Cal Newport review
Productivity in a hyper-connected world
by Hammad Ali, Contributor
Around four years ago, I came back to graduate school in computer science. Given the jobs I had had until that point, I have to admit I felt a little unprepared for the intense workload and demands on productivity graduate programs are known for. I decided to try and get advice from others who have been in this situation, and some quick research led to the books and contents by a professor of Computer Science in Georgetown University named Cal Newport. Newport has degrees from Dartmouth University and MIT, and also works in a highly theoretical field of Computer Science.
However, to the world at large, Cal Newport is better known for his books on productivity, academic success, and career success strategies. To date, he has six books, with the first one published in 2005 while he was a college sophomore. One single review would hardly do justice to all of his books. However, they all have a few major themes, themes that I have found to be immensely helpful in my own graduate program and related projects.
As Newport discusses in Deep Work – Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, we are currently at a point in society where two diametrically opposed paradigms are at play. On one hand, technology has reached a point where those with enough data, and the relevant knowledge, can analyze and look for patterns in nearly anything in society, which then may well lead to advancements we cannot even imagine right now. However, being able to do this takes deep focus, years of training, and being able to see patterns and interpret them under severe time constraints.
It is therefore almost ironic that, in parallel, technology has reached a point where we are always ‘on,’ connected to billions of other sources of content at any given point in time. Most of us own multiple gadgets, each constantly updating us with breaking news, new shows to watch, and most importantly, cat GIFs. While there is nothing inherently wrong with following the news, tv, or cats, think about how the tables have turned. We used to tune in and watch news or television only when we want to. We would usually know what show we wanted, and only had to switch the tv on at a specific time. Today, we are always tuned in and the news comes to us, acting on us, grabbing our attention.
Newport emphasizes the essential conflict at play here. One paradigm opens up professional, academic, and self-realization opportunities, if only we enter the zone and deeply focus. The other paradigm wants us to constantly check social media and websites to make sure we did not miss the latest buzz. It is therefore not surprising that many are finding it hard to make the most of the opportunities that come with deep focus, because they are always distracted by the digital, hyper-connected world around them.
In response to this conflict, Newport suggests the following core ideas.
His Deep Work Hypothesis talks about how the ability to focus deeply on a hard problem without distractions is becoming a core skill at the same time when it is getting harder to do, due to the distractions all around us. However, he points out that those who learn to avoid the distractions and develop the skills are going to have immense career capital. He offers strategies to do this through his books, mainly centered around the Attention Capital Theory, which says that the most important capital today is the human brain and its ability to create value through sustained attention. Almost hand in hand with this comes the idea of Digital Minimalism, talking about how the allure of the digital world is eroding our quality of life.
Four out of six of his books go into detail discussing these core themes. Newport does not just expect us to take his word for how these are important themes. He digs up references to the lives and works of Carl Jung, Bill Gates, and even Sherlock Holmes to show how deeply focusing on both work and play used to be an important part of our lives. Having established that this is an important skill that has now eroded if not been lost, he offers concrete actions we can take to slowly grow our Attention Capital, and then offers pointers on how this can lead to developing Career Capital.
Over the last four years, I have read and re-read his books almost once every year, walking away with important insight each time. For anyone trying to navigate college, a job, and personal projects in a world that seems to be a little more fragmented each passing week, I cannot recommend his books enough. Hope they give you as much to think about and try out as they have for me!