Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University.  In addition to his academic work, Cal is a New York Times bestselling author who writes about the intersection of technology, productivity, and culture. Some of my favorite books that he’s written are So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and his latest, Slow Productivity. His books have sold millions of copies and been translated into over forty languages.

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  • Obsess over quality – Jewel obsessed over the quality of her work so much that she turned down a 1m dollar offer (even while living out of her car) because she needed time to make her work excellent. Obsess over the quality of what you produce, even if this means missing opportunities in the short term. Leverage the value of these results to gain more and more freedom in your efforts over the long term.
  • Benjamin Franklin – He hired David Hall to create time freedom. He needed time to think, time to experiment. He gave up money in the short term to gain time freedom to create something for the future. There’s no guarantee that it would pay off, but we all should think about how we can make investments that our future self would thank us for.
  • Have fewer concurrent active projects. Instead of focusing on 10 things, focus on 2 or 3. Make it public. Share with your team. Be known as a leader who focuses on a few important objectives instead of 10 of them. 
  • Match your space to your work – Be in nature, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote Hamilton in the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest surviving house in Manhattan (served as headquarters for George Washington during the Battle of Harlem Heights, and home of Aaron Burr when he was Vice President), Neil Gaiman built a spartan, 8 sided writing shed that sits on low stilts and offers views on all sides of endless trees.
  • Do Fewer Things:
    • Limit Daily Goals – Cal learned this from his doctoral adviser at MIT. She was incredulous about Cal’s attempts to switch back and forth between multiple academic papers. She preferred to get lost in a single project at a time. Cal was convinced that the slowness of working on just one important thing per day would hold him back.
    • Work at a Natural Pace
      • Don’t rush your most important work. Allow it instead to unfold along a sustainable timeline, with variations in intensity over different timescales, and, when possible, executed in settings conducive to brilliance.
      • Slow productivity emphatically rejects the performative rewards of unwavering urgency. Grand achievement is built on the steady accumulation of modest results over time, and you should give your efforts the breathing room and respect required to make them part of a life well lived, not an obstacle to it.
    • Obsess over Quality
      • By focusing intensely on the small number of activities that matter most to our jobs, you can find both the motivation and justification for slowness.
      • Improve your taste. It’s in the uneasy distance between our taste and ability that improvement happens – aka in our drive to meet our high standards.
      • To combat the potential paralysis of perfectionism, think about giving yourself enough time to produce something great, but not unlimited time–focus on creating something good enough to catch the attention of people whose taste you care about but relieve yourself of the need to forge a masterpiece.
      • Gather with people who share similar professional ambitions. When you combine the opinions of multiple practitioners, more possibilities and nuance emerge, and there’s a focusing effect that comes from performing for a crowd.
  • It’s easy to mistake “do fewer things” for “accomplish fewer things” – but this understanding is backward. We work roughly the same number of hours each week regardless of the size of our task lists. Having more commitments simply increases the hours lost to overhead tax – the coordinating activities, such as meetings and email, needed to manage what’s on your plate.
    • The pandemic “zoom apocalypse,” in which many knowledge workers found themselves in Zoom meeting all day long, was caused in part by reaching a state in which overhead tax crowded out almost any time to actually complete tasks.
    • Doing fewer things, in other words, makes us better at our jobs–not only psychologically but also economically and creatively. 
  • The Overhead Tax A key property of overhead tax is that it tends to expand to fill as much time as it’s provided. So long as a project is something that you’ve committed to, and it’s not yet complete, it will tend to generate a continual tax in the form of check-in meetings, impromptu email conversations, and plain old mental space.
  • Knowledge workers have no agreed-upon definition of what “productivity” actually means–incredibly unusual compared to other areas of our economy.
    • Lacking a precise definition they defaulted to a crude approximation: pseudo-productivity – using visible activity as a proxy for useful professional accomplishment.
  • Cal argues that the current burnout crisis is due, in part, to the combination of pseudo-productivity with more recent advances in mobile computing and digital communication that made unlimited work available at all times in all places. The result was an impossible internal tug of war, where there was always more to do, and never any hope of catching up. Busy exhaustion itself became your primary signal of usefulness.
  • Slow productivity doesn’t ask that you extinguish ambition. Humans derive great satisfaction from being good at what they do and producing useful things.
  • Cal revisits the popular narrative of Jane Austen’s writing career; a closer look at her life reveals a powerful case study for a slower approach. Busy Jane Austen was neither happy nor producing memorable work, while unburdened Jane Austen, writing contently at a quiet cottage, after her family decided to withdraw from a busy social calendar, transformed English literature.
  • The goal of Slow Productivity is to propose an entirely new way for you, your small business, or your large employer to think about what it means to get things done; to rescue knowledge work from its increasingly untenable freneticism, and rebuild it to enable you to create things you’re proud of without grinding yourself down along the way; and to offer a more humane and sustainable way to integrate professional efforts into a life well lived.
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Time Stamps

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Episode #300: AJ & Keith Hawk – How To Instill Work Ethic & Curiosity In Your Children

Episode #303General Stanley McChrystal – The New Definition Of Leadership