Cal Newport researches cutting-edge technology and writes about the impact of these innovations on society. He is the author of Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Digital Minimalism.

What We Discuss with Cal Newport:

  • Why focus in our modern era of endless technological distractions is the new IQ.
  • Why your greatest competitive advantage may lie simply around decluttering and resetting that focus.
  • The best ways to declutter the mental landscape to optimize your capacity to focus.
  • How Henry David Thoreau’s analog lessons from Walden can be applied to your 21st century digital lifestyle.
  • How you can use technology to improve your daily life without becoming absorbed by its distractions.
  • And much more…

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Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal NewportWhat if you don’t really need to be smarter or more educated than everybody else to get what you want out of life? What if the real trick is just finding a way to be more focused than everybody else? The distractions of modern living might make this seem like an equally difficult task, but in this episode we talk to someone who knows how to close out the mental clutter and get things done.

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and author of several best-sellers, including Deep Work and his latest, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. In it, he makes the case for why focus is actually the new IQ and explains what you can do to use the technology at your disposal to enhance that focus rather than detract from it. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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If you’ve ever had your IQ (intelligence quotient) tested, you’ve either proudly shared the results with anyone in earshot if they were favorable in comparison to other documented “smart” people (“Hey, Einstein’s IQ was 160, and mine is 150 — that’s pretty close, right?”), or, if your score turned out lower than you’d like, you’ve probably made excuses explaining why you’d never bother taking such a test because it doesn’t really mean anything.

And if you’re in the latter group, you might actually be right. What if IQ isn’t really what sets you apart from the rest of the crowd — at least not anymore? What if the barrier you need to hurdle to get ahead these days isn’t intelligence itself, but the way you focus the intelligence you do have?

This is what Georgetown computer science professor and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World author Cal Newport believes.

“If, in the mid-20th century, IQ became the big thing — we needed more engineers, we needed people who were smart; the smarter you were, the better you were going to do — it’s shifted now,” says Cal. “And now the ability to put sustained attention is what’s going to become the scarcibility — the thing that’s going to create a lot of value. Focus is what’s going to rule the economy.”

But as anyone who owns a smartphone knows, or anyone who sits in front of an Internet-enabled computer all day knows, or anyone who uses social media in any capacity knows, taking control of that focus can be more challenging than ever before. So is technology itself to blame for being the obstacle course that sustained concentration is constantly navigating?

“It’s not technology in general,” says Cal. “It’s the technology that has been designed or incidentally becomes a huge strain on your attention. What we know from psychology — and this is actually a very important discovery and something we only got to in the last 15 years — context switching is what kills you.”

Context switching is what happens when you’re doing one thing and something else comes along to interrupt it — and this interruption could be anything from a text message to succumbing to the urge to check your email. You lose focus on what you were originally doing to address the interruption, and then you need to regain that focus in order to switch back to the first task. Computers are great at this kind of multi-tasking, but it turns out human beings aren’t.

“I’m just looking at Microsoft Word and I’m trying to write a legal brief,” says Cal. “But every 10 or 15 minutes, I do the ‘quick check’ — the quick check of the phone or the quick check of the inbox. It doesn’t feel like multi-tasking because I’m not doing it simultaneously. But we know now from the research that when I do that quick check, and come back to the main thing I’m working on, there’s a residue left in your mind that lasts a long time to clear that reduces your cognitive capacity. So when you think you’re single-tasking, you’re fighting this attention residue effect.

“So what most knowledge workers who are doing elite-level knowledge work and think that they’re single-taskers are really doing is every five or 10 minutes, a quick check of a tab or a phone, which puts them in a persistent state of reduced cognitive capacity — so it’s almost like they’re taking reverse nootropic! ‘I want to be dumber! I want my mind not to work as well!’ And the worst thing about it is no one realizes they’re doing it.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how to get an honest (and probably surprising) assessment of the time you spend browsing social media every week, why more people are starting to see Cal’s years-long call for digital minimalism as less radical than it seemed at first glance, how the social media you signed up for years ago is something very different from what you’re signed up for today, how to dominate technology rather than having it dominate you, and much more.


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