more out of your brain. You think clearer. You think better. You're less exhausted. You're less anxious.
These are the type of things we don't think about in the standard workplace. We just say, ’it would be convenient for me if Andrew would answer my email real quick, because in the moment, I need this information’. We really have not thought more systematically in our organisation about how such information should be found, so can we just all answer our email. On paper, it sounds great. I get information as I need on demand, but it just fundamentally mismatches with the way our brain works. If our brain was a computer processor, we would be fine.
A computer processor is agnostic to the opcode it’s executing in the moment. It just chug, chug, chug, it doesn't care. The human brain is not a processor. It is slow to change attention.
AL What about for a firm that's not doing computer programming, but doing something like providing consulting services. So, there are strategies that you think can be effective for them to better manage the influx of email?
CN In my overall recommendation is that you break down what you do as a team or organisation into the constituent processes, the things you do again and again that make up your typical work. Then for each of these ask the question, how do we actually want to implement it? Where does the information come in? Where do we store it? How do we assign work? When do we talk or collaborate about it? How and when do we talk and collaborate about it?
You actually have to build out implementations of these processes one by one with the goal of reducing unscheduled messages you have to respond to. This is the main driver of having to keep checking inboxes and keep having to do context shifts. How do you do that? It really depends on the process, what type of work, what type of process within that work.
If you're a consulting firm, now you may have a much clearer protocol about how you interact with your clients and where that information goes and how it gets assigned to people and how you make sure it gets done. Internally, there might be much clearer processes about how the white papers you produce actually move through what stages in such a way that it's not just, I'll grab you with email when I need you, we’ll bounce this around.
Instead, it goes here and when I'm done, it moves to this Dropbox and I close the business Wednesday, the designer takes it and the comments go on the whatever. You've worked it all out so that these things get executed without requiring many just unscheduled messages that have to be responded to. It's quite bespoke what these solutions look like, but they're very widely applicable.
AL Economist Robert Solow famously said in 1987, that you could see the computer revolution everywhere except in the productivity statistics. Do you think it's actually flipped? Do you think the overuse of email is causing now a decline in productivity? Is this one of the causes of the productivity slowdown that we've seen in the last couple of decades across the advanced world?
CN I think it definitely is. In fact, I think the reason why we have not seen a more pronounced downturn is that we basically just added a lot of hours off the books. We invented ubiquitous high speed wireless networks and portable electronics, so now people can do more work and more places in a way that doesn't necessarily get captured in the productivity calculation. We throw more hours at the issue just to stay roughly in the same place. I think it's been a huge issue. Productivity in general has been very psychologically naive.
I want to just differentiate that slightly. There's one element of psychology that we think a lot about at management circles, which is motivational psychology. Sure. We think a lot about incentives and how do we make sure people are motivated to reach their objectives, but we think not a bit about how the human brain actually functions. If I put you in an environment where you have to work on 12 different things at the same time and have 25 different conversations you have to tend to, it is a disaster for the human brain.
It would be like if I ran an auto factory, and I kept it really hot because I thought I was saving money on the air conditioning bill. But it was causing the motor oil to get runny on the robot arms and they were moving at a quarter of their possible speed and was really slowing down the car production. I would say this is crazy. You have to stop that. Your environment is terrible for these robots. We're getting very low return on all the investment we made in it. I don't care that you think it's a little cheaper to have the air conditioners off.
Obviously, we're losing way more money by building these cars so slow. That's what's happening in the average office. We're like, well, it's convenient that I can get an answer from people in my email. Meanwhile, we've created an environment where people are probably working at a quarter of their cognitive potential, and it's a real disaster is because we are psychologically naive when we talk about how work should actually be organised.
Yes, I think the back office IT revolution, and Robert Gordon talks about this as well at Stanford, the back office IT revolution was a huge productivity boon. We saw that clearly in the data when you can move information in the databases, when you could network information systems, when you could get just-in-time inventory systems, huge boon to productivity. I can go into a mainframe to look up records as opposed to having to go into filing cabinets, huge boon to productivity. The front office IT revolution has largely been a failure.
There's just been a lot of issues with it. The first thing that happened is we brought personal computers to the office and we say, oh, we're going to be so productive because we can fire all the support staff. You can type yourself on the computer. You can send your own messages using email. You can enter your own hours into this work time program. We don't have to have separate people to come and take the timesheets. Aren't we really saving money and being more productive?
But they never actually assess the cost to the individual who now had to do all that extra work. As in the famous economic adage, it makes no sense for the person who is both the best lawyer and the best typist in town to do their own typing. It’s economically quite inefficient. But we basically made all of our skilled knowledge workers into glorified typists by pushing all this other work onto their plate and it made us less productive.
Then email came along and we created this psychologically devastating environment of have constant back-and-forth zero-friction communication, which made it even harder to get work done. I get worked up about this question because as someone who studies tech and culture, I think tech was really helping productivity, really helping productivity. And then, boom, we shot ourselves in the foot. We're in a terrible situation right now and we're only just starting to really realise this.
AL If the front office IT revolution has been so bad for productivity, why do we see so few firms experimenting with the approaches that you talk about? You have this wonderful example of Lasse Rheingans, who has a tech startup that implemented a five-hour workday and banned internal email. But there's so much the exception. Why aren't firms like McKinsey, which focused on exactly this question of boosting productivity, why aren't they experimenting with much more radical ways of ensuring that email doesn't gum up the works?
CN These experiments are now starting to happen at a level they weren't until recently. But I think there's two main factors that slow down innovation here. I even hesitate to say slow down because I went back and looked at other historical examples of technological revolutions being integrated in commerce, and it takes a while. I don't actually know that we're behind schedule. You can look at how long it took to figure out continuous assembly line manufacturing. You can look at how long it took to efficiently integrate electric motors into industrial manufacturing.
I wrote about that in the New Yorker last year. It takes a while. I don't know that we're behind schedule. Knowledge work in the age of ubiquitous high speed digital communications is only about 20 years old, so I don't know that we're behind schedule. But there's two forces that are pushing back on this. One is this autonomy principle that's so ingrained, the Peter Drucker autonomy principle. We just are not used to this idea of thinking how work is organised is something we need to figure out as an organisation and tweak and talk about and experiment.
We are just very used to the idea that that is up to the individual, it's none of my business how you organise your work, let's all just rock and roll and figure things out. We should not underestimate the degree to which autonomy culture is incredibly powerful and work. Drucker called it management by objective, that's his term, fix the objective, leave it to the individual. That's super ingrained in our culture.
The second is, it's hard. It's really complicated. It's why I talk in great lengths about this trouble that Ford went through trying to get that continuous motion assembly line to work. It was a huge pain. He had to spend a ton of money. They had to hire a lot more staff. He had to invent a lot more technologies. It did not work at first. It was very frustrating. If you have an assembly line that works almost all the way, it basically doesn't work at all. Because if one station on that assembly line is too slow, the whole thing stops.
Could you imagine if you're there 1915 at the Ford plant in Detroit, you're building cars in a natural and convenient way. It's just like we have a team of craftsmen around the chassis on sawhorses and we build a car, and of course, this is how you build cars. Ford comes in and he’s like, I'm going to pull these things with a chain. I invented this machine that can drill 46 different holes into an engine block simultaneously. You're like, what are you talking about?
You imagine being a Ford investor: ‘you want to hire, you want to double the number of managers and you want to double our capital costs?. We have no money right now, you want to double our capital costs in trying to get this factory working?’. But it eventually brought the time to produce the Model T, the man hours from 12 hours per car down to about 93 minutes. It's just a huge pain. I often underscore that it's a huge pain.
I really think the innovation is going to happen first in startups because they don't have built-in cultures and they're more nimble, and that's exactly what we're seeing right now. This is going to build up institutional expertise and those startups about alternative process implementations that work better than the hive mind, the technological equivalent of whatever the assembly line is going to be.
That's going to move its way up to slightly larger and larger still technology companies and then we're going to see a horizontal transfer, I had an article recently where I was quoting a tech entrepreneur from Scotland who was talking about the role that private equity will probably use in spreading these innovations. Because private equity can then bring on board the subject matter experts that develop their tools and their expertise in tech.
Then go start buying up companies after companies in other sectors using that expertise to get another 20% to 40% efficiency out of the companies, because they get rid of the hive mind. Then that's going to really start seeding it. I think it's going to be rapid when the change happens. That first stage of innovation and tech companies which I document in my book, I think is happening right now. We're probably just about on schedule, about 20, 25 years into the world of knowledge work with digital computer networks widely available.
We're starting to see the first steps that are going to pick up speed into bigger steps into a full-out sprint. We might be closer than we think in the hive mind becoming much more rare.
AL Not everyone naturally associates Henry Ford’s style, industrial production, with living a happier life or being happier at work. But one of the aspects of it that I don't think you touch on in your books, but I have heard you mention in your podcast, is the idea that moving away from the hyperactive hive mind might also provide a better work-life balance.
In particular, might be important for reducing the gender pay gap, given that women carry most of the burden of caring responsibilities. How do you think about changing our relationship with email also allowing us to improve our relationship with our kids?
CN I think there's a lot of these positive externalities are going to come from leaving behind a hive mind. I'm glad you mentioned that about Ford because I make this point, I have to make it with some care and some detail in the book. That the thing that is useful to pull away from Henry Ford is just the general idea of being willing to radically rethink how work happens. We should draw no lessons from the actual changes he made. There is very few parallels between the process of building a car and a process of writing computer code or writing ad copy.
The innovations he put in place, the assembly line was quite monotonous and dehumanising for the workers, though it did lead to shorter workdays and larger hourly wages as a compensation for its monotony. I have no interest in the assembly line, the specifics of that, of having to tell us anything about what work should be like. In fact, Drucker is right, we have to be very autonomous in how we execute work. But Ford's willingness to rethink from first principles how work might function is something we should take away.
If we turn to the world of knowledge work in the hyperactive hive mind, this is one of these great examples in the history of work and work reform, where there's a general alignment between all parties. The management class likes the idea of getting rid of the hive mind because more value is produced. Their workers are 2x more productive when they're not context switching every five minutes. It's a pain to get away from the hive mind, but when you do, you reap real rewards.
But for workers, it's also a huge win because the hyperactive hive mind makes us miserable. It feels terrible to have to constantly be switching our context and have more work on our plate than we can handle and have this all be so informal and so ad hoc. Moving away from that should make us happier as workers as well. To your point, one of the ways this is going to make us happier is that the informality and ad hoc nature of the hyperactive hive mind creates a lot of unintentional inequities.
When how work is assigned, how work is tracked, how work is actually executed is left just up to the whim, left up to just messages and how things happen, you get all sorts of unexpected consequences. Let's say, for example, you're more conscientious, you score higher on the conscientious trait on the Big Five personality traits. You are going to say yes more often to this uncontrolled, untracked, unorganised incoming flow of potential obligations and duties and projects you could take on.
You're going to say yes too much because you have individuals who are asking you and you're conscientious, and now you're going to have more on your plate. You're going to be more stressed. You're going to probably spend less time on the key projects that make a difference. That's a problem. Let's say like you're talking about that, you have to care for someone at home, you have kids at home or you're taking care of an older relative who is sick. This makes it difficult for you to be a part of the hyperactive informal back and forth that happens late at night or earlier in the morning. Now you're being held back. But these are inequities that don't serve the company.
I think trying to bias success towards people that are less conscientious is not actually what you want to do, because you just get a bunch of jerks in charge, which is a real problem. Biasing towards young people accidentally, because the hyperactive hive mind rewards people that can just be part of this informal back and forth. That's not great because now you're taking a lot of experience out of your work pipeline and your company becomes more immature. There's huge inequities that happen when work is very informal.
When we instead say, like in agile, you should not work on more than two projects at a time. We're really clear about what they are. We've structured the communication. Then the work fits nicely in the work day. You can express your talent at its highest level, not have these other things involved, I think it's much better. I think it's just much better for everyone involved. I think people are going to enjoy work more. I think the people who own these companies are going to get more work out of their employees. It's a positive for almost everyone except for maybe the Slack corporation.
AL What does this do for work-life balance and for our relationship with our kids?
CN It makes it much better. When work is more structured, you can structure its role in your life. When it's an ongoing ad hoc, just back and forth, you have more on your plate than you can handle and it's all informally being negotiated, you're constantly on call, it's very difficult to be done with work. If you look at the extreme programmers, by contrast, they rarely work. They don't work past 4 PM. Long days are rare because they're tired because it's pretty intense, and there's nothing for them to do after the end of the work day.
They have their project lead does their communication on their behalf. Their life is much more focused. You're working on this feature and you're coding. Then you get tired, because you can only do so much coding in a day, so you're done, go rest. I just think when you highly structure how work is organised, assigned, reviewed and communicated about, you release a lot of time off people's plate. You release a lot of unpredictable communication demands on people's plate. You allow them to structure their lives.
This is what Lasse Rheingans talks about his company. They only work five hours a day, and they're killing it over there. They're doing great, and his employees are so much happier. I just think people would be so much happier, their families would be stronger, they'd be happier. All the stuff we talked about with digital minimalism, you could do that stuff more, walk and spend time with friends. Really, the hive mind is a public health menace that we just don't realise right now.
AL Final questions, Cal. What advice would you give to your teenage self?
CN That's a good question because I was a writing advice professionally as a teenager. I was already trying to give myself advice as a young person. It's a good question. Let me think back. You mean knowing what I know now, what would I go back and say?
CN I would say invest in Apple. I'm thinking about mistakes learnt. Here's one thing I would say. I had an epiphany at some point in my 20s where, up until that point, I had put way too much effort. I had what I would call, this was big in the early 2000s, the hack mindset. I still had this mindset as I was a grad student in my young 20s that with the right hack, if you had the right clever way of approaching something, you could get big returns for less effort. If you just thought about things, if you're creative and got to the point, you could get a lot done with a lot less time.
I eventually had an epiphany at some point that laid the foundation that became the book Deep Work, which was, there's not shortcuts. There's just stuff that gets in the way of your path. Find the stuff that's most valuable, spend as much time on it as possible. Ignore as much of the other stuff as possible. It took me about six or seven years, I think, to figure that out from when I really got interested in productivity stuff as a teenager. That might have been useful to know earlier on. Pick the stuff that seems important. Give it your all. Don't feel bad about ignoring the other stuff that's just distraction. You have a long path, you have to hike. You can't make that path shorter. What you can do is try to get some of the rocks and obstacles out of the way in front of you.
AL What's something you used to believe but no longer do?
CN That would be part of it. Back then there was a period where I was more enamoured by what was known as ‘Productivity Pr0n’, that with the right system, you could make work relatively effortless, you'd get the right results. That you could basically systematise interesting accomplishment. I wrote an article about this last summer, it was called The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done. It talked about the rise of this idea in the early 2000s and how it eventually crashed. I don't believe that anymore.
I talk about now on my podcast, that if you're organised and have good systems and good tools and you're intentional about that, you can make your work life 20% easier. You get rid of some rough edges and forgotten stuff and mental overhead. But in the end, work is hard. It's meaningful but hard. There's no shortcut, so you might as well take the energy you have and focus it on the things that matter. I no longer believe like I once did, that having the right systems or tools can almost completely determine your professional success.
AL When are you most happy?
CN I am happy when I'm nowhere near an inbox to stress me out. When I'm either with people I care about just doing that with no work on my mind. I'm really big about clear shutdown routines, like really clearing my head of every open work from loop when I'm done with the workday. I cannot go back and forth. I can't be with my family but also need to check some emails. If I'm completely clear of any professional open loops in my mind with someone I care about, that I'm very happy.
Or if I'm just pure thinking, I'm trying to get a math proof to click, or trying to get a magazine article that I'm working on to flow. That moment of pure ideation and creation, I try to spend as much of my professional time as possible doing that, and as much of my time outside of work being with people. The whole game is minimising everything else, which is everything else that people think about is work, all the email, all the slack, all the calendars, etc.
AL What's the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
CN One thing I've been doing this year, which has been useful, is I've recommitted to reading. I read five to six books a month, and I found that's been a great discipline. I found that very mentally invigorating. I just found the time for it. I said, this is what I'm going to do, and I'll work backwards to figure out how I'm going to make that work. That's been really good for me. It's become a good default activity, so not a phone, not a screen, reading, engaging with ideas.
Then physically, I have this theory that, it’s like a use it or lose it theory. I just think that every day the human body needs to cover a good amount of distance outside because we're wired to do that. Every day your major muscle groups should get a very intense challenge, even if for only five minutes. This is what I've been doing. I did all throughout the pandemic, 10,000 steps a day outside, 1,000 pullups a month, so 30 something pullups a day. Because pullups, I feel like just every single muscle in your body has to get temporarily used hard. Just use that as a foundation. Your legs move a lot. Your muscles get a burn every day. Something about that seems palaeolithically inspired. That's been my strategy.
AL I quite like the life maxim that you should be hungry and breathless at least once every day. Do you have any guilty pleasures?
CN Yes, definitely guilty pleasures. I like a good pint, so I have to be careful about that from a weight perspective. I do like a good beer when I can get my hands on it. I don't have a lot of screen issues as you might imagine. There's not a lot I watch. There's not a lot interesting on my phone. It turns out if you don't use social media, by the way, your phone's pretty boring. It's occasionally interesting if there's a sports thing going on, and it's tense and you can't get to a TV to watch it, it's very interesting. Or if you're lost, if you need to look up directions, it's very interesting in that moment. But it's a really bad source of default entertainment when you take social media out. I'm like a one person anthropological experiment here, what happens when you don't have social media?
AL Finally, Cal, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
CN That's a good question. Maybe a big picture answer would be a book that was influential to me in thinking about the development of an ethical life. It's a meta answer because it's not about a particular ethical system. There's this book by a professor called Henry Lee Miller, and the book was called Lincoln's Virtues. It was a moral biography of Abraham Lincoln.
It's a biography that tried to focus entirely on the development of Lincoln's ethical system, like actually trying to track down the influences and sources. But then also try to map out how it developed and changed and broadened over time and how it came into fruition. That's been a really important book for me, very influential to me is that what it showed is someone who matured and developed their ethical foundation over time through experience and experimentation.
They were reading on experimentation and sharpening, and it blossomed as he reached his full mature adulthood into something very sophisticated and very impactful to the world. It wasn't there fully formed when he was a kid. It developed over time. That has been very influential because it pushes me to keep thinking and pushing to bring in information to challenge myself to reflect on my experiences, to expose myself to the best thinking I can and all sorts of issues.
And seeing the formation of an ethical core as a commitment, as a life process and not as something that you just choose one day like you would choose a suit of clothes. That one book, that Henry Lee Miller ethical biography was very influential for me.
AL Your grandfather was a Baptist minister. Did he have much of an influence in your thinking about ethics?
CN Yes, he was a minister, but also a great academic and theologian, so definitely an influence on me. He was a Baptist apologist, which was very rare. That is to say someone who was a Southern Baptist, but also incredible learned. He had multiple PhDs. He spent time with Abraham Heschel and Carl Jung and Reinhold Niebuhr at Harvard. This very intellectual man who wrote all these academic books. He's one of the few Baptist apologists who actually tried to understand his theological foundation and explain it to others and justify it against other different types of worldviews.
He has been very influential. He was very influential in my life. He was alive until I was 18, so I knew him my entire childhood and he's left behind a legacy of his work. But his curiosity and joy with the world of ideas and the way that he would fearlessly go out there. That's why I say it was very rare to be a Southern Baptist apologist. This was right at the incipient beginning of the fundamentalism movement within Southern Baptism, which is the opposite of that, which is, ‘I don't want to hear it. Let me tell you what is right. The important thing is that we punish people who we think don't believe this.’
He was the exact opposite. He just wanted to get out there and encounter full-throated all of the different ideas and philosophies and views of the world, sophisticated ideas and really understand them. He didn't see them as a threat to his fundamental identity as a religious, Southern American Christian. He thought it would strengthen that. I think it's very influential, as the opposite of what we see today.
I love that approach of let me approach the very smartest people and best ideas that maybe are not exactly what my ideas are. Let me use them as a way of strengthening my convictions to understand the world, not as something to fear or to try to put down. Yes, he was a definitely an intellectual inspiration.
AL Between President Lincoln and your grandfather John Newport, that seems exactly the moment to close our conversation. Cal Newport, computer scientist and attention management thinker, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.
CN Thanks for having me on. I really enjoyed the conversation.