Study Hacks Blog Posts from March, 2021 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

In Defense of Thinking

March 31st, 2021 · 48 comments

I recently came across a Hemingway quote that caught my attention:

“My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.”

It reminded me of a time I used to spend each spring as a young professor, back when my schedule allowed it, giving short talks at so-called “dissertation bootcamp” events. The point of these multi-day affairs was to help graduate students gain some momentum on their doctoral theses. I would stop by to talk about productivity and focus, and when possible, grab a free lunch.

Attending these bootcamps, I was often struck by how much the conversation centered on “writing.” The informal advice passed around was about “getting in your writing hours,” or making sure “to write every day,” or committing to “hit your target word count.”

I always found this somewhat confusing, as my experience with writing — both popular and academic — matched Hemingway’s self-description, in that the actual act of putting words on the page came only after many more hours  spent thinking through what I wanted to say. This contemplation was where the real intellectual action was to be found.

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On Robert Heinlein’s Analog Autoresponder

March 23rd, 2021 · 8 comments

A reader recently pointed me toward a fascinating post on Kevin Kelly’s CT2 blog. It concerned the fan mail received by the famed science fiction author Robert Heinlein. Unable to keep up with the deluge of incoming correspondence, Heinlein devised a form letter (pictured above), which included responses to twenty-one common questions and requests.

These canned replies include, for example, a pointer to the book Writer’s Market for more information on how to prepare manuscripts for submission, and an apologetic note explaining that Heinlein is unable to participate in class assignments. (I empathize with this last one. I’m honored by the surprisingly large number of classes that assign my books or articles, but to my regret, I rarely have enough time to participate in evaluating this work.) To answer fan mail, Heinlein would simply check the box on the form letter next to the most appropriate response.

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Combating Zoom Overload with Reverse Meetings

March 18th, 2021 · 10 comments

In a recent episode of my podcast, I dove deep on the topic of meeting overload during our current moment of pandemic-induced remote work. I want to expand here on one of the more radical (but intriguing) solutions I mentioned: the reverse meeting.

First, a little background. Why are we suddenly spending so much more time in meetings now that we’re working from home? There are multiple factors involved.

For example, the sudden shift out of the office created a lot of unexpected new questions that had to be answered. In the moment, scheduling a meeting is an easy way to relieve the anxiety of having these new and pressing demands on your plate.

(Remember: the one productivity system that is universally trusted is the calendar, so if a meeting related to a new issue is scheduled, you can trust that it won’t be forgotten, and you therefore no longer have to keep track of it in your head. This grants immediate relief.)

Another factor is a reduction in the energy and social capital expended when organizing online gatherings. Pre-pandemic, setting up a meeting meant reserving a conference room and requiring your colleagues to physically relocate themselves at your request. There’s enough of a cost here that you might think twice before casually convening these conversations.

In a remote setting, however, we’re all just on our laptops all day anyway, so the cost of shooting off a digital calendar invite for a Zoom discussion is much lower. It takes only a couple clicks and the social consequences seem minimal. The result: we setup many more meetings.

This brings us to the question of how to reduce this overload, and therefore back to the idea of reverse meetings. Here’s the concept:

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One Step Closer to a World Without Email

March 15th, 2021 · 10 comments

My new book, A World Without Email, was released two weeks ago. I’m pleased to announce that it was an immediate New York Times bestseller, so I want to thank you, my long time readers, for supporting this launch.

I thought before I return to my regularly scheduled programming (trust me, I’m eager to start writing on topic others than just email), it might be useful to round up a few of the more interesting articles and interviews about the book from the launch week.

So here we go…

Featured Articles Written By Me

  • “Email is Making Us Miserable,” The New Yorker
  • “Email and Slack Have Locked Us in a Productivity Paradox ,” WIRED
  • “Had It With Email? Give Personal Office Hours a Try,” Fast Company
  • “Stop Giving Clients Your Personal Email. Here’s Why,” Entrepreneur

Featured Reviews

  • “The Battle with the Inbox,” Wall Street Journal
  • “Email Broke the Office. Here’s how to Fix It.” GQ
  • “Technology has Turned Back the Clock on Productivity,” The Financial Times
  • “The Scourge of Work Email is Far Worse Than You Think,” The Financial Times
  • “Can we really banish email from the workplace? Author Cal Newport says yes,” Fortune
  • “How to drastically reduced the time you spend on emails,” Fast Company
  • “The Man Who Thinks We Should Ignore Our Email,” The Sunday Times
  • “A World Without Email by Cal Newport review — overthrowing the tyranny of email,” The Times of London

Featured Interviews

Email is Making Us Miserable

March 1st, 2021 · 16 comments

On Friday, the New Yorker ran an excerpt from the second chapter of my new book, A World Without Email. This chapter focuses on an aspect of the email revolution that’s often overlooked in our discussion of this tool: the ways in which it makes us miserable.

I open the piece by reviewing studies that quantify what many of us have learned through personal experience, which is that the more time we spend emailing, the less happy and more stressed we become.

As I then elaborate:

“Given these stakes, it’s all the more surprising that we spend so little time trying to understand the source of this discontent. Many in the business community tend to dismiss the psychological toll from e-mail as an incidental side effect caused by bad in-box habits or a weak constitution. I’ve come to believe, however, that much deeper forces are at play in generating our mismatch with this tool, including some that get at the very core of what drives us as humans.”

These deeper forces include a fundamental mismatch between the social circuits etched in our brains through evolution and the artificial communication environment cultivated by email. As I detail, our brains take one-on-one interaction extremely seriously, as maintaining strong tribal bonds was critical to Paleolithic survival.

Email, by contrast, creates a setting in which these conversations arrive faster than we can keep up, as demonstrated by our ever-growing inboxes. To our ancient social circuits this is an emergency, leading to a gnawing sense of impending, amorphous danger.

You can, of course, tell yourself that emails are not life and death, but according to research I cite, it’s hard to convince the rest of your brain that this is really true:

“When you skip a meal, telling your rumbling stomach that food is coming later in the day, and therefore that it has no reason to fear starvation, doesn’t alleviate the powerful sensation of hunger. Similarly, explaining to your brain that the neglected interactions reflected by your overfilled in-box have little to do with the health of your relationships doesn’t seem to prevent a corresponding sense of background anxiety.”

We shouldn’t ignore the psychological impacts of the way we work. A successful professional environment is one in which not only do we get things done, but we’re able to do so in a manner that’s sustainable to the human brains involved.

“We’re miserable,” I conclude, “because we’ve accidentally deployed a literally inhumane way to collaborate.”

The solution here is clear, we have to build specific alternatives to the hyperactive hive mind workflow that conquered the knowledge sector once tools like email and Slack arrived.

Now if only someone had written a whole book about what that might look like…


Speaking of A World Without Email, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one more time that if you order the book today (Monday) or tomorrow (Tuesday), you’ll gain access to my Email Academy video series that walks you through how to put the main ideas of the book into immediate action (see here for details on how to register your order). We even made the video clips sharable, so you can use them to try to convert your colleagues into a more enlightened way to work.

More importantly, of course, these early orders really help a book gain momentum, so the even larger “bonus” here is my sincere thanks.