How Cal Newport rewrote the productivity gospel

On a brisk night in November, a few dozen people huddled into a basement bookstore in Washington DC to hear Cal Newport opine on the state of technology, work and society at large. Newport, a 40-year-old MIT-trained computer scientist, spends much of his time researching distributed algorithm theory and teaching undergrads maths and theory as an associate professor at Georgetown. But he has also carved out a side career as a productivity evangelist for the masses, with teachings centred around the values of focused work, work-life balance and cutting out digital distractions.

Newport, who has the affably square looks and slicked side parting of a Mormon missionary, doesn’t do much public speaking. For one, he doesn’t like to travel too far from his wife and three young children. For another, he does not enjoy it. “I don’t mind actually getting on the stage,” he told me. “But I just don’t like — I’m just too introverted.” On this occasion, he agreed to appear at East City Bookshop, an indie bookseller in Capitol Hill, in conversation with David Sax, a Canadian journalist who had a new book out titled The Future is Analog.

The room was packed with attendees ranging from early twentysomethings to retirees. But as Sax self-deprecatingly acknowledged to Newport: “Let’s face it, 90 per cent of the people in here are here to see you.” When Sax polled the room to confirm, about two-thirds of hands in the crowd went up.

Newport, a preternaturally upbeat millennial with a penchant for dad jokes, is an unlikely messenger. The nihilistic backlash around work post-pandemic seems primed for a more caustic style of guru. But the quiet radicalism in Newport’s books on productivity and his coping strategies for 21st-century knowledge workers have helped him sell more than two million copies in 40 languages, making him a celebrity in the field. More than 300,000 people download his Deep Questions podcast each month. His multimedia output — the podcast, a YouTube channel, a newsletter and online courses — has helped propagate his methods, acronyms and terminology, all of which are designed to challenge the performative busy work, or “hyperactive hive mind” as Newport calls it, that dominates modern office culture.

At the event, Newport and Sax held forth on a variety of topics, ranging from Zoom’s ability to translate the human experience (not well) to the future of the office (less presenteeism, more flexibility). Afterwards, more than a dozen people queued for Newport to sign copies of his books. One couple had driven three hours from Lexington, Virginia, and were set to make the return trip later that night. “I wasn’t going to miss this when I heard there’d be a live event,” the woman said. A visiting theologian from Ireland loved Newport’s book Deep Work. “You can’t write sermons if you’re distracted,” Newport told him. “I hear from so many pastors.” A middle-aged sculptor said she had come to “fan girl” about the author’s theories on slow productivity. “I guess it warms my heart, because everything I do takes for ever,” she confided.

Newport is not the first person to make a name for himself in the time-management space. As he likes to point out, the economic concepts of productivity and value-added labour date back to Adam Smith. While much of the focus in the late 20th century was on trying to get as much done in as short amount of time as possible, most of the more recent popular books on the subject have essentially argued the opposite: that the way to get more done is to do less, exemplified by bestsellers such as Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Newport’s books are part of this oeuvre, tapping into a sense of exhaustion that has surged in the wake of social media and smartphones and the evaporation of work-life boundaries. Being in a massive open-plan room with all of your co-workers makes it hard to focus. But so does being alone, tending to constant Slack notifications and email. It’s for precisely this crisis that Newport offers answers.

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My first encounter with Newport’s work was on a 2018 holiday in Patagonia. My now-husband brought Deep Work along in his suitcase and confidently announced, somewhere amid the glaciers of Torres del Paine, that he had seen the light and would be approaching his work in a new way. That smugness lasted until he returned to the office.

When I relayed this story to Newport last year, he laughed. “That’s my mission: to spread temporary smugness,” he deadpanned. He had sympathy for my husband though. “It’s like with professors in the summer [telling themselves], ‘OK. Everything’s possible. I’ve got everything back under control. I’m going to simplify things.’ By mid-October, you’re just in reaction mode all the time.”

We were sitting in Newport’s study in Takoma Park on the leafy outskirts of Washington. Newport and his wife had redone it during the pandemic, painting the walls a rich shade of cobalt. Books lined the built-in shelves. Not a paper or Post-it littered the desk.

Newport came up with the idea of “deep work” during his time at MIT, when he was surrounded by “these brilliant theoreticians”. The MacArthur Genius Grant winners around him, who had solved some of the world’s biggest mathematical theorems, had the ability to concentrate deeply on a single problem or project for an extended period, he observed. According to Newport, there are certain people who are naturally good at deep working. Top theoretical computer scientists, for instance. Chess players. Mathematicians. And then there are the rest of us who lament our inability to make progress on meaningful, long-term goals or difficult projects. We tend to look away from the task at hand, reflexively refreshing our email browser, Twitter or this website.

Published in early 2016, Deep Work advised ways to increase focus, eliminate social media and cultivate boredom, which gives the mind the space for creative thinking. Many of the tips in the book trigger the same satisfaction of a top-to-bottom home reorganisation or day one of a New Year’s diet. They offer a sense of control, in this case not over clutter or self, but over time.

Neither Newport, nor, it seemed, his publisher, a Hachette imprint, were banking on big sales. Then an assistant professor, Newport had a pedigreed résumé but had struggled in the publishing world. At college and as a graduate student he’d written student advice books with punchy titles such as How to Win at College. Yet as he aged out of the demographic he was writing for, he struggled to find a broader audience. His first attempt to write for an older readership, a career guide titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You, didn’t meet expectations. For the follow-up, he was offered a lower advance.

Newport’s publisher didn’t put money into Deep Work’s publicity — opting for “a silent launch”, as he puts it — so the author decided to push it himself. He pored over a self-help book about the secrets to publishing a bestseller, then promoted his title on his blog, newsletter and any other website or podcast he could find. Week by week, sales started to climb. As of last year, it had sold more than 1.25 million copies. Following Deep Work’s success, sales for So Good They Can’t Ignore You also took off, paving the way for two further books. Digital Minimalism, published in 2019, outlines a “digital detox” to reform our content-addicted brains and 2021’s A World Without Email is a polemic.

Laurie Abkemeier, Newport’s longtime agent, told me his books had always been about the same thing: “work smarter, not harder”. The best students at his Ivy League college, Newport observed in one of his earlier works, were not the ones camped out 24-7 in the library, but those who were able to carve out time for fun and to clearly delineate between work and non-work.

More recently, he has advocated a similar principle: that it is possible to balance professional success with a family, friends and personal pursuits — and that big career decisions should be made with those other things in mind. Don’t take the time-demanding, high-on-busy-work promotion that looks good on paper, Newport advises. Take the job that allows you to support your lifestyle goals, whether travelling and seeing the world, taking summers off or hours that allow you to spend more time with family.

On days when Newport is not teaching, he likes to divide his day into two sessions. The first shift is for deep work, that requires his highest cognitive attention, and the second for work that is slightly less cognitively intense. The shifts rarely focus on the same project, a distinction that is key and allows him to make incremental progress on multiple fronts. He usually ends his day around 5pm and tries to avoid looking at email outside his normal working hours. In the morning, after dropping his kids at the school bus, he takes out his physical planner to “figure the day out”. “If I don’t do that, I lose 50 per cent of my ability to produce things,” he said.

I quizzed Newport on how to bring more “deep work” to the FT (his prescription: less Twitter; no Slack), then we walked to a nearby storefront office space that Newport had converted to a recording studio. His producer, Jesse, was already there.

They were planning to experiment with hosting live-video discussions with callers, interspersed into the traditional episode format which largely consists of Newport monologuing on a range of clickbait-y topics. (“Overcoming to-do list paralysis”; “How to organise your life with an optimised values plan”; “Four tips to becoming a more disciplined person”.) It was the first time they’d tried the tech, and Newport was dubious, if characteristically sanguine. “It might be, by the way, a whole disaster,” he remarked cheerfully.

© Justin T Gellerson; Illustrations: Uijung Kim

After slipping into the bathroom to change from a polo into a dress shirt, he sat in front of the microphone to speak to the first caller, a young man who worked full-time in finance, but had recently received a scholarship to pursue a masters degree. The course was self-paced, so he’d thought he could balance it with his job and other commitments. But a couple weeks in, he was struggling.

Newport listened thoughtfully. It looked like the caller needed to take a more calendar-centric approach to his life, he said. “The résumé-centric approach is: Oh, it’d be really cool to have this degree to be really useful. It’d be really cool to have written a novel. So why don’t I do this? Oh, I want to run a marathon. That would look cool. Let me start training for a marathon.” By contrast, Newport continued, “The calendar-centric approach to your life is looking at the time you have available . . . [asking yourself] does that seem sustainable?”

The caller nodded. Newport continued: “That’s, by the way, how I approach my life. I get that exact same sinking feeling in my gut when I’m staring at my calendar and it’s not working. My wife knows this. This is what she thinks of as Monday morning syndrome: when I’m doing a weekly plan Monday morning in a period where my schedule has got too complex, I just feel terrible, because I’m forced to stare at the calendar, and it doesn’t fit. And nothing makes me more unhappy.” He paused. “We’ve got to trust that gut.”

Next on the line was a 34-year-old Greek robotics programmer calling from Silicon Valley. He’d moved to the US to get a PhD and had used Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, as a road map to excel in his career, leaning into the fast-developing software side of robotics and eventually leaving academia to work for a series of start-ups. He was now at one of the top self-driving car companies in San Francisco, had high performance reviews and was on track for promotion. He had avoided what Newport calls “the first control trap” — trying to get more autonomy over his work before he had the professional credentials to back it up. But he worried he was now falling into the second one: his job was going so well, it was hard to walk away.

“I got too excited about the performance and the promotions and the compensation and recognition that I’ve kind of become too busy,” he said. Much of his time was now spent responding to Slack messages or troubleshooting short-term problems, rather than doing the actual software engineering he enjoyed. Yet the idea of leaving now felt difficult. “I have too many responsibilities. My compensation is too good to ignore, if you will.”

Newport had two remedies: the programmer should talk to his manager about creating a better ratio between deep and shallow, or reactive, work. Next, he should think deeply about his future, imagining what his ideal life would look like at age 40 and 50 — not just in terms of his job, but as a whole. “Smell it, see it, taste it, as we like to say,” Newport told him. “Then look backwards and say: how do I get there?”

Newport was born in Houston, Texas, the son of Kim, a computer programmer, and Frank, a sociologist who would spend almost three decades as editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll. The family relocated to the suburbs of Princeton, New Jersey, when Cal was eight. As a kid, Newport was “prematurely old”, by his own account, interested in sports and computing but anxious to make his way into the real world. By high school, he and a friend, Michael Simmons, had started a small business called Princeton Web Solutions, offering website-building services to local companies during the dotcom boom.

Newport’s father drove them to their first client meeting, to which they wore ill-fitting department store suits and carried a spiral-bound pitch they’d had bound at Kinkos. They ended up signing a contract for about $1,000 and later outsourced the web design work to a company in India, because, in Newport’s words, he and Simmons “weren’t very good graphic designers”. When I spoke to Simmons on the phone, he said one of his lingering memories of his friend was Newport’s time on the track team where he briefly became the school’s fastest runner in the 400-metre sprint, but only by pushing himself so hard that he would throw up after every race.

Newport told me that when he and Simmons formed the company he would spend hours in Barnes & Noble trawling through business self-help books, giving him a lasting appreciation for the genre. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I see how I could make changes going forward. They’re going to bring positive things into my life,’” he said. “That feeling is super powerful.”

Unlike some other authors in the genre, such as Malcolm Gladwell, who tend not to offer explicit advice, Newport has leaned into the practical. His books are structured for ease of comprehension: Deep Work is broken into two parts: The Idea and The Rules. He is not averse to bullet points, bolding key phrases or putting definitions in shaded boxes, and he sometimes includes equations. A classic, which he used in a 2007 blog post, is:

Work accomplished = (Time spent) × (Intensity of focus)

He contrasted it with a less accurate formula, which he pointed out many students erroneously subscribe to:

Work accomplished = Time spent studying

“Here’s the problem,” Newport wrote. “Even with little breaks, there are only so many consecutive hours of work you can manage before your intensity of focus crashes (in practice, this value is probably close to 2-3 hours for most students).”

During one of our conversations, Newport told me he had recently gone down a Quentin Tarantino rabbit hole and found some parallels. “He wasn’t ashamed of genre.” Newport said he felt similarly. “My whole thing is I’ll go straight for the jugular, with, like, ‘Do this’, ‘Do that’, and ‘Here’s an acronym for our system’, but also mix it in with legitimate social critique.” Others shied away from the self-help genre, he said, because they thought it made them seem lowbrow. One easy way to solve this problem, Newport wryly observed: have a PhD in theoretical computer science from MIT.

Newport is one of several experts seeking to address some of the contradictions plaguing the professional class of knowledge workers, or as he describes them, people who “use their brain to make a living”. Henry Ford looked at “average man minutes per Model T produced”, Newport has noted, and assigned workers to assembly lines where they would operate continuously for eight hours a day. But for knowledge workers, the situation is different. Because companies have failed to figure out how to measure and value their productivity, “the fallback,” he said, “was pseudo-productivity, which was: well, let’s just use activity as a proxy for productivity”. This is a problem because prolonged intense activity actually leads to lower productivity, as well as burnout.

Many digital tools introduced in recent years have made things worse. While it may take only a moment to check an incoming email or Slack message, the momentary distraction can seriously derail your mind from the task it was working on, making it harder to refocus. A senior partner at one of the big-four consultancies who identifies as a Newport fan told me that he had watched his firm succumb to “crappy meetings with no focus, too many people, and interminable poor PowerPoint” over Zoom, where many of the participants were disengaged and busy with other tasks. All of the internal meetings only hurt the firm’s ability to serve its clients. “Our work requires DEEP thought . . . It’s what our customers pay very high fees for!” he told me. “Insights only really start flowing after 45 minutes of deep absorption.”

To counteract this, the partner said he had become a “passive resister”, blocking out three-hour meeting-free blocks for real work and pushing for any vital meetings to be compressed or put into written queries instead. Because of his seniority at the firm, he was able to get away with it. Other colleagues were not so lucky. “I genuinely think that the quality of our work is considerably lower than it was 15 [years] ago,” he said. “But people work harder, are busier and definitely more tired.”

While my husband’s attempts at implementing Deep Work may have been unsuccessful, others have credited Newport with dramatically altering their life and work, giving them the framework to evaluate a new career opportunity or supercharging their productivity. When Newport put out a note in his newsletter that I was writing an article about him, I received emails from dozens of fans from all over the world who had stumbled upon his writings or newsletter or podcast, sometimes accidentally, and had since become acolytes.

One reader told me he used to work from 10am to 8.30pm but, thanks to Newport, had found a way to now reduce his hours to between 8.30am and 4.30pm, becoming more relaxed and gaining a better sense of his priorities. Another said he used Newport’s strategies to cram an eight-week graduate-level course into the 10 days leading up to the birth of his son, allowing him to be fully present for his family that first month of his child’s life.

© Justin T Gellerson; Illustrations: Uijung Kim

Thera Marie Crane, a co-editor of the Nordic Journal of African Studies and mother of four young children, reached out to me from Helsinki, saying she was taken aback by Newport’s Digital Minimalism and his description of social media as a slot machine, engineered to give us random dopamine hits and build addiction. “I was sort of raised with… you know, antipathy towards gambling and the destruction that it wreaks,” she said. “And then to realise that here’s… the same thing. Only what I’m gambling with is my life.”

I heard similar refrains from other Newport devotees who were drawn to his prescient digital detox gospel in the face of humanity’s internet gluttony. As Mike King, an angel investor and IT strategist, put it: “Our founding fathers were learning Latin. We’re watching cat videos.”

Yet even some of Newport’s biggest fans say they sometimes find his practices more aspirational than actionable. “I am so enthusiastic about the book that I actually contemplated lying about how well it’s worked for me,” Janelle Ward, a researcher in the tech space, wrote to me from the Netherlands. Last summer, she experimented with taking a “totally unplugged” weeks-long holiday to Germany’s Black Forest. “I’m determined to rewire my brain to pre-social-media levels of concentration,” she wrote in her out-of-office message, providing a link to Newport’s Deep Work. The holiday was successful, close to perfect. The transition back to work? Less so. “I feel a little bit like I did as a child returning from church camp: I just can’t seem to live up to expectations. My brain has not rewired.”

I knew what she meant. When I read A World Without Email, it brought home the extent of my own debilitating dependence on the portals I had convinced myself were vital to my work. Sure, I might not tweet constantly or spend hours trawling Facebook. But how many times was I refreshing my inbox each day? Once every six minutes? Every two? As soon as Newport named the affliction I was living with, I noticed it everywhere. Was I able to stand in line at a coffee shop for five minutes without looking at my phone? Could I go a whole Saturday without checking my email? How long would it take me to finish writing an article without an open Gmail tab taunting me in the background? Was my phone making me feel more connected and happier, or was it preventing me from focusing on anything but shallow tasks?

An obvious criticism of Newport’s ideas is that he is talking to a subset of the population that has the luxury of doing “deep work”, a privilege not afforded to those outside the knowledge sector or people juggling multiple responsibilities, such as caring and work. Another objection is that his ideas are very hard to implement. Occasionally, he’s done talks for C-suite executives, explaining the negative impact of constant office communication. The result is always the same: “No one changes anything,” Newport told me.

While Newport believes that the post-lockdown period and Zoom fatigue may finally usher in a new dawn in corporate work culture, he is aware of the difficulties. “To completely rebuild the way we collaborate . . . That’s, like, an impossible ask.” Besides, he has no interest in leading the revolution himself. “What was exciting was figuring out all those ideas together and seeing if they can, like, change the way that people understand something . . . I don’t want to go help Bristol Myers Squibb, you know, improve their email.”

Newport’s two upcoming titlesSlow Productivity and The Deep Life — are what he calls his “midlife crisis books”. The idea for the former, which is to be published next year, came from a dark night of the soul in the first year of the pandemic, when Newport failed to publish any research papers due to the “chaos” that came with trying to work from home, in lockdown with three young children, and the inability to fully collaborate with colleagues. “I’ve never published zero papers before . . . I was stressed out about it,” he told me. His follow-up, The Deep Life, will look at the many ingredients, both inside and outside of work, that make life meaningful.

There are three principles to “slow productivity”, as Newport defines it: “doing fewer things; working at a natural pace; and obsessing over quality.” Some of his favourite historical slow productivity practitioners include Galileo, who according to Newport took some 18-odd years to work out the details of his pendulum experiment, and Isaac Newton, who spent a good four years working on his initial article on gravity theory and another three to expand that article into Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

By Newton and Galileo’s standards, we are all doing just fine. The main takeaway, Newport said, was to focus on doing the important things, the things that matter to you, and that will continue to matter in the years to come. Newport is following his own advice. In the years since he began writing about productivity, he has come to re-evaluate his own professional strengths and weaknesses. “Often when I’m writing about something, I’m echoing, you know, a realisation I’ve had in my own career, or something I’ve been grappling with personally.”

© Justin T Gellerson; Illustrations: Uijung Kim

He sees an eventual merging of the writing he does for a general audience with what he covers in his academic work. “My plan… is to push those worlds even closer together in the sense of, like, writing more actual academic papers on technology and society, digital ethics.”

The year he wrote Deep Work happened to be the year before he received tenure at Georgetown, a feat that required a high volume of publications in competitive academic journals. “I remember it being cognitively incredibly exhausting. It didn’t feel sustainable.” Slow Productivity is an attempt to reconcile his outsized professional ambitions with the constraints of his current life: as a parent of young children who is accomplishing some of his goals at a slower-than-he-would-like pace.

It’s OK to take your time, he’s convinced himself. “You’re up and down; busy periods, non-busy periods. Give that five years, you’ve done really important stuff. And to me that all feels more sustainable.”

Courtney Weaver is the FT’s US business and politics correspondent

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