Study Hacks Blog Posts from April, 2020 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Building a WWII Bunker in an Office Building

April 28th, 2020 · 21 comments

A reader recently sent me another entertaining example of the deep life in action.

He runs a design firm with an office in a warehouse-style building that included a cool feature: a “patio,” cantilevered high above the main floor, where he could relax or chat with coworkers.

“While visually very compelling this was a disaster,” he explained. “I basically had thin glass separating [it] from a warehouse where lots of people used, ate lunch, etc…a space with absolutely no functional use.”

Then last summer, on a visit to London, he toured the Churchill War Rooms, a warren of bomb-proof underground bunkers where Winston Churchill and his war cabinet plotted out the Second World War (see above photo). It resonated.

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Bring Back Blogs?

April 25th, 2020 · 28 comments

My latest article for WIRED offers a suggestion about improving our information response to the current pandemic.

In the piece I acknowledge that Twitter’s algorithms, in particular, have actually been pretty useful in helping to surface otherwise obscure experts who are suddenly intensely relevant to the moment (I document, for example, how virologist Trevor Bedford jumped from 10,000 to 200,000 followers since February).

But convoluted Tweet threads and thumbnail screenshots of longer articles are a poor way for these experts to explore evolving, complicated ideas.

My solution:

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Building a Deep Work Cabin…in an Apartment

April 23rd, 2020 · 25 comments

I recently received an attention-catching email from a 29-year-old professional trumpet player. He told me that during his first year studying at a well-known music conservatory his girlfriend convinced him to join Facebook. “Somehow I had a feeling that the whole thing robs me from practicing the trumpet and getting things done,” he said.

So between 2013 and 2015, he took a two-year break to focus on his training, and ended up writing a Master’s Thesis and graduating with a very high grade point average. “These results are directly linked to abandoning social media,” he explained.

In 2015, he rejoined Facebook, pressured by the idea that professional musicians must promote themselves online to get ahead. “It did more harm,” he wrote, “sucking me back into compulsive clicking and wasting time.”

After coming across Deep Work and (later) Digital Minimalism, he decided to leave social media for good and prioritize focused work on a small number of important pursuits. “To take back control and stay true to my own nature,” he summarized.

The decision paid off. He recorded four albums in four years, and more recently, in just two months, made it 30 chapters into a textbook he’s writing on trumpet methods.

Then came our current disruption.

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More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset

April 20th, 2020 · 51 comments

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an approach for systematically increasing the depth in your life. It involved creating a monthly plan that identifies specific behaviors designed to amplify things that matter and reduce the things that distract you from these values.

Today, I want to add a caveat. In my many years experimenting (often publicly) with the elements of the deep life, I’ve come to accept that the right mindset is just as important as the right plan.

You can have a well-designed checklist of meaningful activities you’re trying to integrate into your routine, but if your background hum of activity is still oscillating wildly between frenetic stress and numbing distraction, your life is anything but deep. You need instead to see your entire day differently.

This mindset is well-summarized by the advice I’ve been giving off and on since the early days of this blog:

  • Do less.
  • Do better.
  • Know why.

Let’s elaborate the elements of this self-improvement catechism one by one:

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Cultivating a Deep Life

April 20th, 2020 · 28 comments







Learn AirTable; produce application for inventory system. Volunteer for local Meal on Wheels chapter. Observe Shabbat. Eat clean; 10,000 steps a day.


Using meeting scheduling software to control ratio between deep and shallow work. Take Instagram off of your phone; prune down accounts you follow to people you really care about or inspire you. Eliminate negative tweeting. Alcohol only on weekends.

I’ve been writing off and on recently about the notion of the deep life, in which you focus with energetic intention on things that really matter, and avoid wasting too much attention on things that don’t.

We find ourselves now in a moment when many people are beginning to question the suboptimal aspects of their life that they had previously been tolerating through some combination of momentum and convenience.  It is, in other words, a good time to explore various strategies for injecting more resilience and meaning into your existence.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about ways to evolve towards a deeper life. One observation that rings true from my experience is that you should resist the urge to try to build a master plan that, once implemented, will transform everything for the better in one dramatic moment. This optimism is quixotic. It’s much more realistic to experiment with smaller shifts, one after another, to discover what sticks and what ends up superfluous.

My recommendation is to think in increments of roughly one month. For a given 30-day period, attempt a limited number of changes to the four components of the deep life (craft, community, constitution, and contemplation). Focus on these changes and see what works and what doesn’t. Keep the former in place and abandon the latter. If you repeat this long enough you’ll notice a marked shift toward the deeper end of the spectrum.

To be more concrete, consider focusing on two things for each component of your life that you’re trying to improve:

  • A high-impact habit that will significantly amplify the value you’re deriving from this component.
  • A commitment for reducing sources of distraction or unnecessary effort diverting your attention within this component.

At the top of this post is an example table showing what a deep life plan of this type might look like for a hypothetical individual. The details here matter less than the general strategy: month after month, relentlessly look to amplify habits that matter while reducing behaviors that don’t. Stick with this approach long enough and the qualitative experience of your life will be significantly improved. You can’t control what happens to you — is there any period in recent history in which this axiom has been made more clear? — but you can control how you respond, and ultimately, this is what makes all the difference.

Beyond To-Do Lists

April 17th, 2020 · 37 comments

I was talking recently with a friend who is a project manager at a tech company who happens to also be particularly interested in productivity strategies. He told me about a fascinating habit he’s been deploying with great success in his own work life. Instead of maintaining endless to-do lists, when he takes on a new obligation, he puts it on his calendar: scheduling a specific date and time when he will tackle it. As he clarified, this approach applies even if the obligation is just to “think some about this topic.”

This might sound extreme, but it shouldn’t. What my friend is really doing is acknowledging that he has a limited amount of total time to spend on tasks. By scheduling each obligation, he’s confronting the reality of how much time each item will actually take, and identifying where these mental cycles will come from.

In knowledge work, we often ignore these realities. We pass around obligations like hot potatoes, via dashed-off emails and Slack eruptions, often pushing ourselves beyond what we can realistically accomplish, compensating by dropping things or completing them at a low quality level. This can’t possibly be the best way to organize cognitive work. And as my friend demonstrates, it’s not the only way.

I’ve been writing all week about how the disruptions in knowledge work we’re facing in the current moment might be an opportunity to spark radical new ideas about how this sector operates. This particular issue, confronting how we’re actually allocating our attention, is as good a place as any to start.

The Dichotomy of Email

April 15th, 2020 · 10 comments

I want to add a quick addendum to my recent series of posts about avoiding email overwhelm in our current moment of total remote work. Though longtime readers have heard me talk about this before, it’s important to emphasize the dichotomous nature of this tool:

  • On the one hand, email is a massively useful way to send text and files to individuals or groups. It’s much better than voicemails or memos. If we had to go back to these older technologies it would be a major pain.
  • On the other hand, email makes us miserable.

How are both true at the same time?  The problems with email are less about the tool than they are about how we deploy it. We run more and more of our work through a single undifferentiated inbox, which means we constantly feel overloaded, and end up context-shifting frenetically between dozens of concurrent but unrelated asynchronous conversations (which, as I argue in Deep Work, is a cognitive disaster).

I mention this only to help diminish any nagging cognitive dissonance. It’s perfectly consistent to love the convenience of shooting off a digital file to your team in an efficient message, while at the same time dreading what awaits you in your inbox.

(Photo by Phil Roeder.)

Beyond the Inbox: Rules for Reducing Email

April 14th, 2020 · 28 comments

In my last post, I warned that a sudden shift to remote work could inadvertently push knowledge workers into a state of inbox capture, in which essentially all of their time outside of Zoom calls ends up dedicated to sending and receiving email (or Slack messages). As I hinted, I think the best solutions here require radical changes to how these organizations operate. In the short term, however, I thought it might be useful to provide a few ideas about what individuals can do right away to avoid the perils of this state of capture.

It’s important to first bust a popular belief. The key to spending less time in your inbox is not simply to check it less often. This advice is out of date, echoing a simpler time when emails were novel. In recent years, of course, this technology has (unfortunately) become the medium in which most work now unfolds. Ignoring your inbox for long stretches with no other accommodations might seriously impair your organization’s operation.

What’s instead imperative is to move more of this work out of your inbox and into other systems that better support efficient execution. You can’t, in other words, avoid this work, but you can find better alternatives to simply passing messages back and forth in an ad hoc manner throughout the day.

Here are three concrete rules along these lines to help clarify what I mean…

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