Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and how you can defeat the Nazis while still knocking off at 5:30pm. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
In last year’s survey you asked us to do more episodes about problems we’ve never talked about before, and on that count this episode certainly delivers, because it’s a problem I’d never even conceptualised as a pressing global problem until preparing for the episode.
We’ve been fans of the best-selling author Cal Newport since almost when 80,000 Hours got started. I often find self-improvement or productivity books a bit…well, unpersuasive. But maybe because his day job is as an academic computer scientist, Cal’s stuff seems better thought through than most.
Cal has a pretty packed schedule, so we only got two hours with him — which means you shouldn’t find a slow moment in this one.
To make sure we got to some original questions, we had to blitz through the core case he puts forward in his new book A World Without Email. So if you feel a bit confused and would like to see the arguments better fleshed out — and hear more responses to possible objections, do go grab the book.
If you haven’t worked in an office that makes what Cal is saying intuitive, consider yourself lucky; but you won’t have to ask around for long to find someone who has lived through the ‘hyperactive hive mind’.
If you’d like more Cal Newport there’s a huge amount of his work online, including his personal podcast Deep Questions and his blog.
Finally, if you’re interested in using 80,000 Hours’ style of thinking to do more good for the world in your career — or working to solve the problems we often discuss on the show — then you can apply to speak with our team one-on-one for free. For the first time in a couple of years we’ve removed our waitlist to apply for advising, so our team is keen to speak with more of you loyal podcast listeners.
They can discuss which problem to focus on, look over your plan, introduce you to mentors, and suggest roles that suit your skills. Just go to 80000hours.org/speak to learn more and apply.
Alright, without further ado, here’s Cal Newport.
The interview begins [00:02:02]
Rob Wiblin: Today, I’m speaking with Cal Newport. Cal is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, where his work focuses on distributed algorithms in challenging networks scenarios. But in addition to being a thriving academic computer scientist, Cal seemingly has a full second life — a full second career, at least — as a best-selling author and thinker on how to get the most out of work and out of life.
Rob Wiblin: Those books started out pretty optimistically, with titles like, How to Be a High School Superstar, How to Win at College, and So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. These weren’t new topics of course, but the books were unusually good and found a wide audience, including 80,000 Hours — we drew heavily on their advice in our early articles.
Rob Wiblin: But Cal had continued engaging with these questions, trying to help people achieve great things while also enjoying themselves. And this led to a series of three books on highly related topics, titled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and this year, his new book, A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload.
Rob Wiblin: To my ear, the tone of these books has become more and more alarmed, or somewhat troubled, over time. Initially about how to organize your own life in order to reduce distractions, they have escalated to an indictment of the way the great majority of knowledge work in the world is organized, and a proposal for wholescale reform.
Rob Wiblin: On Cal’s telling, we are wasting an ungodly amount of human potential and creating a population of hundreds of millions of constantly anxious and flustered office workers. Businesses that could probably organize and coordinate the work that people do in offices and at computers all day would produce potentially much better work and have far more fulfilled staff. I’ve found these books really eye-opening, and I’m very excited for today’s conversation, so thanks for coming on the show, Cal.
Cal Newport: It’s my pleasure. I have been intertwined and talking with and keeping up with 80,000 Hours for almost a decade now, so it’s of course no surprise, and my pleasure to be talking with you today.
Rob Wiblin: You met our founder, Ben Todd, many years ago, right? I think he got very into your work and I think that’s part of why it had a massive influence on our career guide.
Cal Newport: Yeah, I remember when 80,000 Hours was starting up and having those conversations and the original idea, so it’s exciting to see how it developed.
The hyperactive hive mind [00:04:11]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. We’ll come back to some of the lessons that we took from your earlier books later in the conversation. But to launch into the real substance that I want to deal with today, what is your theory for why email and Slack have become the ways that most people and organizations coordinate most of the work done in offices today?
Cal Newport: Well, so there’s a two-part story. So, there’s the part of the story that makes a lot of sense that everyone probably remembers, which is in the 1990s, predominantly the first half of the 1990s, email spread very rapidly throughout offices. So we had this very rapid period of adoption where offices bought email servers, people got professional email addresses for the first time.
Cal Newport: And if you go back and track that history, it’s completely pragmatic why this happened. Email is being pitched as a replacement, primarily for three existing communication modalities: the fax machine, the voicemail, and the inner-office, or between-office memo, where you put things in envelopes. This type of communication was necessary to run businesses. Email did it a lot better, and it was basically free. It was instantaneous. You could have CCs and digital attachments. So it spread very quickly in the 1990s because it solved a real productivity problem, and it solved it really well.
Cal Newport: In the wake of email arriving in all of these offices, however, what we got was an unexpected side effect. Its mere presence changed the technological ecosystem in which office work was happening, and without anyone really thinking this was a good idea, without anyone actually pushing for this, without any company thinking, “This is how we’re going to make all of our money”, we drifted towards a way of collaboration in the office environment, enabled by these tools, that I call the ‘hyperactive hive mind.’ It’s a method of collaboration where we say, “Look, we can just figure most things out on the fly with these back and forth unscheduled digital messages.”
Cal Newport: So we introduced a tool to get rid of the fax machine, and then we looked up a couple years later and the role of communication and how we collaborate had drastically changed in really unexpected ways.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I think most people will recognize this idea of a hyperactive hive mind, where everyone is just constantly answering emails and responding to messages on Slack in order to coordinate all of the things that are going on, and the task that you end up doing is kind of determined by what’s the email that you happen to get most recently, or who has been chatting you last. I think your theory is that basically this is what happens when you don’t do anything. When no one does anything to set up anything better than that, then inertia drives you there. Why is that what happens when you don’t do anything?
Cal Newport: I mean, think about our instincts. Let’s go back very far. Let’s go back into paleolithic history. Let’s think about three hunter gatherers working on something together. We’re hunting a Mastodon. How would we coordinate? It would be the hyperactive hive mind, right? In the sense that it would be on-demand, unscheduled back-and-forth. Ad hoc communication.
Cal Newport: “Hey, you go over there, watch out for that.” “Ooh, wait, I hear something over here.” It’s the natural way we communicate in small groups. So what email enabled was scaling up this natural way of communication to very large groups. Of course, it doesn’t work.
Cal Newport: So why it doesn’t work is there are too many of these back-and-forth conversations, and too many people that we’re trying to have conversations with, so it doesn’t scale. If there’s three of us and we’re, let’s say, spread across the world, but working on one thing together and we’re all on Slack, just figuring things out on the fly, it actually makes a lot of sense. That’s a very natural way for a small group to coordinate on one thing.
Cal Newport: But if there’s 30 of us in the office and there’s two dozen different asynchronous back-and-forth conversations going on, that’s when things spiral out of control. Because each of these conversations that’s going on requires that we keep checking these channels, because, hypothetically let’s say, five or six messages have to be exchanged for us to reach a decision that has to be made before our client call today at 3:00pm. So, five or six emails have to be exchanged. I have to turn each of these emails around pretty quickly if we’re going to get through this whole exchange before the client calls. So maybe I’m getting 10 inbox checks per email, because I’m waiting for it. So now just this one conversation has generated 50 to 60 extra inbox checks.
Cal Newport: Now imagine we have a couple dozen of these going on at the same time. So it just doesn’t scale. But I think it is important to recognize that this mode of collaborating is how humans have always collaborated. We’ve just never before been in a situation where there’s 600 of us in an organization and there’s 60 different things we’re working on.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So last week I thought I knew how the organization of this interview was going to go, but after actually reading A World Without Email this week, I decided to totally change focus. And basically I’d like to, with you, investigate this problem of what I would title ‘properly organizing knowledge work’ through a effective altruist lens, in order to see whether being involved in that project could be a way for some listeners to the show to have the biggest possible positive impact on the world with their career. Does that sound good?
Cal Newport: Yeah, sounds good.
Scale of the harm [00:08:40]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. So to kick off, the first question that we usually ask when analyzing problems is, what is the quantity of harm done by the work arrangement that you just described, centered around having all of these threads of conversation going on simultaneously?
Cal Newport: Well, so the right way to capture the harm is what it does to our brain, right? So, if you are going to have a hyperactive hive mind in your office, this means you’re going to have all of these different back-and-forth conversations happening with unscheduled messages, most of them need to be moved forward relatively quickly. So, the proximate impact of this is very frequent checking of inboxes, be it email or Slack. Some of the data I cite, for example, was showing once every five to six minutes was about average for how often people were checking their inboxes.
Cal Newport: That proximate behavior has a really deep, negative impact, mainly the way it interacts with our brain’s attention centers. The human brain can’t very quickly shift context back and forth like a computer processor. It’s a messy process, because we have to inhibit certain neural networks and we have to amplify other neural networks. It can take a while.
Cal Newport: So, I finish a conversation with you, and I want to now change my attention over to writing an article. It’s going to take 10 or 15 minutes until I’ve really calmed down all of the semantically related neural networks of our conversation, and really amplified the semantic networks relative to my article, and only at that point will I really be rocking and rolling and making some real progress.
Cal Newport: If we’re checking inboxes, be it Slack, be it Teams, be it email, if we’re checking these every five minutes, every time we check, we initiate one of these slow, messy cognitive context shifts, but we don’t let it complete because look, we’re just waiting to see three or four messages that we need to get back to real quick. So we initiate it, and before it completes, we then try to wrench our attention back to the thing we were doing before, and so now we have colliding contexts.
Cal Newport: And before all the networks that got fired up by looking at that inbox can finally finish being inhibited, we look back at the inbox again, and now we’re firing up and it’s probably slightly different networks, because now there’s a new email in there from a client, and now the networks related to that client are firing up and then we go back to the work and then we go back there. It’s a cognitive catastrophe.
Cal Newport: So, our brain simply can’t do it. If you’re checking an inbox that frequently, your brain is in this persistent state of significantly reduced cognitive capacity. It’s also fatiguing. That’s why by 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon it’s like, “I just give up. I’m just going to do Slack for the rest of the day.” It’s because our brain has been exhausted from all this context shifting.
Cal Newport: It also makes us anxious. This anxiety is differentially applied, so dependent on various personality traits, this could be more or less pronounced, but it doesn’t make us feel good. There’s a lot of data for that. So it really is a disaster for both our cognitive capacity, our energy, and our emotional health. All of these things, all of these things are deeply negatively affected if we create a day around constant back-and-forth context shifts.
Rob Wiblin: Are there any studies that can speak to how much GDP or innovation or human potential at a global level we’re leaving on the table, as a species, basically?
Cal Newport: I think it’s massive. So, one number that I think is provocative is, if you look at the industrial sector as an analog, right, and a number I like to cite is a number that Peter Drucker cited towards the end of his life in 1999. He said, look, if you look at the industrial sector in the 20th century, there was 50x growth. Our productivity grew 50x in the 20th century. Why? Because, the early 20th century is when we got really serious about process engineering. Like hey, wait a second. If we use an assembly line, we can build cars better. We really started to get serious about building things as a process we could get better and better at. And as he underscored, he’s like, 50x growth is almost inconceivably large. Essentially all of the wealth on which the modern developed world was built on in the 20th century came from that 50x growth in the industrial sector. Writing in 1999, when he was reflecting back on this, he said in knowledge work, and in particular knowledge work productivity, right now, we are where the industrial sector was in 1900.
Cal Newport: We haven’t even begun that explosive growth that’s possible once we get really serious about well, what’s the best way to actually do this work? And so I point to that number because it’s astronomically large. It means we’re talking not just billions, but perhaps trillions of dollars of global GDP is sitting on the table because this nascent digital era knowledge economy sector, which is very new in commercial historical context, we haven’t even got serious yet about what’s the best way to work. We’re still doing the easiest, most natural things. And so, I think it is a world-changing amount of growth and wealth on the table waiting to be extracted, once we start to get serious about these issues.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, I suppose economists for the last 30 years have noticed this paradox that it seems like offices have just been invaded by all of this amazing capital investment, all of this new technology that people thought would improve productivity. And yet, when you actually try to measure productivity, it just seems like productivity growth is quite poor by historical standards. Do you think that this might be one of the key reasons why it seems like information technology hasn’t increased how much people accomplish by as much as it seemed in the 1980s that it should?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think this is a really important factor, and something worth looking at. I wrote a column for Wired a few months ago where I looked at this. It’s sometimes called the ‘productivity paradox.’ Why was all this front-office investment in technology not leading to big jumps in productivity? By comparison, investment in back-office IT technology had a huge impact, a huge measurable impact on technology.
Cal Newport: If you look back in the ’70s and ’80s, where we started to get computerized inventory systems, we were able to network back-office computers. Now we had the personnel records accessible digitally, and we didn’t have to go and find them from a basement warehouse full of file drawers. This had a really clear impact on productivity that you could measure, non-industrial productivity. For more on this, I think Robert Gordon at Stanford had a great book about this four or five years ago.
Cal Newport: And then we put computers in the front office. So in other words, on the desk of office workers, and then after a while we networked those computers. And then after a while, we got portable computers in our hands, Blackberries, and then smartphones that could then have all of those capabilities in people’s hands. None of that moved the needle on productivity.
Cal Newport: And so in that Wired column, I was going back and finding headlines from the ’80s and from the ’90s where all these economists were saying, “Why aren’t we seeing any growth? We’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy all these PCs and put them in the office, why is this not making a difference? Or if it is, why is the difference so minuscule?” It’s a fascinating topic. There’s a few different explanations for it. One of the explanations that I find interesting, it’s one of the many factors at play here, is that these machines were seen as productivity enhancing because it took a lot of activities and made them easier to do, like word processors for example.
Cal Newport: But what a lot of companies did is said oh, great. All of this logistical-style work is now easy enough that you don’t need dedicated people to do it on the behalf of, let’s say the executives, or the frontline workers. They can just do it on their PC. They can write in WordStar, they don’t need a typist. We can send an email, they don’t need a secretary to take phone calls. And so, there was this move to fire or greatly reduce support staff because hey, now we’ve made this stuff easy enough that we don’t need them.
Cal Newport: But this had a huge impact on the ability of those frontline workers to produce the work that actually was measured, the work that actually brings profit into the organization, because now they had to wrangle with word processors and they had to wrangle with email and they had to wrangle, later on, with these intranet forums where they’re trying to enter in their travel reimbursement, and they’re trying to do their conflict of interest declaration in some sort of weird format that makes life really easy for the HR department, but takes up the whole afternoon. And you ended up having to hire more of the frontline workers to get the same amount of work done. Their salaries were more expensive than the support staff. You actually ended up worse off.
Cal Newport: So I think we see echoes of this again and again. These new technologies that were supposed to make certain things easier ended up actually adding more work that was not directly related to value production, and therefore actually prevented productivity from going up. I actually think, and this is a provocative claim, a lot of economists don’t agree with me here, but I think actually in the non-industrial sector, so in knowledge work, productivity has actually been going down. The only reason why it looks stagnant is that we have added a lot of off-the-book hours in the early morning and the evening.
Cal Newport: Because of mobile technology, we can do emails at home, we can work at the soccer game. A lot of that’s off the books for these productivity calculations. So, if we took that off-the-books time out of these calculations, our 9-5 productivity has gotten worse as we brought in computers and emails into the office. So it seems paradoxical, but I don’t know that it necessarily is.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ll offer a bit of skepticism in a minute, but just sticking with this worldview for a minute, it sounds like you just explained hundreds of billions of dollars left on the table in the book, but to me that seems like it’s underselling it. Global GDP per year is something like $100 trillion, and then I couldn’t find an estimate for exactly how much of that comes from knowledge work, but surely it’s at least in the tens of trillions.
Rob Wiblin: And it seems like if we really believe the story that people are wasting huge amounts of time, that when they concentrate, they can get way more done — and also that it’s not just going to be a one-off boost potentially, but can improve these processes over time and have this gradual improvement over centuries the same way that we did when we saw massive increases in productivity in manufacturing (because service industries probably won’t see quite the same improvement) — it could be pretty substantial. Then surely we’re talking about tens of trillions of dollars, as well as potentially having people who enjoy their lives a whole lot more.
Cal Newport: Well, yeah, I think worldwide that’s true. Right. So, high hundreds of billions is thinking of the U.S. context, where there’s low trillions involved in the knowledge sector, and so if you’re going to get a 50% increase… But I think you’re 100% right. If we’re looking worldwide, we could be talking yeah, $30 trillion. I mean, the 50x growth in the industrial sector is, when you do that type of exponential, it is too big for us to really think about. I mean, the world in 1999 versus 1900, the amount of wealth required to get the world of 1999 versus the unrecognizable world of 1900 in most places worldwide, it’s just off the charts. And that came from a productivity focus.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So listeners have a good idea of what we’re actually envisaging here, how things might be different, what’s an example of the work to design better internal processes that has allowed an organization to largely eliminate its hyperactive hive mind? Because it’s quite a lot of work, as you described it in the book, and that’s maybe one of the reasons that it hasn’t happened.
Cal Newport: Yeah. I mean, a good example is software developers. Software developers are in this weird place, because it’s technically knowledge work, right? They’re not actually manufacturing a physical artifact, but it overlaps a lot with the industrial sector because they’re constructing projects on timelines.
Cal Newport: They’re much more willing to borrow organizational metaphors from the industrial sector. And in software development, we see agile project management methodologies are something that are quite popular. And if you’re a software developer in a team that’s using an agile methodology, this idea that you’re just running your work based on messages that come in, you’re communicating with people all day about various things, is completely foreign.
Cal Newport: Instead, they have a very clear way of publicly tracking within the team. “Here’s all the things we’re working on.” “Here’s their status.” “Here’s exactly what you’re working on right now.” They care a lot about work-in-progress limits. So, “we want to make sure that you have very little on your plate at one time so you can give it your full attention.” “We’re going to maybe use something like a sprint methodology. So it’s basically, we don’t want to see or hear from you until you’re done with this, give this your full attention.” Communication about who’s working on what and how it’s going is largely confined to these highly structured standing status meetings that happen at very specific times.
Cal Newport: And so, it’s an example of a way of organizing knowledge workers to produce high-value outcomes, that involves very little unscheduled messages being received. The things that are serviced by those messages have been replaced by these alternative systems for tracking and assigning and communicating about work.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Are there any studies that can give us some sense of what kind of percentage increase in productivity or profitability or growth you might get by adopting these processes? Taking account of the fact that a bunch of work goes into designing these better processes in the first place.
Cal Newport: One number we can get at is, so there’s a computer programming… It’s a development style called extreme programming, which really pushes even ideas of agile to a real extreme. It’s really focused on how you can produce the best code with your brain. It’s incredibly highly structured. There’s zero communication outside of you talking to your team leader at the beginning and end of the day. They sit two people at the same screen so that you can think much deeper and make much more progress when you’re both looking at the same screen, trying to write the best code. So you don’t need as many mental breaks. It’s so exhausting that new recruits into these extreme programming shops often have to go home and just take a nap.
Cal Newport: And there’s no notion in these shops of working past like 4:00pm or 5:00pm, because it’s just cognitively impossible because they’re actually just focusing on doing their work.
Cal Newport: So, I interviewed one of the big practitioners, or one of the real people in charge of this movement. This was someone who had been hired into Google and then got upset that they weren’t being hardcore enough and left and did his own thing. And he used a 10x number. In the sense of, he said, “In the same amount of time, I can produce the same output that would take 10 times more programmers at Google, because of how much attention we are putting to the structure of how the work happens, how we communicate, trying to maximize cognitive output, not convenience, not flexibility.”
Cal Newport: So, that’s probably at an extreme, but he claims that’s a number they’re definitely hitting.
Is email making professors stupid? [00:22:09]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, a peculiar thing about a modern office, especially in knowledge work… I guess programming, I suppose also universities you would have experience of is, you hire these top world experts who have spent decades potentially preparing and becoming one of a very small number of people who can do this very specialized work, and then you send them to their office and have them spend a significant portion of their time; a third, half of it, filling out forms and acting as human switchboards, forwarding emails between people and organizing meetings. Why doesn’t our mind revolt at the idea that you would train someone for decades to become a specialist in mRNA vaccines, for example, and then just have them doing administrative work for such a large fraction of the time?
Cal Newport: Well, I’m trying to get us to revolt. A few years ago when I was working on the book before it came out, I wrote this big article for the Chronicle of Higher Education here in the U.S., which is a big trade publication for universities. And it was titled “Is Email Making Professors Stupid?“. And I made this big argument, it was one of the most read articles of the year. I was trying to spark this type of revolt, but I was making exactly this point.
Cal Newport: Part of what’s happening in the university system, however, is — and it gets to the bigger solution to these types of issues — universities are highly… The structure is highly… I’m going to say democratic, but what I mean by that is it’s not like this is a company and at the end of the day have a profit number we hit, and there is a CEO atop this company whose job is on the line, that the profit is growing, and who can really come in and say, “I don’t care if this makes your life harder, it’s hurting our profits. Stop that. You need to do more of this. It’s helping our profits.”
Cal Newport: Universities don’t have this. What you have instead is a bunch of these democratically distributed different fiefdoms. There’s the HR people over here, the parking people over here, the whatever over here, this committee over here, and they’re all, with no pushback, are just saying, “What’s going to help us do our job as easy as possible?” And, “Okay, let me get some of your time and attention because that’s going to make our job easier.” “I don’t care that this form is going to be a pain for you to figure out, it makes our job easier. If you can enter in your conflict of interest information exactly like this, it’ll go right into our database, easier for us.”
Cal Newport: And then you have hundreds of constituencies, all looking out for themselves, all trying to essentially extract time and attention from other people to help their goals be met. And there’s no mechanism in a university to say, “I don’t care that this is going to make your group harder. Leave the professor alone.” “I don’t care that this is going to be the most efficient way for you to update the parking, whatever, leave these people alone.”
Cal Newport: So in this free-for-all, everyone’s just trying to snag time and attention from other people to make their life easier. And people are pulling it from them, so they try to pull it from everyone else. And I think it really is, it’s a scandal that universities have not become citadels of concentration, that universities are not the place in our world where we see, what does it look like if to the extreme you prioritize thinking, and the life of the mind? I mean if not in a university, then where are we going to see that be actually modeled or demonstrated?
Cal Newport: So yeah, the war in universities is crazy. And then it leads to completely inequitable outcomes, because how do you fight back against this in the university? Well, you have to be a jerk. Most people aren’t jerks. So, now what are you doing? You’re building up a system where you’re accidentally selecting for jerkier people to have academic advancement, which is probably not something we want to select for, right? I mean, it’s just a happenstance that people who don’t mind people being mad at them get more time for research than people who are more reasonable human beings. That can’t be what we’re hoping to do, but it’s what we end up doing. These types of accidental inequities arise when we just let things be a free-for-all.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That reminds me of this story I read from someone who was going to be the dean of a new academic department at a university. In order to get this new department off the ground, they actually had to build a building. Build a literal building in order to house everyone. And they said, “We should get the funding in this budget in order to hire a project manager, an expert project manager who knows how to construct buildings and manage all the different contractors who will be involved in that.” And they were told, “No, you’re not allowed to do that because that will cost the university money. Instead, what you should do is constitute a committee of academics, a committee of professors, who would get together and collectively project manage a construction project.”
Rob Wiblin: This person came from outside the academic system, and they just were flabbergasted. Couldn’t believe that this is the way things get done. But to people inside the university system, it seemed quite natural. Just shows how far from common sense you can potentially drift…
Cal Newport: Look, let me tell a university president right now. If you wanted to start up a department and get a bunch of superstars to that department and vault your academic reputation, I can tell you exactly how to do it. You go to these superstar professors at Harvard, at Oxford, at Princeton. You say, “If you come here, you will not have to have an email address. We’ll have a staff to take care of that for you, that you can talk to for one hour every other day, and that will be the extent of it.”
Cal Newport: You would get some of the Nobel-caliber, some of the best thinkers in the world would come to your university. I’m surprised that more… I mean, this is the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. This is their pitch. This is where Einstein was in the ’50s. “You come here, and all you have to do is think. We’re in the woods. You can walk on these paths. No students, no committees, no whatever.”
Cal Newport: I’m so surprised more universities who are up-and-coming don’t try to do this. You could build a star department in almost any field almost immediately if this was your pitch. “You won’t have to have an email address.”
Rob Wiblin: I hope someone in the audience is in a position to actually do that. To get a sense, perhaps of the limiting principles, like how far we can take this? What are the hardest instances of work to reorganize, where you might expect us to make limited progress? And perhaps the hyperactive hive mind is approaching as good as you can do.
Cal Newport: Well, so I think it’s important to the make concrete what the alternative to a hive mind is, because a lot of people conceptualize, especially if they’ve read my 2016 book, Deep Work, they conceptualize, “Oh, maybe the opposite of the hive mind is this scholastic long periods of uninterrupted concentration.” Well, there’s lots of jobs that don’t really require long periods of uninterrupted concentration. So maybe those would just be hive mind jobs, but that’s actually not the opposite of the hive mind.
Cal Newport: The defining feature of the hive mind is the constant context switching. The opposite of the hive mind is sequentiality; one thing at a time until a stopping point then the next. Now how long those things are depends on the nature of the work. So if you’re an administrative assistant, those things might be relatively short. Booking travel for the person I’m supporting, doing a call with the HR department to figure out how we… Whatever, whatever, right? They might be shorter. Whereas if you are a novelist, those things you’re doing until you’re done might be six hours of trying to write a new chapter today.
Cal Newport: But the sequential reality is critical. When you’re working on one thing, you’re just doing that thing until you’re done. You’re not, while you’re working on something, doing quick context shifts and checking other things. So almost every job, whether these things are really short or really long, whether it’s support, whether it’s managerial, whether it’s largely a creation-type job can shift away from this interrupt modality of, I call it ‘parallel processing,’ where there’s my work, and then in parallel, I have to be tending the hive mind towards a much more sequential setup.
Cal Newport: And basically every job can get there. You just need to figure out, what are the different inputs that come in? What are the different things that I have to do? How should we have this information come in? Where should it be stored? How do I get to it? How do we interact about these things? What are our systems and guides around it? Where really what you need to get around is just, “My work does not require me to constantly see messages that arrive at unknown times and get a response back to them quickly.” And so, once we see it that way, it becomes much more tractable.
Why haven’t we already made these changes? [00:29:38]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. Let’s put on our skeptical hats for a minute and think about, is this problem really as we’re imagining it here? I think a very natural line of questioning that I imagine lots of listeners have in their head and that you must hear all the time is just, if the gains are so large, surely market forces or competitive forces within society should push us towards solving it. If extreme programming—
Rob Wiblin: Really get you a 10x productivity increase, then organizations that adopt that method should just be growing explosively and beating Google at their own game. Is there much to say about this beyond say, it’s difficult? It takes time? These changes are going to come and they are going to provide a competitive advantage?
Cal Newport: Yeah. So, they are going to come. They are coming. I mean, if you look at computer development, agile methodologies, which are much less interruptive, they spread very quickly. And now basically every shop uses something like that. Now extreme programming is pushing it to a new degree, and we’ll see how that spreads, but on a large scale I think there’s two things that impede the growth of these new ways of work. One is that things take time. I talked about in this New Yorker piece I wrote last year about remote work and what we should expect, et cetera. I went and talked about this research from Paul David at Stanford, who looked at how factories in the early 20th century and late 19th century adopted electricity and electric motors. And the main point of this case study is it took a really long time, even after the technology was there, for factories to generally shift over to the rational way to use electronic motors. The way that’s going to make factories much more productive.
Cal Newport: Which in the end was having small motors individually on every piece of machine that I control. And it seems trivial to us now, like how else would you do it? But they were still using giant dynamos and turning overhead cranks. And there were a lot of reasons why it took a really long time, but this whole working paper was trying to understand why did this take so long? And it turns out wholesale changes to how work happens takes a long time, even after the technology’s already there, because of different frictions. Knowledge work also has this extra impediment that the industrial sector didn’t, which is the culture of autonomy. So, it’s one of the points I argue in the most recent book, is that in knowledge work, we have this culture of autonomy that says it’s up to the worker to figure out how they do their work, which is very different of course to the industrial sector, where workers are seen as essentially cogs.
Cal Newport: And you have a very small number of thinkers who think about how the work should actually happen. And in knowledge work, it’s the opposite. We do have a mindset of it’s up to you to figure out how to work. And that type of context is really going to slow down the type of changes we’re talking about, because these are changes that really do need to happen at the team or organizational level, right? This is a new compact or new contract about how we’re all going to work together. It’s less convenient. It’s going to have some hard edges. It’s not something that’s just going to spontaneously arise as a result of individuals trying to optimize their own workflow. We have this, what I call the ‘autonomy trap’ also, holding us back.
Cal Newport: And not that the autonomy point is wrong. It is right that the actual execution of most knowledge work should not be taken out of the worker’s hands. It can not be reduced to an assembly line, but the autonomy trap says we went a little bit too far with that idea and started saying, oh, how work is organized is also left up to the individual. And I think that has gone too far, how work is actually organized, the knowledge work should have some systemic thinking on that as well. That can’t just be left up to the individual. So, it takes time. And then we’re extra slowed down by this culture of autonomy that is specific to the sector.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I guess another impediment is that it’s harder to measure output, especially when you’ve got to consider both quantity and quality in the knowledge sector. That says that it might actually be a slower journey, even in the long term, trying to optimize these things because you can’t just see how many cars did we produce in any given day. So, if that kind of economic argument or kind of efficient market sacrament doesn’t bother you. What gives you the most pause about whether you’ve kind of correctly diagnosed these problems and there are such large gains to be had from tackling it?
Cal Newport: Well, there’s probably many other complexities involved. Knowledge work, especially digitally enhanced knowledge work… So think about knowledge work, we have networks and computers. And so it’s a sort of a cybernetic-commerce setup, where you have brains connected to computers and these computers are connected together. It’s quite new and quite complicated. So, how do we actually build the cybernetic contraption in a way that is going to balance all of these needs, that’s going to be sustainable for the people? It’s not going to burn them out or lead to turnover. And it’s going to produce really high-quality products somewhere near some sort of theoretical maximum of how much, how fast you can produce this product. It’s a really complicated, tricky issue. I can’t imagine that the only factor that’s involved here is just looking at the cognitive context shift piece. I think there’s tons of other psychological and neuroscience and sociological factors at play here and trying to figure this out.
Cal Newport: And so it’s not so much that it gives me pause so much as that it’s a caveat that the type of things I’m talking about, what I hope they will do is broaden the way we think about knowledge work and actually open up the black box of workers. These are human brains, how the human brains function, how do we want to have human brains work together and get us starting to think and ask those questions? I’m pointing out an obvious thing. Well, one thing human brains can’t do is context shift all the time. So, certainly this has caused a lot of trouble. We should try to get rid of context shifts, but there must be dozens of other things that would come out of this more psychologically or neuro-scientifically aware approach to thinking about how the knowledge worker office should operate. Like in the industrial sector engineers were critical.
Cal Newport: You had to understand how machinery operated. You need experts on machinery. And how you built factories and powered factories required and built on this real expertise about gears and pulleys and motors. The machinery of knowledge work is human brains, human psychology, and we really need people to understand how this works, to build the best systems. So, I’m talking about, I think, an important piece of this movement. But it’s not totalizing by any means.
Rob Wiblin: Does the replication crisis in psychology ever make you worry that important results that you’ve referred to in your books over the years, like these studies suggesting that context shifting is very damaging to concentration, that perhaps they might be not as solid or perhaps the effects might not be quite as large as it seems?
Cal Newport: When it comes to the cost of context shifting, this is not a place where the replication crisis is going to really apply. This is something that we’ve known since the 1920s. It’s one of the more thoroughly studied things in both neuroscience and psychology. Before we had imaging, for example, one of the ways we tried to understand how the brain works is we would come up with these, what we think of as now is psychological experiments. So, starting as early as the 1920s, we have this huge really sophisticated literature of trying to understand, as you add different types of context shifts of different types of content with exact timing, what is its effect on how long it takes to complete various tasks? So, they were basically trying to figure out how the executive center and the frontal cortex work entirely by just poking the black box and seeing what came out of it.
Cal Newport: So, we have decades of work. It’s one of the more well-documented effects in both neuroscience and psychology that as you context switch more, it slows down your cognitive performance. So, we can see this abstractly. We can see this specifically in the context of work, this is where we get attention residue, where they say, well, let’s do work-specific tasks and see how we have this back and forth. We can actually measure how much residue you have from the context shift by using these sort of lexicographical association tests that quickly see, how much is this thing I interrupted with you on your brain? And the more it was, the slower the work would go afterwards. This is one of, I think the better understood… It’s not a particularly controversial idea. It’s one of the better-understood ideas in how our brain operates is that yeah, we can’t switch back and forth real quick.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. In the past, well, still today, but especially in the past, people hated meetings. They thought, I’m spending all this time in meetings, all of this time coordinating with other people. And to some extent, if we got rid of Slack and emails, we probably need to replace it sometimes with meetings. But do you think maybe the fact that people both are bothered both by Slack and email, and also by potentially having to coordinate with people so much in-person, also just reflects the idea that coordination of teams is just hard, no matter how you do it? And maybe it’s just, whichever option you choose is going to be a somewhat bitter pill to swallow?
Cal Newport: I think unintentional or unstructured coordination is a pain. So, if we haven’t really thought through how do we work together to accomplish this thing, if we instead just try to throw things at it, like let’s just throw a Zoom meeting on the calendar, let’s just shoot back and forth with some emails. That tends to be a real source of frustration. When we instead say, okay, here’s something we do again and again. How do we want this work to happen? Where do we keep track of it? And when and how do we talk about it? Like when you’re intentional about it, a natural consequence of this is these frustration-causing meetings are greatly reduced. The meetings that do exist are much more effective.
Cal Newport: And so I think a lot of the frustration we have of this current moment, which can be almost Kafka-esque in its absurdity, these days where people will just turn on Zoom and be on Zoom until the end of the day, and then stay up late doing emails. And we’re like, oh, I guess this is what work is. This should be an absurdist play or something. Like some sort of satirical commentary on work. But we’re just thinking, yeah, I guess that’s just what work is. I mean, it’s absurd, right? If we were instead trying to be explicit about, for this type of work, here’s how we do it. For this type of work, here’s how we do it. Those issues go away. Not that meetings go away, but we’re not frustrated by the meetings that remain, because we know why we’re having them, what we’re doing in them, how often they happen, the number of them is much greatly reduced, et cetera. So, I think the frustration is more of this sort of absurd ad hoc, overwhelming nature of all this communication than it is the fact that we’re communicating.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess if I was a skeptical listener and I had this attitude that if the gains were so large, then surely over the last 20 or 30 years, some businesses would have struck on these far better ways and they would have grown much, much faster than everyone else… Maybe I’d be persuaded if there were academic studies that had been done or perhaps natural experiments. You described this really fascinating event I think in some government department in the United States, where their email server was hacked and they just had to shut down email completely for several weeks while they tried to scrub all their systems and redesign them. And they couldn’t get alternative email addresses because of the various regulations of that email. And to their surprise, they found that they were getting a lot done. Have studies been done that kind of look at that, what happens if we get rid of email? What happens if we reorganize and how much more are we actually accomplishing as a group?
Cal Newport: There’s some that circle that. I mean, Gloria Mark did a study, for example, where they literally just took 12 people and with no preparation said, we’re turning off your email for a week. And it turns out nothing bad happened. They felt more productive. They were less stressed, right? So, we do have studies like that. There’s a growing number of small companies or teams who have done this. I profile a lot of them in the book, where they’ve just moved completely off email as their primary way of coordinating. They shift to task boards and structured status meetings and protocols. And that seems to work fine. But more generally, I’m not super surprised that we haven’t yet seen that shift. Because again, this age of having all this technology and knowledge work is about 20-something years old. And that’s not that long.
Cal Newport: So, analogously, you could go back to a similar period after we first began doing, let’s say commercial car production. This was a period before the assembly line arose. And you could, through hindsight, look around and be like, okay, if there’s some much better way of building cars than what we’re doing now, this craft method where they’re up on sawhorses, and craftsmen surround and build the cars. Why isn’t anyone doing it? And, well, because it was hard. I mean, it’s why I tell the story of Henry Ford’s assembly line, what a huge pain it was to figure that out. I mean, it was really a bold thing to do. It’s not just some easy, we do this switch, and then we’re better the next day. They had to invest a lot of money.
Cal Newport: They had to hire a bunch more managers. They had to spend more money. They had to invent new tools. And it didn’t work right for a while. And it made everyone’s life much harder, because if you have an assembly line that kind of works, but the steering wheel station isn’t working, guess what happens? The whole assembly line grinds to a halt. So, you could imagine the frustration of everyone involved when they were like, what is this thing you’re building? Why are we now spending 2x more on our salaries with all these engineers and managers? And this thing is frustrating. All we do is sit around and it’s not working. And we’re trying to get the speeds to calibrate. It was a huge pain, and really hard, and a ton of trial and error. And it took, in this case, he knew this was a huge commercial sector already.
Cal Newport: It took someone like Ford who for whatever reason said, I’m going to boom, boom, boom. Let’s go for it. There’s various reasons why he did. And he kept experimenting, and I went through this in the book, he tried this, then this, then this, then this. And he just was tenacious about it. Once all the pieces kind of came together, then they decreased the man-hours per model T from 12 hours to 93 minutes. Okay. It didn’t take much longer after that before every car company in the world was using a continuous motion assembly line. But I’m not so surprised that it took 20–25 years before anyone started.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I suppose initially people might’ve thought he was a bit mad. Because under the previous thing, the car stays still and then the people move around, which makes sense because people have legs. But on this new model you’ve got the people standing still and then the cars have to be put in a conveyor belt. It is somewhat counterintuitive. And the idea that you’re going to have a system where if anything stops then the entire factory stops… I guess manufacturing processes have issues with this to this day. But they know the rewards are so big.
Cal Newport: Yeah. And let me just point out there, it’s really analogous to what’s going on right now. If you move away from email to these more bespoke structured systems that have much less context shifts, what is the equivalent of the assembly line grinding to a halt? It’s like, well, this system you have, what if this happens that the system doesn’t handle, and then there’s no one to see that. The client can’t get in touch with anyone. The client gets mad. The client’s going to quit. My God, we can’t have a system where that could happen.
Cal Newport: That’s the knowledge worker equivalent of what if the assembly line comes to a halt. So, there’s these mild to moderate bad things that can happen. Email gets rid of all the mild to moderate bad things that can happen, because everyone’s accessible all the time. Nothing’s going to get missed. Everyone can be reached. You have to then allow for these mild to moderate bad things to happen. The digital equivalent of the car coming to a halt on the assembly line. And that really scares people, just like it probably scared people at the time when they were thinking about this carefully calibrated Ford contraption that keeps breaking.
Do people actually prefer the hyperactive hivemind? [00:43:31]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess a different angle of concern might be that it’s possible that people actually enjoy in some sense the hyperactive hive mind, that it’s emotionally gratifying or appealing in some ways that will mean that lots of people are going to resist its removal. For example, it provides this constant stimulation, so you don’t have to work so hard to focus on something. It potentially assuages people’s insecurities, because it’s kind of harder to tell what’s getting done or how much you’ve gotten done on any particular day. Maybe from a different angle, people are spending, in effect, lots of their time socializing at work now, just sending messages on WhatsApp, sending messages on Slack. And maybe to some degree, that’s kind of how they prefer to live. Just having this mixed social work-life perhaps like people had back in hunter-gatherer times. Yeah, do you have any thoughts on this line of critique?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I mean, it’s a real concern. I think it’s true. I mean, there are a lot of secondary or implicit benefits that people get out of the hive mind. It also lets companies off the hook with a lot of things as well, too. So like, especially in the U.S., we don’t tend to explicitly deal with, what happens if there’s a crisis in your family? What if you have a parent you’re trying to take care of and they’re going downhill and it’s taking up a lot of your time? We kind of don’t want to know about it. The obfuscating performative nature of the hyperactive hive mind is like whatever, we can kind of just give and take. I can just be on email a lot. It’s hard to tell what I’m actually doing anyways. And we can just naturally titrate our efforts as things go on.
Cal Newport: And then the companies don’t have to deal with this and explicitly say you don’t have to work anymore, because something bad is happening. We don’t have to build those policies. We don’t have to confront it. So, this nature I think also people find really useful. I was doing an interview recently for an article I’m working on and I was talking to a CEO of a company out in Illinois, where they moved to this drastically different way of working that was entirely outcome-based. It’s not exactly a no-email thing, but it’s incredibly autonomous. Like when and where your work is completely up to you. This was a company that didn’t even notice the pandemic hit. The only difference that made was they just had to send out a note saying, oh, by the way, our office building is closed.
Cal Newport: Because everyone had complete flexibility of when and where they work. That shift they lost 10% of their employees. 10% of their employees just needed that accountability. They said I can’t have that autonomy. It’s better for me to be here and be busy and you tell me what to do. And I’ll answer your emails. And when they shifted to this more outcome-based thing where you’re on the hook for what you’re supposed to do, but we’ll leave you alone otherwise — which has huge congruence to where you’ll probably get if you get rid of the hive mind — 10%, I mean, that’s a large attrition rate. So no, I think this is an absolutely true consequence. There are going to be side effects to moving away from the hive mind.
Cal Newport: I don’t think it’s avoidable. I mean, we will move past the hive mind, just like the assembly line really kind of stunk for a lot of people, but it was inevitable just because it was so much more productive for car manufacturing. There’s just too much GDP on the table for us to stick with the hive mind. So, I think the right way to think about this is like, we need to be prepared for these consequences. Like maybe we’re going to need policies now for dealing with people having variable things happening. And they’re not as available now as other times because they can’t just hide behind email anymore. We have to actually deal with this. We can’t just pretend it’s not happening. What are we going to do with that percentage of the workforce that just doesn’t want or can’t handle that type of autonomy or accountability that found real comfort in just, I’ll answer emails and kind of do small things when you push me on them and I’ll just let my email run my day.
Cal Newport: If that’s not how we run our day, there’s going to be people who get pushed out of the workforce. There are real concerns. I think an even bigger concern is if it makes us 5x more productive, is that going to lead to a drastic reduction in available knowledge worker jobs in certain sectors? If I only need one lawyer to produce what used to take three, because they’re not context shifting all day, does that mean the law firm reduces in size by a third because they can get just as much business done? That’s another issue. I think there’s a lot of interesting externalities that we have to think about when these types of changes happen, which is true of every major shift in commercial production in every sector we’ve seen historically. There’s huge externalities that happen when these sort of inevitable shifts towards these more effective or productive ways of production always cause a lot of these side effects.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I don’t want listeners to think that your picture from the book is that well, this will add more GDP, but staff are going to be less happy or balanced because they’re going to be driven much harder than they were before. It sounds like you’re saying some people will be worse off, perhaps, under this new arrangement, because they won’t be able to adapt to it. But you think that most people will be happier and more fulfilled out of the hyperactive hive mind.
Cal Newport: Yes. Well, the hive mind makes us miserable for a lot of different reasons. And there’s a lot of different research on this about how you pump up all this back and forth communication, we get unhappy. And you can measure this from all sorts of different disciplines and see the same signal growing again and again. I surveyed my listeners and just printed it in the book, just the adjectives they were using to describe their relationship with email and Slack. These were not happy adjectives. So yeah, the hyperactive hive mind makes us miserable. So net net, I think people are going to be much happier, much more fulfilled working in a way that doesn’t have the hive mind. This is also good news because oftentimes when we see these revolutions in methods of production, they tend to have an adversarial binary, right? So, this is going to make the car production more effective, but it’s going to make the worker’s life much worse.
Cal Newport: This is like a very typical labor political dialectic that we see when we look at these sorts of advances that typically benefit the owners of the capital at the expense of the worker. And so the sort of labor politics around this can be complicated. What’s exceptional about what we’re looking at now with the hive mind is actually most of the stakeholders involved are all aligned. So, the workers hate it because it’s miserable to have to check these inboxes every five minutes and constantly context shift, and we’re anxious. And it drains us and we hate it. Managers don’t like it, CEOs don’t like it, the capital shareholders don’t like it because it makes their companies less effective. They have all this turnover. They’re producing less profit. It’s one of these rare instances where I think we have a pretty general alignment.
Cal Newport: Look, this makes a lot of… When I’m having these discussions more in sort of elite discourses — I run in a bunch of different circles, but when I run in this sort of elite discourse circle — there’s just this instinctual, I think, ingrained labor political approach of like, well, this must be someone’s getting screwed. Because we’re just used to thinking about that. If someone’s getting something better, someone else must be getting screwed. In this case I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think this particular mode of working really hasn’t serviced anyone, except for maybe the employees of Slack and the people on the Gmail team or something like this. But it really has been, it’s making everyone sort of miserable. So, I think it’s generally speaking, there’s these exceptions like of course, there are some people, there’s some benefits from the hyperactive hive mind. I think for most people, whether you’re working or you’re managing or you’re owning the company, everyone seems aligned with, we don’t like this. The question is just, how do we get past it?
Cal Newport: And I’ve got to say, I’m surprised at the extent… When I talk about these issues and I talk to C-suite people, I talk to people all over, it’s often surprising to me, the degree to which this had never even really crossed their mind that this was just a particular collaboration style, and there’s other ways to work. And it was just like, what is work if not, we send emails back and forth? And there’s a real lack of insight because they just imagine, well, if I didn’t send emails, I wouldn’t get anything done. You’re not making that next leap of like, okay, replacing the underlying collaborative structure so that you don’t have to send emails. Not just stop sending emails and change nothing else about how we work. So, the real issue is people aren’t even conceiving this as a possibility. Maybe I’m being naive on this, but every way I slice this, it seems like most people are aligned. And not to harp on this too much, but I think it is important for making progress here.
Cal Newport: A lot of the discourse around knowledge work busyness right now seems to be trying to borrow from more industrial overload and exploitation. So, you’ll see sort of Substack-style professional journalist types talking about this overload or whatever. And they’ll bring Amazon labor negotiations into the discussion to try to sort of align these two. Well, in both cases, there exists an exploitative relationship between a manager and a worker, but it’s very, very different. When it comes to the hyperactive hive mind, the reason why we’re sending so many emails is because we have this terrible underlying way of collaborating that no one likes. Not because it makes this person’s life better or I get more money as a shareholder if you spend more time on email. Actually I get less money as a shareholder, if you spend more time on email. So, I think it’s a really important distinction because it can help be the foundation for a lot faster progress. If we can get out of like, well, I’m suspicious, what’s the trap here? Who’s trying to screw who here?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, something I just want to add, because I don’t think it has come up so much, before we go on, is that in your description of how workplaces eliminate Slack and email, or at least drastically reduce it, in each case, it usually requires a kind of boutique solution that people agree on and decide that they look at what they’re doing, they think about how can we organize this in a more sensible way that requires less constant chit chat. And then people will notice problems with it, and they’ll suggest it and improve it. So, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And indeed do you think it’s very important that staff be consulted? Because if they don’t feel like they can improve it… Well, firstly, you’ll miss out on lots of improvements, but people also just won’t be bought into it. And they’ll just kind of go back to using email and Slack because they don’t feel excited about the new thing, which necessarily requires a bit more thinking.
Cal Newport: Yeah, the way I usually pitch it is that what you need from the top, from the CEO or whatever, what you need is the culture. This is what we do here. We’re moving away from the hive mind. The actual changes should happen at the team level. Here’s how our team is doing it. Everyone in the team was involved in making the decisions. What won’t work here is from the top, you try to figure out all these new processes and then hand them down. You are going to fall onto the other side of the line here, into the land of bureaucracy. We do not want to introduce more bureaucracy into organizations that were previously small enough to actually avoid that.
Cal Newport: So that’s what I usually say, is that you have to have incredibly clear messaging from the top, we’re done with the hive mind, we’re completely empowering you to come up with new ways of working and set the rules by which other teams interact with you. You have this autonomy, but you have to figure it out yourself because you’re the one doing this work. You’re the people working together. You guys figure out, here’s our new rules. And I think that’s probably the right formula.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. If we came back for a conversation like this in 10 years’ time, and just found that not much had really changed, what do you think would be the most plausible reason for that?
Cal Newport: Probably sufficient growth due to other reasons. Not forcing the issue might be a part of it. After I wrote Deep Work and I was talking about Deep Work… So it’s been like 2016, some of these types of ideas were catching people off guard, and there was a fair amount of skepticism. I find the environment to be quite different in the last year, so as I’m talking about this new book. When I’m talking to C-suite types, when I’m talking to the investor class, there’s a sudden excitement about trying to unlock all of this latent productivity that’s sitting there because of a new way of working. So, there seems to have been some sort of sea change, I think, in the business culture, where this is starting to emerge finally, as we have the vocabulary for understanding the issue and what a solution would look like.
Cal Newport: So, I’m much more optimistic about it now than I might’ve been five years ago because it just seems different now than it was five years ago. But if you have sufficient growth, then… I mean, this is what the tech sector, which is where you might expect us to come out of, because the tech sector tends to be way more inventive in terms of, especially the U.S. tech sector is very inventive in terms of workplace practices. And so this is where you would expect these changes to come from. But they have had this explosive growth over the last 15–20 years. And especially over the last 10 –15 years, because they found in particular, okay, there’s this new resource we can mine like attention, which created hundreds of billions, if not over a trillion dollars of new resources, as they started figuring out that we can build whole companies around attention mining, et cetera.
Cal Newport: So, they’ve had a lot of growth. There’s not this pain point. We’re hiring good people. We’re making a lot of money. We’re acquisition hiring people. The pain point is not there. And so it might be good news if there hasn’t been a change in 10 years, it’d be because there hasn’t really been a huge impetus to make changes.
Rob Wiblin: Hey listeners, this is Rob recording after the interview. We’ve noticed people often feel episodes on new problems represent strong endorsements of them, rather than us exploring and giving a hearing to new ideas. We were also under a lot of time pressure here, which meant we had to cut this section a bit short. So I recorded a few extra thoughts on what I think are the key uncertainties around whether the scale of distractions in offices are indeed among the world’s most pressing problems. Stick around to the end of the episode if you want to hear that. Okay, back to the interview.
Rob Wiblin: Okay, let’s move on and talk a bit about who’s working on this problem and what solutions might actually help. One obvious thing is people can potentially try to improve their concentration and their focus in their own life. They could potentially talk to their teams and try to improve their processes so they have more concentration. But I want to think about how people could contribute to solving this problem of better organizing knowledge work at a more societal level, thinking about like, this is a project that I want to work on in my life, not just kind of me and my team. So yeah, turning to the landscape of folks trying to tackle this issue, how many people or businesses are already working on solving the problem you described at a large scale rather than just for themselves?
Cal Newport: Well, there’s a lot of money right now being invested in what you could roughly call ‘knowledge work productivity tools.’ However, I don’t know if this is necessarily where the solution is going to come from. There’s a tool-based mindset, especially coming out of Silicon Valley right now, that says a better way of work will come from a better tool. We want to be the people who have invented that tool. And I actually think, though better tools help, it’s the tail wagging the dog a little bit. And what I point to here is, again, if we look at the assembly line in the automotive industry, a lot of new tools had to be invented to make the assembly line work. In particular the main thing actually holding back the assembly line was tighter precision on the part manufacturing, because you didn’t have time to hand file or fit parts for the assembly line to work.
Cal Newport: That was actually at the core of it, and that required new machining. And then they also just invented some really cool tools, like Ford had this thing that would descend in on an engine block and bore 12 different bore holes you had to make, and it would do all 12 at the same time. But the assembly line did not come because someone came along and said, look, I invented a 12-hole boring machine for the engine. And because of that, we could build cars more effectively. No, they figured out the assembly line and then said, what do we need to actually make this work? And I think that’s probably what needs to happen. Digital tools can help this a lot. But I think most of the digital tools we need for a non-hyperactive hive mind workplace in most industries or whatever, they all exist.
Cal Newport: It’s not the tool that’s the problem. You can do this with shared folders and Slack and shared spreadsheets and whatever. The tools are all out there. That’s not the issue, it’s the workflow. So, I think this is what we’re sort of missing right now is that focus. Now, maybe we’ll change. I just did an event with a bunch of Fortune 500 CEOs where I talked about this and we sent them all signed copies of the book. So, maybe we’ll change everyone’s mind on this pretty soon. But there is a lot of money on tools. I’ve talked to a lot of CEOs of companies that are focusing on these tools and I don’t think tools are going to solve it. I think tools are going to be used by the solution.
Cal Newport: There’s academic research that’s kind of interesting. I think Gloria Mark’s group, her informatics group at UC Irvine, I think is a real leader in this. They do workplace ethnography. She’s been on this beat for 20 years now where they actually go in and look at how we work and quantify it and make things clear. I think that’s interesting work at pointing out the problem. Linda Stone at Microsoft has done this good work on ‘partial continuous attention.’ Sophie Leroy is doing good work on ‘attention residue,’ where she’s trying to take all this attention switching stuff we know and say, well, what if we do it specifically in the context of work, and let’s see specifically what it does to work output. There’s interesting research happening, but what I’m adding that’s new, and I’m sort of surprised at the degree to which this has not been the core yet, but I’m hoping it becomes more of the core of the conversation, is really trying to capture the cognitive cost of all these context shifts. Where if, when you’re trying to do car manufacturing, the metric you care about is man-hours per car production.
Cal Newport: And I’m really saying the metric you’re trying to improve, because you mentioned before, how do we measure output and knowledge work? And I think we should measure the leading indicator of how many context shifts were required to actually get this thing done. And having something to measure and improve I think can unlock a lot of innovation. That’s what I’m trying to bring to it that’s new, no one really was there. I think those were the issues, people were thinking about maybe we don’t have access to the right information, or the tools don’t do a good enough job. Everyone is convinced in Silicon Valley that what we need is AI that better categorizes your emails for you. That’s not the problem. The problem is it takes 100 back-and-forth emails to get this done.
Cal Newport: So, I don’t care if it’s categorized right or not. I have to wait for and respond to 100 emails to get this product done is the issue. And so I think that is the idea that I’m hoping it’s going to unlock a lot more. This is our model team, man-hour metric. How much context shifting was required to get this thing done? And once we know what we’re optimizing, man, there’s a lot of smart people, a lot of smart tools and a lot of wonderful technology that if we deploy to this problem, I think we can do really well.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So, a very natural thing to think would be that the solution is going to come out of Trello or Asana or Atlassian or one of these other business productivity tool development groups.
Cal Newport: That’s all the same company by the way. Atlassian, which makes Asana, bought Trello. But okay, go on.
Rob Wiblin: Oh wow, they’d pulled one over on me. Okay. Well, look, how about kind of out of a company like that? I think it sounds like you’re kind of saying you think that the tools are already out there, or these companies have already kind of done their job inventing, like… This was one thing that you’re particularly excited about, that you think lots of people could apply, is this process for coordinating work where each task is this kind of square or kind of a post-it note, and then you move up between these different columns to show at what stage of work it is. And then people can kind of comment within each of those tasks. And if they are working on a task and want to check in on it, then they can go and look at what’s been posted on that little box.
Rob Wiblin: But that already exists, and in a sense, it’s extremely simple. So, it seems like that the bottleneck is more, like, getting teams and companies to agree to use it and to figure out and to debug the problems that they face when they try to switch away from the hive mind into using these more, like, thought-out processes.
Cal Newport: Yeah, because society didn’t teach people to use these column-based task boards. People figured that out, and they were using post-it notes on a whiteboard, and then Asana came along and said, “Oh, this is a really cool way you’re organizing your work. We’ll build you a better version of that whiteboard. It’s digital and you can attach files and it can support remote teams.” But yeah, it was not the tool changing how we worked, it was a tool coming along saying, “Oh, this is how you work. Let’s make that better.” I mean, that’s even the story of email, right? Email didn’t introduce this notion of, “Hey, you might want to send messages to people instead of just talking to them in person or on the phone.” We were doing that. It’s just that we had to fax things if it wasn’t in the same office, or send memos or leave notes. And email was like, “Oh, I can do this thing you’re already doing better.”
Cal Newport: So yeah, that’s what’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be innovation, teams trying to figure out how we do our work now, really good ideas that are generally applicable will bubble up from that. They will spread pretty fast. Look, there’s going to be nice fortunes made by people who are way more practical than me. I always say, “I’m good at theory but bad at practice.” I don’t work in offices. Don’t ask me to fix your office. I don’t understand half of what happens in offices.
Cal Newport: People are better at that than me. I think you’re going to make fortunes as they sort of figure out these different philosophies and workflows for different types of work that could make a difference. I mean, in the last three weeks, I’ve had talks with several major publications, right? When they’re trying to figure out how to make their internal workflows be less just, we’re on Slack, blah, right?
Cal Newport: So, just that sector, if someone came in saying, look — one of these writers who just quit their magazine job — and they say, “I will come and make your newsroom work without requiring constant Slack.” Man, you’re going to 5x your salary, right? So, it’s going to come up from that. At first, we’re going to cobble together tools based on things we already have. And then you’re going to get better tools that implement these things better. But the tools are not going to introduce the solution. AI filtering of our email is not going to be the solution, it’s going to be these bespoke systems for how we actually collaborate.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like there should be a huge potential for kind of a management or organizational consulting firm that becomes an expert in getting agreement around these new coordination structures and then debugging them with people, and they will go in and say, “We will send somebody in there and we’ll help you to do this and get rid of the hyperactive hive mind.” Do you think that there—
Cal Newport: Yes. There will be. This is going to be a big sector. This is going to be a billion dollar sector. My prognostication is that making companies move past the hive mind is going to be a massive industry in itself, for sure. Ans stupid me, I mean, again, I’m not pragmatic. I don’t like getting my hands dirty in terms of, I don’t really know half of what goes on in offices. I’m an academic. My head is in the clouds, I think theory and dynamics and the impact of tech on culture and philosophy. And so, if I was a more entrepreneurial-minded person who knew more about companies, I would be all over this. Because this is going to be a billion-dollar sector.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How would someone position themselves to be able to start or work in such an organization? It seems like you need to have experience kind of redesigning your own work or the work of people you know before people will actually invite you in to look at how they do everything and take your advice seriously?
Cal Newport: Yeah. That’s a good question. I mean, I’ve done some of these calls recently, just where I know people at organizations, and I always give these huge caveats, like, “Look, I don’t really know how organizations run.” But people are finding it useful even right now, just to have the vocabulary, you know? “Oh, what is the hyperactive hive mind?” I didn’t even think about it that way. “Oh, it’s a way of collaborating. Oh, I see. Like, what is the cognitive cost? Oh, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to reduce context shifts. Okay.” Just having that information, I think, goes a long way. I’m not quite sure exactly, I mean, I’ve talked to some people who are thinking about doing consulting of this type. I don’t think it’s going to be that hard. I think you get up to speed on these types of ideas. You have a couple of different methodologies in mind. Maybe you do it first at your own company, and then you go out on the road to be a consultant. I think a lot of that’s going to happen.
Cal Newport: And look, if I was young and working at a dynamic knowledge workplace right now, but wasn’t entry-level, like, I had a little bit of standing, I would be thinking about this. Like, can I come in and take my team or the team I work on and get them outside of the hive mind, document how we did it, and then go out on the road and say, “I’ll help other people do it.” I would be thinking there’s a huge opportunity, if you’re 32 right now, and you’ve moved a few rungs up the ladder, but you’re not that interested in just, like, “I want to be an executive VP one day,” here is a huge opportunity for you.
Rob Wiblin: Maybe I should’ve asked this earlier, but have you seen many cases, or is it a common story, that people will implement a better, more thought-out process, and then over time, it will kind of degrade and they’ll revert to the previous thing because not enough upkeep was done in order to keep people bought into it and adapted as things changed?
Cal Newport: Oh, yeah. It’s really hard. It’s really hard. So again, this article I’m working on now, it’s not exactly about moving past the hive mind, but it’s about moving to a style of work that is much different than the way the hive mind, the way we normally work. And one of the points that came out of this article is that what separates the companies that stuck with this new way of working versus those that didn’t was the ones who were able to persist… It’s a huge ongoing investment in culture-making and training, everyone in the company has to be onboarded. The particular company I was profiling, their whole management team has to get together for these basically internal seminars once a month into perpetuity, just to kind of keep themselves sharp and make sure they’re up to speed.
Cal Newport: And the gravitational pull to the hive mind I think is very strong. And this is a very difficult thing we’re talking about, right? It’s not, “Oh, this is obviously better,” because when you move away from the hive mind you introduce rough edges, you introduce the occasional mild-to-moderate bad thing happening, and you’re increasing overhead. This is one of the things that makes this tricky. The assembly line had way more overhead than the craft method, right? Moving past the hive mind is way more overhead, way more constraints, way more structure. “I now have to wait till tomorrow to talk to you. I can’t just shoot you an email. This thing got missed because there was no one here who was checking an inbox to see it. I have to follow this protocol now. It seems like, “Oh, what a pain. Can’t I just grab you?'” There’s huge overhead to it. Now, the goal of work is not to make work as easy as possible.
Cal Newport: The definition of work is the application of force against something at rest, right? So by definition, work is not supposed to be easy. And so we shouldn’t be too caught up in how we avoid things that are hard or inconvenient and make things convenient. We shouldn’t mix up easiness or convenience a better way of working. If I’m making a statue, I have to hit it hard because that’s just what it takes to actually make the rock come off. But there’s huge obstacles we’re up against, I think for sure, we will see that again and again. Backsliding, trying again, backsliding, the head of the company changes, the culture dissipates, and then it slowly decays that of all the other groups. So, yeah, there’s nothing super easy about what we’re facing.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. So it’s that line of thinking that makes me, perhaps, a little bit skeptical that the gains are going to be quite so large, because, yeah, it’s going to take decades, possibly a century, even, for us to really figure out how to do this and for that to become part of mainstream culture, or just like the way that everyone assumes, of course, this is how you would organize an office, and then they can have a similar conversation about how insane it was that we did things the way we did today.
Rob Wiblin: At the same time, even if you could just increase the productivity of knowledge work by 10% or 20%, that would potentially lead to massive sustained GDP growth and improvement in medicine, improvement in all these other fields, because just so many of the problems that we need to solve, the bottleneck is people having the right ideas and figuring out solutions and then building them. So, there’s two sides of the coin here.
Cal Newport: Yeah. And it frees up extra cognitive cycles, right? So if we can get the same work done with much less cognitive cycles, it frees up a lot of cognitive cycles, not all of which is going to be captured. It might not all be captured in different money-making types of interest. So now we have a lot of free cognitive cycles that can be invested in other types of, let’s say, like, effective altruistic type pursuits, right? So there are these really nice benefits to society if you can free up a ton of, think of them as like trained cognitive cycles, knowledge worker type cycles, that there’s just a lot more suddenly freed up, because it takes less of this cognitive oil to run the proverbial ship here. There’s a lot of places that could use… To be able to insert some creative high-skill brain power is going to make a big difference.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think some people, including sometimes me, are kind of skeptical about the idea that the best way to improve the world is just to increase productivity or increase economic growth in general. One line of argument that we won’t go into here is, like, “Yes, increasing people’s productivity allows them to solve problems faster, but also people are often the problem. The things that they’re doing are often problematic.” And so, you can potentially end up speeding those up as well. But even granting that, I think potentially getting rid of the hyperactive hive mind could still be a big improvement, because it doesn’t just change the quantity of things that they will do but the quality of them, like, how much they’ve actually thought about what they’re doing and how likely they are to make mistakes and cause harmful side effects. You could imagine a world in which people are just much more thoughtful about their work and it actually shifts their personality over time.
Cal Newport: Yeah. No, it better aligns with the way also our planning, achievement, rewards system actually works. This being able to work on fewer things, pushing through to completion, see them done. It’s more satisfying. It just works with our brain circuitry better than having a lot of things that you’re just fragmentarily going back and forth between. It’s unclear even what you actually are producing.
Cal Newport: There’s real irony about this, that we use the assembly line as a metaphor for process engineering. And yet the effect on workers is going to be the reverse of the assembly line. Moving people back from the degradations of being on an assembly line to the liberties of being an artisan. So, we look at the process engineering advantages. The assembly line represents becoming more sophisticated about how we should build things, but the impact on the workers is going to be the exact opposite of what actually happened as the impact of the workers for the assembly line. That’s simplifying things, but it’s a weird… The dichotomy is, it can make it a little bit fraught to use this analogy sometimes, but I find that dichotomy is pretty interesting actually.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So we were talking about what approaches are there for people in the audience to potentially make a difference. We talked about designing better tools, like Trello, there’s a bit of skepticism from you there. We talked about building a management consultancy where you go out and just help people implement this kind of stuff, which seems promising. What about advocacy to describe and promote, like, people realizing that this is a problem. Basically what you’re doing. Is that an important bottleneck?
Cal Newport: Yeah, I think it’s critical. I mean, sometimes just vocabulary makes a big difference. I mean, I often think in my books, especially more recently, it’s less that I’m trying to change people’s minds. What I’m trying to do is just give people vocabulary for what they already believe. This is something I’ve come across multiple times in my work. Sometimes your biggest impact is just giving people the names for things they’re already feeling, right? I mean the biggest impact of Deep Work was actually just giving it a name. So people see “Oh, it’s a different activity than this other stuff. Oh, I see. Oh, that opens up everything.” And then I really think, work is not just work. Busyness becomes kind of irrelevant. Everything changes once you have the term. Same thing here, I think the hyperactive hive mind is a way to collaborate.
Cal Newport: And even if you don’t agree with my alternatives, just understanding it, like, “Oh, it is a way to collaborate. It has these properties, these properties are probably pretty bad. We could think of alternatives.” That opens up a lot of stuff. So I think there’s huge room here for advocacy. I think a lot of the advocacy has been… Part of the issue is it’s been kind of imprecise. So, here’s the issue with how we’ve tried to deal with some of the negative impacts of this hyperactive hive mind approach to work. We have come at it, I think, predominantly through the perspective of individuals. We’ve come at it primarily through the perspective of the reason why you’re spending too much time in your inbox is because you have a bad relationship with your inbox. You need to fix your relationship with your inbox. You’re checking it too much. You need to batch it. Maybe you need to write better subject lines, or we see it as other people wronging us.
Cal Newport: Well, it’s the other people on my team, they write bad messages, or they send emails they don’t really need to send, right? Emails that don’t really need a response. I hear that all the time. I used to hear all the time from C-suite people, like, “Oh, our norms are wrong.” If we could just adjust our norms around email, we would hit this productivity nirvana. So it was all about individuals, either you are having a failing in how you deal with email or other people are screwing you, right? Because we’d like to think about…. We’re a social species, we like to think about it that way. This is why when email overload first became a thing with the advent of BlackBerry, we called them CrackBerry and tried to understand this through the lens of personal addiction, et cetera.
Cal Newport: This perspective has not been helpful. There’s been a lot of advocacy around this perspective, but it’s not helpful because if the underlying issue is the hyperactive hive mind, then you have to keep checking these things all the time because you have three dozen back-and-forth asynchronous conversations going on that you have to tend to. If you just don’t tend them, things go to a halt. So I’m not addicted to it. I don’t have bad habits. I’m forced to have to interact with this all the time, because that is the only way work is happening in our organization. It’s not someone acting in bad faith, where if they would just stop being such a jerk, I’d get less emails. This is the only way we have to do collaboration in our organizations. A lot of emails have to get sent. I have to answer them. And so the only solution is to say: “forget the individuals. We have to change the workflow. There has to be another way to collaborate. We’re going to have to think this through and be explicit about it. Oh, this is how we do this type of work.”
Cal Newport: So I think advocacy is critically important, but in particular, advocacy about the right problem. So we’ve had 15 years of advocacy about people needing to be smarter and people needing to stop being jerks. It’s not the issue. So we need advocacy about our implicit agreement about how we collaborate. This hyperactive hive mind is not compatible with the human brain. We need to replace this. And again, it’s not about people having bad habits and it’s not about people acting bad. It’s the workflow that’s bad.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think it’s important to be alert to this phenomenon that sometimes you can have a problem that almost everyone has. So everyone knows that most people struggle with their email, and they struggle with distraction and these tools, but a very natural reaction is to say, “It’s because we are all failing. We are all weak-willed and we each need to change our behavior.” But surely we should design the situation and the tools and the workflow around what humans can actually deal with.
Rob Wiblin: It’s surely the system that is at fault rather than literally every individual that is at fault. I mean, I think you see this with food, where most people find it hard to eat the amount that they want to eat. And it’s a natural thing to think everyone just has to be more disciplined. Everybody has to figure out for themselves how to resist the temptation to eat food all the time. But surely if we’ve designed an environment with food that causes most people to do what they don’t want and have a bad outcome, it’s the situation that needs to change, rather than we need to just to completely human nature. It’s absurd.
Cal Newport: Yeah. I agree. And I think, ironically, I think social media has had a big impact on this because influential people tend to be on social media. If you look at the shaping of discourses on things like Twitter, it highly rewards telling your tribe who the enemy tribe people are. So you need an enemy, right? That is what’s rewarded. You do not get a lot of retweets. You do not get a blue check for tweeting vociferously about workflow construction. This is an inefficient way of… There are too many context shifts because of the interruption factor here. But if we were using a shared spreadsheet, no one cares. But if you say, “There’s a bad guy.” Yeah. This is why… And again, I see this a lot around the burnout discourse, right? Because one of the impacts of the hive mind is it just burns us the hell out, right?
Cal Newport: I mean, our brain can’t do this. It’s a misery. We really don’t like it, right? But then you’ll see the discourse around us being burnt out in knowledge work that again, as I mentioned before, is integrating unionization efforts at Amazon, because it feels better to think, like, “Yeah, we have the same problem.” “There’s some managers that are trying to screw us, that try to exploit us, and we’re on the picket line.” Except being on the picket line here means I tweet from my bedroom in my nice apartment or whatever. And that gets good tweets. “Here’s the enemy. Yeah. You go, you get ‘em. You go get ‘em.” Right? So social media, I think, exasperates us. I had the same issue with Digital Minimalism when I was working on the issue with people looking at their phones too much, and people really wanting to improve their relationship with phones.
Cal Newport: And in that case, I came away with an opposite, actually kind of an opposite conclusion. There I thought the most impactful thing that could happen is people individually, rapidly, and drastically changing their relationship to these devices. Because unlike in the world of work — where if the hive mind is how work happens and it’s your job, you can’t just decide I’m not going to do it — in the world of “I’m on my phone too much,” actually you can make drastic changes right away about how much you’re using your phone. And this put me in for a lot of criticism, especially, again, in elite discourses, because they say, “Well, that’s not a narrative that gives us an enemy.” Right? And what we need is, “It’s these executives at the social media companies,” and if we can get the right policies, that I’m smart enough to figure out, that’s going to fix the problem.
Cal Newport: And again, it was the same sort of issue we see over here, which is, “I want an enemy. You got to give me the bad guy.” Here, it’s… There’s not really a bad guy. It’s just that we approach knowledge work, it’s new, we approached it with autonomy, and we kind of fell into this morass of this lowest common denominator way of collaborating that it’s hard to get out of. And no one really likes it, you know? And it just doesn’t make for… It’s not a sexy Substack screed or something like this.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. That actually leads into my next question, which is, a category of approach to solving problems in society is sometimes policy change, or government involvement. Is there potentially any room for legislation, I guess, around how workplaces are organized? Or maybe that’s just going to be too blunt an instrument. Perhaps we could get governments to allocate some R&D to basically answering these questions, “How can these things be organized? How large is the cost?” The same way that we have government R&D into agricultural productivity and industrial productivity, because those just have benefits to society as a whole, to learn these things.
Cal Newport: Yeah, I think in this case, because I’m a ‘whatever tool works’ type of person, I don’t typically… As I just talked about, I had a completely different conclusion looking at personal digital tools than I did looking at workplace digital tools. I take each issue as it stands and figure out what tool is going to work best here. Probably for the workplace hyperactive hive mind issue, there’s not really probably an effective legislative tool. France tried… I mean, France has a different setup because their knowledge workers are unionized in a way that they’re not at all here in the U.S., and they did try to pass this legislation in 2017. It’s a little bit complicated, but very roughly speaking it said, “It’s against the law to send that email after 5:00.” It’s not exactly that, but they were doing something like that.
Cal Newport: I think that’s way too blunt, especially for the American knowledge sector, that sort of dynamic way that that operates. But more importantly, by far the most effective way of sparking transformation here is unlocking this huge back pressure of latent productivity. So there’s all these incentives that are aimed at transforming knowledge work away from this thing that we don’t like. So it’s probably much more effective to say, “We just have to go weaken this dam a little bit. What’s the best way we can do that so that all this water that’s built up behind it can rush in?” And so that’s probably the right solution here, is helping companies see what’s going on here, give them a vocabulary, a framework to think about it. You’re just trying to get that dam to break, you know? The first big tech company that really changes, and then everyone sees it. And it’s like when open offices spread in just three years, everyone follows it.
Cal Newport: So that’s probably what’s going to be more effective there. Yeah, unlocking the back pressure that’s already there to change the way we work. How do we get the last remaining obstacles small enough to overcome? A lot of that’s probably idea advocacy really. It’s like the type of thing I’m trying to do. I just need smarter people to do it. Idea advocacy, just to help people understand what’s going on, what could happen. I think we’re really close.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’d be excited about a legislative solution if I could think of one, but when preparing for this interview, I spent 10 minutes and I was struggling to think of something that I thought would work terribly well. There’s another idea which is very natural, which is becoming a psychologist or kind of a business expert who does randomized trials where they look at different systems and see which ones stick, like, which ones tend to make people more productive. Does that seem kind of a sensible approach someone might take in their career?
Cal Newport: Yes. In organizational psychology, for example, I think there’s some good academic careers that could be built on this. There are some groups doing this, but yeah, I think that’s great. I think coming in and doing these studies and getting data and so… Yes. So if you can be an organizational psychologist, like Sophie Leroy is an example of someone who does this well, because she had this interesting background where she studied to be an academic psychologist and then left and went into industry. And she went into industry and got experience with how industry actually worked, but also was completely flabbergasted by the emergence of the hyperactive hive mind. And because of her psychological training, she’s like, “This can’t be good.” And then she left and came back into academia.
Cal Newport: So she brought these two worlds with her, and that’s why she was doing this breakthrough work on attention residue. She had both of those tool sets. So I think, yeah, organizational psychology, you understand how business really works. You understand how the brain works. You want to show what’s bad about how business really works, do that. So if you’re a psychology student right now, or you’re an undergrad that wants to go to grad school, try to get in Sophie’s group, become one of her PhD students. That’s what I would recommend.
Rob Wiblin: Nice. Are there any other broad classes of things that groups of people in the audience could potentially set out to do that we haven’t already covered?
Cal Newport: Okay. Let’s see. So, what have we covered? We’ve covered idea advocacy, we’ve covered taking an academic route, so actually trying to do studies or research on this, we’ve covered actually trying to make this change, and then maybe transform that into some sort of consulting type engagement… Yeah, I think that’s good. I guess the last one I’d add out there is, let’s say you’re a solopreneur or someone like this, where you just work for yourself and you take contracts, or you run your own one-person company: Be willing to be very radical in thinking through your work processes. Like, “I am going to rebuild how I work to minimize context shifts.” It’s not about making the most money or making things convenient or avoiding bad things that happen. Sort of be the change you want to see in the world. Make yourself into a laboratory, and then talk about what you’ve done.
Cal Newport: So we might get a lot of really cool innovation from these really small settings where you have that autonomy. And I see a lot of innovation happening at that level, like, the very small groups, it’s a one-person or a three-person company. So, if you already have a ton of autonomy in your working life, consider taking these ideas seriously and pushing them to an extreme. It’s going to make you much happier and probably much more productive, but then take the extra step of telling the world about it.
Rob Wiblin: Fantastic. Alright. I’d love to keep talking about this, but I think we’ll have to wrap up so we’ve got some time to talk about all the advice that you’ve got, potentially for people in the audience to have more impact in their own work. Yeah. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to attend to this issue in a future episode, because it seems like a potentially one of the world’s most pressing problems and not one that we’ve really talked about on the show before.
How to Be a High School Superstar [01:23:03]
Rob Wiblin: I’d love to use the remaining time to survey some of the most important suggestions you’ve made over the years for how your readers can achieve more or have happier lives, both because I think listeners would really benefit from it and also hopefully because it will whet their appetite in order to potentially go and use some of your books.
Rob Wiblin: For simplicity, let’s maybe work chronologically through someone’s life, starting with high school. So, many years ago, you wrote this book How to Be a High School Superstar. I must confess that’s one of your books that I haven’t read, because it arrived a little bit too late for me. What’s one suggestion you gave from that book, which you think many people in the real world have kind of applied and benefited from?
Cal Newport: Yeah, this is one of my favorite books, though it is my least well-known. Really quick backstory on that book: It was originally conceived with the title The Zen Valedictorian, and it was going to be about all levels of schooling, from high school through graduate school. And it came out of a lot of writing I was doing at the time about how do you actually build an academic life as a student that’s really meaningful and interesting and not stressful? And because I was writing a lot about that and I was giving talks about it back at the time — I was a grad student at MIT at the time — I’d go around and give talks at these sort of elite U.S. schools, you know, Princeton or go up to Middlebury. And so I had this big vision and then they narrowed it down, like, “Well, just talk about high school students so that we can… College admission stress is a big deal; let’s just narrow it down.” But it had a much more grandiose original aspiration.
Cal Newport: And the whole premise of that book is I went out and found a collection of American high school students who got into very good colleges without being stressed, without high school being something for them that was like this grind of accomplishment and achievement, and the whole point of the book was to understand how they do it.
Cal Newport: And so, the core idea there is that becoming interesting is incredibly valuable. And how do you become interesting? Well, you actually have to free up a lot of time. So I get into under-scheduling, don’t take super hard course loads, have very good study habits so your schoolwork doesn’t eat up all your time, don’t do 50 activities. You have to expose yourself to lots of things and read things and go to talks and watch movies. And when you find something that’s interesting, get into how you evolve that into something that’s impressive. And there’s this whole notion of the failed simulation effect I wrote about, where your goal is not to do something that is unambiguously, competitively hard, your goal is to do something that the person who hears about it has a hard time understanding how you did it at your age.
Cal Newport: And that actually gives a huge burst of impressiveness, even though the actual effort and skill required could be really low. And I really took that apart. So it’s a crazy book. I wrote it like a Malcolm Gladwell book. It’s an admissions book written like a Malcolm Gladwell book. It’s an admissions book where I’m talking about countersignaling theory and trying to deconstruct the elements of the psych-neurological reaction that is impressiveness.
Cal Newport: So “be interesting” is kind of the core of that. If you’re interesting and you’re doing something that people are like, “Wow, how did you do that at that age?” that goes much farther than, “Look at how much I did”, or “Look at how far I got in a well-defined competitive structure.” “I was the first chair in the state orchestra, not the county orchestra.” That is a much harder road to go down, because it gets narrower in a way that you’re probably not going to make it to the end.
Rob Wiblin: So in the U.S., it seems like being interesting and having extracurriculars plays a big role in what university you get into, or how people react to you? I think in the U.K. and Australia, it’s far more just based on grades directly. I think in Australia, it’s almost entirely just based on how you do on exams, largely. Do you have any advice for that in particular?
Cal Newport: Well, let me just say it’s actually kind of a myth that it is the case. Like in the U.S. it turns out it’s still a pretty small fraction of people for which any of this matters, because actually in almost every school, including even the elite schools, I mean, it’s like, look, if your SATs and GPA is in the top quartile of their typical admitted student, you’ll get in. And that’s just kind of it, right? And then there’s this very narrow range of, like, it’s a very elite school and you’re kind of on the bubble. Alright, now what are the other things you have to bring to it? So, in America we exaggerate this, and we think like this is what all college admissions is about, but what it’s really about is for this sort of upper middle class stratum students, where they’re going to apply to a couple of schools where they’re right on the bubble of having the right academic achievements for, and then suddenly all this other stuff matters.
Cal Newport: But in general, I think another bigger point here is, I talk a lot about it’s relevant to the U.K. or the U.S. as well. Don’t worry about quantity, do the things you do really well, make the amount of things you’re doing very sustainable. And that’s a thread that I draw throughout all of my academic advice, in high school, in university, in graduate school. Get out of the quantity trap, that I am going to gain a sense of impressiveness or options because of the sheer hardness of the thing I’m trying to do. I took many courses. I doubled my major. I did all these activities. You have to get away from that trap, do the things you do really well, but make those things few and far between enough that you have plenty of time to do them well.
How to Win at College [01:27:46]
Rob Wiblin: Hmm. Okay. Let’s push on to university. Your first book of all, I thought, was How to Win at College. We have a lot of undergrads in the audience. What’s a key way that many folks approach their university studies with the wrong mentality?
Cal Newport: I think most students are pretty bad at being students, right? So you have to think about being a student as a job. I mean, basically the job is I am going to take classes and learn the material and then demonstrate that I understand the material. The idea that goes through both of my first two books, How to Win at College and How to Become a Straight-A Student, is that if you take this job even a little bit seriously, “How do I want to take notes? How do I want to manage my time? How do I want to study? What’s the right way to write a paper?” You get massive, massive advantages. You’re just going to do really, really well. The amount of time that’s going to take you… There’s huge inefficiencies, because students mix together often the social aspects of college, the human development aspects of college, where it’s like, this is about freedom and exploration and whatever, and finding myself, from the professional aspects, which is it’s about learning information, demonstrating knowledge.
Cal Newport: And so, they attack the latter with this sort of free-flowing ad hoc, “Oh my God, something’s due tomorrow. Let me just stay up and try to get it done.” So the big message of those books is that, if you treat this professional piece of your student life carefully, it’s just a massive advantage. The amount of time it takes to do well, the amount of time you study, all this, it can plummet. And so, take that part of your job like a professional, just a little bit, and then do the social development and cultural stuff in all your other time.
Cal Newport: There’s huge advantages to be had. And the underlying motivation for those books is my transformation when I started taking that piece of my academic life more seriously, and my grades just went completely pegged up at the top of the GPA scales, and my study time just plummeted compared to the people around me. So I had this personal transformation experience at university where I realized, “Oh my God, if you just give this a little bit of thought, it’s so much easier than if you just come at it randomly.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What does a professional job approach to university study look like at a brass-tacks level?
Cal Newport: It’s a mixture of scheduling and technique. So, you get a little bit more careful about what work has to get done and when I’m going to do it, right? So this sort of all-nighter nonsense is just amateur hour, like, you shouldn’t be doing that.
Cal Newport: I recommend, for example, having something called a ‘student work day,’ where you find, identify all of the regular work that’s going to happen in your semester, like, “Okay, this math class has a problem set that’s due every week. This English class has about 200 pages of reading. I have to do it every week.” Right? You figure out the stuff you know you have to do every week, and then you figure out when and where am I going to do it? “Alright. Tuesday mornings are when I work on my problem set. I go to this library. I bring this stuff. This is when I get it done. Okay. I do my readings. I do three different sessions in the afternoon.”
Cal Newport: These days it’s on your calendar. You make a plan for the work that has to get done. What’s the right time to actually do it? What’s a good time to do it? And then technique matters. So one of the biggest things you can do to cut down study time is get away from passive recall. So if you just reread your notes or look at highlighted textbooks, it’s an incredibly slow and inefficient way to actually cement knowledge. Most of the really high-performing students I interviewed did active recall. So you try to recreate the information from scratch without looking at any notes. So it’s just your mind trying to remember it.
Cal Newport: It’s cognitively much more demanding, but it takes about a factor of five less time to actually master things. So then technique really matters. Another idea from my second book, which should sound familiar to readers of my most recent books, is I had this formula in my straight-A student book. It was: ‘work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus’. So the best way to really cut down the amount of time required to get some sort of preparation done is to do that work with real intense focus. So, okay. I’m going to go to this library without my phone. No context shifts. Hey, guess what? It takes you a third as many hours to master the biology stuff you need for the test. So get more professional about when do I schedule my work, get more professional about what I do in those scheduled times. You do those two things together, and it’s going to be like you’re playing a different game. It’s just the time it requires, the performance, the consistency, the stress levels, everything improves.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You [01:31:47]
Rob Wiblin: Okay. Let’s push forward to So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which came out in 2012. This is a book that’s potentially relevant to people at all stages of life, but potentially especially relevant to people who are early in their career. A core part of its message was that following your passion is a bad idea to make career decisions. So it’s been a kind of key message of 80,000 Hours. But I don’t think we’ve ever actually brought it up on the show. Why is it a bad idea?
Cal Newport: Well, it’s too simplistic. So this model that arose in the late 80s, early 90s, this notion that we all have an intrinsic passion, matching that passion to our job is key to success…this was career advice. That’s not that old. It basically happened when I was a kid, it’s where this advice first emerged. It’s bad advice because it’s way too simplistic. So, I often call it like the Disney movie approach to careers. It simplifies the whole thing down to you’re born to do one job. If you can figure that out and have the courage to match your job to that thing, you’ll be happy. And if you don’t, you won’t be happy. The problem is that’s not how it works for nine out of 10 people, for most people. No, I am not wired to be the media relations director at whatever. I’m not wired for a very specific job. Matching a job to some sort of intrinsic wiring is not really that influential to whether or not you enjoy your job or not. Like it’s just too simplistic of a story.
Cal Newport: If you actually study people who end up passionate about their work, the passion typically cultivates over time, the passion is typically largely attributable to these properties that are relatively agnostic to the specific content of the work. Things like autonomy, things like mastery, things like connection, things like creative expression. Like there’s these sort of much more broad things that we know from various psychological frameworks and just from our own experience and intuition make us happy. And so it completely changes the pictures like, oh, I see. What I’m trying to do is pick a career in which, with the right effort and attention, I can cultivate real passion. It’s a more complicated story.
Cal Newport: But if you ignore the more complicated story, what happens is you say, oh, I think I know my passion. And then you go to that job, and because you haven’t done the hard labor of cultivating passion, you’re not loving it every day. So you think I must have picked the wrong thing. Let me do some reflection. Oh, let me switch to this job. Oh wait. No, I don’t feel passionate there. Let me switch to this job. And it’s this constant job hopping and anxiety. When you think about it from a different way — which is passion is something that I’m going to have to cultivate, it’s going to require a lot of different factors and is kind of hard and complicated and interesting — then you’re much more likely to actually get there. You’re much more likely to actually end up in a place where you’re passionate about your work.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So in the book you talk about the importance of people early in their career developing unique and valuable skills, which you called career capital. A natural way to do that, which fits the examples of the book, is to specialize in some particular area. But specializing can also end up kind of limiting your options, or resulting in those skills ultimately getting stranded and wasted if you decide to jump into a different path later on. So an alternative approach, especially for people in their twenties, might be to focus first on developing more generic skills, like those that are likely to be good or useful no matter what you end up doing. Things like writing, or just generally being a very organized person and able to focus. Do you have any thoughts on this trade-off between specialization versus transferability?
Cal Newport: Yeah. So in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the terminology I used is market terminology. So I said, okay, career capital is my term for rare and valuable skills. There’s two different markets for this career capital. There’s a winner-take-all market and an auction market. So in the winner-take-all market, it’s really clear what the skills are. And if you can push your skill to a level that it’s at the top echelon of people with those skills, there’s big rewards to come from it. Writing is an example, or something like this. You want to be a novel, a fiction writer, something like this. You’re trying to write better and better books. And if you can really push your skill to the right place, there’s big rewards for it. But if you don’t, then maybe you just never get a writing career at all.
Cal Newport: The alternative is the auction market, where you develop a more diverse collection of career capital. And then what you’re hoping for is a semi-unique configuration of that capital coming together to unlock opportunities for you. And there you’re unlocking really good things, because not very many people have that exact combination of career capital. So you’re sort of leveraging a combinatorial advantage there to try to find your advantage in both cases. The key argument here, though, is that the things that make great jobs great are themselves rare and valuable. So if you don’t have something to offer, you shouldn’t expect them in your work. Like you shouldn’t expect that you can just find a job that has all these great things because you want it. You have to have something to offer in return.
Cal Newport: So the way I set up these two markets is either you can offer I’m really, really good at this skill that’s really valuable, or you can offer, I’m good at these three skills, and there’s not very many people who are good at these three skills. And I think they’re both viable approaches. The one thing to keep in mind when you think about the auction market though, is that you have to push that skill past the amateur level for it to be relevant.
Cal Newport: So you can’t dabble. You don’t have to become the world’s best writer for that to be a relevant bit of career capital in the auction market. But you have to become a not-bad writer for it to be relevant. You don’t have to become like a Nobel-caliber scientist for your science training to be relevant in the auction market. But you can’t just have read a couple of science books. And actually I’m giving a very specific example there. The newer book that I think is all about this tension is Dave Epstein’s book Range, which is all about generalists versus specialists. He’s arguing more just for generalists have been overlooked and we should think about it, where I kind of argue they both have their merits. But I interviewed him for my podcast about this. And one of the things we’ve talked about and he kind of agreed with is okay, if you want to be a generalist, you have to get good enough at a skill for it to be useful in a unique combination. And that’s what he did.
Cal Newport: He was a grad student in the geosciences, I think maybe it was in geology or something like this. And he stopped that at the master’s level. So he was not, in a competitive marketplace way, a great scientist, he stopped at the master’s level, but that’s a non-amateur level of knowledge. Then he went on and did writing. And he didn’t become, like okay I’m Joan Didion and my writing is at such a high level I can’t be ignored, but he could do it at a professional level. Then you could combine those two things.
Cal Newport: Oh, I know science more than the average writer, and I can write better than the average scientist. And he went to Sports Illustrated and helped innovate this new approach of science-focused sports reporting, and boom, that was his career. So that’s the only thing I would say about if you’re going to go the auction market route, you can’t dabble. You don’t have to be world-class, but you can’t be amateur. So that in the short term, like in the term of a year or two, it might be working really hard and deliberately on one thing. It’s just that you’re stopping after two years, instead of going 20.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So in So Good They Can’t Ignore You you do focus on how people need to flip away from thinking like, what is the thing that I want out of work, to thinking about, what do I have to offer other people? Because work with lots of autonomy with enjoyable conditions is something that other people are going to have to adapt and provide to you. And in return you have to be able to offer them something valuable, so that they’re motivated to offer you that situation. I think at some point you use an expression like, “Think about what you can offer other people, not just what they can give to you.” I guess at 80,000 Hours we’re on board with this, but we also have kind of another related conceptualization, which is not just thinking about what problem you’re interested in solving, but also thinking about what problems are most pressing in the world to be solved.
Rob Wiblin: Think about not what can you give the world, but what does the world need from you? And that means a problem that affects a lot of people, it’s urgent, it’s neglected, it’s practical to make progress on. And the logic behind putting that really early in the decision is that if you decide to specialize in a problem that is small or crowded or too hard to solve, then even if you execute really well later on, you might still have really sold yourself short and had a lot less impact because you just made the wrong call on where to focus. What do you think of that?
Cal Newport: Well, so an important addendum to that, it’s an argument I make in the book, and I actually use some examples of people who now we look at as world-class at solving real problems in a very impactful way, I call it ‘mission.’ Part of the art of finding a mission that’s both tractable and high-impact — so I’m going to dedicate my life to this thing that’s going to be high-impact and I’m going to make progress on it — part of the issue is that it’s hard to find those missions. And my argument is the best place to find a high-impact, high-tractability mission is to build expertise, because where these high-impact missions tend to lie is in the adjacent possible of the existing cutting edge.
Cal Newport: So you get to an existing cutting edge. And now you’re able to look into the space beyond and see some interesting new configurations, or interesting new combinations that could open up a really high-impact mission. One of the problems that people have, and I get into this specifically in the book, is that if you’re starting from scratch, you’re like a university student, and are like, okay, I want to change the world, what’s my mission? It can actually be very hard to find a non-naive mission. Something that’s going to be high-impact and tractable for you to actually make a lot of progress on.
Cal Newport: If, on the other hand, you have… And we see this all the time in very successful missions of this type… There is something you master. I’m involved in world economics, I’m involved in whatever. The example I give is Pardis Sabeti from Harvard, who uses computational techniques to help really make progress on some pretty serious diseases. She went… It was a lot of work. She got to the cutting edge of computational biology. She was in medical school for a while, really got to the cutting edge of virology, and dealing with some of these diseases. And then once she was at those cutting edges, she looked into the adjacent possible and said, man, if I take these types of algorithms and this type of data, we could really make some progress on some of these ancient diseases. And, she did.
Cal Newport: So that’s the other argument I give, is that sometimes you have to first put your head down and get to a useful cutting edge, and then have the courage and the self-insight to look up, and say, what do I see now that I could jump into? Taking these skills for advantage, understanding this world better, understanding what’s possible, what tools we have. And so this is the mission chapter of So Good, but I think especially for your audience, it’s a really important chapter probably.
Rob Wiblin: I think I completely agreed that in order to like, figure out how you’re going to contribute, like what’s an opportunity that’s on the table right now for the next thing that could be done, that’s going to make a really big difference. Often you need to have a lot of local knowledge, a lot of quite specialized knowledge. But I suppose we also think it’s important maybe too, to look forward and think like, what is it going to be good to have specialized in, so that you can figure out those projects in 10, 20, 30 years time. You could end up with a lot of knowledge and be able to figure out what’s a good project in order to solve a problem that ultimately just isn’t so large in scale or isn’t so tractable.
Rob Wiblin: And so I guess it’s a bit of a balance of both maybe like doing this kind of global priorities research at a high level early on, and then learning a lot about the context of the specific thing before you then figure out well how am I going to be able to maximally contribute? That’s a later question.
Cal Newport: Yeah. By the way, I’ll underscore that it’s also just really difficult. So I acknowledge that, it’s really hard to find a high-impact mission. That’s why not that many people do it. And another important thing to what you’re saying is like, having that mindset of “This is what I’m all about,” I think makes a big difference. So knowing even as you’re picking up a skill over here, you’re spending three years with this organization… Knowing that ultimately what you want to do is a high-impact mission and committing to that I think is critical. Because otherwise the problem is, with the cutting edges, is that there’s a lot of really sort of usually remunerative, or high prestige, or quite comfortable rewards for that cutting edge.
Cal Newport: You know, it’s harder for just a doctor to spontaneously say, I’m going to apply this knowledge with computational biology to figure something out. But if you go to med school as part of your plan to try to, say, build up expertise to try to find some way to make a difference… It’s a very different situation.
Personal barriers [01:42:51]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. Coming towards the end of the conversation, I guess something that’s generally true of the books, I think, is that they’re very good for people who need to notice that the way that they’re setting goals, or the way that they’re working to achieve those goals doesn’t make that the most sense and can be improved. But I think there’s another, somewhat independent, driver of unhappiness at work or low productivity that there’s somewhat less aimed at addressing, which is emotional, personal barriers that people have to doing what matters. And these can come in a lot of different forms, but a few which I think most people will find relatable to some degree is things like not wanting to do the most important thing in your to-do list because it’s challenging, and it’s high stakes. And so you’re scared or anxious about finding out that you’ve done a bad job, or doing a bad job.
Rob Wiblin: And so you put it off and put it off. Or like wanting to obfuscate how things get done, because you’re scared that you’re not actually as productive as your colleagues. I mean, maybe you are, maybe you aren’t, but either way that really worries you, kind of brings social anxiety. Or finding it’s hard to say no to doing things because you want to please people, and it generates this immediate self-esteem boost to say yes. In your mind, is there an important distinction between these organizational systems issues that push people to spend time unproductively and these emotional, like personal motivations that pull people to check Slack and email all day, even if no one’s really making them do it?
Cal Newport: Yeah. I think they are both really important. On my podcast, for example, I talk a lot about the ‘deep life,’ as a sort of goal or approach, or a philosophical adaptation of how you approach life that deploys some of these systematic or systems-based thinking as part of this larger, I think more philosophical goal. One of the things, for example, that I think is an issue with what you’re just talking about, is that the answer to a lot of those comes in part from a better self-awareness built through sort of extensive self-reflection and development. And one of the things that we’re increasingly losing right now… It’s this interesting techno-experiment we’re doing… We’re increasingly losing time alone with our own thoughts, because we have a portable supercomputer with a ubiquitous high-speed broadband internet connection, the servers that are optimized to show us exactly what we want to see in any moment that’s going to be entertaining or engaging.
Cal Newport: Yes. That gets rid of the necessity of having to be alone with our own thoughts, but being alone with our own thoughts is critical, because it’s how we make sense of ourselves, it’s how we make sense of what scares us, what we’re proud of, what’s not going well, what we want to go well. It’s how we get in touch with these intimations we have about what’s good and what’s not, and what’s important and what’s not. Self-reflection is how we actually make sense of those and build a structure for our life around them. And these are structures with which we can actually do the scary thing, we can make forward progress.
Cal Newport: It’s the structure on which we can build the application of all these types of systems. But without it, we’re just flying from thing to thing, driven by emotion. Emotion, and anxiety, and numbing. And so one thing I think we should all prioritize is getting to know ourselves better. Time alone with ourselves. What is this thing I just saw this interview, or I just heard… This book I just read, what does that make me feel? What do I think about it? Am I going to file some of that away in my brain? Or am I completely rejecting this? What do I care about? How do I feel about these things? We have to have those internal schemas of self-understanding. And when those are lacking, I completely agree with you. I mean, you can hear all the words about career capital and deep work and about the hyperactive hive mind and cognitive optimization, and to what end, if you don’t actually have a firm foundation on which you’re actually building what you want to build with your life?
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do you have a book recommendation for people who feel like they relate to this as being a key barrier for them?
Cal Newport: Well, my book recommendation would be to read a lot of books. And not like pragmatic non-fiction books or advice books, read good literature, read good nonfiction that’s more interesting or memoir based, that’s going to push big ideas. You can read the classics like Viktor Frankl, but read like Matt Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, read thought-provoking, engaging books, read philosophy. If you’re not comfortable with hard philosophy yet read the secondary sources about the philosophy and then think… And just be. You need to start to create a life of the mind. The life of the mind is where you can actually start to construct a conception of the self. And when you have a conception of the self, you can start to do good things. So we need to think more. We need more things to think about. So my book I recommend is lots of books. What I recommend is—
Rob Wiblin: Self-reflection then.
Cal Newport: Yeah. What I recommend is going from, “I don’t read books just for provocative self-reflection,” to “I do.” That’s the biggest recommendation I would give.
George Marshall [01:47:11]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. We’ve just got two minutes left. Maybe the last thing that I was really keen for you to tell the audience is, in A World Without Email, there’s just this amazing story about George Marshall, which I think is going to really stick with me. George Marshall was leading the U.S. war effort in World War II. Could you just sketch out the key facts there?
Cal Newport: Yeah so he ran the war. He was basically the CEO in charge of the whole war. He was the army chief of staff. And he ran the whole show, communicating directly with Roosevelt and then with Churchill across the sea. The interesting thing about George Marshall is that he was very intentional about, how do I want the work day to actually work here? How do I actually want to manage things? And he came in and he completely… He stripped out a lot of unnecessary positions in the war department.
Cal Newport: He significantly simplified the number of people who reported directly to him. He had very demanding, no-nonsense rules about meetings. You had to come in and if you weren’t prepared, he was going to yell you out of the room. You had to be like, “Here’s the situation, here’s the decision we made, here’s why, what’s your take? Good. And we’re out of here.” And if you weren’t prepared, you’re out of there. And most amazingly of all, while helping us win World War II, he didn’t work past 5:30pm. He had had a heart condition earlier. He didn’t want to push himself too much. So he said, yeah, I don’t work past 5:30pm.
Rob Wiblin: It’s just extraordinary. Imagine being in charge of World War II and you just walk out of the office at 5:30pm and say “I’ll be back the next morning.” It’s just so different from what most of us can imagine doing under that level of pressure. And just his complete ability to focus on what… Someone comes in and they present a problem, he thinks about it until he reaches the decision, closes the loop, and then sends them out. It’s beautiful.
Cal Newport: And I’ll just say real quick, the key thing is he didn’t come into the war department as it ran and said, okay, given how this war department runs, is it possible for me to leave by 5:00pm? It wasn’t. What he did is he changed how it ran, and that made it possible. And I think that’s a really key thing to think about in our world of work today. Yes. If nothing else changes about your work, if you just say, I’m not going to check my email and I’m going to go home at 5:00pm, you’re going to be screwed. But if you are able or willing to completely change how that work happened, well, then you could be like George Marshall as well.
Rob Wiblin: My guest today has been Cal Newport. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours podcast, Cal.
Cal Newport: Well, I enjoyed it.
Rob’s outro [01:49:18]
Okay. As promised, here’s some uncertainties about better organizing knowledge work that I was left with at the end of the conversation, which will perhaps serve as a launching pad for some of you to investigate further.
As you might have sussed out listening to this, I’m torn between the intuitive plausibility that constantly interrupting knowledge workers should greatly reduce the amount of useful and original work they can produce, and the crazy fact that — if this is right — a lot of businesses have been leaving billions of dollars of profits on the table for the last 20 years.
Cal’s theory that it just takes time to identify and learn to fix these problems in the messy social world of an office is plausible.
But I don’t want to accept that uncritically. I think to get more clarity on this we really need high-quality social science to see how new systems change output.
I know people who say they like the hyperactive hive mind style of working. I can hardly rule out that that research will show that some people or roles work just fine in that environment.
Unfortunately, it’s jobs involving having insights, developing complex plans, or combining ideas in fresh ways, that are probably most negatively affected by distraction, and they’re the hardest jobs for which to measure quality-adjusted output. So this research could be tricky to conduct persuasively.
On a separate point, I’m usually pretty sympathetic to the idea that just speeding up economic growth is a mixed blessing. With climate change for example, just getting everyone to work faster both speeds up how much pollution we put out now, and speeds up how quickly we develop alternative energy sources and ultimately solve the problem of climate change. So it’s probably about a wash on average.
I earlier raised the possibility that less distracted work wouldn’t only produce the same work faster, but actually be more thoughtful, and perhaps make less foolish or harmful decisions. This is probably right, but that effect might be small, with most of the gain happening in the quantity rather than quality of work.
One important question here would be whether it’s better to speed up knowledge work relative to the speed of everything else that humanity does. I can see why that might be true — but again, often it’s bad or dangerous ideas that are the sources of our problems in the first place. So maybe we actually want fewer big new ideas while we wait for gradual cultural change, which is occurring in calendar time, to improve our moral values.
But I know that’s not exactly a mainstream view.
On the question of how neglected this problem is, it seems very hard to say. In some sense everyone who complains about email at their office is doing something about the problem. On the other hand, it seems like few people are specializing in dedicating their career to this problem in particular, despite it affecting hundreds of millions or even billions of people globally. So it seems like there should be opportunities to do things that only domain professionals can do.
Whether the problem is tractable seems to hinge on how big the problem is in the first place. If indeed productivity can be increased many-fold by changing how it’s organized, then the personal and profit-related incentives should lead to broad take-up of solutions that work. But if the gains are just 10% or 20%, then inertia or personal preferences could mean we keep the hyperactive hive mind indefinitely.
Alright, obviously I haven’t put enough thought into this topic to be confident about whether this would be a good problem to spend your career working to solve. But I hope that it gives you some idea of what I would start reading about if I were going to go out and form a more considered view on better organizing knowledge work.
Rob Wiblin: The 80,000 Hours podcast is produced by Keiran Harris. Audio mastering is by Ben Cordell. Full transcripts — and plenty of links to learn more about all of these topics — are available on our website and produced by Sofia Davis-Fogel. Thanks for joining. Talk to you again soon.