Study Hacks Blog Posts from November, 2019 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Reflections on the Disconnected Life

November 24th, 2019 · 18 comments

Not long ago, an Australian media professor named Robert Hassan boarded the CGM CMA Rossini, a container ship, at a dock in Melbourne. He had arranged to stay on the ship for its five week passage to Singapore. He brought a handful of books, but no phone, no computer, no digital media at all. The crew didn’t speak English either, so it would largely just be Hassan alone with his own thoughts on the sea.

This solitude was, of course, the point. He was conducting an experiment on himself as part of the research for his book, Uncontained, published by an Australian university press last June. What he discovered was poignant.

After reading through his small book supply too quickly, he was faced with endless hours with nothing concrete to do, and soon found his relationship with the world around him began to change.

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The Danger of Exaggerating the Political Importance of Social Media

November 18th, 2019 · 23 comments
Photo by Matthew G.

The Pew Research Center recently released a new study on American Twitter use. As Jennifer Rubin reported in the Washington Post, one of the most striking findings from the report is that only 2.2% of the population currently produces 97% of political tweets.

As Rubin notes, these findings run counter to the core belief held in media and political circles that these services play a critical role in our democracy. She describes the fact that campaigns and reporters take Twitter so seriously as “bonkers.”

I noticed something similar during my book tour for Digital Minimalism. Most of the readers I met didn’t use social media for political reasons and wouldn’t describe this technology as playing an important role in their civic life. Accordingly, most of these readers didn’t care much about what content was spreading on social media, or even which data were used to target this information.

What they did care about was how much time they were spending staring at their phones. There was a widespread sense that these services had become so distracting that they were starting to take time away from activities that were clearly more important, diminishing the quality of their lives.

There exists, in other words, a gap between media/political types and normal users when it comes to understanding the role of social media in political life. The former see this technology as being inextricably intertwined in the fabric of our democracy, while the latter see it more as a distraction run amok.

I used to just find this gap curious. I’ve come to believe that it’s actually quite serious.

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A Subtle Mistake About How to Acquire Useful Career Skills

November 15th, 2019 · 13 comments

As promised, here is the second post written by Scott Young about lessons learned from the many years we’ve run our Top Performer online course, which we’re re-opening next week. This post is about a mistake we made with our curriculum in the early pilots of the course.

If you’re missing Cal content this week, fear not, I’ll be back to my regularly-scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, you can take a look at my recent New York Times op-ed on 5-hour work days. My basic thesis: it’s hugely surprising that we don’t have many more knowledge work organizations aggressively experimenting with novel approaches to work.


In our early Top Performer pilots (before we even called the course “Top Performer”), Cal and I made a subtle mistake about the process we taught for acquiring career skills. It’s one I’ve seen many people make when thinking about improving their career, so I think it’s worth exploring here in case you might be making it too.

A big part of our course is executing a skill-building project. The goal is to cultivate rare and valuable skills which form the foundation for a successful career.

What we hadn’t recognized in early iterations of our course is that there are actually two different ways to go about these project, one of which tends to be much more effective.

The Difficulty with Drilling Down

The first way you can design a project to upgrade your career skills is to drill down on some aspect of your work that’s important to your job. One of our students, for example, was an academic philosopher who decided to get better at logic. Another student was an architect who decided to deepen his understanding of design.

On the surface, these kinds of projects sound like they should be helpful. Indeed, the entire idea of deliberate practice, on which our course is based, seems reflected in these projects—pick an aspect of your work, and then design an effort to focus on improving it deliberately. So what’s the problem?

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The Obvious Way to Improve Your Career (That Might Not Be So Obvious)

November 11th, 2019 · 8 comments

Below is a guest post from my good friend Scott Young. (Which reminds me: thank you to everyone who came to see Scott and me speak live at Solid State Books in DC last Saturday: we had a great time!) In preparation for us opening back up our Top Performer course next week, Scott’s been trying to open the curtain, so to speak, and capture in article form some of the biggest ideas we’ve learned over the years running this course.

Take it away, Scott…


Sometimes the obvious advice you need to hear isn’t obvious to you. Here’s an example of this that happened just last week.

A guy on Twitter asked me if I did coaching. He felt stuck in his career and wanted to pay me to give him advice. I don’t do individual coaching (at least for money) but, I was curious so I asked him to send me some details of his situation to see if I could help.

Here were his tweets:

What do you think his mistake was?

In my mind, the biggest mistake he made was simply that he was asking me what to do next. I’m not a singer, and I don’t even work in the music industry.

So, lacking specifics, I gave the advice that was obvious to me: you need to locate people who are 2-3 steps ahead of you in the kind of career you want to have. You need to talk to these people, not just random people on the internet you admire, to map out how your career actually works.

His response:

This seems obvious in retrospect, but it actually happens a lot.

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