Full Length Episode | #171 | February 7, 2022
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I'm Cal Newport and this is Deep Questions, episode 171. So I'm here in my Deep Work HQ, rainy cold days. It's one of those rare days I'm actually happy to be in a windowless room. Joined as always by my producer Jesse. So Jesse, we're what, two weeks now into having the YouTube channel up that features video of every single question that we answer on this podcast as well as video of every deep dive as well as video of all full episodes. We're two weeks into it. What's our report? How are things going? Things are going pretty good. I think the process is getting honed in and people are watching the videos. You're getting a bunch of subscribers. So keep on putting out more videos and getting bumpers and beginnings a little bit tighter. So all in all the progress is going pretty good. Good. Yeah. So Jesse, what's hinting at there is we have a nice visual make overcoming. So like the briefly, the design firm that is working on the portal in which you're going to be able to find all these videos and Netflix style carousels without having to go to YouTube, they are helping us just overhaul the look of the YouTube page. So it'll be consistent with the new portals. We have nice, nice new looking graphics and logos and bumpers. All that's coming. But Jesse and I got impatient. We didn't want to wait for all of that to be done before we got these videos up here. So we just went ahead. So you'll notice over time things get better and better looking. So we'll make the bumpers better looking. We'll have the logos look better. Eventually we'll use deep fake technology to have a more attractive man. You'll hear my voice but coming from like a much more attractive man. We're thinking like a young Harrison Ford or something like this. So all that is coming for those of you who care about the aesthetics. All right. So here's our plan for today. I want to continue with these core idea deep dive segments we've been doing. Again, the concept here is I want to go back to a lot of the big ideas that I referenced frequently on this show and do a deep dive dedicated to each of these ideas because now that we have video that means there will be a video of each of these core idea discussions so that if you want to go back and reference. Oh yeah. What does Cal think about? Follow your passion. What does Cal think about slow productivity? What does Cal think about deep work? This comes up a lot. You can go back and actually find the core idea video. It'll also be a quick introduction to the various philosophies we explore here for people who are new to the channel. We've been getting some good feedback. So I wanted to keep that going. And that's what we're going to do now. The core idea I want to talk about today is the following question is slow productivity the solution to burn out? So slow productivity is a emerging topic of thought we've been talking about more and more frequently. And I want to get into it with this core idea. All right. Let's give some background to where the concept of slow productivity came from what motivated it. So here in a moment right now in which there is a popular and visible pushback against the general notion of productivity.
The Concept Of Anti-Productivity Movement And Chronic Overload
The Rise of the Anti-Productivity Movement (03:24)
And by productivity, I mean just the general drive to try to get more things done. Now I think the coronavirus pandemic helped amplify this, but this movement predates the coronavirus pandemic. If we're going to use books as a rough proxy for cultural thinking on this topic, we can really look to 2019, February of 2019 when Ginnio Dell published How to Do Nothing. This book probably helped spark more than anything else. This modern moment of anti productivity thinking was a popular book on New York Times bestseller Barack Obama selected it as one of his best books of the year. It opened the floodgates to multiple other books along these same lines. So we got Celeste Headley's do nothing that came out soon after. I actually interviewed Celeste for a New Yorker piece this fall. It got a little bit deeper into this. We also got Devin Price had a book called Lazyness Does Not Exist. I blurb that book. It was a good book. Helen Ann Peterson had can't even the book length treatment of her viral BuzzFeed article about millennial burnout. More recently we have Oliver Berkman had 4,000 weeks which I blurb that book as well. It's fantastic. That book's really been killing it. It's been this long string of books since 2019 that are all basically making the same point. We're burnt out. We're doing too much. We're tired of doing too much. I saw this anti productivity movement even among you, my listeners and readers in 2020. I wrote an essay for my newsletter about this asking is the term productivity over? Do we need something new? And it led to a really heated discussion and two subsequent follow up posts. We had a lot of back and forth discussion on this in the spring of 2020 that made it clear that there are a lot of you out there that are just exhausted. Exhausted with activity in work, your life outside of work and need something more than just falling back on how do I get more done? All right. So that is the modern anti productivity movement. Here's the issue. The question left unanswered in a lot of this work is what should we do about it? We all agree. These books are doing well because we all feel exhausted. But the question is what should we do about it? And my opinion here is that we haven't had a lot of fully featured answers.
Advice to Cure Burnout (05:56)
The typical response that we will get to what we should do about it is basically just do less and be okay about that. Which is perfectly fine advice but is not in itself a fully fledged solution to this issue of burnout. Now we get this advice from many different angles. Some of those books I talked about before come at this from an economic materialist standpoint. They say, well, you're doing a lot of things because essentially you're being exploited by the capitalist superstructure. And so it's an act of political resistance to not do something. Do nothing as an act of political resistance. Some of these books are more cultural. We have a culture of overproduction. Maybe it goes back to the Protestant worth ethic or whatever. And we just need to defy that culture. It's an arbitrary culture. We should just do less things. Nothing wrong with that advice. I just don't think it's enough by itself to actually cure what ails us because we do like to do things. There's nothing that makes us more consistently miserable as a species than actually doing nothing for any extended period of time. It makes us very uncomfortable. It makes us feel non efficacious. It makes us feel rootless and bored and anxious. We'd like to do things. The problem is not activity. The problem is too much activity. So we need a more sophisticated solution than simply saying it's okay to not do as many things just do less. That maybe is a step in the right direction, but we need to take many steps more. This is what brings me to my recent thinking on this emerging concept of slow productivity. Slow productivity is meant as a response to this question of what should we do in the face of being exhausted by all that we have to do. So to look into this topic of slow productivity, I started by trying to understand what was productivity for our ancient ancestors. In other words, as human beings, what is natural when it comes to activity? It is a basic question, but we need an answer to this question of what is natural if we're going to try to get back to something that's more attuned to the human condition. So I went back and did some work trying to understand the rhythms of activity of our paleolithic ancestors. We obviously don't have direct observations about this, but I ended up talking to a quantitative anthropologist from Oxford University who is one of the world's experts at studying extant hunter-gatherer tribes in the Philippines and using robust methods to try to measure what their activity levels are like and very carefully try to make some extrapolations from this to other hunter-gatherer past. That's an extrapolation you have to do carefully, but he's sensitive and careful about that. And here's basically what you see, our best guess at what activity was like for the bulk of our species existence is you would be doing skilled and important work basically every day, mainly focused on food acquisition and preparation as well as child rearing.
Things Were Natural For Our Ancestors - Paleolithic Acrobats (08:52)
But you would be, in these extant tribes they studied, if you were gathering herbs, you had a huge expert understanding of the various plants and their various uses, it's very expert work. If you're hunting, hunting was a very skilled activity when you don't have very sophisticated weapons like rifles, so you're doing skilled but important work at a natural pace. This is definitely what they found in their work on these tribes is there's lots of breaks. You might be spending all day on a hunt, but there's going to be a two-hour part in the middle of the day where you're just resting and maybe you take it, there's a nap over here, there's a natural pace with ups and downs of intensity and never too many things at the same time. There's no notion of I have 18 things I'm trying to get done as a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer and I'm trying to go through this list. It's like we're doing this today and then that. That's basically what we did throughout most of our history. Now compare that to where we are today. Where we are today, and let's focus mainly on the world of work just to keep this more precise. What we're doing today is maintaining lists of things that we need to do, obligations and commitments. Some of them explicit, some of them implicit that are massive. Massive list of obligations and commitments. In the world of work these just come flying at us through emails, they come flying at us through quick requests during Zoom meetings. Hey Cal, can you take care of this or can you jump on this? Flying at us in informal conversations in the hallway where a boss grabs you and says "Look into this, can you get this done for me?" And we have these very large list of things that are on our plate. I call this state chronic overload because we have more things on our plate than we can easily imagine how we're going to get them done and this is a state that is persistent.
Three Problems with Chronic Overload - This Needs Leadership Buy-In and Span-Being Thinking (10:50)
We constantly have this overloaded list of things that we have to do. This causes three problems. Three problems that we're not faced by our Paleolithic ancestors. One is just the simple short circuiting of the center of our brain that is dedicated to making long-term plans for goal completion. Humans have a center in their brain that does this very well. Even our close primate relatives do not have anything that's quite as powerful as our ability to plan and go after goals. This is tapped into our motivational systems. We feel good when we make a plan. We feel even better when we execute the plan. We feel bad if we don't. This system gets completely overloaded when you have 700 unread messages in your inbox and 75 different projects, tasks and ongoing commitments that you're trying to juggle. It is too many things for that part of your brain to imagine how it's going to accomplish and it short circuits that planning that planning center of our brain that makes us anxious, that makes us miserable. Again, our Paleolithic ancestors never had 700 unread emails, each of which representing a commitment that you can't wrap our mind around how we're ever going to satisfy all these commitments. Two, when you have way more things on your plate than you can easily imagine handling, you suffer from what I think is one of the more insidious tortures of modern office work, which is the overhead spiral. If you give me something to do, here's a project I want you to work with these two people and get it done. There is a fixed amount of overhead that comes with this project because we have to kind of coordinate, so there's going to be, I don't know, some notion of number of meetings we have to do to talk things through and make a plan. There'll be some non-trivial number of emails we have to send back and forth to get questions answered or to move the project forward. In isolation, that's all fine. If I'm working on something, yeah, let's meet about it once a week and send some emails in between. That's fine. That's just the overhead cost of working with people to accomplish something, no problem. The issue is what if we have 25 of these ongoing at the same time? Each of them has the same fixed amount of overhead. Each one needs that weekly meeting.
The Overhead Spiral - Water Torture Of Meetings & Zoom (12:58)
Each one needs a couple of dozen emails sent each week and it adds and adds and adds until your schedule becomes overloaded with this fixed overhead. And now you are spending almost all of your time talking about the work you need to do with no time left to actually execute the work. Again, I think this is the knowledge worker equivalent of Chinese water torture. It is maddening. It is deranging. We saw this really clearly amplified during the first half year of the coronavirus pandemic where office workers had to suddenly work remote. Shifting operations remote meant that there was a lot of new work that got generated, right? Because we have to figure out how do we do our work of a remote? So suddenly everyone's obligation list got bigger. Each of these things brought with it a meeting and some emails. What happened? I heard report after report from knowledge workers saying, "I am spending eight straight hours per day in Zoom." I would get complaints from people that said, "My biggest issue is I don't know when to use the bathroom during the day. I'm on Zoom that often in Zoom doing email while in Zoom the entire day." This is a parody of work life where all you're doing is talking about work. Not just I have too many meetings. All you were doing was meetings. That's overhead spiral personified right there. Again, you have too many things on your plate that you've committed to. The overhead itself takes over your whole schedule.
Chronic Overload (14:27)
Finally, the last issue with chronic overload is it's relentless in its pace. There is never any time where you get to relax. There's never any time you get to downshift. Remember our Paleolithic ancestors, if they're doing an all day hunt, might have hours in there where they're just sitting around. It has to heat of the day. Let's sit in the shade of a tree and just like nap and chat. Or we hunted the last two days. It's kind of rainy today. Not great conditions. We're not going to hunt today at all. In a system of modern work with chronic overload where you always have way more on your plate than you ever can get around the handling, there is a constant pressure on execution. Because there's always things that need to give it done and you're always behind. So every day you feel it. You're relentless. Work every minute you have available. Probably have to do some evenings. Probably have to do some weekends as well to get around the overhead spirals. We're not wired for this relentless pace of work where you never have any relief. It's pegged at this 10 on the scale of one to 10 of how much, how hard you're working day after day after day after day. This I think is the more detailed socio physiological explanation for what all of those anti-productivity books were commenting on. This is why we're so miserable. Chronic overload creates those three problems. Those three problems alienate us from the rhythms of work for which we're wired as people. And that is why we're not happy. That is then what we need to solve. How do we get rid of chronic overload? How do we get rid of those issues that come from chronic overload? Just saying I'm going to do less isn't going to cut it. Hey, boss. I've decided I don't want to be a part of the exploitative capitalist engine. So I'm not going to work today. Good luck. Not going to solve it. We need a more detailed, sophisticated solution here. It's not going to work to say, hey, client, I do not want to be a stooge and a Protestant work ethic culture established during the pre-colonial period in the early days of migration to the United States. So I'm not going to answer your email. That's not a solution. We need something more sophisticated.
Do less (16:42)
All right, slow productivity is that answer. Slow productivity is that answer. Let me give you three quick ideas for what slow productivity might mean. Three elements to it. This is going to evolve, but let's try to get something pinned down here. So to me, there's three big things I care about with a slow productivity philosophy. Doing fewer things, doing those things at a natural pace, obsessing over the quality of the things you do. That definition of productivity, a productivity that prioritizes those three things, I think can get us back towards the rhythms of work for which we are wired while also fulfilling us, doing interesting work, letting our companies grow, helping our team succeed, giving promotions still, getting the autonomy that comes from getting good at things that are very invaluable, that is compatible with that. So let me just touch on those three things real quickly. Do fewer things. I think your workload and ideal world would be below that level of chronic overload. You have few enough things that you are committed to doing on your plate that you are not suffering from the short circuiting of your planning circuit. You're not suffering from overhead spirals, and you do not feel like you have no option but to have a relentless pace for your feeling every minute of your day. We need to do many fewer things. If you work for yourself, if you're a freelancer, run your own company, aggressively titrate how many things you take on at the same time. You are not a computer processor where you want your pipeline of instructions to execute to be full so you never miss a particular tick. You're a human. You're not wired to do that. We need to do many fewer things.
Do less at work (18:24)
What if you work for someone else? Well, I think we need to completely rethink how work is assigned in the workplace. This should be transparent. How much work is this person doing? What's on their plate? So we can all see it, and then we can have very clear understandings of what is reasonable. And if I see, you know, Jesse has a fair number of things on his plate, I can't put something else on it. It's on me to figure out something pops up. It needs to get done at some point. I can't just say, Jesse, handle this. I have to figure out. Where does this go? Until someone has room for it. It can't just go on their plate. The answer here is probably going to be external systems. Things that need to get done go into external systems where they bring with them the information they need to be accomplished and have clear statuses and priorities. And then individuals pull work out of the system as new slots open. This might sound like it's a pain. I don't care if it's a pain. It's what we're wired to do. Keep my load reasonable. And I'll pull in new stuff when I'm done with what's on my plate. Don't just give it all to me and say, figure it out. You're going to short circuit my brain. You're going to make me miserable. All right. Second piece of slow productivity work at a natural pace. We cannot just peg our efforts at a 10 for eight to nine hours a day, day after day, week after week, week after week.
Work at a natural pace (19:44)
This is not natural for humans. We need seasonality in our work, first of all, seasonality meaning hard times balanced by easier times. I think we should have this at all scales. So this week, some days are harder than others. I'm going to pull back on Friday and come into the weekend, maybe a little bit more relaxed, but Monday I'm pegging it. We should have certain months, perhaps, that are more intense than others. This is an intense month. We're kind of getting after it, but you know what? In June, things really get quiet around here and I'm pulling back and I'm going to have very light days, right? So seasonality at different levels, maybe even seasons like professors do. When are I'm getting after it? Summer, I'm pulled back far. Rest recovery, up, down, up, down at all scales. I think we absolutely need this. The other thing we have to do to get a more natural pace to our work is adjust the time scale at which we care about accomplishment. Instead of caring about how much do I get done on the scale of days and weeks, you say, "I worry about what I get done on the scale of months and years." Completely changes your relationship to the current moment. When you want to produce a good number of very high quality things over the next three years, it really changes how you feel about Tuesday. Now it's not so important that every minute of Tuesday you're getting after it. In fact, you might say, "I need to take a couple of weeks off here so that I can really have a high quality push for the weeks that follow." Completely changes your relationship to work when you say, "I don't care about how many things I check off a list this week. What I care about is what is on my CV that I produced over the last five years." That's much more compatible with seasonality ups and downs. The final point here, the final part of slow productivity I mentioned was obsess about quality. If you're going to do less, you need to pair that with doing what you do better. This will make the work more fulfilling because you're building and applying craft. Remember our example of our Paleolithic ancestors' skilled important activity.
Authentic Productivity, or Slow Productivity (21:49)
We get motivation for that. We don't get motivation for adjusting the fonts in a PowerPoint deck for fundraising, for some company idea we probably shouldn't be doing in the first place just because we're bored. But crafting the computer program that's going to run and do something really cool and you can see it producing the book, the brilliant new marketing campaign. We want to focus on doing smaller number things, but doing those things much better is going to feel more fulfilling. It is also what is going to give you both the ability and the courage to say no to other things. When your main metric becomes, "How do I do what I do better?" Now it's easy to say, "I'm not going to do this mid-lean thing. I'm not going to do this distraction. I'm not going to jump on this call. I'm not going to learn this new plugin that maybe will bring me some new email subscribers for my news list because that's not going to help me get better at what I'm trying to do. It is much, much easier to be minimalist in your scheduling when you're focused relentlessly on a small number of things getting better and better at it. It also earns you the right to be more autonomous. The better you get at what you do best, the more leeway you have to say, "I'm not coming onto that committee. I am not going to do this client contract. It's barely overlaps what I like to do. It's going to be incredibly time consuming. I'm not going to have to do 25 social media posts a day in some quixotic quest to build up an influencer audience. It gives you the autonomy you need to take control over what you spend your time on and what you don't." So that is my answer. That is my answer to the anti-productivity movement. Yes, we are overloaded. It's a problem. Why? Because of chronic overload. It causes all these issues that alienates us from our human wiring. What's the solution? Not that discard productivity and say, "Do less and let's celebrate that." But they get more specific and say, "Let's redefine productivity. We'll call it slow productivity and we're going to build this very intentionally from the ground up to get our work lives back aligned with our ancient wiring. Do fewer things. Do this work at a natural pace. Obsess over quality. That I believe is the proper response to our current rightly pointed out as problematic state of overload. That is how we take back control of activity in our life and keep it fulfilling, keep it meaningful, keep options open, but also get away from all of the issues we're currently facing in our world of chronic overload. All right, so that's what I have on slow productivity. This is a new thought, guys. I'm sure it's going to evolve. Jess, you've heard me talk about this a few times now. Yeah, I just listened to you talk about it on the Ferris interview yesterday. That's right. The day before this came out or a couple days before my interview with Tim Ferris came out. Slow productivity was one of the topics that we got into. I've also written about slow productivity for the New Yorker. My last of my office space columns for them was came out in early January was on slow productivity. I may or may not be working on a book proposal on the topics. You might be wondering why I'm talking about it. Ironically for a book on slow productivity, it can't come out fast. I think that's the problem. It was like, guys, I stayed up every night for two months and got this book done by just relentlessly working as fast as possible. I think that's not going to work. Yeah, you talked about this in the past two and previous podcast episodes where you said you were going to walk us through the process of writing the book and stuff.
Writing & Selling Books Simultaneously (25:37)
I'm looking forward to that. It's actually already started. Yeah. Maybe there's some breaking news here. In past podcast episodes, we were talking about a book I'm working on a proposal on for the Deep Life. This would be a second book. I'm working on potentially the deep life and slow productivity in some order might be the next two books I write. None of that is inked. None of that's actually written down or signed or none of it's official. But that's what I'm currently thinking is those might be the next two books I write. That's what you did before the last two books, right? You worked on them simultaneously. Yeah, I like doing that because I want to just work. I want to think deeply and write. I sold digital minimalism in a world without email. I sold those at the same time and then that allowed me to just not worry about selling books for four or five years. I could just write. When I was done with one book, I knew what I was working on. I'm going to put my head down and write type of guy. That makes me happy having to go out and talk about the books. Okay, that's harder for me. I like the part where it's just me, me and the idea. I guess me and the idea and Jesse and Tins of Thousands of podcast listeners. But that's it. Just our small circle talking about these things. So I like to sell multiple books at a time if I can. I don't want to spend, it's a pain to sell books, man. It's stressful and it's complicated and there's a ton of fiddling overhead on it too. These proposals are 50 pages long. It just takes a long time to write, but it's not fun writing. It's not, oh, I'm writing about ideas. You're writing about your marketing plan and stuff like that. I try not to do it more than I need to. One thing you mentioned in the Ferris interview was he started off with your relationship or Steve Martin, he was asking about him and you were talking about his autobiography. I listened to the audio book recently and at the end he had the quote where he was in, I think it was in the jerk when he was leaving the house. I was like, I just need this and I need this one thing and he needed all those things. It kind of reminded me of what we just said. Just said this and then just this and just a little bit of that and then just this and yeah.
Ending Routines & Sadness About It (27:50)
Good book, "Born Standing Up." Yeah, I recommend it. We should probably pay the bills, talk about some of the sponsors of the show that makes this possible.
Discussion On Routines And Sponsors
Billing & Bills (27:59)
We were happy to have them. It's not cheap to do a podcast. We have, for example, the cost of the podcast hosting. We have Jesse's $250,000 a month salary, which is not easy. There's a lot we have to pay for to get this going. Jesse, let me tell you, one of our first sponsors here is Policy Genius. Policy Genius deals with home and auto insurance coverage, which is expensive and potentially something that you're paying way too much for. But a lot of people will just put up with paying too much for this type of insurance because they say, "Well, I don't know. It's a pain to try to figure out if there's a cheaper way of doing this. What am I going to go?" Google Insurance Prices or something. This is where Policy Genius comes in. It's a one-stop shop defined by the insurance you need. You go to policygenius.com and they make it easy. You answer a few questions and they say, "Here are some price estimates." There's a number. You can compare it right away to what you're currently paying. It will also look for clever ways for you to save money. Maybe how to bundle home and auto in a way that's going to save you more money. They have saved customers an average of $1,250 per year over what they were paying for home and auto insurance before they went to Policy Genius. Policy Genius is a not insurance company but a broker that helps you find the insurance companies that are going to give you the best price.
Sign Polyamory Oath (29:37)
This is something you can do quickly. Go to this website and make it easy and suddenly you're saving potentially a lot of money.
Sponsored: Policy Genius (29:49)
Jesse, I think if we went to Policy Genius.com and showed them a picture of your truck you drive, they would just say, "Uninsurable." My insurance is pretty cheap. I've had it for a long time. Jesse drives the truck from, if you watch the show "Yellowstone" about those ranches in Montana and they sometimes do flashbacks from the 1970s, it's like the truck. They're driving in 1970s. I have that about right. It's like a 1970s old school pickup truck. It's funny too because every mechanic is like, "I tell them how many miles are. I'm like 185,000." They're like, "Oh, they had to do so much more time. So much more time." There we go. Here we go. Now, Jesse could go to Policy Genius.com and find out right away. Maybe he's spending way too much of his $250,000 a month salary on the insurance. That's what makes this website great is that it's easy. So, insurance overpayment is a first mile problem. How do I get started trying to find something cheaper? Policy Genius makes that easier, no extra fees. They don't sell your information to third parties. They've helped over 30 million people shop for insurance and it's placed over $120 billion in coverage so they know what they're doing. So, head to PolicyGenius.com to get your free home and auto insurance quotes and see how much you could save.
Sponsored: Cenre6 (31:12)
All right. So, we have another sponsor I want to talk about which is Cinard. Now, I realize Cinard is not always obvious how to spell what I'm saying here. So, let me actually spell it out. Cinard C-E-N-T-E-R-E-D. So, putting something into the Cinard. Jesse, I'm excited about this one. This is right up my alley. This is a computer software that helps you block out distractions and work deeper. So, I mean, this is music to my ears. It's an app that you can run on a Mac. You can also run it on a Windows and it has multiple different things that all come together that help you actually work deeper. It can pull all of your tasks in the one place. It can play focus music. I talked to the founder of this company actually and he said, "This is that surprisingly popular. The playing just the right music to help you focus." I told him, "I think it's not just the details of the specific music you're playing, but it's the fact that the users build up an association. That music is time to do deep work." So, you get there quicker. They have a virtual coach. Jesse's going to put me out of business. They have a virtual coach who has an English or can be configured to have an English accent and this is actually a popular feature on this app. It nudges you very nicely. I don't know that you need to be on Facebook for another hour. Maybe you need to get back and again, the users of Cinered find that to be really effective. That's going to break our plan, Jesse, our money-making plan, where you just hire me to sit over your shoulder as you work. Well, if you get a better English accent, then maybe you get back on the game. The way I do it is I would want my coach to sound like "Jocko Willing" and to basically berate me. It's like, "Get up at 4.30." "Why are you still in bed? You're worse. Get focused." Yeah, Cinered has this better figured out. They also have analytics. They come back, "Here's what you're doing. Here's how you're actually spending your time." That's incredibly effective. They've done some research. So Cinered research has showed that their users are getting through their important task 30% faster than they expected. So we know that it has effects. As I mentioned before, simple task management, 100 hours of this custom flow music, the automated coaching to encourage you. If you're not using Cinered with their automated coaching, I'm sending Jocko to your house to berate you. So let that be motivation. A great do not disturb mode. I didn't mention that before, but if you want to just lock in so I can't be interrupted, they have a great do not disturb mode. Anyways, I love this type of space. I think for too long, productivity software was just about how do we get people quicker access to information and make communication faster. That's what productivity has meant. And I think what productivity software should mean is what Cinered is doing, which is how do we actually make the computer in which you're interacting better match the wiring of your brain as a human so you get better work done in a way that's more sustainable? So you can download Cinered today at cinered.app/deepquestions and use that promo code deepquestions one word and you will get a free month of Cinered including all of its premium features. So that cinered.app/deepquestions. Good. I'm glad that app exists, Jesse, because... Yeah, free month is pretty good. Yeah, it would be pretty busy for me if I had to actually just go around and look over people's shoulders and yell at them.
Answering questions (35:00)
I don't think that scales. I think they have a more scalable model. It'd be my guess there. All right, we should probably do some questions. As always, let us start with some questions about Deep Work. Well, we've had a healthy start to this podcast here. We're 35 minutes in. Yeah. Yeah. Well, look, now that we have standalone versions of these questions, I'm going to be nice and pithy here, which means I'm about to spend 25 minutes on the first question. Well, John, it's a good question.
Your long-term memory system (35:32)
Let's start with our Paleolithic ancestors and then go into the neuroscience of how our brain is wired. And then I want to talk about the development of Enlightenment philosophy and their take on this. No, no, pithy. All right, our first question here comes from John. John asks, "What does your general knowledge mean?" The management system look like these days. Do you have a system like second brain or software tools like Notion or Rome? My biggest challenge is finding interesting papers or information relevant to my field, but having an effortless way to retrieve the information at the right time and place. Well, John, we talked about this a lot these days. I get yelled at a lot by Zettelkast and people for being, I guess, insufficiently enthusiastic. But here's my quick answer. I use Rome for most of my knowledge management these days, which I enjoy because I think it gives me more flexibility in storing and linking information than having to be in strict hierarchies of folders and subfolders and subfolders. And I'm getting better at it. Two, I think effortlessness is largely a myth. Okay. I like having a better place to store information. It makes an epsilon difference. It might make things 20% easier to find something that might generate the occasional extra idea. But as I always say when I talk about knowledge management systems, I just think for a lot of high-end work, effortlessness is a myth. Here's the reality, for example, of, let's say, article right, like working on an article like I am right now for The New Yorker. It is true that having an interesting system where you encounter lots of things in their store might help spark an idea. You know, I saw this interesting article and it got into my system. And I saw another article two months later in the comparison between those two, the contrast between those two gives me a spark of an idea that could be an article. So it can provide a spark. But then what has to happen is probably going to be focused intentional research to say, "Okay, now I want to write this article. I'm not going to just effortlessly find in my system everything I need. I'm going to have to, in a much more systematic manner, go out there and do old school research, old articles, do interviews, endless Google searching, get this all in the scrivener somewhere and start staring at it, realize I have a hole in my knowledge, go out there and find new information." So I don't really think there's a way to avoid and a lot of idea, generative type work. I don't think there's a lot of way to avoid having to do focused information acquisition for the project you're working on. No matter how much stuff you have stored in your system, there's 50 more articles you're going to have to read before you can actually say something smart about the idea. So anyways, I like these type of Zetalcastan inspired link-based storage systems as a reasonable way to categorize information. I just don't place as much expectations on what the system is going to provide for me. I wasn't too bad. Three minutes, feel good about that. All right.
Detailed Discussion On Deep Work
Two analog pieces important for your desk (38:41)
We have a question here from Raquel. Raquel. Sorry, Raquel. Raquel asks, "Do you carry or keep two analog pieces on your desk, one being your time block planner and another for notes or just your planner?" So Raquel, my two, always around, processed during every shutdown ritual, every day, capture tools is my time block planner, which has for every day space for notes and tasks that I can write down. And that's where my checkbox is that I have to check when I do my shutdown routine at the end of each day. So I know that's all going to be processed. The second tool I always have is my working memory.txt playing text file on my computer desktop. I want to say on my computer desktop, I have multiple computers. They each have one. But my main computer I use on a normal workday would be my laptop and I have it right there. So I always have my paper notebook. I can capture things on it, especially if I'm away from my computer. And then I have that working memory.txt, which collects a lot of information during the day, especially when I'm doing stuff on my computer and a lot of information pops up. Imagine, for example, you're in a Zoom meeting and there's some notes you have to think about and six tasks that come out of that meeting. I'm just typing that right into my working memory.txt right there on my computer. I can type much faster than I can write. I can put voluminous notes into there. Don't overthink it. Don't make it too pretty. Just boom, boom, boom. At the end of the day, when I do my shutdown routine, I look at the time-block planner. What's in there? Everything get put into my permanent systems. I look at working memory.txt. Let's take care of everything that's in there. Right, so that's the regular things I use. I then will introduce project-specific analog notebooks. So if I'm working on a particular computer science research paper, I might have a grid notebook. I like grid-blind notebooks for doing mathematics that I'm just bringing with me to work on that project. If I'm working on a new book, I might get a Moleskine notebook dedicated to that book. Just to put ideas in there as I have them, collect inspiration when I'm away from a computer, et cetera. And those I will use and process in a way that is bespoke to their corresponding project. So when it comes time to work on that academic paper again, "Hey, here's my notebook for that particular paper. Let me see what I had in there." And that's where I'm storing it. So I have two permanent collection mechanisms, one analog, one digital.
Cal Newports Life Journal for the Deep Life (41:13)
And then I will, when useful, have these project-specific notebooks. What about the pocket-sized Moleskine that you carry around? Yeah, okay. So that, it's a good question. So I also have a pocket-sized Moleskine that I use basically for reflections on the deep life. Now, I didn't have that terminology when I first started using this. I first started this method in 2004. And I used to post pictures on my newsletter of growing stack of the old Moleskine. And so that's not, the reason why I didn't mention it here is that that's not work-related. But I'm just, I'm glad you brought it up because it's important. When I have reflections about my life, intimations about this thing I just saw or read resonated, reflections. This has been a tough two weeks. Why? What's going on here? What can I learn about what's making me miserable and I might want to avoid? Ideas about what if we rethought this part of our working life? What if in my Constitution bucket I rethought how exercise was in my life? So everything related to living the deep life. When I have ideas, inspirations, and reflections I carry with me also in my bag an old-school pocket-sized Moleskine. Why that particular notebook? It's because it's what I bought at the MIT co-op, the first week I was on campus at MIT as a grad student. And that's when I started this habit. So for me, it is the comfort of that's what I've always used. You can use whatever notebook you want. That I look at when I'm doing updates to my semester quarterly plan. So there if I'm thinking through, okay guys, let's check. In what do we work it on for the next semester? That's where, because when you work on those, you look at your values and you typically have a vision at the top of each of these documents about where you want to be. Great time to look at those. Look at those Moleskines. The only other tip I'll give you about that Moleskine method is what do you do when you fill it? My rule is anything you go through it and say, is there anything in here that I want to remember and I haven't done something with. It didn't change my strategic plan or something, but I don't want to forget it. It's a good idea. You copy that into the next notebook. And what tends to happen is only a very small amount of these ideas actually will end up meriting being copied into the next notebook. By the time you get to the notebook, the next notebook, only a very small number of ideas will pass from that one to the next one. And so it's a way of making sure things aren't lost, but it also helps you purify. What's the idea that I've carried with me through four or five notebooks? Okay, that's a signal that maybe I really need to make a change around that or I need to listen to it. So, yes, that's a good copy. So I do have that Moleskine as well, non-work related but critical to my pursuit of the deep life. All right, we got a question here from Candice.
Letter from Candice on Job Seeking in Deep Work (44:09)
Candice says, do you have any tips for how to apply the deep work approach to job seeking for a first job? I'm feeling overwhelmed with all the options out there and I don't know what metrics actually reflect the efficiency of my search. All right, well, Candice, you're over defining the word deep work. This is a common theme on the show that people will expand the term deep work to capture all sorts of different things. But let's keep it really focused. Deep work means I'm working on something difficult without distraction, so I'm not context shifting and giving up my full attention. And the whole idea behind deep work is that is the most effective cognitive state to produce non-trivial or valuable work is giving something your full attention and not context shifting. That really has nothing to do with organizing a job search. What I think what you mean here is how do I do this in a way that is deep in the more general sense, meaning focusing on what matters, giving that intense intention and not wasting your time with things that don't. That general application of deep I think is quite appropriate here. What I'm going to recommend is what years ago, I'm talking 2007 when I was blogging mainly at a student audience. And I'd introduced this notion called the textbook method where when you're trying to master something complicated and non-trivial, you should approach the challenge like you're writing a book about it. Let me go gather information about this, organize my thoughts and actually write it out like a little book. Do that about your job search. I want to write a book on, in your case, it's biomedical engineering on how to get your first job in biomedical engineering. It won't be a long book, but something I feel good about. Well, how am I going to write this book? Well, I better go learn about how do you succeed in doing your first job search and biomedical engineering. Well, how do I do that? I guess I should go talk to people. When we talked to the seniors from last year who got, who were in my program and got good jobs, we talked to three of them and walked them through their job process and then have them reflect what mattered and what didn't. If they had to do it again, what would they focus on? Why don't you go to the Career Services Center at my university and talk through job searching for this? Career Fair maybe talked to one of the reps from one of these firms and said, "Let me ask you, when you're hiring, how does this work on the other end? What matters? What are you looking for?" Get the real information and organize it and write it down. Not a full length book, but you're putting together a pamphlet that's evidence based on here's the right way to job search in my field to get a first job and then go execute that. That is almost always the key to taking this general, deep approach to things in your life. If you want to focus your energy intensely on what matters and not waste time on things that don't, you got to know what matters and that requires evidence. Keep in mind, reality is often not what you want it to be. If you say, "I'm just going to make up what I want the matter for job searching," you will come up with something that you like. It's hard, but not too hard. Whatever, but it might not have any connection to the real world and what really matters. I really like this deep approach to almost anything, but it requires an evidence based approach. That's my advice, Candice. Basically go do the research to write a book on how to do biomedical job searching and then execute that plan. That's how you're going to be confident that you're doing the right thing.
What You Learn from Applying Deep Work (47:46)
Let's see here. We got a question from Mark. Mark who describes himself as from Utah, the gateway to Colorado. Jesse, is that like Utah self-hating Utah? What is that like self-deprecation? I couldn't tell. I was thinking maybe it goes to Colorado a lot. Maybe it drives. This is like a pro Colorado partisan anti- Utah guy. Here's what he asks, "What are you learning from people who apply your work?" You have to be hearing good things from people who are reading and applying the principles in deep work. I'd love to hear them also. What are the important things that you can learn from your book that you wish your fans slash cultist could learn?
Things That People Have Learned Ask Questions (48:32)
The only place I have cultist followers I think is in that Utah. It just really, it really suck. Here's what I always say and Jesse knows this. If only Utah could just be more like Colorado. What I'm doing here, Jesse, is I'm pandering to see this question. What have people learned from deep work and what do they not learn? What have I learned about the book? It's a good question. Jesse, you do some deep work. What have you learned? What's your real world experience with trying to be deeper? I think it goes hand in hand with all the podcast episodes that you put out in the other books. I mean, working on stuff without distraction. You get a lot more done. Essentially closing down your email, not checking that all the time. Just having a certain time through to check that. I would say that's pretty consistent. People will say, however I do it, when I'm able to be more sequential and when I do hard things, just do the hard thing without context switching until I'm done, you hear this a lot. They say, I get so much more done. I would say that's pretty consistent. Your face the dragon motto is really solid too. That hit home with me. I have it on my board at home, so I see it. Yeah. That's relevant. With face the dragon, what I'm saying is look at everything on your plate. Don't run away from it. Look at everything on your plate. I call it the productivity dragon. Face the productivity dragon. Here's the thing. If it is incongruable, then you have to see it and confront it. For a lot of people, that's why I'm glad you brought it up, Jesse. What that leads to is they face the productivity dragons. They've written down everything. A lot of times what will happen is they write down everything and then they try to come up with a strategy for how do I deal with all of this. They start trying to build out their autopilot schedule and I'll work on this here and this here and it just doesn't work because it's just way too much stuff. What that leads them to do is to say, oh, I'm going to cut out half of this stuff. Yeah. Then the other thing that's great is with your time block planner, you showed how if certain things go over, you cross out your existing plan and just start a new one on the same day. There's often times where I'll be doing stuff and run out of time and it's as full of productivity as you talk about it. You just wait till the next day and try to factor it in. I like that. You had a plan. You were intentional. You've won the game. Yeah. There is no gold stars for, wow, you came up with a time block plan and you hit it exactly. Or you came up with a weekly plan or even worse, a quarterly plan about how this thing was going to unfold and you hit it exactly. No one comes along and says, great, you get extra money. You get extra sales for your book. You get gold bars or something like that. It doesn't matter. What matters is, are you being intentional with your time? Because who cares if you get it right or not is all that tells you is it's a little bit of luck and how good are you at guessing how long something takes. In the end, it's going to take however long it takes. The key thing is that you're working on something consistently and with intention until it's done and it gets done well. Whether you guessed properly how long that was going to take or not is not that important. The automation stuff and finding different environments for different work is awesome. I'm taking Spanish lessons right now so I know certain days I'm going to do my homework in a different spot. It's just done. Good. We have three things so far about applying deep work in the real world, what people have learned. In particular, what Jesse has learned, facing a productivity dragon is important. Intention Trump's accuracy, the key is that you have plans. Don't beat yourself up if you don't have plans. In three, Jesse is saying the idea of having set times and places you do set work is a hack that really works pretty well. Where's your Spanish lesson environment or ritual? It depends on the day. This Saturday I'm going to do it tomorrow morning at a separate desk at my house and then you'll have the same desk that I do something else. Which is a good point. Sometimes it's minor. We talked about this in a recent episode. We were telling someone to put a second desk in the same room. It doesn't have to be dramatic. You don't have to fly down to Mexico every Saturday to do your Spanish lessons. This is the place I go to do my Spanish lessons even if it's a different desk in my same house. And then even listening to your interview with Ferris yesterday and you were talking about going down to D.C., going to the botanical garden, stuff like that. That type of stuff I've factored into to the way I do things like going to the local library or going to some of the things that do go into different coffee shops and do something. If you do that for an hour, it adds up. Keep on doing it. That's a slow productivity plug as well. It's one of the things that goes in my life when I get near that chronic overload threshold. Right now I'm near that chronic overload threshold because I'm helping with a few university initiatives which I think are very important. I'm doing this by choice but it's a lot of stuff I don't typically like involving Zoom and PDF files. The overhead of that gets to the point where you no longer have those half days free or those full days free where I would say I'm going to go down to D.C. and think about one problem for most of the day. That's a real slow productivity thing. When your load is reasonable, you can do things like I'm going to go down to a museum and work and then go walk through the galleries again inspired and then go work some more and move around the city and make a whole day about it. You can't do that anymore when you're overloaded but when you can do that, you're going to produce something cool at the end of that year. When you can't do that, you're going to get a lot of Zoom meetings done. You get a lot of PDF files read but it's like me right now month whatever of working on my book proposals, they're still not done. What I probably use is a couple days at the botanical garden. It's an argument for slow productivity. If you don't have the space to take a slow day to work on one project, you probably have too many projects. That's good. There we go.
How long to focus? (55:12)
There is straight from the mouth of someone who's working with these ideas. These are some of the things that we have learned or people have learned about putting deep work in the practice in the real world. I think we have time for let's do one more deep work. Wow, we're really 55 minutes. Let's do one more deep work question. We'll keep going with some deep light questions. This last one comes from Walter. Walter asked, "Do you think it's possible to push past the four hour a day limit for deep work?" Yeah, Walter, it's possible the four hour limit comes from research of professional musicians, four hours is roughly probably a cap on really intense deep work, but most knowledge workers don't get anywhere near that level of intensity. That number came from the study of professional violin players. You see similar numbers for professional chess players as well. They do very intense training where they're trying to solve puzzles. Here's a position puzzle and it takes really intense concentration. There's only so much of that you can do maybe around four hours. Most people doing knowledge work are not anywhere at that level of intensity. What's actually happening in their brains, they're going up and down, focusing really hard and relieving that pressure for a while, then focusing really hard. Yes, you could spend, and people do spend more than four hours working on things deep. The only addendum I would add is why. If you're spending more than four hours locked in on one thing, really trying to push yourself past where you're getting good returns, the question is maybe you should just slow it down. Good work day after day after day, let that break up. You can do it, but I want to build a professional strategy around let me spend 10 hours a day working on one thing. I don't think you're going to end up in a much better place than spending three hours a day, but working on it day after day after day. That's probably going to get you to some better work. I don't know that you're going to save time, heroically trying to fill your day anyways, because that brain is going to tire out. All right, so that's it for deep work questions. We have a good collection of questions for the deep life before we get there. A couple other sponsors we want to talk about help make this show possible. The first one of those sponsors is Magic Spoon. You've heard me talk about Magic Spoon quite a bit on this show. They were one of the first sponsors of this show. They put out a cereal that tastes like that treat cereal you used to eat as a kid in the 80s or 90s, but without all of the junk, zero grams of sugar, 13 to 14 grams of protein and only four net grams of carbs in each serving, only 140 calories a serving as well.
College And Parenting
Magic Spoon (57:44)
It's keto friendly gluten-free, grain-free, soy-free, and low carb. Compare that to the cereals that we were eating in the 1980s, which I believe not only satisfied none of those properties, but we're also 30% petroleum products. Know if that's true, but I do get the sense that probably there was old tire rubber involved in that cereal. Now we can eat that type of cereal that we enjoyed and actually have something that is healthy for us. Jesse, you're a Magic Spoon guy, unrelated to them being our sponsor. Yeah, I actually bought some because I was always a listener of your show and then I bought the peanut butter kind. It's really good. Now, I hear from listeners that the expert move is to take the peanut butter Magic Spoon and mix it with the cocoa Magic Spoon and its Reese's. Yeah, that would be pretty good. I tried the fruity-prevels kind too. It's good. I mean, I've always been a huge fan of cereal, but cereal is horrible for you, so you can find something that's decent, which it was. I mean, much more healthy than the other cereal, but cereal is always kind of like my cheap and now it feels better. Yeah. I think that's cheap for something else. So anyways, it's a Magic Spoon cereal. You feel good about Enit and also it tastes good. So here's what we can offer for you. If you go to magic spoon.com/cal, you can grab a custom bundle of Magic Spoon cereal and if you used a promo code "cal", see, "al", at checkout, you will save $5 off your order. Magic Spoon is so confident in the product that is backed with a 100% happiness guarantee, so if you don't like it for any reason, they will refund your money. No questions asked or you can just send your box here and, Jesse and I will eat it for you. Remember, get your next delicious bowl of guilt-free cereal at magic spoon.com/cal and use that code "cal" to save $5 off. Jesse, we should get like a kitchenette here or something. We need a coffee maker. I'm surprised you don't have a coffee maker, actually. I was thinking about that. I was thinking about that when I was at work. I have this weird block about decorating and furnishing the HQ. I don't know. You've got to help me with this. We've got to make this place a reason. I want to be able to go get like a bowl of Magic Spoon cereal and a cup of coffee in these offices without me having to go home. I'm going to bring the camera next week and we can film it and then show the audience and then they can start motivating you too. It will be pure pressure. Clear pressure from the viewers will say, "You've got to make this HQ better. We're trying to live vicariously here." It looks like this was like a crime scene or something. It was a crime scene and this is after they took most of the stuff away for evidence and this is what's left.
Sponsored By ExpressVPN: (01:00:46)
I like that idea. Let's do, speaking of decorating, which is going to cost some money. One more sponsor to talk about and that is ExpressVPN. Jesse, do you know what a VPN is? Only through you because you've explained it before. My explanation as a computer scientist is that with a VPN, when you want to connect to a website, right? Jesse is at the gym and is connecting to Magic Spoon.com to order something. Instead of just directly connecting to that website where everyone can look at your packet and say, "Who are you connecting to? Why are you connecting to them?" Maybe you had too much Magic Spoon or whatever the issue is. A VPN says, "No, what you do instead is form a connection to a VPN server." You have an encrypted connection to the VPN server and you tell that VPN server, your browser or whatever software you're using, tells that server through an encrypted connection, "This is the website I really want to talk to." Then the server talks to that website on your behalf and then it gets the answer back from that website or from whatever service you're trying to access and then sends that back to you over this encrypted connection. No one around you knows what you're up to. The ISP you connect to, the access point at your gym, whatever, can't keep track of who are you connecting to, who are you talking to. There's a lot of reasons why you might use a VPN. There's security reasons, there's privacy reasons, but there's one cool little benefit you can get from them. If a service like ExpressVPN, they have VPN servers all around the world you can choose to connect to. If you are connecting to a service through a VPN server somewhere else around the world, that service thinks you're coming from that country. Netflix, for example, offers different content based on where you are in the world. If you want to unlock different Netflix content, you can just connect to an ExpressVPN server in that country and then just use Netflix as normal and you will see only the Netflix content that's available to that country. It's actually pretty surprising how much stuff you're missing. The copy here says watching Netflix without using ExpressVPN is like paying for a gym membership but only being able to use the treadmill. Jesse, that sounds like something that you would not tolerate that. I would assume as someone who spends a lot of time in gyms. I agree, I agree for sure. I like to get around and see different equipment. Before the pandemic, I traveled a lot internationally in my role as a professor and as a writer. I use VPNs all the time, especially when I'm overseas, because A, I don't know who's tracking me. B, I want to be able to access services back in the States, for example. ExpressVPN is my go-to. Here's what they have that makes it my favorite. Many different server locations. Wherever you are, there's probably a server not too far away. Really fast speeds. This is everything with a VPN. You have to have fast speeds because now you're going through an intermediate server. They have blazingly fast speeds. Great encryption setup. It's really seamless the way it works with your computer. You're just using your computer like normal and you're going through the ExpressVPN servers. You want to do a VPN which you should. ExpressVPN is my recommendation. Be smart. Stop paying full price for streaming services and only getting access to a fraction of their content. It's worth at expressvpn.com/deep. Don't forget to use my link at expressvpn.com/deep and you will get an extra three months of ExpressVPN for free. Three months is pretty good. Yeah. Give it a try. All right. Well, now that we are about seven hours into this podcast, we'll do a few deep life questions and then we'll wrap it up. I blame myself. I get excited about core ideas. I just love productivity is exciting to me. So I sort of had to go on a tangent there.
Time Management for Non-Traditionally Connected College Students (01:04:43)
Nah, that was great. All right. What do we got here? Question number one comes from Ann. Ann is asking about time management for undergraduates from underrepresented backgrounds. She's a university professor, mentor students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. So Ann says when we've done this is interesting. When we talk about time management, often the challenging part for these students is getting their parents or younger siblings to respect their deep work time. I find this challenge really different than what I face as a parent where it's much easier for me to carve out time for my work because I'm the head of the household. What would you recommend for non-traditional students and building effective time management strategies that take into account multi-generational households and unique demands faced by underrepresented minorities? It's a good question and an interesting thing I would say about my college books and in particular how to become a straight-aid student. And so as far as I can tell, the number one market for that book is non-traditional college students. So you would imagine, oh, that book is read by a bunch of young Cal Newport's. It's sort of traditional 19-year-old residential college. They're there for four years. That's actually not the number one market for that book because the sort of traditional 19-year-old coming into a residential college out of their upper middle-class neighborhood, they don't even really want advice to them. College is like a social experience as much as an intellectual one and they just want to have fun. But it's non-traditional students from many different definitions of that term that are much more focused on, hey, I'm here to learn and to get grades to open up opportunities. Are way more receptive to, I want every piece of advice I can get. So how to become a straight-aid student, for example, is used in a lot of first-generation college mentoring programs where a lot of schools like Georgetown will have a very particular program if you're a first-generational student. And how to become a straight student is used a lot. It's used in some veteran, military veteran programs. We're preparing military vets who are returning to college a little bit later in life on the GI Bill. Let's get our act together. Let's get after it. So I'll just say that as a preamble, the books like how to demonstrate a student are, I think, more popular among people who are much more willing to say, "I want to do this well and I'm looking for advice." All right. So how do we deal with that particular problem of carving out time?
Job, Student, or What (01:07:20)
The things I think are important is you need to treat your schoolwork in the situation using the same idioms with which you would treat a job. This is my job. It's a part-time job I have. It's a part-time job which is getting this degree from this school. Right? So first of all, when talking to your family, talking to your relatives, talking to your friends, this is one of my part-time jobs. Then you have to actually treat it like a job, meaning this is when and where I do the work. This is a, the idioms surrounding work we're much more used to. Oh, you have a job and you have shifts. And these shifts are on these days at these times. All right, when you have a shift for your work, you're not available to do something else. We understand those conventions. You have to essentially in this situation treat your schoolwork the same way. And this is where autopilot scheduling is going to play a really big role. Let me look at all the work I have to do on a regular basis for my classes. Let me figure out when and where I always do that work. And then I can make that really clear. This is my shift schedule for school. And then people just recognize, "Ah, it's Tuesday from four to six." That's when, you know, he's working on school. So we just know he's not available then. As opposed to treating it more again, like a student as a residential college where you just say, "Man, what's due tomorrow?" "Ah, man, I got a lot of things due tomorrow. I better go do a lot of work." And suddenly there's other people saying, "Wait, we needed you to help look after your little brother and we need you to give a ride for your grandma over." Like, you can't just be gone all day. Like you didn't tell us about this. We have stuff we need to do. So you have to actually really focus, I think, on the autopilot scheduling approach to schoolwork when you're in these situations where it's not just my full-time job is I'm at school living in a dorm and I have nothing else going on. So that is what I'd recommend to the extent possible do this work not in your house too. I think that makes it more clear. If you can do it on the campus where you're taking the classes, if you can do it surrounding the classes, works really well. I'm going to school to the lecture. And for the next hour after the lecture I do the schoolwork related to the next lecture. So it's all just combined with I'm gone doing school.
Upset mom trying to make sure her daughter succeeds without crushing her (01:09:29)
It's my shift and then I'm back. So that clarity, I think, is going to go a long way. Now we've got a question here from a frustrated mom who is asking about college admissions hysteria and the selectivity of colleges for future employment. Let me excerpt this question a little bit. But this queryer says, "My teenager is utterly unmotivated and likely has an undiagnosed learning disability because she seems quite intelligent outside of academics. I'm in California where kids seem to take an average of eight AP exams and seem to have weighted GPs over four. I worry for her future and it upsets me when people point to examples like Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison and claim a college degree is not important to succeed. If this were true then please tell me why companies aren't lining up the higher out of high school or community college or second-tier schools but all make a B line a higher from the IVs. She says, "What about kids who need to work or can't handle the pressure of doing it all? If college was so optional then why the hiring cues outside of Harvard and Princeton and why the sentencing of teens who didn't do it all at an already vulnerable time in their lives." All right. So frustrated mom. She's got a lot of work on college admissions stress. When I was a graduate student in the first decade of the 2000s there was a huge issue with college student stress because of two things that occurred during this period. One was demographics. So I'm a part of the millennial generation which is the children of the baby boomers. It's a very large demographic group. I'm at the very older end of the millennials, right? So I'm one of the first millennials. So when I was just arriving at graduate school you had a huge number of millennials entering college admissions season. So there's suddenly this huge strain on college admissions and then at the same time they introduced the common application. So it used to be like when I applied to school, when I wanted to apply, I applied to Dartmouth, there was an application for Dartmouth and I had to go use a typewriter at my dad's office because you had to type right in information in the fields. And for your essays, you would write your essays and print them and I vaguely remember like pasting them into this thing. I mean the application was a physical booklet you would send away for. You would send them money and they would send you back this thing and it was a huge pain. So you were pretty selective. I'm applying to three schools and it took me a while. But the common app, it was, oh I fill out all this information on the website once and I can apply it anywhere I want just by clicking the button. Now suddenly people were applying to 20, 30 schools and everyone who is at least a little bit smart would say, well I might as well just do Harvard, I might as well do Princeton, I might as well do Yale, you never know. And suddenly they had these admissions percentages that just seemed like they were plummeting. When in reality it was just you had a bunch more people applying who never would have before because they already knew they weren't going to get in. Anyways, it caused a huge issue. College admissions stress became a problem. There was a bunch of national cases, case studies that were drawing national attention like gun high school in Palo Alto, California where they had string of suicides. This was starting to happen with high school students. Which is all to say I wrote a book eventually called How to Become a High School Superstar. And it was all about diffusing college admissions stress. So I feel your pain. Let me give you a few points before I just say read that book, which by the way I think you're going to like. But let me give you a few points. Yes college matters, ignore the Silicon Valley types that say Steve Jobs didn't go to college. Because you know your kid's not Steve Jobs. And your kid's not Larry Ellison. And so yes, if you want to do a knowledge sector type job like an office job, for better force you have to go to college.
Parenting and your kid (01:13:26)
There are obviously other types of work. Big Matt Crawford's book, shop classes, soul craft, that there's a lot of other really good work that has to do with skilled manual trades, which I think we definitely overlook. But I think the people for which that is well suited know that. It doesn't sound like this is your daughter. Like there's some people that know like I want to repair things and fix things or work on a ranch. And the people who want to do that know they want to do that. And I think we need to normalize that more. But if you're, that's not your path, yeah college matters. So yes, I agree. You can't just skip colleges. I also agree. Yes, it's true that the very selective colleges open up a lot more opportunities, especially for very high pain elite jobs. They go to the very selective colleges to do that type of recruiting. You know, there was this famous study that everyone kept talking about during that first wave of college stress. There's this famous study that people are talking about. They said, aha, doesn't matter what school you go to. See, we did this study where we looked at students who got into good schools, but also to less good schools and went to the less good school and some went to the better school. And it didn't matter. And the end they both did as well. So it's the person, not the school that really matters. This study was really popular because people like that idea. Don't over sweat the school you go to. It doesn't really matter. I wrote an article about this way back when like in 2008, that's a crazy interpretation of the data. Look at the study, it turned out to matter quite a bit. Actually, if you went to a better school, you made more money out of it. It was crazy. The interpretations that media outlets were making of that study. And I don't mean to go on a tangent here, but basically there was one way you could rank schools by which you could show that effect went away. That's something to do with like the median SAT score. But if you looked at the most natural way to rank schools, which was looking at their ranking in a, it wasn't US news might have been barrens, but whatever, just looking at their ranking, it made a big difference. In these dyads, the students who went to the higher ranked school versus the lowest ranked school made more money. Okay. So that's true. There's jobs that are open to people in the Ivy leagues that aren't open otherwise. You can't do much about that. Can't do much about that. That's true. But I'm going to try to make you feel better here for us right at mom. I don't think you want most of those jobs. Yes, you can be a derivatives trader. You can be a management consultant and that you can get into really good law schools. But like, I don't know that you're not so like, so where does that end you, right? That you have like a very expensive penthouse apartment in New York. I mean, you're also like completely stressed out and alienated from your family. As you're a managing director at a big bank. I mean, some people want to do that. Most people don't. So that's my first point. So what? And then two, I would say don't think about that hype. Go to a good school. Go to the best school you can get into. Do well when you're at that school. Find an interesting job that gives you options. Do career capital theory and lifestyle center career planning. Make yourself an awesome life. That's the recipe. And California is crazy about this stuff. DC is kind of bad about it. California is crazy about this type of college stuff. And they really, and I can see it in your question. So I have so much empathy here, but they really get under your skin and make it seem like, well, if you're not going to, you know, Yale or University of Chicago, dot, dot, dot, but you know what? Follow out that dot, dot, dot. What happens? Yeah, I don't get to go work for Goldman Sachs. You know, I would say congratulations. You don't want to do that anyways, right? I mean, what happens? So you focus on your grades, get the best grades you can, go to a good school. My advice is typically go to your state school unless you can get into a small number of very elite schools that are like much, much better than your state school. I'm a bit of a crumudget on this. I'm not a big believer in like shopping for random private schools that are nowhere near you just because it like you like to look at the campus. I mean this with respect teenagers because I'm talking about myself at that age, but 18 year olds and 17 year olds are idiots. Like how much do we really want to give them weight to their decision of like, no, I definitely need to go to this random school halfway across the country. It's like go to your state school probably unless you know, you can get into a fantastic school, you know, okay, if you're really into government and politics and get into Georgetown, go to Georgetown. But don't go to a random private school halfway around the country because you like something in their brochure about their, you know, gym and the campus look nice.
Success In Selective Colleges
Go to a good school (01:18:00)
Like go to your state school, listen to an elite school. Don't over schedule. Do really well in your major. Get good grades. This will open up job opportunities, build a cool life. I think that's the takeaway message. So to bring that back to my book, what I did in that book, how to come high school superstars, I profiled a bunch of kids that did fine in college admissions, but weren't at all stressed out. And I kind of walked through like what their life was like, what matters, what doesn't. And you know, spoiler alert, they're not over scheduled. They wander and stumble into interesting things. They're pretty smart about their study habits.
What do you need to do to get into Selective Colleges? (01:18:40)
So they get good grades without having to study all the time. And that's kind of it. So I am giving you permission frustrated mom to not get too caught up in this selective college hysteria. You know, you should help your daughter with good study habits. Don't over schedule her. Let her live up to her academic potential. Go to the good school. Maybe one of the great UC system schools. Don't pay twice as much to go to a school across the country and let them do well there. Read my type of advice. Find themselves, find their flow, do good work and then lifestyle center career planning. Build a really cool, interesting life. I think that is what most people should be doing. And we need to stop obsessing about this dream that I don't know, you're going to go to Harvard and then the Yale Law School and be like a senator at 30 or something like that. Hey, spoiler alert, that's not going to happen to you. Like it's going to happen to a small number of people. Don't build your whole life around. That's what you need to do. I guess. What did you, was it like Jesse, did you have that pressure? How do you remember that college? Because we're the same age. We were like it's funny you bring up the common application because it got worse like right after we went through this whole thing. Yeah, I mean, the common application was key to me because I never were applied to Tuss if they didn't take it. I just like submitted it the last minute and ended up getting accepted. And once I weighed other schools, I selected it and ended up having a great time and loved it. But I didn't think about the admission rates with the common application until you just mentioned it. It inflated them. So it made it seem super impossible. The point I make in that book is the key thing about college admissions is that it is a vanishingly small number of schools and students for which things like your extracurricular activities or whatever matters.
The biggest mistake people make when applying to college (01:20:28)
For the vast majority of colleges and the vast majority of kids, what's your grades? What's your SAT scores? Are they in the range of our accepted students? Yes, you get to come here. That's the vast majority of colleges, the vast majority of kids. So get the good best grades you can, get good SAT scores, find schools that you're in the middle of that range, go to those schools, don't even sweat it. It's such a small subset of people for which you're applying to a school in which they're like, we have so many students who have grades that are pegged at the top of our range. Now we have to start differentiating among other factors. But even then, that's not most students because a lot of those slots are reserved for various sports or for the orchestra needs someone. Now we're down to a really small number of students. Then there's some shoe-ins because these type of colleges want as interesting as a possible of class. There's just some really interesting people. Then there's people who are daughters of presidents, so they need to come here too because we're trying to create whatever. Now we're down to a very small number of slots, at a very small number of schools where you have an admissions officer saying, what activities do you do? So I think we definitely over-blow that.
Ari Leifer Is Living A Good Life While Still Working All The Time (01:21:41)
Everyone is obsessed with what are my activities. And they're wrong about it. That's the whole point in that book. One of the big points in my book is that people are wrong in terms of what they think is important when it comes to activities. They focus way too much on quantity, thinking somehow that raw quantity of activities is somehow impressive. It's not. Or they fall into the trap of looking for activities that have incredibly clear competitive structures like in my the first chair of the state orchestra. Only one person your state gets to be that for the instrument, so it's not necessarily a great place to be competing. So I don't mean to rant, but I just want to give more people permission to say, I'm going to get the grades that I want to work hard, get good grades, see what school is that opens up, go to that school, have a good experience with that school, build a cool life. And of course I'm saying this is someone who went to an Ivy League school and trained at MIT. So maybe it's easy for me to say, but I don't know that my school opened up for the vast majority of my peers. Really cool, interesting, happy life. They all just went to Harvard Law School. Everyone I know just went to Harvard Law School and are all law partners now and are, you know, tired. So congratulations. They have nice houses though. But oh well. All right. We should probably call this one Jesse. What do you think? We're at like an hour 30 here. Sounds good to me. All right everyone. Well, thank you for sending in your questions. And as always, if you liked what you heard here, you'll like what you need on my newsletter, which you can sign up for at Cal Newport.com for videos of every episode and stand on videos of every question. Go to the YouTube page, leave it in the show notes. And until next time, as always, stay deep.