I’m a computer science professor at Georgetown University who also writes about the impact of technology on society.

My most recent book is called DIGITAL MINIMALISM. It argues that we need to radically reform our relationship with technology in our personal lives (hint: use much less, but get much more out of it).

I’ve never had a social media account (it turns out this is allowed,) but have been blogging at calnewport.com for over a decade.

I’m looking forward to my first AMA...

Proof: https://i.redd.it/xbs4q2kf1si21.jpg

Comments: 344 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

HardekAilawadi352 karma

Hello. How can one stop procrastinating, especially if I procrastinate by browsing the internet?

Edit: Aimlessly browsing the internet-kinda addicted to my PC?

cn-ama-account538 karma

It helps to structure work. If you approach your work day, for example, with the mindset that you're going to do your best to churn through your task list until the day is over, it's difficulty to keep resisting procrastination. If you instead time block the day -- build a schedule of what you're going to do at specific times throughout the day -- then you can simply make the single decision to commit to your plan. (You can even include "procrastination blocks" into the plan to give your mind a rest at certain points.)

HardekAilawadi133 karma

How can one improve focus and stop one's mind from wandering? (Especially while working or studying)

cn-ama-account473 karma

The ability to focus, like the ability to run a fast mile, is all about practice and general (cognitive) fitness.

On the cognitive fitness side, if you, like most people, reach for your phone or a browser tab at the slightest hint of boredom, you are conditioning your brain to expect constant stimuli. A brain conditioned in this manner is going to have a hard time focusing, just like if you eat a lot of junk food you should expect to have a hard time on the treadmill.

To combat this you need regular does of boredom -- by which I mean time away from screens where you are just alone with your own thoughts. I like to achieve this with walks or commutes in which the phone stays in my bag.

In terms of practicing, here are a few exercises that help...

(1) Do interval training. Get a timer. Set it for 20 minutes. See if you can concentrate with 0 distractions for 20 minutes. If you fail (e.g., glance at your phone), reset the timer. Once you can consistently hit the 20 minute mark, add 10 more minutes. Repeat until you can do 90 minutes of intensity between breaks (should take 2 - 6 weeks, depending on where you're starting from).

(2) Practice "productive meditation." Go for a walk and while walking try to make progress on a professional/school problem entirely in your head. When you notice your attention wandering, don't judge, just bring it back to the problem, again and again. This will be really hard at first, but it's incredibly powerful in increasing concentration (like pull-ups for the mind).

(3) Read more. For at least 20 minutes at a time. It helps if you have a special location you use for the reading (coffee shop, bar, particular corner of the library). Reading is necessary practice for deep thinking.

cn-ama-account110 karma

Thank you everyone for participating in this AMA. I really enjoyed it! But now I have to return to deep work.

(If you're in the DC area, I'm speaking at the WeWork down by the Navy Yard at 6:30, with a reception starting at 5:30...come on down if you're around.)

HardekAilawadi70 karma

There are some days when I am away from any distractions, yet I get so little progress than my potential. Why does it happen and how can I make my day more productive?

cn-ama-account117 karma

This is a good question and a really important point. A lot of critics (myself included) talk about how distractions keep us away from much more important activities, but we often neglect to emphasize that it can be really hard work developing these activities.

High quality work and leisure is not something that just naturally fills our time once we remove idle screen browsing from our life. These are pursuits that must be cultivated and this can take time and experimentation and a lot of self-discovery.

My (perhaps less than helpful) short answer to your question is not to despair about what you're experiencing, as it's really common. The key is to keep relentlessly working on what it is that you find worth doing, so that you can get the point where there's very little question about what you will do with focused time as you can get it.

TravisJungroth46 karma

How have you seen lower level employees successfully get conditions for deep work from their company? In tech companies, things like the open floor plan and constant meetings are dogma and it feels like there's no way around it.

cn-ama-account82 karma

One of the most effective strategies seems to be having a discussion with your boss about your deep-to-shallow work hour ratio. The idea is that you explain what deep work is and you explain what shallow work is. You note both are important. You discuss what ratio of deep to shallow hours in a typical week is optimal for your position. Once you have a number set, you can measure and report back. If you're falling short, then you can work with your boss to make some accommodations to help you hit the target.

The key to this approach is that it's positive in that it focuses on how to make you more valuable to the company (not you complaining about distractions), and it's something you're doing along with your boss...

renbid37 karma

How do you manage to keep up with new developments and related research in your field? It seems the best way to get research ideas is to learn about closely related fields, but it can be easy to spend too much time researching random things outside of your core focus.

I currently do ~1 day/week on non directly relevant research. How would you approach this?

cn-ama-account67 karma

In my small corner of computer science (distributed system theory), we mostly all know each other, and see each other at conferences a couple times a year, and visit each other, etc., so when one person comes across a new problem or related area it has a way of spreading pretty quickly though this old-fashioned social network.

Outside of that, I tend to do occasional deep dives into new areas that tangentially catch my interest. At the moment, for example, I'm teaching a doctoral seminar on blockchain theory, as I really want to understand some of the relevant math here. Over the course of the semester, I'll read 10 - 20 papers on this topic, and come away with a better sense of what might be worth working on here.

FelipeKbcao22 karma

Have you maintained your original recipe of Deep and Shallow work cycles to this day? If not, what has changed and what can I do to keep from falling off the wagon in my own Deep/Shallow system?

p.s: Thx for doing this, Cal! I love your work and have recommended your books to inspire many people who are dear to me.

cn-ama-account30 karma

Like a lot of deep workers, my scheduling systems shift as the nature of my work shifts. Right now, become I'm doing book tour stuff on top of my CS job, my deep work is happening primarily pretty early in the morning on most days.

Outside of book touring, but during the semester, I tend to consolidate shallow work into the days I teach, and then try to make the other days primarily deep work until the early afternoon, before I do some selected shallow work to end the day.

We'll see how that changes this summer...I sometimes shift to a "deep work every morning, followed by variable size shallow block to follow" plan in the summer.

babylegsdetective22 karma

Hello, your TED talk and Deep Time book was a huge revelation for me, I wanted to ask about your reading habits?

cn-ama-account54 karma

As someone who writes non-fiction idea books I have to read a lot -- sort of a professional obligation.

I tend to have 5 - 10 books at a time that I'm working on, and I cycle through them in a somewhat unstructured manner, taking a book out of the cycle once I'm done or think I've read enough to learn what I need.

As I read, I mark relevant lines or passages, and then put a hash on the upper right corner to indicate there are marks on that page. Once I've marked up a book in this manner, I can return and extract the key ideas in about 5 - 10 minutes.

JollieMolly19 karma

Do you think Podcasts are generally valuable, or do they end up being too superficial into a topic and a means of entertainment instead of a learning tool?

cn-ama-account57 karma

I think there's something special about podcasts as a medium. I've been a big supporter of the medium since around 2012, when I embraced podcast interviews when promoting SO GOOD THEY CAN'T IGNORE YOU. I've probably done 200+ total podcast interviews to date (see here for recent interviews on my new book:http://calnewport.com/media/)

What I've noticed is a shift toward longform and smarter content. Listeners aren't afraid of things getting technical, and if they like a topic, they want to hear a lot about this topic.

I think these are all really interesting and good developments in the media landscape. For one thing, it frees up a lot of cognitive surplus lost to time-consuming, rote activities (driving, mowing the yard, cleaning the house), and for another, it opens up deep ideas to people who might be otherwise uncomfortable or unfamiliar with book reading (which is most people).

NimrodAviram119 karma

Hi Cal, I've read Deep Work and it has literally saved my PhD. Thanks!
But I'm still struggling with unexpected changes to my schedule. I'm familiar with your methods around time blocking etc., my problem is more a problem of motivation.

Often when a severe enough change of schedule is imposed on me, I start to think "why bother", and within a few minutes I've lost all ability to concentrate for the day. Is there any advice you could give me? Thanks again for your awesome work :-)

cn-ama-account20 karma

In the short term, the best you can do is take a beat after a schedule change, gather yourself, then rework your plan for the rest of the day in such a way that makes the most out of what just landed on your plate (it's almost like a game, figuring out how to most effectively pivot in the face of such developments).

In the long term, your goal might be to earn freedom from such schedule changes. As you relentlessly make yourself better, and therefore gain more leverage, you can begin to put into place systems that make it difficult for new obligations to land on your plate haphazardly, and/or, eventually, use this leverage to shift to positions in your field without that unpredictable character.

tjcoutts18 karma

I'm curious have you embraced the ebook revolution and use a Kindle or still buy mostly physical books?

cn-ama-account36 karma


Because I have to read so much for my job as a writer, it's sometimes really useful that I can get a book on my kindle immediately. Another nice thing, from a research perspective, is that after you highlight passages on a kindle book, it can send you a PDF of all your highlights.

That being said, if I don't need a book immediately, I prefer a hard copy.

HardekAilawadi17 karma

How can I stop myself from giving in to urges- to check my phone or social media or email and the likes?

cn-ama-account45 karma

Take the social media apps off your phone. If possible, take email off your phone. Basically, remove from this device any channel that can deliver an intermittent stream of social approval indicators throughout the day, and turn it back into a tool that solves a few problems for you very well (e.g., making calls, looking up directions, getting the weather).

twinzx14 karma

As a professor at a university, are you seeing any signs of pushback against social media in your students' everyday lives? Or is awareness of the issue increasing while behaviors aren't because so many of these services are engineered to be so addictive?

cn-ama-account35 karma

It's hard to tell. Certainly it's become quite common for young people to find pride in saying things like "I barely use Facebook anymore." I've also heard from parents that high school kids are starting to become fed up with constant online socialization, so a revolt may be fomenting.

On the other hand, Facebook recently came out and tried to claim that their user numbers are rebounding from the losses earlier this year, so who knows...

My sense is that the culture is definitely changing. This will lead to changes in terms of how much people engage with these services. I'm not sure how long it will take...

ScarecrowOfAUST7 karma

How to have a calm and fixed mindset for study? I really like to study. But the problem is, whenver i start studying after some minds, i am not able to fix my mind on that study. I begin browisng yourube, listening to music. Like, my mind becomes a mess. Although i try my best tl concentrate on my study but my concentration kn the topic get reduced drasrically due to not having a calm mind.

cn-ama-account10 karma

Earlier in this AMA, I responded to a similar question by describing how to systematically improve your ability to focus...see that answer: it's very relevant to what you're asking.

flyrobin6 karma

Big fan of your work, Cal! I wear a continuous glucose monitor (for type 1 diabetes - called a Dexcom) that uses my smart phone as a receiver - so I can check my phone and see a graph of my blood sugar at any time. It's an amazing device and advancement in technology, but naturally results in some phone-addiction. Knowing of course that you're not a doctor, any suggestions on how to be a digital minimalist while utilizing the convenience of a smart phone that works as a medical device? (Side note: it is possible to use a separate receiver to monitor the graph, rather than using the iphone, which I have considered and may switch back to.)

cn-ama-account10 karma

To the extent possible, take the addicting stuff off your phone, and/or use tools like Apple's ScreenTime to restrict your access to things that are hard to take off (i.e., Safari).

One of the most common traits of digital minimalists, is that they use their phone for a lot less stuff than most people...they don't buy the idea that it should be a source of steady drip distraction and stimuli.

Greghuddson5 karma

How can your learning / studying strategies from the straight A book be applied to life after school? Say I’m trying to learn a new coding library at work, for example.

cn-ama-account34 karma

My good friend Scott Young has a book coming out this summer called ULTRALEARNING. It really gets into the art of how to efficiently master hard things (he famously did the whole MIT CS curriculum in one year on his own). His blog has a lot of interesting articles on these topics.

More generally, I would say learning is an act of deliberate practice, which means you need to be stretching yourself past where you're comfortable to get better (e.g., using the new coding library in a novel way, and stretching to try to get the code to compile).

Another key idea that carries over from my student books is that active trumps passive. Reading about something only becomes useful once you actually try to replicate that knowledge on your own from scratch.

learningboii5 karma

Big fan of your work!

Do you consider yourself gifted or having substantially above average intelligence? How are you able to formulate the premises for your books?

cn-ama-account25 karma

A couple relevant points to keep in mind.

One, I've been writing professionally since I signed my first book deal with Random House at the age of 21. So I've gotten a lot of practice in writing non-fiction over the years (compare my first book to my sixth and you'll see a massive jump in sophistication).

Two, I spend a lot of time developing my book premises -- usually well over a year. So by the time I write the book, I've really worked it through.

In other words, there's a lot of practice and hard work that goes into book writing. By the time you add all of that up, it's hard to usefully extract out some notion of natural ability.

xampl95 karma

What non-CompSci things have you taught your students to prepare them for life after university?

cn-ama-account30 karma

A lot of students come by to talk about my 2012 book, SO GOOD THEY CAN'T IGNORE YOU, which argues that if you want meaningful work, almost always the best first step is to put your head down and focus on developing rare and valuable skills (as oppose to obsessing over matching a job to your "passion.")

I also try to get them thinking hard about the hard question of what makes a good life good. You need to know what you're about -- and believe it -- if you're going to succeed in pushing through all the unexpected (and often unfair) hardship in life with a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

tmpberk5 karma

Recently I started your deep work approach, trying to emulate a sort of work life / off life day and planning out every minute. I have to say it's given me much more happiness, although I can't dedicate to it as much as I'd like.

My question is — when you were in graduate school for your PhD, were you able to "stop working" at 5/6pm every day like you claim in your books you do now, given how crazy graduate school is? Even as an undergrad studying CS at UC Berkeley I spend ~8 hours "working".

cn-ama-account5 karma

As a PhD student, I had to develop my infamous "shutdown complete" ritual (discussed in DEEP WORK) to prevent me from obsessing over research related issues after 5. But that worked for me. If you're a PhD student in an experimental science, however, you might not have this control over your schedule.

For an undergraduate, your specific work hours will be different than say a PhD student or professional, as your days are more filled with classes, and you probably have less non-school related obligations (e.g., families).

In my STRAIGHT-A book I get a lot into how to schedule your work properly as an undergraduate.

kbholman5 karma

What's your opinion on bringing phones into the bedroom?

cn-ama-account21 karma

Don't do it. If you get in the habit, for example, of checking your phone first thing in the morning, it can create a sense of morning anxiety that wakes you up earlier and earlier. I've also heard that the particular type of light emitted from LEDs might disturb sleep, though this might be dependent on the person.

More generally, I'm a big believer in the idea that at home the phone should mainly stay in the foyer by your front door. If you need it, you can go find it, if it rings, you'll hear it, but it doesn't need to be a constant companion inside your house (the exception being if you're using it to listen to podcasts/books while doing boring chores...)

ProfessionalApricot4 karma

I'm currently doing a digital declutter (1 week in)! It's been much easier than I anticipated. Do you have any additional suggestions for activities to reconnect with the outside world?

cn-ama-account18 karma

More generally speaking, the key to succeeding with the declutter is getting really aggressive in exploring different analog activities that serve your values. The better youe alternatives to idle screen time, the easier it is to sustain a commitment to minimalism.

Here are some random analog things that prior declutter participants have reported enjoying rediscovering: reading, sports leagues, community/church groups, standing outing with friends/family, board games, skilled hobbies like knitting, instrument playing, or woodworking, maker culture, learning how to fix things, and creative production (writing, poetry, painting)

LonelyBoogey3 karma

Whats your before sleep schedule? Also, biggg fan!

cn-ama-account11 karma

Roughly, 10 - 6...though sometimes my kids and/or my restless mind disagrees with this plan.

L2263 karma

Do you believe that we should protect ourselves from AI ? If so in how many years you think AI will be capable of taking over ?

cn-ama-account11 karma

I'm not so concerned about Nick Bostrom style, super-intelligence, SkyNet scenarios. The worrisome impacts are probably more subtle.

One place where I think there's not enough concern, for example, is the impact of AI on the creative class. We think we're immune to these effects because what we do cannot easily be automated. But what we're missing is the fact that most creative workers are operating at a fraction of their potential cognitive capacity due to this absurd work environment of constant communication (Email/slack) that is currently popular. AI is going to automate a lot of these administrative tasks, allowing creative workers to produce much more effectively. The short term downside, however, is that we'll need less creative workers to complete the same amount of work, leading, perhaps, to a contraction of human employment in that sector.

margaretberns2 karma

How do you juggle the demands of work with the needs of your children? I homeschool my two youngest sons (ages 6 and 9) and they are EXCEEDINGLY fond of my attention. They would be more than happy to be my “deep work” 24/7. 😉

cn-ama-account8 karma

I strive for clear boundaries between work and non-work. In particular, I try to set an old fashioned schedule of when I'm working (roughly 9 - 5, though, I'll admit, during the book tour, I've had to temporarily add a 6am to 8am window as well). When I'm working I'm working all out -- fully time blocked, very efficient. Then when I'm done I'm fully available.

This balancing act gets much more difficult when you're blending childcare with work...

RespondsWithImprov2 karma

Hey Cal.

I'm Armen, host of The Armen Show podcast. My podcast didn't make the cut to have you on, but I have read through Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and shared some key pointers from Digital Minimalism with many people recently.

My question for this AMA would be: can a trend for digital minimalism build smoothly on social platforms, or is it like planning a vegan menu for a restaurant on a beef farm?

cn-ama-account5 karma

Good question! Certainly, I think it's common for people to discuss their misgivings with social media on social media. But perhaps one of the most effective ways that social media can help smooth a transition toward digital minimalism is when people leave social media. Seeing friends saying, "I'm out of here", then disappearing from the platform, can be a really powerful push for someone who is unhappy with their digital life, but not quite ready to make a change.

Applejacksbayarea1 karma

What is your writing process like? Do you outline? How do you deal with the overwhelm when trying to write a specific topic and not get distracted by all the other topics you could write about?

cn-ama-account3 karma

Depends on the type of piece.

For blog posts, I'll work through an idea at some point during the day, typically while walking, and then just sit down and rock and roll: I can usually get from blank screen to finished post in 60 - 90 minutes.

For books, I spend a lot of time working through the key ideas and the general structure in which I want to deliver those ideas. Once that's locked down, I do some adaptive outlining for chapters. I work through a rough structure, fill in holes in my research, and then start writing and see how it feels. Sometimes there will be a few rough starts before I hit the stride for the chapter, and by then, it might not look at all like the original outline.

jawhett31 karma

Very excited to see you here, long time fan! As a professor what is your best advicce for a PhD (STEM) student in getting maximum results?

cn-ama-account6 karma

It depends on your definition of "results." If you're thinking about getting an academic job, focus relentlessly on publishing good work in good places. To succeed in this, surround yourself with people who are already doing this and learn from them exactly what's important, and what's not, and then, like a laser beam, focus on this to an almost unhealthy degree.

derHumpink_1 karma

*I haven't read your books yet.

I found a lot of the tips online specific for studying, for example for college, or someone freelancing / working on their own schedule.

do you have tips for making a working day at your job go by faster / more interesting /etc.? I have to be there at least 8 hours and can't just do breaks every 45mins or browse social media anyway

cn-ama-account8 karma

One things that helps is focusing on mastering the job. That is, even if it work is pretty simple, build systems, track metrics, tweak your strategies, make it a challenge to execute at the highest possible level (this tends to lead to you getting more interesting work). Perhaps instigate a side project at work that you can turn to during down time that if successful will bring more value to your organization.

Basically, get after it...

shelvedfiction1 karma

Thank you for writing your books. I have not read your new book yet, but I read How to be a Straight A Student as an undergraduate and your other books. Now I am a PhD candidate working on my dissertation. Let's just say that your advice helped!

Do you have any advice for academics who feel their work is so specific that it will not make a difference and thus sometimes feel a lack of motivation because of it? I am also curious if you have any advice for graduate students like myself.

cn-ama-account4 karma

If you're still a graduate student (or even pre-tenure for that matter), think of your work like an apprenticeship: you're performing the hard work of developing a very difficult skill (the ability to produce high-level academic work).

Post-tenure if you still feel like you're work is lacking sufficient impact, you are now in a perfect position to put your training to work to start shifting toward areas that resonate more.

Something I write about in SO GOOD is that it can be quite hard to find high impact research directions, and usually this process is helped if you first reach the expert level in some particular skills, and then build on this foundation to seek out innovation.

chanderson901 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA, Cal! I'm really enjoying Digital Minimalism; as a life-long anxious person and gadget-lover, it's helping me re-evaluate my relationship with my devices and how to use them more mindfully and intentionally.

So, I have been using a personal Google Calendar for years to plan my days, moving events from Facebook or other sources into my main calendar when I have firmly committed to attend them. I have thought about making a dedicated Google Calendar for time-boxing that would be separate and would generally guide my day.

My question is: Do you think a digital time-boxing solution like this would work? If not, why a pen-and-paper method over a digital one? Are there time-boxing notebooks/templates/software out there you would recommend?

cn-ama-account6 karma

I prefer analog time blocking. Here's an article on my method (including the notebooks I use): http://calnewport.com/blog/2013/12/21/deep-habits-the-importance-of-planning-every-minute-of-your-work-day/

I like analog because I have it with me to consult and modify even when a screen isn't handy or I don't want to look at a screen. Also, few interfaces are more flexible and lower friction than a pen on paper; you have full control of the format and no obstacles to recording exactly what you want to record.