Written by Christopher Kelly
July 11, 2019
Christopher: Well, Cal, thank you so much for hosting me here. Where are we, Washington DC?
Cal: Washington DC, yeah.
Christopher: Man, this is very exciting for me to fly all the way from Santa Cruz on the West Coast to Washington DC on the East Coast to do an interview. I'm super excited, so thank you for having me.
Cal: Yeah, it's my pleasure.
Christopher: My first question for you is how did a computer scientist, a professor of computer science, although you've not always been a professor, of course, become interested in writing books that help people live more meaningful and purposeful lives?
Cal: Well, it's an interesting question. I started writing professionally at a pretty young age. I signed my first book deal pretty soon after my 21st birthday. At the time, I was a college undergraduate and the original book I sold was actually advice for college students, so it sort of made sense. I was a college student giving advice to other college students. It was going to have to be something like that if I was actually going to convince the publisher to give me a deal. It had to make sense. Why would you give a 21-year-old a deal? This was the one place where it seemed to make sense because who better to write for college students than a college student? So I was writing books that were advice specifically for students when I was a student, as a college student and as a grad student.
I wrote three books pretty quickly, my last year of college, first couple of years as a grad student, all aimed at students, so it was just interesting. I had been an entrepreneur early in life. I was very well versed with the business advice genre, so it was just very natural for me to try to replicate that general type of writing for my current world, which was student life. So I had this sidetrack going on as an advice writer and then at some point, as I was getting towards a major job transition, so transitioning from a grad student into academia, so going on the academic job market, I figured this is an inflection point in my life where understanding how people end up really satisfied with their job would give me the most value. Of any other point of my life, this was the key point where I should really understand that question. I said hey, wait a second. I guess I'm a writer. I've written a few books, so why don't I write a book about how do people end up loving their work? So at that inflection point as I was shifting from grad student into the job market, I wrote a book called So Good They Can't Ignore You. This was my first general audience, hard cover style idea book and it got into what do we really know, what does the evidence tell us, what's my own research tell us about how people really end up loving what they do for a living. That book came out in 2012 and the core idea in that book is getting really good at learning valuable things is almost always at the foundation of meeting satisfaction and passion in your work life.
A lot of readers came to me and said, "How do you do that? We buy this premise that getting really good at things that matters. How do you get really good at learning valuable things?" That led to my 2016 book, Deep Work, which argued the ability to focus intensely and without distraction was becoming increasingly valuable in the economy at the same time that it was becoming increasingly rare. Therefore, if you were one of the few people to actually train your ability to focus, you were going to have this huge advantage. That book came out in 2016. At this point, I'm a computer science professor. I'm at Georgetown. I get tenure soon after that. One of the more interesting angles of that book was the technological angle, which was the way in which technologies in the workplace were inadvertently making us worse at focusing. It was then that I had this "aha" moment. Wait a second. I'm a computer scientist. I'm a technologist. It kind of makes sense for a technologist to start to think more critically about technologies themselves, their impact on our culture.
So once that light bulb came up, I realized this is really what I should be focusing on. My most recent book, Digital Minimalism, is directly inspired by that and it's about the consequences of what's happening with all this tech especially in our personal life, the cost of it and what we could do to get around it. The new book I'm writing now is again about some of these unexpected tech consequences in the workplace, and so that long path has brought me to where I am now, which is a technologist who by night writes about the impacts of these technologies on our attempts to live a meaningful, satisfying, productive life.
Christopher: I'm fairly new to your work and I had a number of clients who suggest to me that I should read Deep Work in particular. Joshua Fields Millburn, for whom I owe the introduction -- I'm very grateful to him -- he mentioned in a podcast that we did with Tommy that I should really read Digital Minimalism. I'm like, okay, I've got to find out who this Cal Newport guy is. I've been working my way backwards through your back catalog, really enjoyed Digital Minimalism, have read Deep Work. I haven't yet read So Good They Can't Ignore You, and I'm wondering if there's any overlap.
I recently interviewed Brad Stulberg. He has a book called The Passion Paradox and one of the core principles I learned from that interview and that book was that passion is not something that you bump into. It's not something that you find in the sock drawer. Brad's advice was to lower the bar to just something that you find interesting and then nurture that from there, and then eventually -- this is consistent with what you say.
I think I've heard you talk about Steve Jobs and I think I remember reading about this in Steve Jobs' biography, was that he wasn't always super passionate about tech. That was something that he developed over time.
Cal: Yeah. That's how I opened So Good They Can't Ignore You, was Steve Jobs giving his famous commencement address at Stanford where he seemed to be saying to the audience, "You should follow your dreams." In fact, that's the way it was actually -- I looked it up the way it was summarized in the Stanford Student Newspaper the next day. Jobs tell graduates, "Follow your dreams" but you go back and you look at his story and I actually went back into a story -- this was actually before the Isaacson biography. I actually went back and found and talked to the guy who ran the Byte Shop, the original Mountain View electronic store to which Jobs tried to originally sell the original Apple 1 circuit board, so the inflection point at which Jobs became an entrepreneur to get the reality of the story and you pull together all the pieces and this is someone who had no preexisting passion for technology, entrepreneurship, or trying to build impactful technology, so he very clearly stumbled backwards into this and then made it into the foundation for something that was very satisfying.
Then I more recently uncovered some transcripts from Walter Isaacson's interviews with Jobs where Isaacson asked him about follow your passion and this advice, and Jobs said to him, "It's not all about you and your damn passion." So even Jobs himself admitted -- the way Jobs saw it, it was about doing good things, trying to make an impact on the universe. Brad and I, we're completely in agreement. This is what I say in So Good They Can't Ignore You, is you have to lower the bar. The notion that the passion is preexisting is the biggest misnomer. This is the message that we've been taught.
I went back and traced it to etymology. It goes back to basically the late 1990s. That's when we first started introducing phrases like "follow your passion" into our every day parlance, so it's actually relatively recent, and we instilled it into an entire generation, this idea that for some reason you will be prewired for some sort of particular job. And whatever the particular phase of our economy we happen to be into that you'll somehow be prewired for one of these jobs and if you can identify the passion and match it to the work, you'll be very happy, but if you don't, you'll be very unhappy. We just have no evidence that we have these strong, built-in pre-inclinations or at least that they're all that common. So what I say in my book and Brad and his co-author say in their book is the passion grows.
Christopher: I would love for the focus of this interview to be Digital Minimalism. This is a book that's had the most profound impact of my life of perhaps any book I've read since the early Paleo days before I started Nourish Balance Thrive. It's been hugely impactful. I sort of got some of what was going on with social media and stuff but really hadn't quite nailed it in the way that you nailed it in Digital Minimalism, and perhaps I'll talk about some of my experiences as we go along. Talk about, "We didn't sign up for this," that message. "We didn't sign up for this." I remember looking at Facebook when it first came out or I first had access to it. Of course, it had already been out for a while by the time I had access, but you said something in Digital Minimalism, which is, "We didn't sign up for this." Can you talk about that?
Cal: If you've got a time machine and went back to 2010 and you grabbed just a standard Facebook user, maybe someone who has an iPhone. Let's get an iPhone user, a Facebook user from 2010, put them in a time machine, bring them to today, take them out of the time machine, have them walk around the street, go to a coffee shop or whatever. The thing that would probably catch their attention more than anything else is why is everyone looking at their phone. We think about it like, "Oh, that's just how we've always been as long as we've had phones, as long as we've had social media," but it's actually way more recent than we remember, this notion of the phone as a constant companion, this now common visual where you're on the subway or in the coffee shop or in the line and 98% of the people are looking down to their screen. How did that happen so quickly?
Well, if you really dive deeply into the story, you see it has a lot to do actually with bankers. The particular story is the following. Facebook was the first major social media company to go for an IPO. In order to hit the price that their investment bankers, one of them to hit for their initial stock offering, they had to really raise their revenue numbers. They had been in user acquisition mode, startup mode. They're on the runway. All they want to do is get as many users as possible, but now, if you're going to go and do an IPO, you have to open your books and people have to see how much money are you making per user, so they had to get the revenue per user much higher. They had to go from user acquisition to revenue generation mode.
The challenge they had is how do we get people essentially to look at this application a lot more. Well, they first figured out we have to move it to the phone. Let's put our emphasis on the mobile app because you know what? People have their phones with them all the time. They're only in front of their computers however some of the days, so a lot of the attention went to the mobile app, but they still had to figure out how do we get people to take this phone out and look at it all the time because we weren't doing that. That was not our original relationship with the phones. So what they did was this grand re-engineering of the social media experience. It used to be a very classic Web 2.0 thing. I post stuff about myself. You post stuff about yourself. I occasionally log on to see what you've posted. That was classic people just expressing themselves to keep up with your friends. They changed the whole thing.
Here's what it's going to be about, social approval indicators about you, so they added the 'Like' button and invested a lot of money to get auto-tagging in photos so you could see if people had been posting photos that have you in them. Twitter added the retweet. Instagram really emphasized the favorites, the heart. This completely changed the social media experience because now, it was every time I tap this app on my phone, there's going to be an indeterminate amount of social approval indicators about me. There's going to be evidence that people are thinking about me. That evidence is going to be intermittent. Sometimes there'll be none. Sometimes there'll be a lot. Sometimes I'll find out that people are very happy about something I did. Sometimes I'll find out that people are very upset about something I did. Sometimes I'll find out that people I know were doing something without me, so this got deep into existing psychological vulnerabilities that come from our deep ancestral social circuits. That changed the whole game.
The amount of time that the average social media user spent on these apps and sites per day skyrocketed because they had hijacked these ancestral, ancient social circuits in such a way that it became irresistible not to compulsively check. Facebook ran the innovation. All the other social media companies followed suit. Other entertainment and electronic companies also followed suit and in a very short period of time, they had re-engineered our relationship with our phones. No longer were they a Steve Jobs style tool that did various things really well like listen to music and make phone calls. It then became a constant companion, so it's entirely artificial. It's not in the best interest of the user. It's not an emergent phenomenon where people decided this was more valuable. It was almost entirely contrived.
Starting a few years ago, people started to look up and say, "Wait a second. What am I doing? I signed up for Facebook because I wanted to know what my nieces were up to or I had a business and I wanted to post some things about what was going on in my business. I'm looking at this thing four hours a day. What's going on here?" There's this general sense out there of people having this realization of when did this become what I signed up for? It was that growing unease that people have that motivated me to get into it and write a book about it.
Christopher: Yeah, that's a very important point there, which is technology is not neutral. I think I've heard some really smart people in some important podcasts say recently technology is neutral and it just is what you make of it. Guns don't kill people, robbers do, but it's just not true of the social media platforms and that they've been designed specifically to be addictive.
Cal: $500 billion, that's roughly the valuation of Facebook. ExxonMobil, roughly their valuation is around $280 billion, so think about all of the technology, effort, and energy that an oil company like ExxonMobil goes into getting as much oil and natural gas as possible out of the ground. Facebook is twice their size, valuation, except for instead of oil and natural gas, it's attention from your head. Of course they're going to be really good at it. It's a completely lopsided arms race, this idea that oh, there are these innocent tools that were hacked together in college dorm rooms. I'll just use it instrumentally. I wouldn't use it if it wasn't useful. It's nonsense. It's attention fracking, high technology being deployed to extract every last minute of time and attention from your head.
Think about it. Two more minutes of your time and attention is a little bit more revenue. Five more minutes is even more revenue for these companies. They're public companies. They have a fiduciary responsibility to make as much money as possible and the primary way they make money is the number of minutes and the bytes of data they get from their users, so it's not a fair fight and we're not just innocently using these tools. They're dominating our current culture because they're massive and they're really good at it and they're spending a lot of money at it. Some of the smartest people in the world are working on this problem, so I think it's an absolutely good point to make. This isn't neutral. It is an arms race for your attention.
Christopher: We're huge fans of ancestral health on the NBT podcast and perhaps the appropriate field here is evolutionary psychology, so the things that you talked about social approval and variable reward, it's not that you're dumb and you're making this choice. It's the tapping into something that's pretty much baked into the system. It's hardwired. My question for you though is, is there a large body of literature on evolutionary psychologists where Facebook could just employ some scientists and tell them what to do in order to make this happen?
Cal: Well, they call them attention engineers. That's the euphemism they use, and yes, they have a lot of these. There are attention engineers that work on this. They draw from a couple of different fields. The epicenters of attention engineering would be BJ Fogg's Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, so a lot of the big engineers in this space come through his lab at Stanford where the whole point of the lab is how do you use technology to influence people's behavior. They draw from evolutionary psychology. They draw from a lot of rigorous empirical data. They draw from a lot of experience from their network of researchers and founders. The co-founder of Instagram, for example, came through BJ Fogg's lab. Tristan Harris, who's now become a bit of a whistle blower against this exploitation, he went through BJ Fogg's labs, so he has a pretty good sense, but there are other places they draw from as well.
Both Tristan Harris and Adam Alter who write a lot about this engineering, they both claim they've heard that some of these big companies drew from research that came out of Las Vegas casino gambling because in particular, what happened in Las Vegas is they shifted from analog to electronic slot machines. On an electronic slot machine, you can program in precisely the reward schedule. At what rate do you get this reward versus this reward versus no reward? So they did a lot of research to figure out drawing from behavioral psychology. The Las Vegas consultants did a lot of research to figure out what's the ideal schedule of big to small to medium to no rewards that's going to get people pulling the lever as much as possible because we know all the way back from [0:15:40] [Indiscernible] pigeon pecking experiments that it short circuits the dopamine system if the reinforcement becomes intermittent, as you mentioned, right? If anything, it's a little bit of a bug not just mammal, but all sorts of different ancestors in our tree have this bug where when the reinforcement is intermittent, it short circuits the dopamine reward system in such a way that you will pull that proverbial level much more than probably evolutionary fitness as you should, so this is how they in the '70s got the pigeons to keep tapping the lever because they would sometimes get the food pellets, sometimes not.
The consultants in Las Vegas studied this to figure out -- they did a lot of studies of what's the ideal reward schedule. Silicon Valley looked at that. Tristan Harris and Adam both claimed, for example, that Facebook and Instagram began at some point artificially batching feedback of likes and favorites to try to get an intermittent scheduled. It was better fitting to what the research said would make it more irresistible to go back and tap on it. So yeah, they're deeply exploiting directly and indirectly a lot of what we've learned over the last hundred years about how our brain has evolved to function.
Christopher: I think I can link to a very interesting video by Robert Sapolsky, who I'm sure you know. I'm pretty sure there's a short video I could even link to, an extract from a talk where he talks about an experiment he did in rodents and the summary of that work is nothing increases dopamine like "maybe". It's a really nice piece of work and his book, Behave, is a truly fantastic piece of work.
Okay, so let's talk about minimalism then. If we've already decided that these technologies are not neutral, talk about how you define minimalism. This is not just about throwing out all our stuff, right?
Cal: Well, minimalism is an ancient idea, so you can go back and see Marcus Aurelius talk about it. You can see Thoreau talk about it. You can see the Voluntary Simplicity Movement of the 1960s talk about it. You can see Marie Kondo talking about it. You can see Ryan and Joshua, The Minimalists, obviously talking about it. It's a philosophy that can be applied to many different parts of the human experience. We're sort of familiar now with the latest internet-fueled iteration that has to do a lot of with people's stuff, but the philosophy is much more general. The general philosophy is roughly speaking in many parts of human life, you're better off focusing your attention on things that you know for sure are valuable than trying to instead spread that attention over everything you can find that gives you some value.
The minimalist says, "I want to know where the big wins are and I want to double down on those." The maximalist says, "I'm really worried there might be something out there that was a little bit valuable to me and I missed it." To the maximalist, to miss out on something that could've been a little bit valuable is like someone taking that value from you, so it's loss aversion. "I don't want to miss out on anything. What if I make a contact through here?" The classic example of a maximalist would be like a hoarder, so your house is overflowing with stuff. If you actually talk to a hoarder psychology what's going on, every single in their house, they'll identify, "Here's why I might need this. One day, I might need this. I could use this as a gift or I might want to come back to this one day and actually build this project." The psychology has become warped, but for them, to take any of those things out of the house, it's like you're taking that value from them and then they end up with their house completely unlivable and cluttered. That's maximalism to an extreme. The minimalist says focus on what's valuable.
I'm just taking that philosophy and I'm saying from my observation, it applies really well to our digital lives. A lot of us have become digital hoarders. We sign up for every service. We put every app on our phone. We check things all the time because we're really worried about what if I miss out on some type of value or I miss out on this contact or I miss out on something that could be interesting or I miss out on something that people are enjoying right now. I don't want to miss out on anything, so let me collect into my digital world every possible thing that could possibly be valuable. The minimalist says, "No, I don't care about missing out on things. I care about not spending enough time on the things I already know for sure really matter to me," so the minimalists build their life around a small number of things they care about and then they use technology just as a tool to help boost or amplify these things they really care about.
Christopher: Can you talk about Henry David Thoreau? I didn't know that name and then I mentioned it to my wife and she said, "Oh yeah, Henry David Thoreau." I assume I have got the right Thoreau when you talk about the --
Cal: Right. He was one of our great 19th Century American philosophers. He wrote Walden. It's his famous book. He went out into the woods around Walden Pond to live simply and live in this cabin. People often think of him as a naturalist because if you read Walden, it's long descriptions of natural phenomenon like what does the ice look like today on the pond versus yesterday, but actually, the book is an argument for minimalism.
What he was doing with his experiment, which I think is really interesting and to me seems very contemporary, is he was saying I'm going to go live for whatever it was, four or five months, as simply as possible. What I'm going to try to calculate is what's the baseline amount of money it requires for me to have shelter and food and warmth, and so he built this cabin. Here's how much I spent on nails. Here's how much I spent on wood. He grew some food, bought some food. Here's exactly how much I spent on beans, exactly how much I spent on coffee. He calculated the whole thing. Then he said, "How much labor would it take me to generate this much money?" and he figured out, okay, about a day per week. If I worked a day per week as a day laborer on a farm, I could afford to satisfy all of my basic needs. His point was okay, beyond that, it's all decisions you're making. So working beyond that, you're trading hours of your life for money that you can then trade for other types of things like copper pots and venetian blinds. He said we have to be thinking about these trade-offs, so how much of your hours of your life do you want to sacrifice? What value are you getting in return? You always have to see it in that trade-off.
This is where his famous line is, "The great masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation." He was talking about these fellow farmers in Concord, Massachusetts where he lived because he was saying they've grown their farms, their mortgage is up to the hilt, they work all of their waking hours, and what they were chasing was this maximalist chimera that the more land they have, the more profit they make, and so they're trying to maximize the amount of land they have so they could maximize the amount of money they have and they could buy these nice things, but they're sacrificing every last minute of their life in order to upkeep all of this land and the trade-off is bad. He gives this really clever example of the farmer who buys the wagon and he says, "This wagon is important because now I can get to town in 20 minutes instead of two hours each week and it's saving all this time," but Thoreau says, "Yes, but if you calculate how much that wagon cost you, it's taking three hours of work per week to afford the wagon, so actually, you're worse off. The time you gained by getting to town faster was compensated for by how much more work you have to do just to afford the wagon." He was a real minimalist and he said you really have got to figure out what's important and you can't just think about the value of various things in your life. You have to think how much of my time and attention -- and he called it "life force" -- that I have to invest in return for it.
I think that applies really well to the way we think of our digital life. A lot of us are like the Concord farmers, only looking at the value. I sometimes get a good connection on Facebook. I sometimes meet interesting people on Twitter. I get to keep up with these people in my life when I see their photos on Instagram. We never calculate in however how many hours and minutes of our life force do you have to invest into those tools and are those benefits worth all that time and attention and periods of your life force you're actually investing into it or could you be doing something much more valuable with it.
Christopher: Was it Thoreau or was it your words, "crushed and smothered"? Those really resonated with me.
Cal: Thoreau, yes, under their obligations to keep all these fancy things in their life. They're just overwhelmed with that.
Christopher: You've got a nice house in a lovely part of the world and I'm kind of the same. I live in a cabin in the woods, but I still pay $10,000 a year in property tax and my mortgage is still some insane amount of money even though I live very modestly. I was actually climbing back up a trail in Fall Creek in Santa Cruz and listening to the audio book and you used the words "crushed and smothered". I thought, oh my God, that is me living this stupid life in Silicon Valley, crushed and smothered by my financial obligations. Do you ever think like that? Do you ever want to just take your family and just go live in the jungle somewhere and hunt pigs?
Cal: Yeah, or just somewhere with a lower property tax.
Christopher: Or just somewhere with a lower property tax would be fine.
Cal: Yeah. I think this is why all these authors are moving to Austin.
Christopher: Oh, really?
Cal: No income tax, yeah. Well, yes, obviously this is a recurring topic throughout especially American cultural history, but where I'm particularly interested in is how it applies to our psychic life and not just our financial life like what's happening in our lives when we integrate these screens into them as much as we are. I think that alone is leaving people feeling crushed and smothered. The amount of time they feel their attention being drawn back to the screens, we tell ourselves the story like, "Well, when I'm bored, it gives me something to look at." It's not how people are using them. I know it because I've run over 1600 people through an experiment where I had them step away for 30 days to get some clarity and almost universally, what they realized after a few days away from these screens is, "Oh my God, these things had defined my leisure time. My whole leisure time was built around looking at these things" and you take it out of someone's life suddenly for an experimental purpose and they're left adrift saying, "Well, what am I supposed to do?"
This has colonized our psychic space to the point where it's really for a lot of people, especially young people, become an escape. I don't want to deal with hard emotions. I don't want to deal with hard things going on in my life. I don't want to confront big ideas about what I should be doing or where I feel like I'm falling short. I don't want to deal with any of this, so I can just look at that and look at the screen or I can just let the auto-play on Game of Thrones go or I can go to Twitter. It's an escape from these necessary hard things of life, so people are psychically smothered.
Christopher: Yeah. This is one of the key areas where I think your work has benefitted me. You talk about the digital declutter in the book and for me, the digital declutter bears many similarities to the elimination diet. A Paleo type diet is an elimination diet where you just remove all the noise for 30 days and then you see how you feel at the end of it. For me, the surprising thing was the amount of motivation I found for doing what you would call deep work. I'm going to start this new software project or I'm going to try working on this really hard thing. Before, I didn't realize why I didn't want to work on that type, so it's like the thing that you're doing is a vicious cycle because you don't feel like working on that hard problem. Let's just go check Hacker News instead. That was my thing, so I kind of figured out that Facebook was no good and it made me feel gross when I looked at it. I figured that out and I stopped really using it to a large extent, but I was still checking stuff, checking the weather, checking Hacker News, checking Reddit. This is the Alt+Tab. I'm really good at Alt+Tab.
Cal: Yeah. Well, there's this great op-ed that a novelist -- he's written a lot of novels, but he's famous for a novel called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Christopher: I've read that book.
Cal: It's great, right?
Christopher: It's great!
Cal: Mark Haddon I think is his name.
Christopher: I don't remember. Thinking about it, I just remember it being great.
Cal: So he wrote this op-ed maybe about a month ago for the -- I think it was The Financial Times and he said, "I quit Twitter" and then he gave this really interesting explanation where he said, "First of all, let me tell you all the good things I got out of Twitter" and he went on. "I meet interesting people. It was a way to do this. I could connect with my reader," actual positive things. He said, "But this is why I had to quit. Twitter," and I'm paraphrasing him. He's a much better wordsmith than me, but the tweeting, he said, it was acting for him like a steam whistle that was bleeding the steam out of his boiler of his life to the point where he could no longer build up what he called the head of steam required to actually make progress on something meaningful like writing a new book.
I thought he really hit on it just right there. It just bleeds away the energy until you get to a point where you can't muster enough to start a new project or learn a new skill or go out there and sacrifice your time and attention on behalf of someone you really care about. It bleeds away that energy and that's where people are really hurting. I think the social media companies want a whole discussion just to be about utility. They say, "Aha, it is not true that our product has no value. Let's give you an example of someone who gets some value out of the tools, so stop complaining," but utility has nothing to do with people's problem with these tools. It's not like cigarettes for people. It's not something where they would be 100% better if they didn't use it. They get real value out of it, but it's the way that it continually bleeds away this energy and attention that really causes problems.
One thing from an ancestral perspective, I think a good way of looking at it is boredom is a very powerful drive. It's very uncomfortable to feel bored. Ancestrally speaking, any drive that's really powerful, boredom, the hunger and thirst, any of these drives that are very powerful, usually there's a very good reason for that. We don't evolve powerful drives that are meaningless. So what's the drive that boredom pushes? Why do we feel boredom as human beings so strongly, so fundamentally? Well, my contention is we're naturally obviously, like any animal, energy-conserving because hey, when are we going to get our next meal? Let's not waste energy, but boredom will drive you to overcome your natural instinct to conserve energy, to actually go out and do meaningful things, to actually make your intentions concrete in the physical world. It's what drove our Paleolithic ancestors to actually figure out fire and to make the spear and to build larger social structures, art, ritual, religion, mythos and everything. Boredom is the drive that gets us to do things that are substantial sources of meaning and value.
The phone subverts it. It's a way of subverting the boredom drive. You feel boredom that's supposed to drive you to do something meaningful and satisfying, but you can instead just tap the screen and that'll dissipate the boredom a little bit in the moment. So we're subverting our boredom drive and it's leaving us feeling empty, just the same way that highly palatable processed foods subvert our hunger drive and you end up incredibly unhealthy and overweight because hunger is important. We need to eat, but if you satisfy it with this cheap food, there are big consequences for it, or the way that for a lot of young men, pornography is subverting the sexual drive. They can have a normal drive, but it subverts it and then it causes lots of problems. So this highly optimized, algorithmically engineered, distracting entertainment that are ubiquitously available and waiting for us in our pocket, you look at it all the time and it subverts your boredom drive, and once it subverts the boredom drive, you're no longer driven to do the things you actually should be doing or could make your life worth living, that's going to make it satisfying, that's going to give you meaning, that's going to advance you in your life.
What you're talking about is the same as what that novelist was talking about. It's very common that when you get rid of this ability to just quickly subvert boredom when it pops up, it drives you to the type of things that we're probably ancestrally meant to do, which is go out there, learn things, build things, connect things, help people be a part of your community.
Christopher: This is amazing. It's exactly the same story all over again. You just need to eliminate seed oil, refined carbohydrates, and suddenly you feel clarity and you know what is the right answer.
Cal: I was motivated, by the way, by Paleo style elimination diets when I was thinking about the declutter. It's actually a literal analogy that I had in mind. That's why I say 30 days. When you think about minimalists like decluttering your closet like Marie Kondo, you don't take 30 days. You just do it tonight. You take everything out, you declutter it, but for this, you needed the time away just like in elimination diet. You actually need to clear your system out and see how you feel and then very carefully add things back in and see what keeps you feeling good. It's got to be the same thing with tech. It takes 30 days just to get back with what am I all about, what matters to me, what's important to me, what makes me feel good. Only then can you reconstruct your digital diet in a way that's going to be rewarding.
Christopher: Yeah, and my experience has not been unique. My wife has all this stuff second hand. She doesn't have the luxury of listening to audio books and podcasts like I do, and so she gets it all second hand from me, but definitely some of it resonated. The WhatsApp group of local moms and you turn the Wi-Fi on in the morning and there are 1500 unread messages there, it's all really superficial connection, not conversation, and we'll get into that. When she [0:31:33] [Indiscernible] WhatsApp for a while, "Let's do the declutter," she's finding the same. "I don't have the urge to put any of this stuff back" and it's the same with the elimination diet. Once you've lived away from soybean oil and pure crystal cane sugar, you don't really feel like putting it all back at the end of the 30 days. It's kind of a dirty secret, but it works.
Cal: It does. Yeah, usually for people, it's about 11 days to 14 days into this process, they report to me that they completely lose the urge. The first four or five days, they take everything off their phone. The first four or five days, they're compulsively picking up the phone and realizing, "Oh, I don't have anything." This one young woman told me that for the first week, she was checking the weather app --
Christopher: Yeah, because it's the one thing left.
Cal: It had information that changed, but after about two weeks, she was fine.
Christopher: Talk about solitude deficiency. I thought this was really interesting. Another book that I found tremendously helpful both personally and professionally is a book called Loneliness by John Cacioppo who tragically died last year and I thought it was really interesting. Cacioppo's work has shown that loneliness is as dangerous as obesity or smoking. And as a modern society, we've never been more lonely. You can be surrounded by people as we are here in Washington DC and ask people, "Do you feel part of a group of friends?" and they'll still say "no" even though they're surrounded by people, which is really quite sad. It's not an easy problem to solve, and yet at the same time that we're so lonely, we're also suffering from a solitude deficiency. So can you talk about solitude? Perhaps you could first define it because I thought it's very interesting, your definition of the word in the book.
Cal: Right. Well, I took the definition from another book called Lead Yourself First and the definition that they used in this book struck home for me, and that was solitude is freedom from input from other minds. It has nothing to do with physical isolation. It doesn't matter if there are a lot of people around you or not. It doesn't matter if you're in the cabin or on the subway. It doesn't matter. It's what state is your mind in.
Roughly speaking, there are two states your mind can be in. It can be in a mode in which it's processing input from another human mind and that's sort of an all hands on deck mode. We're a very social species. Our brain has a lot of resources to dedicate towards okay, what I'm taking in now is coming from another person, so either you're talking to someone or you're listening to something or you're reading something, but the brain doesn't really discern that much between those three. It puts a lot of attention to what's going on, what does this person mean, let's try to simulate that person in our head. It's an all hands on deck kind of a mental mode.
The other mode you can be in is I'm observing the world and alone with my own thoughts, and that's basically solitude mode. We need both of those modes. The brain is supposed to go back and forth between the two. So if you get rid of all of the process and input from other minds, that means you're not interacting with other humans. It's incredibly dangerous for humans and we hate it. We get incredibly lonely as if you're stuck on a desert island. It's almost unbearable. You have to draw the face on the volleyball.
Cal: Wilson, right? Yeah. If you eliminate the mode where it's actually interacting with thoughts from other minds, it's very problematic. On the other hand, if you eliminate the other mode altogether, the solitude mode, that's equally problematic. Our brain cannot constantly be in the "all hands on deck" input processing mode. It completely exhausts it. It makes you strung out. It makes you anxious. You miss out on a lot of maintenance operations. You also miss out on all of the time your mind uses to actually process the information that's taken in and have drawn insights to integrate what you've learned into your mental schemas for the world. Almost all personal and professional insight and growth comes from what happens during the solitude.
Until about six or seven years ago, it was impossible to avoid solitude in your day to day life just because there's always times during your normal day where it's just going to be you observing the world and alone with your own thoughts.
You're in your car. You're in line. You're walking the dog. You're in the shower, just all the time you would be in solitude, but then we invented with great effort and great ingenuity a worldwide, high speed, ubiquitous, wireless internet network. We've build these devices that get tapped into that network wherever you are, even in planes and even in subways, and then we built giant server farms that can harness all this data about you, run it through algorithms and make sure that at any moment, you can be presented with something that's very salient and very novel that is created by another mind. This has allowed us for the first time in human history to experiment with complete deprivation of the solitude mode and the evidence seems to be this also makes us really unhappy. That what makes us, as I've mentioned before, anxious and strung out and feeling like we have very little insight into our lives and into our professional processes. This is a new danger. It was a danger that was almost impossible to create until all these technological marvels came along, but I think it's comparably dangerous.
Christopher: Yeah. I definitely am in danger of falling into that trap. I sometimes joke with some friends, I don't want to be alone with my own thoughts for even two seconds, and I've got ear buds in listening to podcasts as my thing and audio books all the time.
Cal: Yeah. You have to do it every day. I'm a big podcast audio book fan. You don't want to push it to an extreme where you're alone all the time, but I think everybody every day should have at least a couple of instances and at least five or ten minutes where they're just alone, observing the world with their own thoughts. Right now, I think it's one of the reasons why meditation has become such a big thing. It's almost like an over-the-top reaction to loss of solitude to say, well, at least if I do ten minutes of meditation, your brain is going to be in that mode a little bit, but you don't actually have to be doing necessarily a formal mindfulness meditation practice to get most of the benefits of the solitude mode. It's enough just to do a couple of errands every day without your phone, thinking or looking. You're thinking about that. You're thinking about that. You're thinking about your work. You're looking at that. Oh, it was not interesting. Oh, look at that car.
That type of mundane, just interior monologue observing the world, that in itself is very healthy. It's like sunlight. You've got to get Vitamin D. You have to get some sunlight every day. Otherwise, you're going to get Seasonal Affect Disorder. Just think about vitamin solitude. Every day, did you get your dose of just you alone with your thoughts? It doesn't have to be fancy. It doesn't have to be a mantra. You don't have to be paying attention to your breath. It's enough even just to walk to the drugstore, buy the thing you need to buy, come back, and just do it without something in your ears.
Christopher: Yeah. I think exercise and rest is also very similar. You just can't be on all the time without -- I mean all the good stuff happens while you're recovering or while you're sleeping, so without that then how can you hope to get better? Definitely something bad is going to happen if you deprive yourself of this solitude state.
Let's talk about connection versus communication. Oh, hang on, before we go there, I just wanted to make this really important point about solitude, which was it's not necessarily something that you can only achieve in a cabin in the woods somewhere. You can achieve solitude even somewhere that could be quite busy and there are other people around. Can you talk about that? I just thought that was a really important distinction because it can be quite exclusive otherwise, right?
Cal: Yeah. That's why I really liked that definition about mind mode. Are you processing input from another mind or not, as that being the definition of solitude because it's really orthogonal to where you are. If you're on a mountaintop but you're looking at your phone, you're in non-solitude, but if you're in a crowded coffee shop waiting in line but you have no ear buds in and you're not looking down at your phone, that's actually a really useful period of solitude. It's good you bring it up because it's an important distinction because otherwise, what happens is people, they glorify what solitude is and they push it to this extreme ideal that's almost impossible to achieve because when do I have time to go to the cabin?
Christopher: Right, exactly.
Cal: So then they say, "Well, I guess I can't have solitude." You take that out of it and you say you can have solitude anywhere. Just don't bring your phone into the bathroom. Solitude, don't take your phone out when you're on the metro for your whatever. Solitude, it's much easier to achieve than we sometimes think.
Christopher: Connection versus communication. This is another subtle but really important distinction. This is another area where your book has really touched my life quite profoundly, was I just didn't make the distinction and I didn't realize what I was supposed to be doing instead of Facebook. I had already said that Facebook made me feel gross, so what are you supposed to do instead? The answer is you pick up the phone. You speak to someone, right?
Christopher: I have this friend I ride bikes with. He's in his 60s. He's an arborist and he's certainly not a luddite. He uses all kinds of technology, chainsaws, chipping machines, tractors, mowers, and he's very good with his hands and he certainly understands technology really well, but he doesn't know how to use a computer. He's never used a computer and he doesn't have a phone, and he keeps saying to me, "I should really get a phone, I know, because I'm missing out and no one can reach me via text." I was like, "Bill, no! No!"
Cal: "You're the last one!"
Christopher: "You're the last one!" He's the only person that calls me on a Sunday morning and says, "Do you want to go for a bike ride today?" I'm like, yes, this is great! We're talking on the phone having a proper conversation. Can you talk about the difference between connection and communication?
Cal: Yeah. The thing we know about human sociality, it's like a lot of things in life like exercise, for example. You're going to get the most reward from exercise the harder it is.
It's the same thing with sociality, which is what really satisfies us and make us feel connected is when we sacrifice non-trivial time and attention on behalf of people that we care about, so our family, close friends, and community. The more you're sacrificing on behalf of someone else, the more sense of social reward and satisfaction that you're going to feel. So I'm actually going to put aside my morning to spend time with you is a much more rewarding social activity, let's say, than shooting a quick text message that says, "Hey, how's it going?" or something like this, or, "I know you're in a hard way and I'm going to come bring you a meal. You're not going to get rid of me. I'm going to spend the day with you and we can just talk" or whatever it is. You get out what you put into it.
The problem with what happened with the rise of low friction digital communication is not that the low friction communication is itself bad. In fact, it's incredibly convenient. I would much rather send an email than have to fax someone something. If I'm meeting up with someone, text messaging is great. It's more convenient for me to say, "Wait, you're on that corner. I'm over here. Hold on. I'm going to be ten minutes." It's much more convenient to send a quick asynchronous text message than it used to be where maybe I'd call the phone at the bar or something. I had no way of really getting in touch with you, so it's incredibly convenient.
Where it becomes problematic is when we start to use it to replace the sacrifice of nontrivial time and attention on behalf. This is the key distinction, is connecting with digital technologies is nice and convenient, but has almost nothing to do with whether or not you're going to feel socially connected. That is going to require good old fashioned analog interaction and real nontrivial sacrifice of your time and attention on behalf of someone. I see the digital tools as primarily logistically. Maybe I'm on social media and I find out my old friend is going to be in town. I know that because of his Facebook post. That's great. Now, I know he's in town. That's a real advantage, but what I need to do next is get him on the phone and say, "Let's get together and do something" and that's where I get the real social advantage.
Text messaging can help me figure out, "Hey, is anyone around? I have a free hour. Anyone want to come on a walk with me?" That's great. The text messaging technology allowed me to very conveniently find someone who's available, but the real value then comes when you actually spend a nontrivial amount of time with someone and sacrifice on behalf of them. We have this paradoxical thing we see in the research literature and in psychology in particular where increased social media use is often associated with increased loneliness and the reason is -- at least this is the best hypothesis the researchers have -- what happens is people who use social media more are replacing the old fashioned analog, high sacrifice conversation with the low friction digital equivalent. It's like replacing hearty food with candy bars. It's not a fair trade. It's not really giving you what you need.
So to me, that's the key. If you want to feel connected and social as a human, you should need to be sacrificing. It's got to be sacrificing time and attention on behalf of someone. You have to be there. You have to actually give a lot of yourself to the person or you're not going to get a benefit. The low friction digital stuff, great! It's a convenient logistical tool. It can maybe increase the number of high quality social interactions you have because now it's easier to see who's around to coordinate, but you cannot let it become a substitute.
Christopher: So this is a key area of environmental mismatch, we might call this, so the inputs that your genes are expecting versus the ones that you gave them are just completely different.
Cal: Our social brain does not recognize linguistic communication at all to be the same thing as like what we're doing right now. The bulk of the information in this interaction, let's say me sitting in front of you right now, the bulk of the information in this interaction is not linguistic, in other words, sort of unrelated to the actual text of what I'm saying to you. There's a huge bevy of analog, what biologists would call honest signals, so signals that have a high enough resource cost that we're unlikely to fake them and therefore gives us a lot of information, things that have to do with my body language right now, the pacing of how I'm talking, to what degree am I mimicking certain types of motions that you're doing, limbic confidence, me taking some of your intonations and bringing them into the way I'm talking. There are huge sections of our brain that look at all of these things and it's a very rich interaction that's going on right now. That's what our social brain has evolved to expect.
If it's seen ASCII characters glowing on a little piece of glass you're holding in your hand, it might think that's an interesting thing, but as far as your social brain is concerned, which by the way is the bulk of what our human brains do, this has nothing to do with the sociality that it craves. It just does not connect little white characters on a blue bubble, ASCII characters from the Roman alphabet. Our ancestral brains do not look at that and say, "Man, we are really connecting with our tribe." Even though logically we think it's the same, we know there's a person on the other end of that, the social computer in our brain doesn't understand it. If you're doing this all day is why you can paradoxically as far as the deeply evolved, ancient social part of your brain is concerned that you're incredibly lonely.
Christopher: I'm laughing because it's obvious when you say it like that. I think many people listening to this podcast will also be listening to our friend, Josh Turknett's The Intelligence Unshackled Podcast. He's talked about that a lot on his podcast too, how this type of social interaction is actually one of the most complex things that humans do and trying to replace it with tech is just completely ridiculous, but that's what we do.
Cal: Yeah. Well, what I said in the book, we shouldn't be surprised that when we took something as fundamental and ancient and crucial to our species as sociality and then we allow teenagers in dorm rooms to start messing around with it, of course it's going to cause problems just like when we took the systems in our body that process food and the energy that have evolved over a very long, deep, historical time frame and after thousands and tens of thousands of years, we start producing food in factories. Of course it's going to screw up. We throw industrialized, highly palatable food into the systems that are ancient and they've never seen anything like it. Of course it's going to mess up our bodies. Well, same thing. Sociality is as important to us as our nutritional systems, very carefully evolved, very calibrated. When we start messing around, we do it on networks that have likes and little pictures and back and forth and just ideas coming out of incubators and ping-pong tables and Silicon Valley startups or whatever, just messing around, when you mess around with things that are deeply fundamental to the human experience, you're going to get unexpected consequences.
Christopher: I find it very interesting that a computer scientist would think like this and I wonder whether it's a computer science thing or whether I'm just hallucinating that idea, but when I talk to engineers about mobile phones, they say, "Well, there's no localized heating, so it doesn't matter whether you put it in your head or not. 5G is going to be fine." But when you talk to people that understand biology -- so Tommy is the main person I'm thinking of here -- he says, "I understand how life is created by moving electrons around inside of cells. How can putting a mobile phone next to your head not do something?" And then if you buy into this idea that this is a system that has evolved over millions or even billions of years, how can altering it -- if it's carefully calibrated and highly optimized, how can changing it in any way not lead to a deoptimization of that system? Is this like a computer science thing that you're thinking like this or do you think it's just a Cal Newport thing?
Cal: Well, no, because the computer scientists are very engineering-focused and they often tend to be quite instrumental. So if you're a computer scientist, what have you been trained in? You've been trained in optimization, how do I come up with an algorithm that can efficiently find whatever the best possible solution or this or that. So computer scientists, like a lot of engineers, think very instrumentally and they just assume if you're using something, it's because you're getting value out of it and more options is better than less options. This notion that technology is not neutral is something that engineers are often very dismissive of and engineers often think, "Well, if you're on social media too much, it's because you choose to be on social media too much" or somehow there's some flaw in your or something.
In some sense, my advantage being a computer scientist is I understand the technology is better. Also, I just think a lot about technology and how we get value out of it, but I have to break away from a lot of my peers. To a lot of my peers, they've very instinctually thinking of technology as [0:47:53] [Indiscernible]. Well, if you're using it, you're using it for a reason. If it wasn't valuable, you wouldn't be using it. So it's very instrumental where I think psychologists and biologists are much more -- they think of us much more as we're these systems and we're evolved and set up to do certain things and you get knocked out of equilibrium and you have to be a little bit careful. If you introduce new things that these systems aren't used to, there could be consequences. Actually, the biologists and psychologists are often much better equipped to think about these issues, but I figure we need at least one technologist in on this conversation, so I'm doing my best.
Christopher: The other big one is light. How can you introduce all this electric lighting and expect it not to have an effect? It's only been around -- I was reading the history of some town near Downieville that we're going to go mountain biking and the Wikipedia page talked about how they fought to get electric lighting when the nearby town is already out there, and this is like a hundred years ago this was happening.
Cal: Yeah, or noise or -- yeah. A lot of this stuff is completely new.
Christopher: Talk about the digital declutter experiment. How do I do it?
Cal: What I suggest is you take 30 days and what you do during these 30 days is you're taking a break from what I call optional personal technologies, so technologies that you can step away from without it causing major hardship or problems. For most people, this is let's say all social media, reading news online, streaming media, watching videos online, mainly internet-related activities, cutting back on text messaging to the degree that is possible.
Where there's overlap, let's say, with your professional life, I recommend you just put up some fences. "Well, I have to do a certain amount of posting on Facebook for my company." What you would do during the 30 days is say okay, that's okay, but I'm just going to do it on my desktop and I have a schedule. It takes me 30 minutes and I do it twice a week, so you put fences where you can. So you're stepping away from a lot of these new network technologies especially in your personal life and you do it for 30 days.
During those 30 days, what you're supposed to do is aggressively work on experimentation and reflection. Of the people I've run through this experiment, the people who are by far the most likely to fail with it are the people who treat it just like a detox and just white knuckle it. "I just use this stuff too much. I just want to get away from it for 30 days." They fall off the wagon. The people who succeed follow the advice of your whole point in these 30 days is to use this space to figure out what it is you really care about, what you really want to spend your time on, what you really value, and it requires a lot of self-reflection.
Literally, you're walking around thinking and experimentation. You try things. You sign up for things. You join things. You go on adventures. You're really trying to get re-exposed to what are the activities I actually want to do, what's valuable to me, what do I care about, what do I want to fill my time with.
Then when the 30 days are over, just like after a Paleo elimination diet, you're now going to rebuild your digital diet from scratch except for this time, instead of just haphazardly signing up for whatever app or service catches your attention or you hear about in the news, you're going to be much more intention and minimalist about it, and so you say here are the things I care about, the things I want to spend my time doing. If I can think of a way that a particular techno tool will really help or amplify one of these things, great, that's what I want to bring back to my life. If it's not giving me a big win on one of these things I care about then I don't care. I'm not bringing it back in my life even if it has some other benefits it might give me. Once you bring these tools back into your life, you put rules around them, how and when, so what medium do I use this, when do I use this.
A lot of the digital minimalists who go through this experiment, for example, I found that about half of them added no social media back to their life. About half of them had some reason for at least one social media platform to come back into their life. Maybe they're a visual artist and Instagram is how they get inspiration. Of the 50% who brought back social media after this declutter, I would say 99% of them didn't put it back on their phone because when they actually asked the question of "What's the best way to use this tool to amplify something I care about?" for a lot of them, it's like, "Well, it'll be on my computer. I'm an artist, so I'll go on Sunday night and see what the artist I really care about had posted. It takes 20 minutes a week," and so that's a transition. So you step away, you get back in touch with what matters, use that as the foundation for very carefully rebuilding your digital life. This time, it's being rebuilt specifically to amplify and boost the small number of things you've identified that just really matter into you.
Christopher: Can you give us an example of someone that's been through the digital declutter experiment and lived a more meaningful life afterwards?
Cal: What happened with this is I put out a call to my email list when I was researching the books. "Does anyone want to do this? This can be a month. Here's what's going to happen." I thought maybe a dozen people would say "yes". I was asking people to step away basically from their phones for a moment. I thought it'd be a dozen people. I thought I'd call them. Yeah, there'll be a dozen people. I'll follow them. I'll tell their stories or whatever. Over 1600 people signed up to do the experiment, which is a nontrivial fraction of everyone on that email list actually, which showed me there's a real demand.
I've been flooded with hundreds of reports from all of these people who have gone through it. I have a variety of different stories, but to summarize some high points, what's really consistent to people who succeed with it, they introduced quite a few more high quality activities back into their daily life. What it is depends on the people, but they get a lot more exercise. "I'm doing yoga." "I'm now part of these community groups," reading and writing a lot more. "I'm spending a lot more time with my kids or my friends or my family." "I picked back up this hobby." "I'm now playing in a band again." "I've organized this event." There's usually a huge influx of hard, meaningful analog activities go back into their life. You see a lot more fences added around their tech. That's really common. The phone really tends to dumb down after people go through this exercise and just become instrumental like directions and occasional text messages. Any sort of information gathering of social media tends to migrate onto a desktop computer and they do it a lot less. You also notice a lot more investment in sociality, so almost everyone who goes through this at some point would spend much more time face to face with people they care about.
Christopher: You end up getting podcasters getting onto airplanes, flying across the country to interview their guests rather than doing it on Skype call recorder.
Cal: Yeah, exactly. There's this one young man I wrote about recently. He told me one of the things he did that was such a great idea after his declutter, is he implemented something called "office hours". I think it was three hours a week. He said, "Okay. I have to fill these three hours talking, so on the phone or in person with people in my life and I have to fill it." Early on, he has friends and family or this or that, but to keep filling these office hours, he had to start getting creative, so he would start looking up, "Well, here's an old friend that I haven't seen in a while" or "Here's this person I knew from high school," really going out of his way because he had to fill these three hours with conversations. That's completely changed his life. He's been having these deep conversations with all of these people, people he knows really well, people he used to know, people who used to be really important to him, and his sense of sociality has completely skyrocketed. This was a young guy who's in his 20s, was a huge social media, constantly on his phone type of guy. He feels exponentially more connected than he ever did before and it's just three hours, but it's three hours of deep conversation every week and it's been completely life-changing for him.
Christopher: Is this the same guy that you talked about in the book, Conversational Office Hours? I love that. I'm going to start doing that like no more trying to schedule a call 5:30 or whenever it is for you. Here's the time that I just pick up the phone and talk to people. "Just call me at 5:30" I think is a really -- everyone should have that on their email signature, "5:30 is office hours. Call me."
Cal: I agree with that. This was a different guy, but I love the Conversational Office Hours. The Conversational Office Hours is a Silicon Valley guy. He was typical, works in Silicon Valley, lives in San Francisco, so that is a consistent, whatever it is, 90 minutes on the 101 or whatever the interstate is there, so yeah, he made his office hours. He's great. If you email him or call him, he's always like, "Yeah, call me whenever between these hours on these days" and he's always talking to people.
Christopher: I mean it's not a new idea either. I remember when I was a kid that that's what people did in the evenings. They would call each other on their phones. Back in the day when houses had landlines, it's what you did.
Cal: Yeah, and you'd have a couple of lines because --
Christopher: Yeah, the kid would be on.
Cal: Yeah. You would get people on the phone or you'd go to their house and it makes a huge difference. That's the type of things you see, is people get involved in lots and lots of activities and they're often surprised because they didn't realize the extent to which their energy to do such things had been bled away by subverting the boredom drive and looking at the screens, and they thought, "Oh, I'm just tired. I'm just exhausted. I need to binge watch because I'm too tired to do anything else" but when they took that steam release valve out, they realized, well, I have this drive and I have this energy, and I feel more energized by actually going and doing something valuable. It increases my energy. So the story we tell ourselves, "I'm just tired. I'm worn out. I just need to look at whatever," this is helping to cause that feeling.
Christopher: You just nailed it. That's exactly how I felt with programming. I didn't want to do it because my energy had been bled away by checking other stuff and I had almost this residue or depleted of energy. That's really important.
Cal: I've been programming again. I'm a theoretician as a computer scientist, so I don't have to program for my research, but obviously, I was trained to do it. I'm a hardcore digital minimalist and this is one of the things I've had the energy for. I've been making video games for my kids.
Christopher: Oh, wow!
Cal: You're right, it's exactly this type of thing. I've noticed this when I'm not -- because I've been drained a little bit from the book tour because the book tour simulated for me what I feel like most people probably feel all the time, which is constant, constant interaction. Your attention is constantly switching and it's all stimuli too. It's all novel and salient stimuli like this person is writing about you or there's a bad review or whatever. It's completely exhausting, so that dies down and I have all this energy back again.
I'm programming a ray casting 3D first person engine, so I'm psyched I could make a game for my kids, but mainly, I don't know, it's energy. It's interesting. Great! I can look at trigonometry again and let me replicate Wolfenstein from scratch or something like this.
Christopher: That's amazing.
Cal: We were driven to want to do these types of things.
Christopher: That's amazing.
Cal: That's our natural state. It's incredibly unnatural and it requires all this technology and screens that take us away from it.
Christopher: I wanted to wrap up the interview by you talking again about this idea of the craftsman's approach to deciding whether you want to use a tool or not. The reason I want to end it here is because I think this is so important for every aspect of our life. I've listened to a lot of podcasts and worked with a lot of clients that come to us and they say, "Well, I heard this guy over here talking about how protein was going to stimulate mTOR and give me cancer or something, so I think I should probably stop eating protein" and really it's the opposite.
With the social media or technology, people start using these things based on any benefit, but what we see in the podcast world with all these things that are going to get it, is any cost. "Well, there's this cost of eating protein and therefore, I should stop doing it." I think the way that you described the craftsman's approach is a very good way of thinking about all of these things.
Cal: Yeah. It's the human way to approach tools. It's the way that we're supposed to approach tools, which is on the one hand, you know what you're trying to do and what's important. Once you have that figured out -- and tools are just made to help that. The craftsman is very careful like okay, I don't care that there are some benefits to this or that. The craftsman's mindset comes from deep work, but I spent some time with a farmer because farmers really care about what farm equipment do I buy or not buy. Do I buy it new? Do I buy it used? Do I really use this? That's what this farmer whose name was Forrest Pritchard told me. Everything in the farm supply store has benefits. There's nothing in the store where they're like, "This device does nothing we could think of that's valuable. Please buy it." Of course there are some benefits to it, but a farmer's whole life is figuring out where's the big wins, what's worth investing time and money into, what's going to be the trade-off if I use this versus other things. I gave a whole case study about how we decided whether or not to use a hay baler on his fields and it all came down to the soil health. It's very complicated thinking, but this is how craftsmen think. I don't care if it has a benefit or not. Everything has benefits. That's naïve to think that means anything. What matters is, is this the best tool for what I'm trying to do? Is this going to give me a big win versus not? Because what matters is the craft.
That's the way we should be with our digital life. This whole maximalist mindset of, "I don't know. Maybe I'll meet someone or maybe I'll sell some more books in some way if I'm on this platform or something like that" is not a craftsman mindset. There are some benefits where I might as well use it. It's not the way the craftsmen think about things, so you have to start what is your craft. You want to do that craft really well. You can very carefully apply tools that you know give you big wins.
You're going to end up much better off doing that as instead just being in this sort of scarcity mindset of I don't want to miss out on anything that's possibly valuable because if you do that, you're the farmer who has the barn full of all the shiny equipment and is foreclosed on the next year because all this money and time and attention has gone into the shiny tractors and balers and this and that. In the meantime, the soil went parched. It's the same thing with all these other pursuits in our life.
Christopher: Right, and by using this equipment, by baling my own hay, what else could I be doing that could be possibly more valuable and consistent with my values?
Cal: Yeah, and how much does it cost? In his case, he worried about soil compaction. Baler is heavy. It compacts the soil, but he's a grass-grown meat farmer, and so the soil health is the primary thing. It's this whole complicated thing. He ended up realizing in the end, okay, I'm better off baling my hay than bringing my own hay baler. The soil quality for each of us is a metaphor for something else, but it all comes down to these deeper roots of what really matters to me, what's really important. In the end, what's the net impact going to be? If I'm spending 15 minutes a day on Facebook products like the average Facebook user, well, what's that going to do with my actual deeper connections that's taking my time away from this or that? Are there benefits I get from that? Is that really the best way? What if I did none of that, but instead, had one good conversation every day? When you really start thinking deeply about what's the right tool for what matters, it's not that you're not going to use technology. Tech helps a lot of things, but you're going to be using again like the farmer uses their farm equipment selectively, intentionally, incredibly, instrumentally, and by doing so, so you're going to get a much better yield.
Christopher: That's a great place to wrap up. Is there a question I should have asked?
Cal: Oh, what's a question that you should've asked? Is this going to change?
Christopher: Well, yeah. This is an interesting point. The reason the farmer is forced to do the craftsman analysis is because they get crushed. They have skin in the game. They get crushed by the steamroller that is financial burden whereas as other humans working knowledge worker jobs at Google with tidy pensions and options and all the rest of it, we don't get crushed. There's no real consequence of this failing to do the craftsman approach to cost benefit analysis.
You're reminding me of something. Josh Turknett posted a paper this morning. The title of the article was "Neuroscientists can read brain activity to predict decisions 11 seconds before people make the act." So basically, they're trained in algorithm to predict a decision 11 seconds before people were conscious of that decision. So is it enough to tell people, "Oh, just stop it. Just stop it"? The "Just do it" and "Just stop it" is kind of the joke of behavioral science thinking that people can just stop it or just start it. Just because you told them is not necessarily enough, so yeah, I guess that's right. That is the big question. Is this really going to have some wider impact? Are enough people going to read Digital Minimalism and do something about it to make a significant change?
Cal: I'm optimistic about it. In the short term, this is why I'm really big -- I keep coming back to people, "Do the 30 days. Do the 30 days" because I agree. If you just tell someone, "This has better stop. That's very hard' or if you just do tips and tricks, it doesn't stick.
Cal: If you make your phone grayscale and move your apps off the front page of your iPhone, it's not enough. It's not going to stick, right? It's got to be more drastic. The 30 days works really well because people then get the taste of what life is like otherwise, and so to me, that's very profound.
The other reason why I think we see change in the air now and we didn't three years ago is companies are getting too good at it and they can't stop. If you're ExxonMobil, you can't cut down on the amount of oil you're bringing out of the ground because your stock price is going to fall. You have to support your shareholders, right? These companies are huge now and they can't go back and they have to keep trying to grow, and how do you grow? We have to get more time. We have to get more attention. I think one of the key inflection points the last couple of years is they just passed the point of getting too good at it that people couldn't ignore it anymore. People are like, "Wait a second. I can't ignore anymore how much I'm looking at the screen."
On the other hand, and this is what makes social media companies so unique, is they're pretty dispensable. If you take something like a giant oil company, their product is not dispensable. The economy runs on petroleum, so it's not easy. If I say to someone suddenly, "I don't want you to use gasoline anymore," well, it's a little easier now. You could buy an electric car, but it's a hard proposition. For most people, social media is very dispensable. Most people, if you say, "Don't use Facebook this week" and they do, nothing really bad happens. In fact, usually the reaction is like, "I don't really miss it that much," right? And so we've never had before in the history of our economy companies that were so valuable at the same time that they're so dispensable.
Almost always, if you're one of the biggest, most valued companies in our company, it's because you're offering something that is just absolutely necessary for our economic engine to grow. You're big steel or you're big oil. You're the telecom network and you control how people can communicate with each other. You're offering something that just would be really hard if you took it away. The stuff that's drawn us to our phones, people use it way more than they want to and they don't really care that much about it.
You take almost any one of these services and take it out of someone's life and they're like -- it doesn't really change it much. So that's why I think it's incredibly fragile. They're worth all this money, so they have to keep pulling in as much attention as possible and people are getting more and more fed up by these Screen Time reports, checking on their iPhones like, "How much am I looking at this?" The thing that's drawing them there in isolation is not that important.
Christopher: I feel like that was a huge admission of guilt when Apple put in the Screen Time report and you look at that -- and I can remember showing it to my wife. She's like, holy fucking shit, I really need to --
Cal: Yeah, but Apple itself doesn't directly profit off of attention. It's the Facebooks and the Googles of the world that actually directly make the money. Apple just sells the device, so they have a little bit more leeway there and they had an activist shareholder revolt. Major group of their shareholders said this. "You're breaking kids' minds. Out with these phones" and they pressured Apple into adding those types of features to it. Apple can kind of get away with it because again, if I use my iPhone 50% less, let's say if I stop using social media, it doesn't hurt Apple because either you need the iPhone or you don't, so they don't mind if you reduce your iPhone usage so long as the usage is greater or equal to zero, but if you're Facebook or if you're Twitter, every minute less that someone uses your product, that's a little bit less revenue you make, so they're in a much more precarious situation.
I just think these platform monopoly social media companies, it's much more fragile and vicarious than we think. It's not some fundamental technology like I could not imagine -- if Zuckerberg, said tomorrow, "You know what? I've had it. I'm turning off the servers. I'm flipping the switch. Facebook's gone. Instagram's gone. It's all gone tomorrow," what would the footprint be on most people's life? It would be negligible.
Christopher: That's really interesting to think about. In full disclosure, back in the day when I had disposable income, I bought a bunch of Facebook stock at the IPO and initially, it looked like a really stupid decision. I forgot about it for several years and I sold that stock recently, which is probably part of the reason I'm still here.
Cal: That's smart though. I don't know if that's a long-term beyond -- I mean how much longer -- yeah, of course, they could diversify or do whatever, but as far as I can tell, Google has been much better --
Christopher: Yeah, diversifying.
Cal: -- diversifying than Facebook, who hasn't been nearly as successful. They're still really tied up in the attention economy.
Christopher: Yeah. That would be my question. So what's going to rush in to replace it if there is a big correction?
Cal: I'm not quite sure. We might look back at this trend of constantly posting photos of ourselves and clicking on little thumb icons and hearts and stuff like that. We might just look back at that as a weird fad.
Cal: We'll see, but I don't think there's anything fundamental about --
Christopher: No, you're totally right.
Cal: -- scrolling through photos that people posted or something like that. We might just say, "Ugh. Enough."
Christopher: Yeah. It's like soybean oil in that regard. Just get rid of it. You won't notice it. You don't even taste it. That's part of the reason why the chefs like it, is because it doesn't taste like canola oil. It's the same. It doesn't taste anything.
Cal: You just feel a little bit -- you'll realize after a while, "Oh, I feel a little bit better." You don't miss it and then you feel a little bit better, yeah.
Christopher: Well, I think that's a good place to wrap up. We've been talking about Cal Newport's new book, Digital Minimalism, which I really, really enjoyed because it's a really important book. I'm going to continue to work my way back through your back catalogs, so that's Deep Work -- I feel like they bookend well together, Deep Work. Well, what is the main thing that's distracting people or stopping people from doing deep work? That's Digital Minimalism and I'm wondering what comes before. I'm looking forward to exploring that.
Cal: Yeah. Well, I see it more like Deep Work is about the workplace. It focuses more on things like email and other types of things, but we forgot focus is important. Then Digital Minimalism is yeah, but what about your life outside of work.
Christopher: I like that a lot. Then can you tell us anything about the new book you're working on now?
Cal: Yeah. I was just writing it before you got here. It's tentatively titled "A World Without Email".
Christopher: Oh, wow.
Cal: The premise of this book is we have this way we work now and knowledge work in the age of digital network, so a particular work flow that I call the hyperactive hive line, which is let's keep an ongoing, unstructured conversation going all day through things like email and Slack. My contention in the book is this is actually an arbitrary way to work and I feel like the research, it turns out to be in direct conflict with the way that our brains actually function and it's making us way less productive than we could be as knowledge workers and also making us miserable. So then it looks forward like we need to actually replace this fundamental workflow of just we all have addresses, let's just rock and roll, ongoing conversation, figure things out, message back and forth. We need to replace that with something that actually respects the way that our ancient brains actually function. If we do that, not only are we all going to be much happier. It's going to be a productivity boom. Our knowledge economy is going to be able to produce way more when I don't -- I have all the stats on hand, but basically, roughly speaking, we're checking communication channels something like once every six minutes.
Christopher: I've just been watching people doing it on the airplane. Of course now, you don't even have to disconnect when you get onto an airplane, and that's what people are doing. They're just sending emails all day long with these giant signatures.
Cal: It's constant. It's no longer that we -- I've just finished this chapter. So I've read everything, all of the research. It's no longer that we do our work and we're occasionally interrupted to do communication. They're complete parallel tracks now. The communication is essentially constant, so we're maintaining a constant, ongoing communication track at the same time that we're also trying to do the work that we're communicating about. Our brains can't do that.
Christopher: Very interesting.
Cal: We cannot do that. Anyway, that's what you can look forward to, is my broad side against email.
Christopher: Is this something they train professors to do? I remember this from over 20 -- that's terrifying to think that I was a computer science undergraduate over 20 years ago, but I do remember very distinctly my professor. First of all, you had to craft an email in such a way that it would get a response at all. An open-ended question, forget it. It had to be close-ended, very specific, relevant, probably something they'd forgotten about if it wasn't on the website notes or something, so you have to very carefully craft your question, and then the response at most, it would be like a 6x6 matrix like there'd be no more than six words on each line and then no more than six lines. It would not be real grammar. It would not be the way that he would write a book or a paper or anything like that. It's a special language that he or she had especially for this type of communication.
Cal: Yeah. Well, computer scientists think about protocols.
Cal: Like what's the optimal network protocol, yeah, but we've given up on all of that. Now, it's just --
Christopher: It's considered impolite.
Cal: It's just an ongoing conversation. The problem is that we think about entirely the wrong scope. We think about the tool. We say, well, is this a good tool? Does this solve the problem it's supposed to solve well? Is it a good way of sending information around? Is it a good way of me getting in touch with someone? Of course it is. Email is a really good tool for asynchronously sending communication. It's much better than a fax machine, but the question is not the tool or is this good with the problem it's trying to solve. It's the workflow that we've built up around this tool and that's where we're in trouble because the workflow we've built up is like let's take what we used to do. Let's go back to ancestral. What did we use to do tribally in the Paleolithic? There'd be three of us hunting the mastodon. Of course there'd be unstructured, ongoing conversation. You go that way. I'll go that way. Watch out. It's going around. You figure it out on the fly.
We took that and said, "Can't we just scale this up to our thousand person organization and do it digitally?" It turns out no, we can't especially if at the same time, what you want to do is be thinking hard and create a new value with your brain. I think there a big changes coming in the way we work and it's going to draw on ancestral understanding of how our brains work and how that's conflicting with all of these modern tools. That's a big theme of a lot of my work, is I want tech to work and where we get in trouble with tech is where it runs into conflicts with the way that we as humans are wired. So the more we understand those conflicts, the more we can figure out oh, okay, let's not do this. Let's do that instead.
Christopher: Yeah. You've answered an important question there that I thought about asking. I thought oh, are you teaching computer science undergraduates to go away and do evil stuff? The kids that you're teaching are the ones that are going to work for these companies. They are creating the attention or the surveillance economy, right?
Cal: Yeah. Well, I'm funded by a grant from Mozilla, the Mozilla Foundation actually. I'm working with the Ethics Lab at Georgetown, and so in the algorithms course I'm teaching this spring, the undergraduate algorithms course, we're actually integrating digital ethics into the course itself. And so in addition to learning dynamic programming and greeting algorithms and divide and conquer, we're also going to be discussing what is this algorithm being used for. What's the impact of this algorithm? We think about performance evaluation beyond just asymptotic step complexity. What about what it means for the people who are actually running it? So actually thinking about the context in which these exist, so what you're saying is a good point.
I'm involved in some early efforts to figure out how do we do this. We need computer science. Tech is great. It's given us huge advantages, but yeah, we probably want these computer scientists thinking a little bit more carefully.
Christopher: I'm not sure about closing down Slack though. It was easy enough to uninstall Facebook, but you've got to pry Slack out of my cold, dead hands.
Cal: Well, this is my thing, is because your workflow depends on it, so until we change the workflow, the tools don't matter. That's the thing. We can't focus on the tools. The Slack is the absolute best tool if you want to implement the hyperactive hive line. What matters is okay, but is the hyperactive hive line -- that's what I call the workflow -- is that the right way to run the organization?
Christopher: Now, I had already figured that out. You gave me enough information in Digital Minimalism and I do shut Slack down. I don't think it's really designed to be -- some of these apps are not really designed to be shut down like that. They take a long time to start back up once you shut them down, or maybe that's just my computer, but I realized it was part of the Alt+Tab sequence that I was going through like, oh, I got stuck. I've got to a point with my coding --
Cal: I love the old Windows reference, by the way.
Christopher: Yeah, the Alt+Tab. I guess -- what is it, Command+Tab? I'm used to Windows machine. It's over 20 years, but that's what it is, Alt+Tab. I guess it's the same on Linux as well. Yeah, you see the Slack icon and it's got a red notification bubble on it. Oh, let's just go and have a look and see what someone posted in random on Slack rather than thinking about this problem that I've got to think about right now.
Okay, so I will of course link to your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and your blog in the show notes for this episode.
Cal: And I'll probably be there live too, so I'll get back to you right away.
Christopher: Cal is going to be doing Facebook Live every week to promote his new book.
Cal: I'll do an Instagram story. I've learned about those, unless that's still a thing.
Christopher: When I department company with Instagram was when they started doing Instagram TV and it's -- but then again, we're staying at an Airbnb here in Washington DC and we turned on the TV and I went through whatever it was that was just like the cheap cable TV. OMG. I was like, get me off. I don't want to be -- it's really horrible.
Now, I will of course link to your website where you are. You're still regularly blogging, right?
Christopher: That's the thing that you find most valuable outside of your books, of course.
Cal: Big blogging family, doing it for a decade, yeah.
Christopher: That's great. Is there anything else I should link to in the show notes for this episode?
Cal: No, that's about it. I don't have a huge footprint by design.
Christopher: Well, thank you so much, Cal. I really appreciate you. Thank you.
Cal: Thank you.
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