Why You're Always Tired & Exhausted (No Matter What You Do) | Cal Newport
Transcription for the video titled "Why You're Always Tired & Exhausted (No Matter What You Do) | Cal Newport".
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Let's get started with our deep dive. So here's what I wanna talk about today. Tiredness. A lot of knowledge workers I hear from are telling me that they are tired and exhausted all of the time, not the sort of lack of sleep tiredness where you know where that's from, but more of a psychological exhaustion. The sort of, I have a hard time continuing to work on hard things after we get to two o'clock in the afternoon. So what I wanna do here is argue that the explanation for this endemic tiredness is not what you think. And when we realize what's really causing this tiredness, some unexpected but targeted solutions become possible. And I have a couple that I wanna give you at the end of this deep dive. All right, so let's get started with the most common answer if you ask people, why are you tired all the time? The most common answer you're gonna hear from knowledge workers is work volume. We have too much work. The metaphor we wanna give here is we have a battery, that's our energy. Every unit of work, every 10 minutes of work drains a little bit from the battery. So if you have too many units of work that you have to do in a given day, you drain the battery down to empty and that's what caused the state of exhaustion. I think this is the common mental model that most knowledge workers have. I think however, the real answer is more complicated than that. There's two pieces of evidence that tells us that this draining battery model is not quite like we think it is.
Understanding Knowledge Workers And Productivity
Knowledge worker myth debunked: Concentration, draining, productivity (01:34)
The first piece of evidence is we can find numerous case studies of knowledge workers who produce a large quantity of work. So the total units of knowledge work that they're doing is very, very high and yet they don't report being exhausted. They don't report being tired. Let me give you an extreme example of this. I can actually bring up a picture of her on the screen here for people who are watching instead of just listening. Up on the screen, I have Maria Popova, the blogger, writer, newsletter, writer. Her site used to be called Brain Pickings. Now it's called Marginalia. She does reviews of books, reviews and commentary on books.
Knowledge workers who write a lot: Maria Popova, 0CEO of J.D (02:13)
She works a lot. So I found a profile of her from about 10 years ago where they catalogued her typical workday, but her typical workday is three essays or post per day. She also used to have a regimen of 50 tweets per day all scheduled out. So I can just tell you from a writing point of view, that is a large amount of knowledge work, especially since the articles and posts that she puts on her site are based off of her reading entire complicated books, novels, poetry, nonfiction books and memoirs. So she's reading roughly a book a day. She's posting three times a day plus at least for a while was doing 50 tweets a day. So she works a lot. But as the quote shows up here on the screen, she does not describe herself as exhausted or tired. I'm reading now something she said, "I'm a believer in pacing, creating a rhythm where you do very intense focus work for an extended period, but then you take a short break and then cycle back." I think ours is a culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that speaks to work ethic or toughness or whatever, but it really is just a total profound failure of priorities and self-respect.
Harmful societal outcome of culture overvalue (03:17)
She does not buy this idea that you should be exhausted all the time. Here's another example. I'll bring him up on the screen. The famous memoirist, not memoirist, nonfiction biographer Robert Caro, among other things has written the, or is still writing the acclaimed multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Robert Caro also writes all the time. I'm reading here on the screen a quote, "In his New York City office, where everything has this particular place, Caro works long hours, seven days a week, pouring through inner view transcripts and primary source notes, working slowly and deliberately on books he publishes on average once every 10 years. He works constantly, huge volume of work. So just add up the units of work. There's a lot. Yet he's not exhausted. And in the secondary quote here, I have him talking about many days where he jumps out of bed happy. I'm really getting into it. I tend to get up earlier and earlier just because I'm excited to get to work. It's not exhausted. All right, so volume of work, this does not seem to be the full explanation for why we are tired.
People need tools to get control of their schedule (04:33)
We also can look at some survey data on this as well. I'm bringing here on the screen, another article here, this is from Work Life. It's summarizing a study, and the headline tells you everything you need to know about the study that they're summarizing. Nearly half of workers say they work four hours a day. So we have examples of people who work a huge amount. They accomplish a huge amount of work, but are not tired. We also have evidence that when we look at how many hours most knowledge workers are actually working, it's not as large as you might suspect.
More Work vs. Less Work (05:10)
So there's something else going on here than just the total units of work is draining our batteries. So what is really going on here? Here's my answer. It's not the volume of work that matters, it's how we schedule it. So let's go back. What was different? Our first piece of evidence was Popova and Caro were not exhausted. Why did their work schedule probably hit you as very different than your work schedule? It's because the way they talked about how their work was scheduled. Popova talked about, I work for a long period of time. Extended periods of time on something hard. Caro sits in his office and he will sit there with interview transcripts hours and hours at a time, just reading. The documentary that came out last year about Robert Caro had the title, "Turn Every Page," because that's his advice on how to write a good nonfiction biography. Read every single page in the archives until you're completely immersed in it. So what we see in the scheduling of their work is a sequentialness. Long stretches on one hard thing at a time. The total amount of work they do is large, but the total amount of times that they are shifting from one thing to another is small. This is very different than how most knowledge workers are approaching their own work. The typical knowledge worker is constantly jumping back and forth between different targets of their attention. Now there's a lot of reasons for this. One is the diversity of things we have on our plate at any one time is very large. So we often have many different tasks and obligations that were shuffling. Each of these different task obligations or projects brings with it its own demands of overhead. Emails that have to be sent to keep coordinating it or moving it forward, calls that have to be made, meetings that have to be jumped on, small tasks that have to be accomplished. So if we have a lot of different types of things on our plate, we get a lot of these small overhead tasks crowding out our schedule. So we have to jump back and forth between them and email about this project and meeting about this project on the three emails about that project and email about this thing over here before we're back on a meeting and then we have to file this paper over here. That requires a lot of shifting back and forth of attention. The other thing that happens of course is just in general the way that we coordinate or collaborate in the knowledge work environment is that we use ad hoc on demand messaging. We figure things out on the fly with these ongoing back and forth digital conversations that are unfolding in an inbox or unfolding in a Slack chat channel. This too requires us to keep switching our attention from whatever we're working on to these channels so that we can keep those conversations going and then back to what we're working on and then back to the channel to knock another message back or to reply to another chat and back to what we're working on. So we create an environment in which our attention is constantly shifting back and forth between different things. Very different than what we observe with Popova or Kero.
The 2009 Sophie Leroy Paper (08:10)
Popova will sit down and read for four hours. All she's doing is reading that book. Kero will sit down and work on a chapter for five hours. All he's doing is working on that chapter. They're doing one thing at a time for long periods of time. We're switching back and forth frantically between many different things. So is this a problem? It is. Let me look up on the screen here, a important research article from 2009. This is Sophie Leroy's paper titled, "Why is it so hard to do my work? "The challenge of attention residue "when switching between work tasks?" I'm just gonna read you something here from the abstract. So here we go. Results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers. Being able to finish one task before switching to another is however not enough to enable effective task transition. Time pressure while finishing a prior task is needed to disengage from the first task and thus move to the next task and contributes to highest performance on the next task. So if you look closer at this paper, she has these two results, which is it takes a lot of time to switch fully your attention. So when you switch from one task to another, there is something called attention residue that is left behind, which lowers your cognitive capacity, generates fatigue, until it clears out. You have a conflict of things that you're focusing on. She says, "Even if you finish," this is her second point, "Even if you finish a task, "it takes a while before that clears out of your mind." Now she says, "Time pressure can help here." So if you have a deadline, I have to submit this thing before the post office close and you have a clear deadline and you submit something right before the deadline. It's a little bit easier to clear out that attention residue. That's what she meant about the time pressure. But the big picture thing here is that your brain loads up lots of information about whatever you're working on and it's not a cheap or quick operation to change that to a different target. This is why the typical knowledge worker approach of frantic switching back and forth of your attention is exhausting us. It's why you're tired by 2 p.m. and say, "I can no longer do anything hard." It's the switching back and forth is making your brain miserable. It just can't do it. You're constantly in a state where your brain has one context and you're working on another context and before it can load that context, you switch it back to that context. It's just really difficult. It's like if you're a professional runner for your job and you didn't realize that you've been wearing a backpack full of bricks, it makes your job unnecessarily more difficult. So it's not the volume of work that's the problem. Maria and Robert do a huge volume of work, but they're not context shifting. They're barely context shifting. So the mental experience is much more sustainable than those of us who maybe are only getting like that study said four real hours of work in, but that four hours is completely fragmented with frenetic back and forth context switching. So it feels like you just finished the proverbial knowledge work equivalent of a marathon with all those bricks on your back. So it is very self-imposed difficulties that we're putting ourselves in. This is why I think we're tired. We switch our attention back and forth too much.
Desperately seek sequentiality and plan (11:35)
All right, so that's good news, bad news. The bad news is shoot. It's hard to just stop doing that. By bosses of the emailing me, I have a lot of work on my plate, but the good news is at least we know what we're trying to accomplish. We don't have to argue, give me less work. We instead have to figure out how do I make my work more sequential? So I wanna give you one general piece of advice here and then one brand new specific piece of advice, a strategy that I think a lot of people could get a lot of help out of. It's something I haven't mentioned before on this show. So the general piece of advice is desperately seek and try to preserve sequentiality. Just keep thinking, context switching hurts, context switching hurts. Avoid context switches when I can. You wanna have an almost visceral dislike of switching your attention so that your instinct is to try to preserve your focus on one thing at a time before you switch. So that might be simple in some cases. Okay, if I'm working on this, just work on this. Don't check my inbox till it's done. And then spend 30 minutes on my inbox. Then work on this thing over here. Just knowing you're trying to set up your work to be one thing after another. Time block planning can help you do this much better. So if you time block plan, when you lay out a plan for every minute of your day, you're much, much better able to figure out where things fit. So everything has its time. And you can give that thing its full attention when it's actually happening. The really succeed with making your work more sequential, you also are probably gonna have to come to grips with there is less things you can actually productively push forward in a given day. We write ourselves these idealized work fairy tales in the morning about, wow, if I could actually push forward all six of these different things, that would be great. I would feel productive. But you don't actually have enough time to give all six of the things in this example, enough undistracted attention to make a difference. Probably should just work on three. We feel bad in the moment because we're thinking that's less productive. But when we zoom out, we see the sort of just touching on these things wasn't helping when there was too much of a crowded schedule. We were just sending out the proverbial thoughts, question mark, email to just try to play obligation to hot potato and get things off our plate. And just to say, technically speaking, I talked about this, we stall, we delay, we obfuscate, we do low quality work. So we also have to be more comfortable with there's less things per day than we think that we can actually deal with. So that's the general advice here, is develop an aversion to context switching, use time block planning to better lay out past during the day and get comfortable with actually doing fewer things in the day. 'Cause you're probably already trying to do too much.
Put your inbox on a diet (14:14)
All right, now what's my super secret piece of specific advice? Well, I wanna tackle your email inbox in particular. I think this is one of the most devastating vectors of context switching exhaustion. There is fewer things more daunting for your brain's attentional system than a crowded inbox. And the reason is, is when you see a crowded inbox, you have dozens of things that you need to respond to on dozens of different contexts. So as you go from email to email, you are drastically switching the relevant cognitive context from message to message. And this is incredibly draining. So you have an email from your department chair and it's urgent and it's salient that someone that you work for and you wanna answer them quickly, but you have to try to load up this context of all of the issues surrounding the committee that he's asking you about. And then two minutes later, you have an email from a student in one of your classes. This is a completely different cognitive context. All right, the class, what's going on, what's our schedule, who's the student, but before you can switch completely over that context, you have an email from an administrator, a scheduling question. That's a completely different context. Oh my God, like what is going on with my schedule? Do I have time for this? Let me see my calendar. This is a massive demand you are making on a brain that is used to being much more sequential. And it's why email clearing in particular can be one of the most exhausting activities we have in knowledge work is because it is pushing this context switching pace to completely unsustainable levels. So here's my specific piece of advice about this specific source of acute context switching overload. Single thread your inbox. Here's what I mean about this.
Single-headed context checkers (16:02)
This is entirely using context theory to make your inbox worse, less worse. You have your inbox open, you wanna catch up on emails. Choose a single context for which there are multiple messages. So messages from students, messages about scheduling things, messages about this upcoming conference that I'm organizing. And what you were gonna do is just focus on the messages that all fall within the same cognitive context. And I want you to load up right next to your inbox, a blank text file. We call these on the show workingmemory.txt file, so this sort of a blank text file right there on your browser. And you are gonna type in a quick one sentence summary of every email of that context. So you have a bunch of student questions, quick summary, every email from a student that's in your inbox. Then you're gonna go over to this text file and say, okay, I forget the inbox, I don't wanna see these other messages, I forget all that. Here are six or seven things that are all related to the same cognitive context. Let me think through my answers to all of these. Yes, no, I'm not gonna delay this, I'm gonna ask this. And right, I'm talking right bullet points in your text file. You're tackling all of these things together. And you're gonna find that as you get going, the friction reduces because as the single relevant context gets loaded up into your neural circuitry, the facility of thinking about this, the ease with which you can come up with ideas is going to increase and increase. And it's gonna be like, okay, great, I'm on it. You're gonna have pretty nuanced answers. Okay, great, this is great. Actually, let me tell these three students to wait to hear. These two students are wondering about the timing of this exam. You know what, I should move that exam. Okay, so who I need to tell the TA? And you're just in a context. You come up and you work out all of your answers. Then you go back to your inbox, you translate that to responses to each of those relevant emails you clear them out of your inbox. All right, okay, thread over. What's my next contextual thread? Maybe there's a bunch of different things about scheduling and meetings. Okay, now I'm in meetings mode. Over here, every single meeting message, I'm gonna put a line in my text file. Any dates that they're suggesting, okay, I need to find a date next week. I need to suggest a date. Here's dates they're suggesting, I need to choose one. All that information in your text file. Close down your inbox, load up your calendar, load up your text file, and you're just working on scheduling now. That's all you're doing. Again, you're gonna find after a few minutes as the context loads and you stop trying to interrupt it, you become a scheduling master. Oh, you know I'm gonna move this here and we consolidate these. I'm gonna move that meeting. And if I clear out this Tuesday, I can fit these all on here. Then you go back and you answer all these emails. It's funny because in the end, maybe you're answering the same total collection of emails when you're done. The experience though is gonna be five X less exhausted. And it's because you're hacking context shifting. You're sticking in one context till you're done than another. So single threading your inbox can drastically change your experience of what it's like to empty your inbox and really minimize the contrail of fatigue that inbox checking can otherwise leave across your mental sky. So that's a specific tip before I give you some general advice as well. But all of this is wrapped around the same idea. Is it's a detour or a diversion? We think too much just about how much am I working? And if I just had less hours of work, I'd be less exhausted. That's not what's causing the issue with knowledge workers. It's the context shifting itself. And that is something we can, as individuals do something about, it's definitely something that organizations and bosses and managers could do something about, but I wouldn't be holding my breath about that. But it's all about why are we tired? Well, in large part because we're scheduling our work in a way that is designed to exhaust our brains, stop doing that. We still have a lot of other issues to deal with, but at least things are gonna get a lot better. You might not be able to have Robert Carro's eight hours in a row of just reading articles, but getting closer to that ideal is going to lower the amount of exhaustion that you're gonna feel by the end of the day. - I think Carro still uses a typewriter. - I believe it. - I believe it did when it was profiled in the New York Times who's on C or 60 minutes once. - Yeah, yeah, this are slow 'em down, stay, not be distracted. I mean, these are extremes. Carro's an extreme, pop of us an extreme, like they just read and write, like that's all they do. But I do think it's important to study these extremes 'cause when you study people who do produce huge volumes of high-level knowledge work, you often see this, they minimize, they naturally lean towards minimizing context shifting. And I think in normal knowledge work, we just don't think about context shifting as an enemy at all. I think we should, it's productivity poison. So once we recognize that, it can really change, really change a lot of habits. All right, so what we have is a bunch of questions and a case study, a live case study actually coming up where we have someone calling in to give their case study about trying to do a Robert Carro style book writing project in the middle of an otherwise busy family and professional life.
Sponsored By BetterHelp (20:59)
So we've got some great questions and a case study coming up. First, however, I wanna talk about one of the sponsors that makes this show possible. In particular, deep questions is sponsored by BetterHelp. So fall is often a busy time for a lot of people. Maybe you're finding that racing thoughts are keeping you up at night or anxiety about all sorts of different things is getting in the way of the activities that you used to find really relaxing or engaging. It turns out there's a good way to deal with these ruminations and these racing thoughts. And that is working with a professional therapist. If you were an athlete and your knee was bothering you, you would say, I want a professional to help me with my knee. So it stopped bothering me because it's making it hard for me to do my work. Well, if you're a knowledge worker and your brain is all over the place, why not get a professional to help you build a better relationship with your thoughts, to find a way to still have great joy in meeting your life even with difficulties going on cognitively.
A Better Relationship with Your Thoughts (22:09)
Now, of course, the issue with therapy, even if you are considering it, is that it can seem daunting from a logistical perspective. How do I find a therapist? Are they available? Are they good? What if I don't like them? What if there's not a lot of therapists near where I live? There could just be no availabilities in the physical offices that are near me. This is where better help enters the picture. If you're thinking about starting therapy, you should give better help a try. It's entirely online. It's designed to be convenient, flexible and suited to your schedule. You just fill out a brief questionnaire and you will get matched with a licensed therapist. You can switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. So now is the time to build that better relationship with your mind. Better help has made that easier than it's ever been before. So get a break from your thoughts with better help. Visit betterhelp.com. Is it slash deep questions, Chef? - Yep, that's it. - Slash deep questions today get 10% off your first month. That's betterhelp. H-E-L-P.com/deepquestions. Another thing that I think is really important to consider is the closeness of your shave. Long time listeners know I am a big fan and user of Hinson shaving, nerds love Hinson shaving. And I'll tell you why, because they are a precision aerospace parts manufacturing company that use their precision equipment to build the ultimate shaving razor. Precision really matters in building a good razor because what they're able to do is build this beautiful aluminum body where you can add a just standard 10 cent safety razor blade to it. You screw it on top and it's so precisely milled that you have just a bare edge of the blade come beyond the body. Now that just having just a little bit of blade stick out means you get a close shave without the diving board effect that creates next that creates clogs. So by using a Hinson's razor, this beautifully precisely milled piece of aluminum, you get a great shave using standard 10 cent blades. So what's cool about this is you save money over time. You spend more upfront to get this beautiful tool that they hand, they milled with their precision, you know, aerospace machines, but you're not paying those expensive monthly subscription fees you would for a subscription service. You're not having to go back to the drugstore and buy those incredibly expensive 19 blade plastic vibrating things that they sell there. So pretty soon, financial, you end up on top if you're using the Hinson razor because the blades are so cheap, it doesn't take long before you've amortized that initial startup cost and it's much cheaper to sustain. So it's a cool tool built by cool people that gives you a great shave and it's much more cheaper to maintain over time than the other options. So it's time to say no to subscriptions and yes to a razor that will last you a lifetime visit hinsonshaving.com/cal, the pick to razor for you and use code Cal and you'll get two years worth of blades for free. Just make sure that you add the two years worth of blades to your shopping cart. And then when you enter the promo code Cal, the cost of those blades will drop down to zero. That's 100 free blades when you head to H E N S O N S H A V I N G.com/cal and use that code Cal. All right, so we're gonna move on now to some questions. I guess these all roughly orbit mental exhaustion, tiredness, you know, we do our best to keep the theme somewhat on theme.
How to Read for Longer Stretches of Time (25:59)
Later in the questions, as I've previewed before, we're gonna have someone calling in to give their case study about using some of these ideas. So stay tuned for that. But let's just get started with a standard question. Jesse, who is our first question of the segment? - First question is from John. How do I read for longer stretches of time? I wanna be able to read for 90 minutes in one sitting, but I just can't. The best I can do is 45 minutes and by the end I'm falling asleep. How do I build up my reading stammer? - Well, John, first of all, let's go back to what we talked about in the opening segment of the show and be very wary about context shifts. So we are so used to today, having this easy access to distraction in our pockets that we don't even know it as an activity. So when you say here, you know, I can read for 45 minutes, but then I'm very tired by the end. You think you're reading for 45 minutes. The neutral observer is probably seeing seven or eight smartphone checks. I gotta check this text message and see what's happening with the baseball game. So keep this in mind, every one of those checks is inducing a context shift, which is incredibly fatiguing. So of course you're not gonna make it very far. It's like saying, I wanna go for a 5K run, but let me just bring this wheelbarrel full of metal slag with me. It's a huge extra cognitive weight that you are adding, which makes the activity all the more harder. So the easiest thing you can do is when you read your phones in a different room.
Reading Strategies And Managing Stress
Interval Training for Reading (27:21)
That alone is gonna give you 30 to 50% more reading stamina without changing anything else. All right, so then how do we expand beyond that? Let's say we wanna get all the way up to 90 minutes or two hours out of sitting. There the two part solution is gonna be two things to start with the letter I, interval training and interesting books. So the second piece is the easiest. When you're trying to expand your reading capacity, read the most interesting possible books. Do not use Anna Corinna as the book you're gonna use for trying to expand your reading capacity. Don't read Thomas Pincin as the book you're gonna read to expand your reading capacity. Get a book that you were like super excited to read when it came out and that you have a hard time putting down. You know, think about this as the running equivalent of don't start to get in shape for your five Ks by running up a really steep hill. Maybe go on a flat, nice, in track that has a lot of give. All right, interval training. The technique that I developed when I used to work with undergraduates who are trying to build up their capacity for studying. And all you would do is get a timer. And we would set the timer for, okay, how long are you gonna read? And until this timer goes off, focus on the reading. If your attention wanders, bring it right back. And you start that timer at something that's reasonable but somewhat ambitious. So maybe 30 minutes, maybe 45 minutes. And once you're able to do that for a couple of weeks at a time, you increase it by about 15 minutes for the next session. Okay, now I'm going for a full hour and then it's gonna get difficult for a while. Okay, I can get through about 45 minutes, no problem. That final 15 minutes, I'm struggling. But my timer is here. I see there's only 15 minutes left. There's a clear goal. I wanna make it so I will power through. Now it seems like a little thing, whether you have a timer on or not, but it makes a big psychological difference. If you're just saying read as long as you can, the voice in your head saying, check your phone, check your phone, has a pretty strong argument because they can say, you're gonna stop reading it at some point anyway, so why not stop now? But when you have a timer and there's that voice in your head saying, check your phone, check your phone, you say, well, I can wait nine more minutes. You have a clarity there. So then once you get used to the new expanded interval, which might take a couple of weeks, you add 15 more minutes. So it's interval training. You stretch until that stretch is no longer a stretch and then you increase it some more. You can get the 90 minutes based on my experience work with undergrads and roughly a semester, so in a few months, if you're pretty careful about it. So there we go. Interesting books plus interval training and a rule of zero context shifting, you can significantly increase your stamina for concentrating on the written word.
Interesting Books for Reading (30:02)
Okay, Jesse, what do we got next? I like that timer stuff. Next question is from Joel. I'm getting the recommended eight hours of sleep every night but constantly feel exhausted both when I wake up and throughout the day. I've been watching videos on the importance of limiting screen time before bed and I think I'm maybe a culprit for my bad sleep. Do you have any advice on ways to reduce screen time before bed as I find it very addicting and hard to break that habit? I love the irony of watching videos about how to reduce screen time. Imagine him Joel up late, late into the night watching videos about how to not watch videos before bed. All sorts of contradictions and irony in the online productivity space as the channels are exactly the causes of productivity issues in the first place.
How to handle race crafting for in insomnia (30:51)
All right Joel, a couple of things here. I mean, first of all, of course, if you're tired throughout the day and you're getting enough sleep, if you're actually already enough sleep, go back to the opening segment of the show, make sure that you're not excessively contact shifting. Some of that tiredness may actually be mental fatigue and not actual run down tiredness so you wanna just set up your day to be less unnecessarily exhausting but we're gonna focus specifically on this issue of your sleep being disrupted. I mean, I agree that good sleep hygiene can help and going on to, I think the right way to think about it is highly salient, highly distracting, highly arousing content should not be consumed near bed. So anything where it's coming through an app that makes money by how much time you look at it, avoiding that I think is important. So you should not go on YouTube before bed, you should not go onto Instagram or Twitter or TikTok. Anything that's attention engineered is gonna be a problem because again, these services, those services work. Services, you don't pay to use work by getting you to look at the service longer. So they're gonna be pressing buttons within your brain to get a response that makes you very engaged and aroused emotionally and wanting to actually come back and keep watching more. That's not a great state to be in if you wanna go to bed. So if you're gonna be looking at a screen before bed, a general rule of thumb here is look at things where they don't make money off of you spending more time on it. So if there's the office on peacock, like I watch an episode or two of the office 'cause it's comforting and it's dumb, that's gonna have much less of a negative impact, right? These streaming services make money by you paying a subscription fee. So they wanna make sure there's stuff on there you like, but they don't particularly care if you binge for seven hours in a row or not. They're just, here's, we have a bunch of shows we think you'll like. So there's a real difference. They both seem like screens, but watching a comforting, somewhat boring show could actually help your brain calm down in a way that watching TikTok videos or following YouTube recommendations might actually get your brain fired up. So the intent of the platform, is it engagement or is it customer experience? Makes a difference on how it's gonna affect your sleep. The other thing I wanna throw in here, though it's sort of the curve ball, is another common sleep disruptor is not necessarily what you do right before bed, but what's happening inside your head. If your head is keeping track of a lot of open loops to use a term from David Allen, task that you're responsible for, projects you need to work on, ideas that might lead to cool opportunities, if you have a lot of these things that exist primarily in your head. And if you forget about 'em, it's gonna be a problem. Your brain is gonna have a hard time falling asleep because it feels like the juggler, where the things that's juggling are very fragile and valuable and doesn't wanna drop anything, so it has to keep moving.
Stop trying to check everything off (33:38)
So ironically, one of the biggest things you can do to help you sleep at night, is be better about how you control your work during the day, being better about how you shut down your work at the end of the day. Organizational systems that are built around notions like full capture and planning. So every task that you need to do that you've committed to is captured in a trusted location that you review regularly. So your brain doesn't have to keep track of it, makes a huge difference for your sleep. Multiscale planning, I have a plan for my season which gets turned into plans for my week, which gets turned into plans for my day. So that my brain doesn't have to just keep thinking, hey, what am I working on? What should I be working on? Should I be thinking more about this or that? Helps you sleep. Having in general a good shutdown routine. Okay, the day is over before I shut down work. Let me check all of the inboxes, my email, my plan, making sure that everything has a place, anything that came up has been written down. I know what's happening tomorrow. There's nothing I need to be keeping track of. We have a good plan, everything's captured, great. Let me now check that shutdown complete checkbox in my time block planner, or have a ritual or phrase I say. And so later if my mind starts to get roominative about work, I can say, no, no, no, I checked that checkbox in my time block planner, I said that phrase. That means I successfully reviewed and shut down all open loops. I don't have to worry about things till tomorrow. That makes a big difference for sleep. All right, so to summarize, we have a couple different things going on here. Be careful about what screens you expose yourself to before bed. It's probably gonna be easier if you have a bedtime screen habit to just change what you look at and it will be to just cold turkey stop looking at a screen before bed. Just shift your screens to things that's not emotionally salient or emotionally arousing. And then care a lot about how you organize your work, open loops, shutdowns and multi-scale planning.
Why Context Shifting is Exhausting (35:34)
And finally, make sure that some of your daytime exhaustion is not actually from context shifting as opposed to sleep disruption. Those are my three points, Joel. I think all three of those things combined will make a difference. I'm noticing, Jesse, we got, not only do we have a bunch of J names in a row, but the next name is literally JJ. It's as if we go through our questions alphabetically. I like it. Unfortunately, it's the last the J names. I wish we had more. But anyways, let's get, after John and Joel, let's get rolling with what JJ has to ask us.
How to Deal With Stress When Going Home (36:05)
- Yep. So JJ has to say, I'm constantly feeling stressed during the evenings when I'm not at work because I feel like I'm wasting time. I wanna constantly be improving myself, but I also wanna take time to do fun things. Video games, see friends, et cetera. What should I do? - Right, so this could be an issue for people who care a lot about productivity writ large as evenings can be stressful. It can be stressful because if you're not doing anything structured, you feel just unnerved. You practice multi-scale planning. Your work day is time block planned. It's connected to a weekly plan and a seasonal plan. And it can feel unnerving to be just around. I feel unproductive. But then you're worried about like, well, what do I wanna do? Is if I treat my day like my work day, that's exhausting because it's also really hard to be very structured during the work day. And so you can be in a dilemma like JJ is in as well. So the two things I recommend in this situation is one, clear separation between work and non-work. So clear shutdown routine. We just talked about this and the answer that I gave to Joel in the previous question. So you really can't shut down work. That'll help your mind leave the work productivity mindset of we are constantly trying to keep track of what's going on and making sure nothing's being misplaced and we're making good use of your time. You wanna clear shutdown. So your mindset can shift. But the second thing I would advise is that especially if you're an organized person, having no plan is overrated. We often tell ourselves that the solution to maybe the exhaustion we feel from work is nothingness. The goal is if I could just have nothing to do, then no plan, no intention. That will be the opposite of having too much to do and I'm gonna find relaxation and rejuvenation. Actually does not work that way for a lot of people, especially if you're organized, having nothing to do, having no plan is stressful. And you get that unnerving feeling that you talk about. So what's the right thing to do? Sketch a plan, but make sure that plan is varied and rejuvenating and interesting. The problem that people have, what stresses us out about work is not the fact that we have things to do. It's not the fact that we have a plan. It's just that we have too many things to switch back and forth behind. It's 'cause the work is hard, the work is stressful. It's not the plan itself. It's what the plan is actually is in the plan. Work is hard. You sketch a plan after you're shut down. It shouldn't be a detailed time block plan. Be like, yeah, I wanna get a reading session in and work out. And then why don't we watch this show with the kids that I've been reading about. I think it's gonna be special. And I wanna make sure that I have a go for a walk before we get ready for bed. You should sketch a plan of things that are meaningful and useful for the family and useful for yourself and varied and rejuvenating. And it's not a tight minute by minute plan. You're actually gonna feel much better about that. So again, the key to get away from the stress of a busy work day is not to significantly reduce what you do. It's not to significantly reduce the idea of having a plan. It's to make the things you do much better. To make the things that you've planned to do fun or interesting or useful to the world beyond the world of work and complete unconnected. So shut down work, shift to non-work mode, but then say, I wanna hit the pillow proud tonight. Like what do I wanna do with my time that makes this an evening that I'm proud of? And it has nothing to do with productivity. It's not how do I achieve this or get ahead of this. It's like, how do I get time to read this book I really like? How do I get someone on one time with like my oldest son who I haven't seen recently? You wanna make intentional use of your time which is separate from some notion of optimizing time or maximizing output. So doing little can be stressful. I mean, there's so many books just, there's a while where do nothing, how to do nothing, the art of doing nothing. There's this whole notion of what we need to do is nothing. Doing nothing stresses a lot of people out. - Yeah. - Like humans don't like to do nothing. - Yeah, because people are like really afraid of being bored. - Yeah, and boredom is actually a useful human emotion, right? - Yeah. - Like why do we feel such a strong, distasteful emotional reaction that doing nothing is because we're evolved to actually wanna be doing things. That's what drives humans to unlike a cat who's completely happy. If I can lay in the sun for seven hours and I'm a cat, it's a good day. Right, cats don't get bored. Humans do, but that is the drive. It's like, okay, well, what else are we gonna do? Well, I don't know, let's invent fire or organize a political system or invent religion. The boredom is part of what drove humans to take advantage of this larger brain that we grew. - Yeah. - So we showed it, boredom is important indicator. The key is, I mean, can people are not stressed out by doing things, they're stressed out by what they're doing. - Yeah. - The reasonableness of what they're doing, whether they have enough time to do it, the actual demands of the work they're doing, that's what's stressful, not the doing itself. I mean, you can stop your work and be reading and woodworking and movies, watching sport, like all sorts of things you can do, which are things, but they're very different than work. It's really the content of activity, not so much the planning around activity. Planning itself is not too stressful. - Yeah, actually, Lex had Yaval Hararion like a couple of weeks ago, and I listened to that there talking about like civilization and boredom and stuff.
Cognitive Conceptual Developments And Personal Growth
Yval Harari: The Cognitive Conceptual Developments (41:26)
- Oh, interesting. - Yeah, Yaval is real big on the cognitive conceptual developments in human evolution that just unlocked everything. Yeah, I'll listen to that one. - Yeah, it was just before the Isaac's in one, I think. - I saw someone the other day attribute sapiens to me. - That's pretty good. - They said, "Cal Newport's books, "Sapele" like millions and millions of copies. - Yeah, I was like, "I like that, I suppose." I mean, it's probably bad news for Yaval Harari, but I guess good news for me.
Your Deep Life Listener Feedback (42:00)
I was like, "I'll take it." - I'll take it. - Oh man. - All right, let's keep rolling. What do we have next? - All right, next question's from ETN. Cal, "I'm a Benedictine monk in Missouri. "I have a disagreement with a part of your deep life stack. "Discipline is not an identity per se, "but rather a tool for developing and solidifying "and identity. "You use value as a criteria for leading a meaningful "and purpose of life, shape through code, ritual, and routine. "You readily assert that you need discipline "for a value to take hold, "but discipline needs a reason." - Yeah, it's a good question. I get this debate a lot. I think it's one of the more unique and controversial aspects of my conception of cultivating a deep life, where I say discipline comes first. No, ETN here disagrees. Part of this is semantic. I think discipline is an overloaded word. We have a lot of connotations with it, often negative. We think about discipline sometimes as something being enforced upon us, the cruel headmaster disciplining the kids. We also have connotations with discipline with those who are idolizing, making a false god out of discipline itself, where we have my, all that matters is the discipline of what I do. And the harder things I do, and other people won't do these things this hard, and all of my self-worth just comes entirely from my discipline. This is the sort of David Goggins style philosophy of sort of building your identity around extreme feats of discipline. So it was an idea that was really big and supported by Instagram culture sort of over the last decade. So it's an overloaded term. So let's use a different term just for this conversation, efficaciousness. So efficaciousness describes the degree to which you believe yourself able to actually take action towards goals. If you're an efficacious person, you say, yes, in general, I am someone who if I have something I wanna do and it's reasonable, I can do it. I can figure out how to do it. My argument having spent a lot of time with people who are trying to turn around their lives is that that is missing a lot of times, and if that is missing, nothing else works. Even trying to determine what your values are and believing that you can build your life around those values. Even that seemingly fundamental decision lays on a foundation of efficaciousness. If you do not see yourself as someone who can take action towards important things, even if it's not obligated and even if it's hard, if you do not see yourself as a person who can do that, almost any other self-developmental activity is going to be derailed. It's gonna dissipate before it actually takes hold. Now there's other people and probably a ton, I mean you're a Benedictine monk, so you're probably an exemplar of this other type of person where they just have the strong sense of efficaciousness, and so what matters, like right off the bat then, is like, okay, let me figure out my values and build my life around it, but most people, the average person stumbles before they get there. So when I say discipline is an identity, what I don't mean is what matters is that you build your identity around discipline, that you become David Goggins or Cameron Haines, like how you define yourself and your value is through your discipline, and I agree with you fully there, that that's not, that's falsidal, that's not gonna get you there. But on the other hand, I think, until you have built a minor foundation of efficaciousness, your efforts are likely gonna be wasted, the average person's efforts are likely gonna be wasted, so that's why I put discipline first, you have to just start by convincing yourself, I can do things, and there's an excitement and a motivation and a clarity and a drive that comes out of that, that when you then say, "Okay, so what do I care about?" You actually care about that question, and you take it more seriously, and the answers actually stick. I'm so kind of convinced about this foundational idea that I've been recently playing around with my deep life stack, and one of the configurations I've been playing around with more recently actually has a much clearer division between laying the foundations and then cultivating depth. Now, and I'm not, this is very early stages, I'm just throwing out ideas here, but one of the reconfigurations I've been playing with in my notebooks recently is one where it's not just discipline comes first, but maybe we're gonna do discipline, control, and maybe even throw in something like craft. So first of all, how do I convince myself I'm efficacious, second of all, how do I just take control of all the stuff in my life, learn how to have control over what's on my plate and how it's gonna get done, and how to take things off of my plate, and maybe throw in their craft. Okay, now let me teach, let me take this out for a spin and show myself that I can actually get good at something. When I set my mind to it. And almost seeing that in this new configuration I'm playing with, that's the foundation. Now with that foundation set, let's get serious about depth. And that's step two. Now it's okay, what do I really value?
Become an Exceptionally Capable Human (47:04)
Now I'm ready to tackle that question seriously. Sacrifice, how am I sacrificing my time and attention on behalf of other people, community around me, people I care about, let's get serious about that. There's no meaning without that. And then finally, escape a remarkably, then now how do I leave my legacy? How do I create the remarkable aspects of my life built around these values? I mean, I'm almost seeing now is like a very clear separation where there's this long process of just becoming to borrow a term from Jaco, an exceptionally capable human being. And then once you do that, you say now I could become an exceptionally deep human being. And I think when we sometimes swap these things around, it's not successful for people. Some people it is, but I think a lot of people starting with the depth before they have the capability, leads to a lot of self-recrimination and dissipation, it might lead people to believe, I'm just not able to do this, I'm just fundamentally a broken person. I'm trying to like build my life around values, I can identify them, I don't trust the values I pick. It can almost be harmful if you jump right to the cultivating depth before you've done the boring hard work of becoming a capable human being in the first place. So I don't know, I'm still playing with these thoughts of teens, so I'd like the excuse to just discuss and get some more feedback. And I love this type of feedback, but that's a little bit of an insight about how I've been thinking about this recently. All right, let's do one more question before we do our live call in case study, which I'm excited about. Sounds good.
Yiden has lost his charming momentum. (48:26)
Next question is from Yalon. Hi Cal, until three years ago, I used to be a deep life person. I had a schedule for each day, I studied a lot, slept well, my phone was on airplane or silent mode for most of the day, the usual stuff. But since then I've been losing my charm, I'm having a really hard time making time for studying or even reading, I almost never planned anything ahead anymore and I've been seriously addicted to video games. I'm an English teacher and I have my obligations, but I never do anything beyond the obligatory area. What's more, being a teacher in Israel makes you become hooked on your phone because there are so many notifications, updates regarding what's going on with the school, you have to be aware of what's going on. I wanna get back on track and it feels extremely hard and sometimes even impossible. You know, Jesse, what's interesting about that is a couple nights ago I was giving a talk up at my kids' school about smartphones and kids and social media and kids and I was talking to a family afterwards who just moved here from Israel and they actually had the same point, they said, "You know, in Israel the phone culture is like inescapable." And they said here they actually felt like, so their kid, their middle schooler had a phone and everything, he said in Israel, like everything is built around like WhatsApp and notifications and how the schools operate and everything is built around the phone for all these various different reasons. And here it feels like it's possible not to do that and so they were wondering, can we pull it back? We had that, you know, so it's interesting, something about Israel. - Did you read that on New Yorker article like last month about the Chinese school and like all the WhatsApp and how there's a thousand messages a day for the parents? - Yeah, I was like completely overwhelmed. - It's like the same thing. - Yeah, yeah. So I think cultural differences in tech patterns is an interesting one. But to get back to the bigger issue here, I think this goes right back to the question with the Benedictine month that we just answered. So what we see here is kind of the opposite. So the Benedictine month, this is basically, what I mean here is this is sort of, what's the right way to put this? Yalon, I believe, has done the become a capable person piece of the deep life stack. As he talks about, he previously had it all dialed in, he's organized, he has control over his time and activities and schedules and is careful about how he uses his tools. But then he stopped before getting to the stuff that Yitan, the Benedictine monk said is important. To figuring out your values, your vision for your legacy and purpose on earth, building your life around that. So this is a really interesting point because what it shows is if you just do the first part in my plan, which is like you gotta be capable before you can really figure out how to be deep. If you just do the capable part, you don't know that's gonna stick. So what happened here? You did the capable part and your mind was basically the what purpose. And so you began escaping back in the video games and found sort of the capability stuff starting to dissipate again. So Yalon, what you need to do is keep moving up the deep life stack. So once you regain, you know how to do this. So just get back to like, okay, intentional, multi-scale planning, careful about my tools, great. Now you gotta keep moving up the stack. Now you gotta get really engaged on your values. What's my code? What are the rituals I use to remind myself of the value of this code on a regular basis? What is this vision on which I'm gonna build my lifestyle, my purpose on earth? Maybe then throw in some sacrifice. If you're not sacrificing non-trivial time and attention on behalf of other people, you're not gonna feel fully alive as a human. So you're a teacher, so there's many ways for you to reintegrate this into your life. And then finally, you have this sort of escape or marketability legacy piece where you have some ambitious plans that you put into your life that are meant to actually take these things you care about and push them to new extremes. And now you're working towards something, your capability, your ability to be organized on top of things is being deployed towards something that's important to you. I think that's what's missing. So in the last question I said, if you just do the second part, but not the first part, that's a problem, because it's very hard to actually seek depth and sacrifice and have these legacy building projects if you're not a capable human. But we're seeing here, if you just do the first part, that's not enough either. It being productive for the sake of being productive is eventually gonna probably be something that is not fulfilling. So we gotta see both sides of the stack. Neither of them can act in isolation. You need both of them. So you're lying, I'm glad, glad to give me a chance to talk about that.
Something new: Case studies (52:56)
All right, so what I wanna do next is something kind of new. So we often do case studies on the show where people send in a written description of them applying the ideas we talk about so we can see them in action. A friend of mine, a magazine editor friend of mine, however, was telling me about his story of how he integrated book writing into a busy life, both professional and personal, which had a lot of different stuff going on. And I said, wait a second, let's get you on the air. Okay, I think it's a great case study about integrating ambitious deep projects into an already busy life. And it does some myth busting on things that people worry about and people get wrong. So my friend Stuart Reed agreed to call in and do a live case study. So let's do that now. Let's get Stuart on the line.
Stuarts background, personal life, and new book (53:46)
All right, Stuart, thank you for jumping on the line with us today. Hopefully you're doing well. It looks like you're in a fancy looking studio there for those who are watching this instead of just listing. Why don't you tell us where you are calling in from right now? I am on the Upper East Side of New York and the Council on Foreign Relations, which is the think tank that the magazine I work for, Foreign Affairs is part of. And I'm deep in the basement, although there's a projection behind me to make it seem like I'm on the rooftop. - So Stuart is classing up the show here. We're gonna be talking about foreign affairs and complicated diplomatic wrangling. So Stuart, the reason why I wanted you to come on is you have this new book out, the La Mumba plot, Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War assassination, the type of gripping narrative nonfiction book you might expect the executive editor of Foreign Affairs to write. But the reason why I wanted to get you on the line was not so much the details of the book, but how you wrote it, because you were telling me offline about the experience you had figuring out how to make this project work in an otherwise busy life. And I thought, aha, there is an interesting case study lurking here about taking on ambitious projects, finding time to do the work, and some of the paradoxes of what leads to efficiency. So I wanna just go through a quick timeline here. This book is coming out in mid-October, so imminently when this case study is airing. But take us back to the beginning just to set the stage. When did the idea of this book emerge and what was going on in your life at the time? - Sure, so thanks for having me, it's so exciting to be here. The idea was percolating in 2017, 2018. I focus on Africa at Foreign Affairs and thought there was this cool Cold War story that was front page news in the New York Times in the time, but was later forgotten. And so as you probably know, the best day in any nonfiction writer's journey to publication is the day you get the book deal. And then you realize, oh shoot, I have to actually figure out how to, and legally on the hook to turn in a certain number of words by a certain date. And so I had turned in my proposal to my agent and then I actually got hit by a car while biking in Brooklyn, which would turn out not to be the craziest thing that happened to me during the whole book writing experience. And so that was just a-- - Just to interject right there, I think it would have been to your advantage to somehow spin that as the forces you talk about in the book trying to silence you. You see what I'm doing here? You could make your own life into a thriller story. I mean, there's a coincidence to it all I'm saying is the day you turn in a book about the secret history of the CIA, you mysteriously get hit by a car. It always go on, so when was this? - That was a missed marketing opportunity. And yeah, I remember sort of sitting in editor's offices in my tailbone really hurting and trying not to grimace. That was in January 2019. I then got married in September of that year and then went on book leave from foreign affairs for 10 months, the idea being, oh, you know, in 130,000, 140,000 word book, I should be able to basically crank that out in 10 months. My wife and I moved to Paris because that seemed like a fun thing to do. I got a decent amount of research done, but by the end of that 10 months did not have a book at all. - Right, okay, so then we have this initial period. So I'm basically just narrating your life, Stuart, I hope you don't mind, but this is what I do. So we have this initial period where you got book leave and you moved to Paris. This I'm just gonna say is to stand in for what people imagine is needed to successfully tackle a very large intellectually demanding project. I need to be able to go somewhere intellectually stimulating and spend a lot of time doing nothing but working on this project. So the first phase of this project was you doing what people think is needed to accomplish something of this size, which is just go away and do nothing but work on the book. But as you just said, that wasn't enough time, that didn't work out, you got research done, but only wrote maybe a third or so of the book by the time that window was opened. So now suddenly you're in this situation, we have a lot more book left to right. The book leave is gone, or I'll bring the narrative back to you because I think things are about to get even more busier than they were before. So now what happens? You have a lot of book left to right, the magical book leave in Paris, then it solved your whole problem. Now what happens in your life is you're facing the rest of this manuscript process. - Sure, and to somewhat complicate the point you're trying to make, I think it was useful to be able to think about nothing other than the book, that was certainly luxury, but you're right then.
Productivity Tips And Project Management
Cranking over editing (58:36)
In terms of words, cranked out, it didn't quite cut it. So then suddenly my day job comes back, need healthcare and a salary, and I'm having to compress the writing process into the day. So I mean, the key thing that really helped was taking a page from your work is to time block plan and specifically in the mornings, just protect one, ideally two hours, first thing in the morning, where I'm just writing. I haven't even opened my email inbox because if the minute I open that I see an email, an author's mad or whatever, suddenly that's in my brain and I can't concentrate on the actual task of writing. - How many mornings a week on average are we talking at this point? - Every weekday was the goal. And you've talked about Jerry Seinfeld's idea of having an X and chain of X's of every day his work, and I really followed that. And what I think that allowed me to do is, even if I only wrote 50 words and I was tracking how many words I wrote, it would still feel like I had to advance the ball a little bit and contributed to the big project. Hopefully I'd write 700 words, but some days, I would only get literally 20, but if I'd written one sentence, it was like, well, at least I didn't do nothing. - And how hard was it to protect that time? You're an executive editor, which means there's a big, there's a big amount of responsiveness to your job. There's also probably a lot of meetings in your job. So just walk us through what was required to protect that morning. Was it as simple as just, I don't schedule meetings first thing, no one really noticed, or was it more of a battle? What's the reality of protecting five mornings a week for one to two hours? - I would just get up earlier, frankly, and no email that someone sends you at, from nine PM the night before it needs to be answered at seven rather than nine AM.
Write in the morning. (01:00:24)
So just literally putting it on my calendar so no one could schedule a meeting, not that people are trying to schedule seven AM meetings with me anyway, but protecting it that way. And then, almost like culturally within the house, just protecting it of like, okay, I'm going to this room, everyone knows not to bother me. And then having that time just allowed me to be purely focused and I had to get my coffee and a little ritual and I stask that sort of thing. And that proved crucial for just really accreting the number of words I needed to. - Right, okay, so you're getting up a little earlier, probably starting your foreign affairs work day a little bit later than you would have before, no one noticed because again, no one really keeps track of exactly when Stuart is answering his first email of the day. No one has a chart out of like, well, what's every meeting time I've ever suggested to Stuart? And I can see, wait a second, there's a pattern here. He never accepts the eight to eight 30s. I wonder if he's working on something else. So it basically, you just kept the chain going. No one really noticed. Okay, now for a lot of people though, they're gonna say an hour to two hours max. That doesn't seem like enough time to write 150, 1000 word book or what have you. But what was your experience in terms of the rate at which progress accrued during this period? - Yeah, I mean, slow and steady really works is that John McPhee quote I know you've cited before where you add a bunch of drops to a bucket and all of a sudden the pales full. So I usually write anywhere from 300 to 700 words a day. And it really does add up. I'd supplement this with weekend writing marathon sessions or I took a vacation where all I did was work on the book for a week.
Stop and pick things up. (01:02:21)
But it was, most of the book got written in those early morning sessions. So it worked. - How long would it take you in an early morning session just to swap into context? So is it the first five minutes, the first 20 minutes? How long did it take you to be up and running and ready to start writing new words? - Not that long. And one trick, I can't remember where I got it, but is when you're writing to leave something sort of half finished the day before so that you have momentum going in. So that could mean you're writing along and then you have some notes saying add paragraph on blah, blah, blah and write two sentences where La Mumba goes to blah, blah, blah meeting or whatever. And then the next morning it's so much easier to start when you're like, okay, I actually don't have to be fully cognitively present. I'm just sort of filling in the details of what I worked on yesterday. I mean, another sort of related trick to that is journalists are familiar with the abbreviation TK sort of stands for to come. And if you just use a lot of TKs, you can really get momentum going. And so TK quote and then you write what you know and then there were a TK number of soldiers in the room, that sort of thing. It really allows you to just keep moving forward and then you can fill in the details later.
Getting the best advice possible. (01:03:55)
- Now at some point during this post-bookly process, things got more complicated because you had a child. So how long into this writing post-bookly writing was it that you have a child? And then how did that change up what you were doing? - It was about a year. So my daughter was born in September 2021. And it was a really crazy, my wife and I just have very unusual experience in that our daughter shortly after she was born, started having seizures, had to go to the hospital, it turns out she has this extremely rare genetic disorder called STXBP1, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder. And so that was, when you track the word count, suddenly there is an abrupt cessation in September 2021. And it turned our lives upside down. I didn't think I'd be able to finish the book, what would be the point? And it was a really tough period for us as a family and this was our first child. And we are suddenly grappling with just a very different future than we had imagined. And so it was the hardest thing I've ever experienced and hopefully ever well. - So then what happens after that? So you get through September is incredibly hard, everything comes to a stop. How does things get going again? - Yeah, I mean, I think we sort of had to personally, fully accepting this would be too, that was a longer process, but just, you're literally in shock at the beginning and can barely function.
The long-term book project (01:05:39)
And so writing a long-term book project is the furthest thing from one's mind. But through, I mean, partly just coming to know our lovely smiling daughter and that she became more than a diagnosis, she became this person with all sorts of cute things. So there was that process of acceptance and then also there was just a sort of sheer willpower. And then I'm very much someone who believes that you just have to constantly be moving forward. And so that means, going to the friend's birthday party, even though you really don't feel like it, going to exercise, even if you really just want to lie in bed all day. And just through sort of sheer force, I think we were able to get out of our funk. And then on the writing side, that included just returning to the, okay, I'm gonna do an hour of writing today. I mean, I just, I remember also I had an interview scheduled with someone, it was like, had been scheduled, it ended up being the day after I got the diagnosis. And I considered canceling, but I just sort of made myself show up to that. And I'm sure I was not at my peak performance, but sort of just forcing yourself to move forward, faking it till you make it. I don't know if that's top shelf psychiatric advice, but it worked for me. - Well, and there's another, I think observation, that it's important for my listeners, which is when you're in the moment of working on something and working on something hard, it's easy to focus on the short term and the short term is critical and I know delays are possible. But from a slow productivity mindset, when you zoom out, life has all of these different twists and turns and it throws curveballs and there's hard times and good times that unexpected things that happen and houses that flood and people that get sick, which means, hey, I stopped working for a month or I put this aside for now. And in the moment, it might seem this is a disaster for this project, but when you zoom back out, so we zoom back out now, it's 2023, you've written this great book, the book is out there, the fact that there's periods where other things in your life had priority, that there was periods where that book got put on the shelf, don't even factor, no one even knows that right now. And so this notion of variability in life, that there's seasons of unlocked in on this and seasons where other things are going on, this notion of really embracing that and saying in the long term, as long as the seasons of stepping away from something important, don't turn into lifetimes of that, so long as when it is appropriate, you're able to come back to it, it's not bad for there to be this variability and effort that are put into it. So I do appreciate that part of your story, just because I think there's a lot of people in my audience who have a very hard time with the idea of slowing down or putting something on the shelf for a while, it feels somehow like a failure where I see it as it feels like being a human being. So you're a great exemplar of that.
Equipped with productivity (01:08:50)
And then you came back to the project when it was appropriate and the project kept going. And now you have this great book. And it was also very appropriate in September 2021 not to be touching that project. And in the end, this is a slow productivity principle. It's what you produce on the scale of years, not on the scale of weeks that ultimately matters. So anyways, I think it's interesting to punctuate that. - Yeah, and I think like you've said this before, but just giving yourself permission to be, to have a non-productive month because other stuff's going on is really important. But like, of course I wasn't gonna be pumping out 10,000 words. I had the craziest thing ever happened to me. But then, as you said in the long scale of slow productivity, it turns out that's just a blip and a month over the course of years, isn't that much? - Yeah, okay, so now if we fast forward, past that very difficult fall and you're falling into a bit of routine of a family with a child and not just a family without a child, how did you find, did your timing, did this timing still work well, the like doing things in the morning? Was that compatible? You felt that worked well because that kept your evenings and afternoons free for all just the chaos of wrangling children or were some changes needed because you're dealing with exotic sleep schedules?
Time Management And Efficiency
How having a newborn changed work interdisciplinary historian Stu Berman (01:10:06)
How did things, when they got rolling again, did it get rolling on this similar schedule? - It did, in a way, I think as anyone who has young children knows, you wake up earlier than you did in previous eras in your life. So I think it actually sort of dovetailed well. And I mean, I specifically remember a former colleague of mine who had once written a book. When I was about to write a book, I said, "Do you have any advice?" And she said, "Finish the book before you have any children." Which I utterly failed to follow, but in a weird way, I think having kids made me more productive in that it really, fills up your calendar and constrain, you really can't faff about in ways time when you have these yapping creatures who need to be fed and changed. And so it really, in my case, at least focus the mind and sort of set the constraints that allowed me to really just get stuff done. - Right, so you had already learned prior to having the child that, okay, if I just do a little bit of work every day, it builds up and the bucket gets full to use the John McPhee quote. And that is a work approach that is more compatible with a full schedule or a crowded schedule because it's about just a little bit of time before things get going, just do that repeatedly. It's not a schedule that requires multiple weeks of being left alone. It's not a schedule that requires offloading, all family responsibilities to someone else so that you won't be disturbed. It's about slow and steady. So you had already discovered that. So then when the child came along for some degree, you were already in the ideal schedule for a schedule that was gonna be full of a lot more responsibility. So it sounds like you're able to just keep making progress. What you couldn't have done is if your publisher said, "Hey, get this done in three weeks." You said, "Great, I'm just gonna write 12 hours a day "for three weeks." That's not gonna be possible. But slow and steady, you're already well configured for that. - Yeah, I mean, another thing I should mention that really helped was you've talked before Calibot, sort of the importance of investing in your own career. So I took some of my book advance money plus a grant I received and spent it on research assistants. You know, I did all the research myself, but there are certain tasks that are eminently outsourcible, like go track down these obscure books at a library and get me a copy of chapter three of this one, et cetera. And that cost money, but it was being able to devolve, tasks that didn't, you know, my highest best use of time was actually writing the book. It was not, you know, emailing back and forth with an archivist about could they scan box seven folder three. So that was another, you know, it was very fortunate in that respect, but it was, it helped me focus on writing, which was the most important thing. - Well, I think that's a good point. It's another thing we see often and talk about often on the show that some of the biggest impacts on work schedule is not the cognitive difficulty of a project. It's not the raw hours required by a project. It is sometimes the context shifting. So what makes a new project a really difficult addition to a professional schedule, if it's something that you have to keep turning to back and forth throughout the day. So if, for example, like you just said, if you have to have this back and forth email conversation going with archivist, throughout the day, no, no, it's not that box and get this. Yes, send it here, oh, I'll check it. If it was something that was requiring you to shift back to the book project and back to the book project and back to your work, the negative impact of that on your schedule is greatly amplified versus 90 minutes in the morning than it's done. And again, so I think this is another good point to emphasize. It's not necessarily the minutes. It's the context switching that really dictates how much of an impact a particular pursuit is going to have on your schedule. So I think your investment in minimizing context switching-- so I'm going to invest money to minimize context switching. So I can work on this project largely in single continuous context. It was actually a brilliant investment because that could significantly reduce the negative impact of this project on your schedule.
Changing work efforts for efficiency (01:14:24)
Was there anything else you had to do with your other work-- so you're able to fit this in in the morning. That didn't actually overlap your normal work schedule. Having a child probably did more. Now you can't just easily or casually work later into the night, et cetera. Was there any other things you had to do in your work life as an editor, some efficiencies or structure, to make sure that from the outside world's perspective, you were still more or less producing the same stuff you'd always produced at the same level of quality you'd always produce. What other changes might have been necessary in this new stage of your life? Sure. And I should mention that then my wife and I had a second child in April whose birth sort of acted as a deadline for getting in final edits. And I was actually marking up proofs in the hospital, I remember. But I definitely got more efficient at my day job as well. I can't point to any particular trick. I mean, it's the whole bag of tricks that you talk about all the time. But only going to meetings that are actually necessary and where you'll add value, not switching between tasks, just saying, OK, I need to do a top edit of this article. I'm going to work on that for the next 45 minutes and not check any email, not check Twitter, not to anything else, just being really disciplined. And I think knowing that I had this other project that I also cared about in addition to my work made it every minute felt like it counted more. And so, OK, I need to be on my best behavior here at work and fully show up and do as great a job as I can so that I can then use the in between times of the day to work on this other project. Yeah. So if we had gone back in time and talked to 2018 version of "Stuard" just in the middle of your work day and said, hey, here's what we want you to do. We want you to add two extra hours of work per day. Oh, and by the way, you can never work late. When you get to this whatever, 5, 30 time, you always have to stop, hey, is that going to be a problem? You probably would have said, I'm busy. I'm filling every minute of my day. I'm often having to stay a couple hours late just to catch up on things I'm behind on. How could I possibly do both of those things? And yet a few years later, it turns out, oh, I can, because work is not just working a generic sense.
How I may I Protect My Time to Create Something New (01:16:56)
Work is actually a combination of all sorts of different activities and switching and sequencing and scheduling in systems. And it's something that has a lot more knobs to turn and levers to pull. So what would be the advice you would give? Let's say in my audience, there's a 27-year-old, doesn't yet have a family. Feels very busy. They're filling their day. They're checking email at night. They have this idea of an important project that they're well through the pursuit. But say, I just don't see how I can do this unless I quit my job or had some sort of sabbatical. Now, based on your experience, 2023, looking back on how you felt in 2018, what would your advice be to this hypothetical listener? One, this is super technical, but I thought I was someone who could not get up early. And that turns out to have just been a lie that I told myself. And so you actually can get up at 16, just go to bed earlier. Don't waste time going to bed. So that's a pretty nitty-gritty detail. But it was totally important for my being able to get stuff done. I mean, the other thing also honestly was just locking yourself into a contract. Nothing stimulates figuring out how to get it done than being actually on the hook for doing it. And so making that leap of faith and deciding that you're going to do it and trusting your future self to make the changes necessary to work it out, even if you don't know exactly how you're going to rearrange your schedule. Once you believe that it's probably possible in some way, you'll figure out the details later. Try and figure out them now. But know that external force-- the stick of having to deliver and the carrot of wanting to publish your own book or whatever the project is, the combination of that can actually just really force you to figure it out. I love it. There's almost a rule we can name here, like the 90-minute rule. If you're willing to always protect 90 minutes a day, first thing in the day, five days a week, if you've zoom out 10 years, 20 years, the amount of really cool, interesting stuff that you are able to produce, the amount of impact you're able to have is massive. But it all starts with that smaller commitment. So this is excellent. So now that you're done, this book is out or about to come out depending on when people listen to this, the LaMumba plot, which I highly recommend. What are you going to do next? Are you going-- you've learned how to do this with this boarding block? You can conquer the world. So what are you thinking about? Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I have really loved writing a book. My day job is editing, working with other authors and sublimating my own ego and service of them. And I love that, too. But it was a special treat to be able to, as you know, just have basically full control over this extremely long, detailed project. The paragraph can be exactly the way I want it. And so that was really rewarding. So I'd love to do another book, but on what we'll see. Yeah, and this time, just be careful about suspicious looking drivers, depending on how inflammatory your topic. Stuart, I really appreciate you calling in. I think this was a great case study. I get these questions all the time from listeners who are wondering about how to make big projects work in busy schedules. You have a busy schedule. You didn't have heroic interventions to make this work possible. It was just slow and steady early in the morning. So it was a good case study. And I appreciate you sharing it. And everyone, check out the fruits of this labor, which is Stuart's new book, the Lumumba Plot, L-U-M-U-M-B-A. Thank you, Stuart. Thanks so much for having me. All right, so that was great. Thank you, Stuart, for calling in. I think we all learned a lot from that story. Before we move on to the third and final segment of the show today, I want to briefly mention another one of the sponsors that makes deep questions possible. This is the time of year for me where I'm doing events all the time. Events all the time. I was giving a talk at my kid's school two nights ago. Last night, I was at my kid's school for a welcome back dinner. Tomorrow, I'm going to be at my kid's school for a ceremony for my third grader.
Then next week, I'm giving a panel discussion at Georgetown. So it's the season where I have long days where I'm working and doing stuff after work. So I care about what I'm wearing, getting closed that look fine, but are flexible and cool and don't wrinkle and I can get through very long, crowded days in comfort. This is where Rohn enters the scene and in particular, their new commuter collection, the most comfortable, breathable, and flexible set of products known to man. Here's some advantages of the commuter collection. It's the World's Wholes Comfortable Pants dress shirts, one-fourth zips, and polos. You never have to worry about what to wear if you have a closet full of the commuter collection. They have this four-way stretch fabric, which provides breathability and flexibility. I love its super lightweight and flexible. I get hot. You're going all the time. I teach. I'm running around campus. And I come home and jump in the car and go to give a talk. Lightweight, flexible. I love the Rohn commuter collection. Has that. It looks good. It's wrinkle released, so you don't have to worry about ironing it all the time. Has gold fusion anti-odor technology. So you can do a really long day without feeling like your shirt is going to start stink. It's a 100% machine washable. Man, I really like this. Throw it in the washer, throw it in the dryer on the delegates. No wrinkle. You put it right in your closet again. No dry cleaner. So if you're like me and you do a lot of professional stuff and have to be on stage and talking all the time, you should consider the Rohn commuter collection. So the commuter collection will get you through any work day and straight into whatever comes next. Head to rohn.com/cow and use the promo code CAL. And you will save 20% off your entire order. That's 20% off your entire order when you head to rhone.com/cow and use that code CAL. It's time to find your corner office comfort.
Support for Our Show (01:23:21)
We also want to talk about our good friends at Shopify, the commerce platform that is revolutionizing millions of businesses worldwide. If there's something you want to sell online, you should be using Shopify. They put you in control of every sales channel. So whether you're selling satin sheets, not sheets. I guess you could sell sheets. From Shopify's in-person POS system or offering organic olive oil on Shopify's all-in-one e-commerce platform, you are covered. And once you've reached your audience, Shopify has the internet's best converting check out to help you turn them from browsers to buyers. You have probably used Shopify technology multiple times buying things online. You just don't realize it. If you've ever had a really nice experience, you think, it says, wow, this website really has a great shopping experience. It knew my information. It filled it all in. It was easy to do. They were probably using Shopify. So, Jesse, when we figure out our Justice Skeleton merchandising strategy, Shopify is going to be how we reach our masses. I mean, we need a platform capable of handling tens of millions of dollars of Justice Skeleton-related orders. Yeah. I'm thinking like-- Seamless Checkout Process. Seamless Checkout Process. Direct Ship. You get your Jesse Skeleton animatronic. You set it up wherever you work. And it just sort of at sporadic points during the day begins moving and motivates you. I think it'd be a good product. Yeah. Doesn't even get off your phone. Yeah. Hey, you should-- this is the arms are moving, like little animatronic letters. You should get off your phone.
Cara Djony, Bleep Effects Kit, and Лiki Voice (01:25:06)
And then it goes back quiet again. Come on, people would buy that. Yeah. Yeah. All for just $7.99. $99. $99. On a Shopify site. On a Shopify site. But if we were selling something, we would use Shopify. The people I know who use it absolutely love it. The power is now 10% of all e-commerce in the US. They're also a truly global force. They power Albers, Rothy's, Brook linens. And soon, jessieskeleton.com. They also work with entrepreneurs in over 170 countries. It's the service you should use if you want to sell things online. So you can sign up now for a $1 per month trial period at Shopify.com/deep all lowercase. Go to Shopify.com/deep to take your business to the next level today. That's Shopify.com/deep. Jesse, I want our Jesse skeleton product. And this is what's really going to make it a top seller. Right before it sporadically and unpredictably starts moving and telling you to get off your phone and work harder, I'm thinking incredibly loud, clacks and horn sound. So get your attention. So you're working. And then just-- Mm-hmm. Really loud motors. And then it's, are you working the clacks and sense? That's how you know. And then other people in nearby buildings will ask, what does that really loud alarming clacks and sound to keep hearing every seven to eight minutes? And you'll say, it's my Jesse skeleton. And they'll say, well, where can I get one? You'll say online at jessieskeleton.com. They're like, yeah, but it's going to be a really clunky, difficult e-commerce experience to forget about it. And you're like, no, no, no. It's powered by Shopify. And they're going to buy one. Got it all figured out. Oh, man. All right. We got time. We used to do a third segment on this show once we're done with the nonsense, where we just like to do something interesting or different.
Productivity Principles And Obsessions
How Our Productivity Principles Can Help You Do Your Work (01:27:03)
So in our final segment today, Jesse, I just wanted to talk about, I wanted to react to an article that I read online that captured my attention. Because I think there's a couple interesting lessons in here about our ongoing interest to embrace slow productivity. I'll load this article up on the screen for those who are watching. If you're listening to the podcast, remember go to the deeplife.com/listen. This is episode 267. And you can find the videos right there on the episode page. All right. So this article came from the New York Times magazine, I believe, September 9th. The title is How Lauren Groff, one of our finest living writers, does her work. So I love these knowledge worker, elite knowledge worker case studies. So we get some insight into how really high cognitive performers do their work. How do we know she's one of the finest living writers? Well, we see right off the bat that she is a three time National Book Award finalist. Basically, the last three books she has written were National Book Award finalists. Probably her new book, Devastor Wilds, will be as well. So I just want to point out a couple-- I marked a couple insights from this article. I just want to briefly underscore. And then we'll talk about it. OK. So she has three New York Times bestsellers. She is unusually productive for a literary writer. So her new book, Devastor Wilds, is coming out exactly two years after her last book, Matrix, which itself came out just three years after her book before that Florida. This is a very fast pace for literary writers. As she goes on to say, it takes about five years to write a book of this caliber. So how is she doing it so fast? She's interleaving the writing process. So that's the next thing I want to talk about here. She's able to keep up her publishing pace by working on several projects, even several novels, simultaneously holding vibrant, distinct worlds, distinct in her mind. To help do that, she has these different projects live in different corners of her office. So she works in different spaces of her office on different books. So there's her desk. She also has a different-- what in desk, a different end of it. She has a daybed. So different projects exist in different spaces. All right, so once she's working on a book, how does she actually do it? I thought this was crazy and fascinating. When Groff starts something new, she writes it out long hand in large spiral notebooks. After she completes the first draft, she puts it in a bankers box and never reads it again. So her method is, I'm going to write an entire draft of a book slowly and deliberately long hand and never look at it again. Because what she's figured out is to write at a very high level literary fiction the ideas matter, defining those ideas, those characterizations, those plot points to just hit the right buttons or everything.
Whats Felt Like Unimportant Can Become An Obsession (01:30:02)
So she figures if she writes a whole book and never looks at it again, the stuff that sticks is the good stuff. So then when she comes to write another draft of the book, what's going to come back to her from that initial draft, if she can't actually go back and read it, is going to be the stuff that's stuck. And what is it makes a great book great is all these scenes that stick with you after you've read it. So she's found a way to efficiently filter for this literary magic by actually writing something and then seeing what sticks with her without having to actually go back and look at it. She calls these lightning bolts, I'll put this quote here, nothing matters except for these lightning bolts that I've discovered. So she's going back and forth between books. She has this method of how to do it. Later in the article, they also talk about her timing. Like a lot of writers of this caliber, she wakes up and I'll quote here at 5 a.m. and disappears into her writing for hours after without having to manage the routine of getting her two children fed out the door. So she has an agreement.
Learn a lot about making the rest of this worthwhile. (01:31:10)
She has that worked out with her husband that she can start writing the morning. Then she stops writing early afternoon, according to this, and then the afternoon is more for the business side of writing, the publicity, et cetera, taking back over responsibility of the kids. So she also has a very strict schedule of just, you do this writing morning to a certain point in time and then you're done with it. All right, so I'm gonna draw a couple slow productivity observations from this. This is an incredibly successful writer. What she did is figure out what's needed to produce a national book award finalist. If anyone has cracked this code, it is Lauren Groff. She's done it three times in a row, probably four. We'll see how her new book does. So you realize, okay, it's all about, it's craft, but it's also about these lightning bolts as she call it, having these brilliant moments of characterization and plot. So here's the process. You got to write a whole book, long hand, and basically throw it out, then write a second draft, long hand, and see what sticks. And then only then, deliberately and relentlessly starts transforming that into a typed up manuscript that you're very carefully polishing and tweaking and trying to get it just right. And it takes five years. And it takes five years, and you need plenty of time in between these things. And so if I wanna write a book more than once every five years, then great, how can I interleave two or three of these at the same time? Well, I can do it. I know when I can switch from one to another, and I'll use different spaces so I don't have confused cognitive context, and I'll just deliberately work four or five hours a day, and she has did the math and it works. Slow but steady. Here's what I do. Here's how I do it. This is what matters. Don't spend stuff on time that doesn't matter. Super long hours aren't needed. I don't need to have no kids. I don't need to never have any childcare responsibilities. I just need to be able to have four to five hours a day and do the right thing during those four to five hours a day, and only do those things during those four to five hours a day, and then add in the secret ingredient of time. You add up enough days. This is the John McPhee quote. You put enough drops in the bucket. It eventually ends up full. You spend enough four hours days focusing on not just writing, but the writing activities that make the difference. And you patiently build up over time one of the most impressive writing careers, I would say, of the 21st century so far. Sure as I thought, Lauren was a great case study of slow productivity in action, focus on what matters, work steadily, but a reasonable amount. Let time and aggregation do more work than freneticism and exhausting over work in the moment. And really cool stuff can come out of it. You know, I also like Jessie. She's summers, New Hampshire. - Oh yeah. - Right? She's got it dialed in. Live in New Hampshire in the summer. And she's in Florida the rest of the year. But live in New Hampshire in the summer, I like it. That's the secret. - Yeah. - She does a lot of physical activity. Her and her husband were both athletes. They're also, she sees it as like she's lots of running and I think he was a rower. It's a lot of like being really good shape and spending a lot of time outdoors and write four hours every morning and it just works. - Yeah. - She's got dialed in. Slow productivity everyone. That's the secret, not freneticism or busyness or keeping options open or I don't know whatever the other stuff we talk about.
Slow productivity makes grammar matter. (01:34:17)
So if only someone would write a book on slow productivity that we could collapse, collect all these insights. If only let's say in March, there was a book coming out about slow productivity. If there was, I would just say everyone should buy it but you know, we'll have to wait and see. All right, enough nonsense. Quick reminder, you like the show. Leave a review. It does help. Consider subscribing. It also helps. It helps people find it. So you know, I read the reviews and I really appreciate them. Otherwise, thanks for listening. We'll be back next week with another episode of the show and until then, as always, stay deep. Hey, so if you liked today's episode about tiredness, I think you'll also like episode 248 about decoding overload. Check it out.
Overcoming Overload And Finding Resources
Collide Overload needs to Find Other Resources. (01:35:04)
As you get more stuff on your plate, the cost of that seems to grow much faster than the amount of work you're adding.