How to be productive without burning out, with Cal Newport (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
How to be productive without burning out (w/ Cal Newport)
February 27, 2024

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick with the TED Audio Collective. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is Cal Newport.

His day job is as a computer science professor at Georgetown, but I'm more interested in his side hustle. He's one of the world's foremost thinkers on how to make work better. Cal moonlights as a New Yorker writer, podcast host, and bestselling author of books like Deep Work, So Good They Can't Ignore You, and Digital Minimalism. He's joining me today to talk about his new book, Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout.

[00:00:48] Cal Newport:
What was happening in our current world of work around this nebulous idea that we informally referred to as productivity was clearly broken. People are tired of that idea. They don't know what it means. Whatever they're doing doesn't seem to be working for them. And so people are in a space right now where they wanna start from a blank slate and rethink, “What does it mean to do my work well?”

[00:01:10] Adam Grant:
We've been discussing and debating ideas for years, mostly by email even though he hates email. Today, I'm excited to bring that conversation to life outside of our inboxes. I… I feel like this has been a long time coming.

[00:01:26] Cal Newport:
I know. I can't believe we haven't actually done like a formal thing before, so here we go.

[00:01:29] Adam Grant:
Well, this is gonna be extremely formal.

[00:01:32] Cal Newport:
[laughter] Yes, Dr. Grant, what is your next query?

[00:01:35] Adam Grant:
[laughter] Well, Dr. Newport, it's thoughtful of you to ask. What's something you want me to rethink?

[00:01:42] Cal Newport:
Uh, the need to respond to every email. Our old battle, Adam.

[00:01:45] Adam Grant:
We've had some emails back and forth maybe about it, but we've mostly been arguing via op-ed.

[00:01:50] Cal Newport:
Yeah, with the pages of the New York Times.

[00:01:52] Adam Grant:
Articles. [laughter]

[00:01:52] Cal Newport:
Yeah, we’ve been [laughter]. Alright. Good. So, we’ll put a pin in that one.

[00:01:56] Adam Grant:
The first thing that piqued my interest was your title is an oxymoron. Slow Productivity. By definition, productivity is a high rate of output per unit of time, so it's supposed to be fast. And I just, I love oxymorons. I thought that was a fascinating juxtaposition. I think you're spot on that there's been a turn in the zeitgeist that productivity used to be something that we valued.

Now we live in a, a culture where increasingly people are anti productivity. And I worry that maybe [chuckle] we've been getting it wrong for a long time, but then some people are also overcorrecting and missing out on the value of meaningful accomplishment. And, I had a hunch that you've been, you've been thinking and working on this issue for a long time and that you could help to un-confuse us a little bit.

[00:02:38] Cal Newport:
Here's my business case study about what happened with productivity. It was for a long time an economic concept that was well-defined. Starts in agriculture. How many bushels of crop per acre under cultivation are you producing? If you switch to a different crop rotation method, you can measure this and say, “Hey, the number went up!” Industrial manufacturing arises. This idea ports over easily.

Then, we get the mid-20th century. Knowledge work arises as a major economic sector. Suddenly, we can't directly port this definition anymore because the average knowledge worker does many different things. There's no one thing to measure. Uh, it's incomparable from person to person. My portfolio of things I'm doing right now is different than yours in subtle ways, and there's no clearly defined system to measure or improve because productivity became personal. How I organize myself, how I organize my work is up to me. That was a new idea in the history of economic activity. I think we fell back on a heuristic called pseudo-productivity, which just says activity will be our proxy for doing useful stuff.

That kind of lasted for a while, but then we invented networks and laptops and smartphones and Slack and Email. And this idea of just more is better than less began to spin outta control until by the time we get to the pandemic. We're saying, this is no longer sustainable. This fake definition of productivity doesn't work. We gotta do something different. So that's my whole story that goes from the 17th century up to 2024. That's what I think's going on.

[00:04:10] Adam Grant:
I, I think the case is really compelling. And I, I don't think I disagree with any of it. There's, there's a piece missing from that puzzle for me that I, I wonder how you think about, which is you go right from manufacturing economy to knowledge work. And, I think in between, and even now, looming larger than knowledge work is a service economy, right? By my last count, something like 80% of Americans work in service jobs. Um, and some of those jobs are also knowledge jobs, but the, the service economy here is bigger than the knowledge economy.

Um, and then the same is true in Western Europe and in most industrialized parts of the world. So, how does service work fit into all this 'cause it, it actually seems to me that it, it follows the same arc as your knowledge work argument that [chuckle] you, you can't really measure the quality of service just by the number of customers, or clients, or patients that you interact with.

[00:04:58] Cal Newport:
Yeah, they're having the exact same problem in that sector. I mean, if I'm dealing with individuals all day, even let's say, to keep it like simple, in like a retail setting, right, how do we exactly measure how good I'm doing? It's, you can't. So, again, if you bring over the like, well, more is better than less, longer hours is better than than fewer hours, uh, you end up in sort of a similar problem.

So, it's like we can think of the problem of the 20th century as, uh, how do we do things productively when we don't have Model T's to count. That's the central problem, I think, of labor strife and personal satisfaction in the 20th and 21st century economy.

[00:05:35] Adam Grant:
H-how would you define slow productivity?

[00:05:37] Cal Newport:
So it was my answer to the question of can we come up with at least one concrete definition of productivity that's not just more is better than less, that will satisfy two things. I don't wanna burn out or have work stamp on all other parts of my life.

You know, one of my personal motivations for this book was, my three kids reached a certain age where they needed basically every minute I had to offer in a way that like they didn't when they were younger. Like, they need a lot of my time at the same time that I'm at the peak of my professional power. So that's, A: I needed my definition to avoid burnout and work just taking over my whole life. But, B: I'm ambitious! I like to do things. How do I do both those things?

Slow productivity was the answer I came up with. And, it had three principles. Do fewer things at the same time. Work at a more natural pace, so not just full intensity, eight hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. But, couple that with principle three: obsessing over the quality of what you do.

And my argument is if those three things all come together, you get a vision of knowledge work that can be high impact and effective, but also is very sustainable and meaningful. So, it's A: attempt to try to have some sort of alternative to pseudo-productivity that might actually satisfy the preconditions I had.

[00:06:58] Adam Grant:
[Chuckle] Fewer things is tricky for a lot of people who don't get to determine how much they do if their schedules and their task lists are set by a boss. If I'm somebody who doesn't have freedom, how do you think about that?

[00:07:09] Cal Newport:
Well, I mean, first, let's just think about the case for doing fewer things because I think this will get to the answer of how do we actually make this happen? The, the misconception I think people have about doing fewer things is that this is just about, uh, a zero-sum trade off. Yes, this is gonna be worse for my employer or my company, but, uh, it's gonna make my life better.

Right. I think it's actually the opposite. What happens in knowledge work, because we have, typically, no systematic way to manage or even make transparent workloads. I have no idea what you're working on or how much you're working on. It's all informal and ad hoc. When we put more and more stuff on our plate, each of these things that we agree to brings with it a non-trivial amount of persistent overhead. It’s the administrative overhead, the, the emails about the thing I agreed to do, the standing meetings about the thing I agreed to do, even the cognitive real estate. Like, I have to just remember in the back of my mind, I agreed to do this.

My claim is, as you pile up work on your list of things you said yes to, too large, the fraction of your day that is now going to servicing overhead becomes larger and larger until now, you're spending most of your time servicing these tasks, removing the time required to actually accomplish them, which then creates an even bigger backlog because nothing ever clears out. And, I make this claim in the book that for a lot of knowledge workers in the first few months of the pandemic, this happened. This sudden, new influx of tasks pushed them to the place where a lot of people were finding themselves doing eight hours of Zoom all day. It was like an absurd, almost Kafka play, of all I'm doing is meetings about work.

I mean, I had listeners and readers who would say, “Here's my big problem, Cal. When do I go to the bathroom?” So actually having fewer things on your plate at any given time actually increases the rate at which you accomplish things and increases the quality of the things that you accomplish. So if you zoom out to, let's say, the three month scale, you're actually probably producing a lot more, right?

Overload makes it hard to actually do work. Then, we get to the question of, okay, so how do you actually negotiate this in your own working life? I have a lot of different ideas in the book about if you work for someone else, how do we move towards this? And, a lot of these ideas are not just about saying no, but they're more about surfacing your workload, surfacing your available time, surfacing the amount of time what you're being asked to do is, and making that all transparent, so that you can have like a much more reasonable negotiation about what you should be doing at any one time.

And, so there's a lot of ways you can do this from poll based systems to keeping a list of pending projects where they can add it onto the back and see how many things are ahead of it. Doing pre-planning of time for projects so you can actually come back and say, “Sure, but the next time I have the 15 hours available to do this, it's gonna be a month and a half from now.” Transparency and surfacing of the reality of workloads can go a long way, I think, of becoming more reasonable about how much should we have on our plate at the same time.

[00:10:07] Adam Grant:
I, I love that idea. And, of course it depends on having a reasonable boss, but so does everything else in a hierarchy. The idea of doing fewer things at once is interesting, and I'm, I'm kind of torn on it. I think on the one hand it makes a lot of sense because the more tasks you have, the more pressure you face to multitask, which we know leads to rapid task switching and usually detracts from the quality of both tasks that are, are being focused on sort of sequentially in, in rapid fire. So, I'm with you so far.

But then I start to think about some of the evidence that if you wanna get something done, you should give it to a busy person. There's a, a Keith Wilcox et al. paper, for example, showing that people, when they have more on their plate, they actually get things done faster. It's related to Parkinson's law. The, you know, the amount that you do…

[00:10:51] Cal Newport:
Work will expand to fill whatever time is available.

[00:10:53] Adam Grant:
Work will expand to fill the time you have for it.

Yeah. Yeah. So if, if you buy the premise, that work expands to fill the time you have for it. And, it also can contract, uh, as you have less time for it. That suggests that we might benefit from doing more things as opposed to fewer things. So, can you reconcile these two competing arguments for me?

[00:11:12] Cal Newport:
Well, let's look deeper at Parkinson's law. So at some point I read the, the original citation, and it comes from a, a critique of the British Civil Service. And, it was as much a critique of the arbitrary and pointlessness of a lot of these jobs in the civil service as it was about a general observation about time. So they were saying, in these jobs you just fill whatever time you have because it's advantageous. It just looks good for you to be busy, right?

So, here's an alternative, is principle three: obsess over quality. You do have to have a target. And that's why I call obsessing over quality the glue that holds everything else together in the book. If you're not focused on doing something really well that you care about, then I'm with you. Like, who cares? We might as well just be sending a lot of emails, right? I mean, we might as well have a lot going on. I, I had this question just a couple weeks ago on my podcast. It was interesting. It was a, a developer wrote to me, a computer developer and said, “My company is doing all the Cal Newport stuff to get rid of unnecessary administrative work and overhead. There's no email, there's no Slack, there's no meetings. Like we just have this like really structured asynchronous project management system.”

And he was having a really hard time with it because he said: “Look, I can program for four hours a day. What do I do for the rest of the day?” And you know, my answer to 'em was like, “I think you have to care about what you're doing. You have to have some other motivation for finishing things, doing them well, being eager to move on to the next, or then I agree. Yeah. Then having less things on your plate, you're just gonna either be bored or you're going to busy work it out anyways to fill the time.”

[00:12:51] Adam Grant:
It seems to me that it's easy to confuse doing fewer things with just doing less work.

[00:12:57] Cal Newport:
If, if you're not focusing on quality, a lot of it also just engenders an antagonistic relationship to your work. But when you add in that third ingredient, I am obsessed with doing really good stuff, it completely changes the valence of everything else.

And that's why I think it's so important for, for any of these other thoughts. And this is by the way, what the anti productivity movement often is missing. When you take out the part about wanting to do something really well, the anti productivity thinking begins to stumble. And it either stumbles into sort of just like standard critiques of capitalism or these sort of generic calls for just, uh, doing less, just do nothing.

It, it ends up in places that, that don't, in the end resonate with people in a sustainable way. You have to have that other piece of also humans like to make their intentions manifest concretely in the world in a way they're proud. You need that in there if you wanna understand how to deal with the hard stuff.

[00:13:49] Adam Grant:
So, you’re pro meaningful contribution to the world and anti burnout.

[00:13:53] Cal Newport:
I think that's the only logical combination. If you think burnout is just part of work, your contributions long-term almost certainly are going to be diminished. Like ultimately something's going to give if you really are just completely overloading yourself.

[00:14:07] Adam Grant:
I think the, the way you framed slow productivity, this is something that we could all do, do better as individuals. But, this is also, I think, a real message to leaders to say these are principles for organizational cultures and structures that we should have a larger conversation about. How many things are we doing collectively? What kind of frenetic pace are we creating systemically? Are we placing the quality bar high enough on the things that really matter? What does that conversation look like for you?

[00:14:35] Cal Newport:
It's such a hard conversation. This was my experience with my last book, right? So in 2021, I had this book, kind of cheekily titled, A World Without Email. But, it was really a, a book about the corporate managerial structure and modern knowledge work needs to seriously reexamine how do we organize work, how do we collaborate. We can't just let this continue to be up to everyone's individual decisions. The way we're working today is not working.

So I was making an argument aimed at organizations that you have to get into the game here. You're not thinking about how we work nearly as much as we do in other industrial sectors.

That was an impossible sell, it turned out. It's really hard. It's these really big ships. And so I got more interested in that recently. Why could I not change more minds with that? Part of my new theory about what's happening here is that this is a side effect of managerial capitalism. So if, if we go back to the theory of managerial capitalism that emerges in the, the mid, mid-century, looking back the early 20th century, the theorizing around managerial capitalism says in organizations that are large, what the managers are optimizing for in terms of how things are run, no longer have to be directly congruent to market forces.

It's no longer the case that, hey, if we don't use email this way, if we're smarter about distractions, we're more competitive, we'll get a direct market signal, and we're gonna do better and, and other companies that don't do this are gonna go outta business. If I'm a manager in a large company, I'm not necessarily optimizing for what in the end is going to, five years from now, make our company more productive and extracting value from the minds of our employees.

I might also be biased towards stability. Stability of my position, stability of the company. This like hyperactive hive mind. We all just email everyone whenever we need to. And changing this would be very disruptive and disruption is bad. Disruption is scary. I'm increasingly convinced it it is difficult to come in and change very large cultures because there's not the incentive structure there.

And so it's almost like, why this book? I said, okay, forget it. Let's go back to people. At least like what can you do even if you work for one of these companies to make your life more manageable? Knowledge work is such a weird puzzle. We don't do it well. But we also don't attempt to do it better.

[00:16:53] Adam Grant:
Well, one, one solution that seems to be gaining a little traction in organizations in that I, I think at minimum, is an interesting experiment, is the four day work week.

And you're on the record saying it's not, it's definitely not a panacea, which I agree with. But, you also don't think it's gonna be an effective antidote to burnout, if I understand correctly.

[00:17:13] Cal Newport:
Yes. I, I think burnout, uh, among most things is being caused by having too much on your plate. If you have too much on your plate, you telling me you don't have to work on Friday doesn't solve the problem that I have too much on my plate. And, if anything, it's gonna make the stress of that worse because now in the four days that remain, more of that time is gonna be dedicated to the admin overhead. I would rather see, a fifth day, like Friday is a day in which you can't service any overhead. No meeting.

[00:17:40] Adam Grant:
No meeting Fridays.

[00:17:41] Cal Newport:
But this failed. Intel tried this years back famously with no email Fridays, for example. This failed because the bigger problem is how we actually collaborate. So if in your company, the way decisions are made and progress proceeds on projects is we just Slack or Email back and forth on demand, you can't just say Friday's email free Friday because then work stops.

So like I've been arguing, you can't do these blunt fixes for knowledge work. You have to do the fine tune fixes, which is coming in and saying, here is an alternative way that we're gonna collaborate that's not just rock and roll with asynchronous and synchronous communication on demand as needed.

Then, we need to fix workload management. Let's think about this as an organization. You should really only be working on three projects at a time. Let's write 'em down. Here they are. You fix those problems, you're fixing the burnout problem. If you instead just say, let's not work on Friday. Let's be hybrid. Let's be remote. None of these are bad, but none of these actually get to the direct problem either.

[00:18:40] Adam Grant:
I think we're in alignment on a bunch of those points and maybe tension on a couple of them. Having too much to do is, as far as I know, the most reliable predictor of emotional exhaustion. That being said, I think the evidence is, is a little bit more encouraging than you do.

Let's start with the, the no meeting Friday idea. So Ben Laker and colleagues, uh, tested this out with what, 70, 76 companies. They ran meeting free days and self-report of productivity went up, satisfaction spiked, stress went down, and you also get better reports on just quality of communication and collaboration.

And, I think what they're doing is they're committing to block out time to focus. They're allowing for deep work. You wrote a whole book on deep work and this seems to be an effective mechanism for it. And interestingly, at least in, you know, in this quasi-experiment, companies that had three no meeting days a week got the greatest dividends.

Now, there may be a selection bias there that the companies that are best at managing deep work and kind of carving out, in the Paul Graham Sense, manager days as separate from maker days are more likely to adopt a multiple meeting free days a week. But, this seems to be good news and it, it also tracks with what Leslie Perlow showed in her Quiet Time experiment where, you know, just blocking out some mornings to not interact and not interrupt each other was good for productivity. So, why are you so skeptical?

[00:20:05] Cal Newport:
So, so where my real skepticism was, is on the no email days. So that failed because in most businesses, if you can't communicate during the day, things fell apart. No meetings is interesting. And what I think is happening with the no meeting days, is, it's not about workload. It's not making it better or worse. But what it's allowing people to do, what I'm assuming, I'm guessing, I'm hypothesizing.

But what's happening in these experiments is if we all agree that Friday is a no meeting day, It's not just the meetings that were taking off the plate, we sort of mentally treat this as a deep workday, so we're probably sending less email. We're probably jumping off and on Slack less. And so what you're escaping on those days, you're not fixing the workload problem, but you're fixing the problem I talked about on my last book, which is the distraction of having to constantly keep up with, with digital, back and forth and fragmentation of schedules.

So I do like that idea. In fact, my new claim is this is how we should think about hybrid work in this new era where that seems to be the standard for, uh, post-pandemic knowledge work. Why don't we treat the days, the hybrid days, the days you're at home very differently than the days you're in work? So it's a completely different cognitive context too.

Oh, when I'm at home, I'm just working as deeper. And when I'm in the office we have like more meetings and emails. I think we're actually in alignment. No meeting days is solving another problem that's good. But, it's neither helped me nor hurting the workload problem.

[00:21:26] Adam Grant:
We're in sync there. Okay, so the four day week, I'd like to see better random assignment in the trials that have been done so far. But when I look at Juliet Shor's work, for example, and you know, a bunch of the companies that are experimenting with it, um, burnout does seem to be going down. And, I wonder if part of what's going on is that when you commit to fewer days, you're more conscious of boundaries and protecting them.

[00:21:52] Cal Newport:
You're implicitly starting to create a culture that cares a little bit more about reducing workload, but I would rather explicitly tackle that. I would rather get in and say, uh, why do I have so much stuff on my plate in the first place that maybe the four day work week is or is not sort of helping with? Why don't we get to the heart of the problem?

[00:22:09] Adam Grant:
I, I think that's very well articulated. I'm on board.

All right. Let's go to a lightning round. What is the worst productivity advice that you hear regularly?

[00:22:22] Cal Newport:
This idea that you choose one thing, get that done, and then you've had a successful day.

[00:22:28] Adam Grant:
You think that's a bad idea?

[00:22:29] Cal Newport:
Yeah. There's more to being a productive day than getting one good thing done. I think if that's where you are, your day is a disaster.

I think you need a good plan for the day you have. That includes a couple important things and also handles the small things in a smart way and is reasonable.

[00:22:43] Adam Grant:
What is something about, uh, productivity that you've rethought lately?

[00:22:47] Cal Newport:
Seasonality: the degree to which we're not wired to basically work at the same level of intensity all the time. Uh, I didn't realize this was a problem until the last couple of years, and now I'm obsessed with it.

[00:23:58] Adam Grant:
I think the most productive I've ever been is during Michigan winter. You literally couldn't do anything else.

[00:23:05] Cal Newport:
Yeah. You're stuck in a cabin. You can't get out. Yeah.

[00:23:08] Adam Grant:
Yeah. And then, like, spring would come around and I played a lot of ultimate frisbee.

[00:23:13] Cal Newport:
You turned out okay.

[00:23:14] Adam Grant:
Eh? Jury's still out. I'm allergic to productivity hacks. I think you are too. That being said, what's your favorite one?

[00:23:22] Cal Newport:
Well, that shifts all the time. Do you want the one I'm excited about right now? Or the one just that stood the test of time most?

[00:23:29] Adam Grant:
Well now I want both.

[00:23:30] Cal Newport:
Okay, so lemme give you the one that stood the test of time and that is fixed schedule of productivity.

Fix the hours you wanna work and then do everything you can to make that work. That's now my goal. This is when I work, and I may have to actually drastically change things about my career if necessary. But, these are my limits. That's when I work. It's a meta productivity idea because it forces you to develop dozens of custom fit, practical productivity ideas to try to actually satisfy this big goal.

So, that's timeless. The flavor of the month, I really like? Uh, the one for you, one for me, meeting scheduling and strategy. If I schedule a meeting, I have to then, find during that same week a block of time of same length to block off for me to do just my own work. It keeps your schedule 50/50, but in a flexible way.

[00:24:14] Adam Grant:
You're, you're allowing a lot more meetings into your life than I am with, with that one-to-one.
I, I think my philosophy is more like five to one.

[00:24:21] Cal Newport:
Five meetings. Wait, five for you and one for the meeting.

[00:24:23] Adam Grant:
Sorry. One to five. I guess it would be. Yeah

[00:24:24] Cal Newport:
Oh, that’s the one. Well, it depends on the season, but you know how it gets, sometimes. You're on a committee.

[00:24:29] Adam Grant:
Don't serve on committees.

[00:24:30] Cal Newport:
Uh, and maybe that should be the timeless advice, right, is the Richard Feynman advice.

Pretend to be really irresponsible so people will stop putting you on academic committees. Though, I talked about in the book, 10 years later after that, he admitted because he, he got sucked into running the Challenger Commission.

[00:24:45] Adam Grant:
Yeah, the Presidential Commission.

[00:24:47] Cal Newport:
Yeah. And then he reflected on that in an LA Times interview.

“Uh, I didn't follow my own advice. I always said avoid committees, but you know what? This was important and I'm, I'm glad I did it.” So there's this like interesting sort of philanthropic later in life, humanist type twist definement.

[00:25:03] Adam Grant:
It's also a good reminder that almost every personal productivity rule has exceptions, which is why they should be guidelines, not rules.

[00:25:09] Cal Newport:
I agree.

[00:25:10] Adam Grant:
Where do you stand on focus apps? Like, you know, that lock down your computer or your phone so you can't get distracted?

[00:25:17] Cal Newport:
Uh, from my experience, focus apps are a temporary measure for most people. So if you want you to break the initial pull of digital addiction, it can be useful to use a focus app for a while.

What almost always happens though is if people consistently do this, the cravings diminish and they don't need to use the apps anymore. You'll lose your taste for browser tabbing over to Instagram. And then once you do, you don't need the focus app anymore.

[00:25:43] Adam Grant:
What's a question you have for me?

[00:25:45] Cal Newport:
Oh, okay. Interesting.

Um. Let me, I'm gonna, all of my questions for you tend to be very insider baseball because we're both professors who also write books, which is like an impossible thing. So, so here's my question. What did you change post full professor? I mean, I know you were like 19.

[00:26:04] Adam Grant:
No, I, I actually think it's a universal question because everybody at some point will have the experience of realizing I achieved one of the major goals I was working toward, or I decided it wasn't a major goal anymore, and now what do I change? There, there's an irony here, which is you're talking about doing less and you wear a lot of hats. You publish research, you teach, you podcast, you write books, you write articles in the New Yorker, uh.

And I think I might be guilty of the same. I guess one of the things I've been rethinking lately is. How, how much do I need to do in each of those categories?

So, you know, should I reconsider the number of classes I teach? That's actually something that Wharton did for us during Covid. They dropped our teaching load from three to two courses a year, which has, has been pretty meaningful in terms of the amount of time I have to do not only the projects that I care about, but also the time I have to spend with students. I think that's been a big deal. How are you thinking about that balance, uh, especially now that you've written this book saying do fewer things. Are you doing less?

[00:27:10] Cal Newport:
Well, yeah, so I wrote the book in part because I wanted to improve my own setup. Some things I have done, right, towards that. I have brought together my academic and writing worlds much closer. What I'm doing more as an academic is I'm thinking out loud about the different ways that technology affects society. I write books. I do a bunch of New Yorker stuff on it, and, uh, I don't write a bunch of computer science papers.

So this, this consilience, like these two things coming together, that is freeing up a huge amount of time. Right? So that really helped. The podcast, when I started the podcast, I had a rule: half day a week. You can never have more. And so if I wanna do more, I want to add video, whatever I wanna do in the podcast, as long as it fits in that half day a week, go for it.

If it doesn't, then I have to automate something or hire someone. But it's never allowed to have a bigger footprint than that. Uh, and that made a big difference, uh, as well. But I'll tell you, Adam, even with all of those things, I am still thinking is there even more drastic reductions I should consider? I wrote this book less about I am the exemplar of this and more this is my aspiration. So, let me clarify it so I know what I'm going for.

[00:28:15] Adam Grant:
Okay, let's talk about our digital debate here. So you want me to rethink my compulsive habit of responding to every email? I am willing to do that if you are willing to rethink your excessive digital minimalism. I will ignore more emails if you start one social media account.

[00:28:37] Cal Newport:
Uh, I'd rather you send more emails than me have to use social media. [laughter]

[00:28:42] Adam Grant:
[laughter] Get to use social media. Get to use it.

[00:28:44] Cal Newport:
Okay. Yeah, fair enough. My whole digital minimalism philosophy doesn't have hard edges, so it doesn't identify bad and good tech. It says you start with your values and then move backwards to say what's gonna be most useful for advancing these values.

Any social media application, if I see a really strong use case where the positive it's gonna bring me really outweighs the negative, it's on the table. Like for example, we put my podcast on YouTube now and, and you know, YouTube is a distracting thing. And I don't use a lot of YouTube, but that's a decision to be made.

But I felt like there was a very large audience that doesn't listen to podcasts traditionally, and we could find them through YouTube. And so that's worth doing and you have to put some care around it. So, I'm willing to consider a social media platform if I think the benefits are gonna outweigh the negatives, but I'm terrified of most of them.

I mean, if you put me on Twitter, I'm gonna be on there all the time. You know what I'm saying? Like you put me on Instagram, I'm gonna be on there all the time.

[00:29:38] Adam Grant:
We might have emailed at one point about the, the Michael Hausman finding, which suggested that people with a couple social media accounts were more productive than those who didn't have any and also more productive with those who had five or more.

And, we don't know whether this is cause or signal, but there is a part of me that thinks refusing to engage with social media altogether the, the same way that it leaves kids out of their social circles in high school, it does close you off to opportunities to engage with people, to test ideas, um, to share some of your knowledge in bite-sized formats and I think you're depriving other people of your ideas who would discover you on social. And, you're also maybe missing out on some of the feedback that you would get. Like, there are times when I decide to write an article because, you know, an Instagram post took off and it was just an afterthought. I just. Kind of put it out there. I was like, wait a minute. There's more to say about this. People care about this. And also, you know, a bunch of people got mad at what I said and I need to clarify what my point was. In other cases, I'll test an idea that I think is really promising and it doesn't take off.

I'm like, maybe this is not a great use of my time. And I, I find that feedback mechanism really valuable. And you know, you're, not to suggest that you need it, but I've benefited a lot from it and I want you to benefit from it too.

So why don't you wanna benefit from it, especially, and let me, lemme just throw in one other piece of this, which is, I think you're really good at setting boundaries. The way you articulate, “All right, I've got a, a, an amount of time that I've blocked out for podcasting and I'm gonna fit podcasting in that time.” Why can't you do the same thing with social?

[00:31:13] Cal Newport:
Well, lemme throw a counterargument back. What you and I do, we write books, we write articles. It's not new. We haven't noticed in the last 10 years or so, which is, which is roughly the era when social media has become sort of dominant cultural force.

It's not like we've seen a notable increase in the quality of what essayist and book writers are producing. If anything, we're worried that we're seeing the opposite. So there's a counter argument that was saying if this feedback really is very useful in the sense that, net your stuff becomes better, we would expect books and articles to be better because almost everyone is on these all the time, but we're not seeing necessarily a trend like that So, so what might be happening is…

[00:31:48] Adam Grant:
Well, hold on, Cal. That just means people aren't using it well.

[00:31:51] Cal Newport:
Well, okay. But, why aren't they using it well? Because all of the incentives in these tools is built to make sure you use it poorly. This is way too extreme of an example, but it's like, eh, I gotta just smoke what I drink. But then like eventually you're gonna smoke a lot because it's really addictive.

The negative externalities scare me and I don't like them. Um, and so the negative externalities in terms of like what it does to my attention and to my mood and like Twitter is an anxiety producing machine. I have enough anxiety, right? [laughter] Do I need to throw that in?

[00:32:17] Adam Grant:
I guess I've tried to do with social media what you do with, with almost everything you do, which is I've tried to build a system for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the costs. And I mean, some of the, some of the heuristics are really simple. I only log into post and then I only scroll if there's nothing else I could be doing. And, I think you have the discipline to pull that off.

Okay. Here's my challenge to you. What if you ran an experiment where you asked your team to start making, like create a Cal Newport account. Um, start doing posts that synthesize some of your favorite ideas and just check the account once a week yourself to see what you think of the reactions, and are you getting something useful out of it? I, I'd be curious to see how that experiment plays out. And the look on your face tells me that you don't wanna go from abstinence to moderation because it's a slippery loop.

[00:33:07] Cal Newport:
Yeah. I, I, yes. My abstinence is partially, this is an unfair comparison because I have a really large audience. I have a way of interacting with my audience. I have a large newsletter and blog. I have this email address that's dedicated to people sending me interesting articles and links. So I, I'm basically simulating a lot of the benefits you're talking about.

I'm able to simulate that without actually being on these, these monopoly platforms, right? So, I get a lot of interesting ideas and feedback from this long standing audience, which other people might not have.

[00:33:38] Adam Grant:
I, I think discovery of new audiences is harder for you.

[00:33:41] Cal Newport:

[00:33:42] Adam Grant:
Is probably the missing piece.

[00:33:43] Cal Newport:
That might be, that might be the case.

And two, I'm probably more introverted than you, so like in my life I'm trying to meet less people, typically. I get exhausted.

[00:33:50] Adam Grant:
Oh, I'm with you there.

[00:33:51] Cal Newport:
Yeah. Yeah, so.

[00:33:52] Adam Grant:
Completely with you there.

[00:33:52] Cal Newport:
I don't wanna talk to more people.

[00:33:53] Adam Grant:
I'm also trying to interact with fewer people.

[00:33:55] Cal Newport:

[00:33:55] Adam Grant:

[00:33:56] Cal Newport:

Uh, I'm, I'm, so, I'm like, I'm not actually looking necessarily for more conversation.

I'm already exhausted from how many people I have to talk to. Um, but then three, okay, we'll throw this in here. Uh, as an internet nerd, there's also a philosophical objection, uh, that I was opposed to the centralization of the internet to a small number of platform monopolies. And so there's also a philosophical objection there.

I don't think that's the ideal function of the internet, which is a mechanism, I think, is world changing, general purpose technology, the end all general purpose technologies. I did not like the phase where we centralized it into a small number of privately owned companies, and that we all then had to use a small number of privately owned companies.

So, there's also an element of protest. Uh, I like my intellectual solitude. I, I think it leads to, to interesting, like more like original thoughts. I think I'm less susceptible with the things I write about towards being subtly pushed into thought grooves that are being reinforced in the discourses that happen in centralized conversation platforms.

[00:34:53] Adam Grant:
That, that's a really good argument. I don't have a lot of pushback to it. I, I also think thought grooves is a fascinating phrase that captures something that's missing when we talk about echo chambers and filter bubbles, which are, um, much more isolating and restrictive than the internet actually is.

[00:35:10] Cal Newport:
Yeah. And thought groups aren't necessarily negative, like we think about filter bubbles. But, you see it in reporting. Like I do a lot of tech journalism. It's really easy to see on new topics how people fall into these thought grooves. They're not polarized. They're not political. It's just you see this coalescing around these common themes. Now everyone's talking about the new technology in the same way.

[00:35:30] Adam Grant:
Let's go now to, to your case then I, uh, I'm, I'm too responsive on email. I wanna hear more.

[00:35:35] Cal Newport:
Oh yeah. I think I use, don't respond to every email as a stand in for, don't just have Email be a general purpose incoming pipe that everything comes through and that you have to service to have more intentional.

Like, here's how you talk to me about this versus that.

Be harder to reach in times. Um, I think you're friendlier than me, so I'm basically trying to make you into like a meaner person, which doesn't put me in the best position.

[00:36:02] Adam Grant:
I, I'm actually not interested in being friendly by Email. I'm interested in being helpful and respectful. And, it bothers me when, when someone sends a reasonable Email and just gets ghosted. Like, if that person walked by you and talked to you or left a, a message on your voicemail, you wouldn't just ignore them.

You would dignify them with a response. And the fact that digitally, people have an excuse to just pretend it never happened, or just say, I'm sorry, I was, I was too busy to say hi to you when you waved at me. Like, not okay in my view. But I think, you know, I, I don't think you should answer every email.

I've tried to be really explicit about that. If someone is disrespectful to you, if somebody is wasting your time, if you're overwhelmed, it's reasonable to set a boundary, but I think there's a little bit of an overcorrection here that people are drowning in emails. Most people are facing email overload, and sometimes they're throwing out that baby with a bath water.

There's a bunch of evidence suggesting that one of the signs of a bad manager is being slow to respond to emails. I just read some research showing that the clearest predictors of professors being helpful teachers and mentors to their students is being quick to respond to student questions. In a lot of jobs, email is a way that you, you actually do your job.

We have a responsibility to respond to the people who engage with us thoughtfully. And by the way, a lot of us seek help by email. We don't just offer it. And so I guess I, I think there's a social contract that as you would reasonably try to help a person who, you know, who sat down with you or who called you, you ought to do the same thing electronically.

[00:37:39] Cal Newport:
Yeah. Well, okay. Let me ask you about a compromise then. And first I'll say the bigger picture here is there's the bigger problem of our work happens by email. Right, because there, there's also good research that shows as you raise the email volume of managers, time spent on leadership activities drops.

So there, there's a trade off, but let's just set the stage. Given that this is how work happens right now and we can't fix this overnight, what should we do? How do you feel about this compromise, where when it comes to my public facing communication channels, there I have like a clear, I call it a sender filter, where I say, here's the different ways to contact different people about different things, and all of them are clear.

There, there is no actual channel for you can just reach out to me outta nowhere and I'll respond. There's places you can send stuff to me, but it says I'm probably not gonna be able to respond. So it's trying to reset the contract. And then that's different than internally, like people I know and colleagues, etcetera, students and academic colleagues. Of course, I'll answer those emails because I know these people. Do I get your stamp of approval for that?

[00:38:38] Adam Grant:
No, I, I think I'm a hundred percent fine with that. It's, first of all, it's not my place to judge how you manage your inbox. Secondly, I think this is obviously a different problem for a public figure than it is…

[00:39:48] Cal Newport:
Fair enough. Yeah.

[00:38:48] Adam Grant:
…for somebody who's only visible inside their own organization. Although, if it's a big organization…

[00:39:53] Cal Newport:
It could be a lot.

[00:38:54] Adam Grant:
You get a reputation for being responsive.

[00:39:55] Cal Newport:

[00:38:55] Adam Grant:
And pretty soon no good deed goes unpunished. And I, I do worry a lot about that problem, but I, I think this is an expectation management problem. I think if you're gonna habitually ignore email, you should have an auto reply that says, I'm terrible on email. Please, you know, text me or please call me. And you should have a mechanism to be reachable.

What I'm objecting to more is the, the narrative of my inbox is just other people's priorities. If you're a good person, you care about other people's priorities, not just your own. But also you use your inbox to manage your priorities too, and the whole system of being able to reach people that aren't physically co-located with you or that you, you're not lucky enough to have a phone number for would fall apart if we mass adopted this “well, I'm just gonna only answer what I want to answer” policy.

[00:39:43] Cal Newport:
Okay. I, I agree with that. I think our final agreement will be I'll be better at answering emails if you don't make me use Instagram. And then we got, I think we got ourselves [chuckle]. We got ourselves a..

[00:39:52] Adam Grant:

[00:39:52] Cal Newport:
…deal. All right.

[00:39:53] Adam Grant:
You, you have yourself a deal on that, Cal.I think that's entirely fair.

[00:39:56] Cal Newport:
Fair enough. Fair enough.

[00:39:57] Adam Grant:
I might just ignore an email from you out of spite, but..

[00:39:59] Cal Newport:
That's the problem. You're like, yeah, I'll give it to you on Twitter.

[00:40:04] Adam Grant:
You have to go there to find it.

[00:40:05] Cal Newport:

[00:40:07] Adam Grant:
Create an account.

[00:40:07] Cal Newport:

[00:40:08] Adam Grant:Uh, this is, this has been great fun.

[00:40:09] Cal Newport:
Yeah. No, thank you. Thank you.

[00:40:14] Adam Grant:
I think the most important message from Cal's work is for leaders and managers in an always on world. The root cause of exhaustion is having too much to do. It doesn't matter how many stress management courses you offer or how many perks you pile on. The best way to fight burnout is to stop overloading people with work.

If you care about people or even about the quality of the work they do, give them permission to do less well. ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant.

This show is part of the TED Audio collective and this episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our producers are Hannah Kingsley-Ma and Aja Simpson. Our editor is Alejandra Salazar. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Handale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

Our team includes Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers.

It, it seems to me that, that one of the solutions to this problem is to recognize that do are doing, lemme try that again. Nah! Do you ever podcast? Note to self. Yes. Apparently, I know how to talk.