Cal Newport: On Attention in an Age of Digital Distraction

Only a few years ago, Cal Newports ideas about digital distraction and social media made him an outlier. He was a millennial who read a print newspaper and never had a social media account, during a time when every small business was starting, if not an account, a whole department.

And even though no one could give Newport a compelling argument for using social media, they asked without a hint of irony, but what if by not having an account, he missed out on a potential opportunity?

“People used to think my thoughts on social media were eccentric if not downright dangerous,” he said. “When I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in 2016 that said social media was not as important for their careers as many young people think, the outrage was so strong that the paper commissioned a response op-ed for the next week to argue against my points.”

Less than a year later, the tide was turning.

“Starting around early 2017, I noticed this reaction begin to change. People were increasingly receptive to this idea that there might be something rotten about our relationship with our digital devices,” Newport said.

Newport is the author of several books, including “Deep Work” and most recently “Digital Minimalism,” which both deal directly with our relationship with digital distraction.

Hes a computer scientist at Georgetown University and grapples with mathematical theorems for a living—exactly the kind of field that requires deep work, or pushing your cognitive capabilities to their limit. He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed papers that have been cited more than 3,500 times. So he was, in fact, incredibly aware of the sort of cognitive noise that can immediately have a negative, and accumulated, impact on your ability to focus and concentrate.

Author Cal Newport. (Courtesy of Penny Gray Photography)


In 2008, Newport titled an introspective journal entry, “Better.”

In it, he laid out a vision for his personal and professional life, and ended it with the earnest request to “accept only excellence from myself.” By the end of the year, he had an entry titled “The Plan,” in which he listed his values in the categories of relationships, virtues, and qualities.

“In my professional life, Ive always been surrounded by people who do high-impact work at elite levels, so Ive always been driven to understand how I can get better and better at what I do,” Newport said. “This mindset of continual improvements was simply in the air around me at that stage of life, and seemed as natural as breathing.”

It was, in many ways, a natural progression. In 2006, Newport had published his first book, “How to Win at College,” for students, which includes the tip “always be working on a grand project.'”

Newport was a student himself at the time and had found college advice books written to be too fluffy, or talking down to students. Before the books, he had actually been the humor columnist for the student newspaper at Dartmouth.

“Once I started down the path of writing, I found I had a knack for it, and so I kept going long after I moved beyond my student years,” Newport said.

He published “How to Become a Straight-A Student,” and then started blogging about study hacks, and published “How to Be a High School Superstar.” In 2010, he got interested in the idea of “Simplicity 2.0,” or the power of specialized craftsmanship in our age of general-purpose computing, and the danger of passion-driven career planning. These ideas are explored in length in his last three books.

With “So Good They Cant Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Newport debunked the passion hypothesis (“do what you love,” or “follow your dreams”) showing that its not only wrong, but dangerous. He compares it to the “craftsman mindset,” which instead “focuses on what you can offer the world” while “the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.” The latter has a track record for leading to disappointment and unhappiness, as he shows through interviews and stories. This book focused on the importance of skill, the beginnings of his attention capital theory.

If his ethos seems clear and unwavering, as he writes in his books, its because he has carved out the solitude necessary to form his ideas and values. He describes a stack of 12 black Moleskine notebooks, accounting for roughly one per year, with one more in his work bag.

It turns out, knowing yourself is the beginning of an antidote to digital distraction.

Its important to have a physical hobby. “Our brains are wired to crave manipulating our physical world with our hands,” Newport said. (Shutterstock)

Connected 24/7

“Deep Work” begins with psychiatrist Carl Jung writing away in a locked private office in a village by the lake.

It goes on to share stories of other acclaimed individuals who eschew email and instant messaging in order to have long stretches of uninterrupted time, during which they churn out sometimes groundbreaking work in a relatively short period of time. Newport aimed to show the reader how to do that.

The book was published in 2016, and he has since many times had to explain that he isnt, in fact, a neo-Luddite (in fact, hes excited about new developments in artificial intelligence and virtual reality).

“Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity,” he wrote in the first chapter. Many professions require nothing short of this, for one to stand out. But Newport found that with the rise of email and other methods for constant communication, even workers in these fields were working longer hours, dedicating more time to messaging and relegating the actual work to early or late hours outside the office. Knowing this, its hard to make a case for emails ability to aid productivity.

Theres a bigger cost than merely wasting time. Newport shows that if you spend enough time fragmenting your attention, you can permanently reduce your capacity to even do deep work.

After publishing “Deep Work,” Newport planned to write about what the workplace might look like going forward if we actually got rid of email and Slack. He wanted to explore this idea of attention capital theory, that in modern knowledge work, the primary capital resource is the human brain.

But feedback from readers of “Deep Work” took him in another direction.

People kept asking, what about our personal lives? How can I apply these principles outside of the workplace?

Later that year, Newport was on a beach in the Bahamas when he finally found the words: “digital minimalism.”

That was essentially the philosophy he was advocating for, to take the principles of minimalism and apply them to how you use technology. Rather than trying to make a case for whether Facebook or Twitter is good or bad, he outlines a broader philosophy, asking whether an app or platform adds positive value to your life (and making very specific arguments for elements that dont).

Autonomy Versus Convenience

Instead of social media, Newport has an “interesting” inbox, a public-facing email where his readers and followers can send him links to articles, books, studies, and other things that may be of interest to him.

“I love my interesting inbox,” he said. “I learn a lot from what comes through that channel.”

“In this way, it provides the same value to me that social media does for many others, but does so without any engineered addiction.”

In preparing to write the book, Newport had reached out to his readers to ask if anyone would be interested in trying out a “digital declutter.” He expected maybe 40 or 50 brave souls to venture forward; 1,600 signed up.

The results were interesting: people old enough to remember life without the internet talked about reconnecting with old hobbies and interests that were perhaps lost to them with their time sunk into scrolling on their phones. But people who had practically grown up with smartphones felt like they had stepped out into the void. There was real existential fear because they didnt have anything to fill the void, or know how to go about beginning.

It solidified Newports theory that the tips and tricks and weekend digital detoxes werent enough. Especially if those tips relied on depriving oneself of something we had before. People needed an underlying phiRead More – Source