Cal Newport, the man who never procrastinates

This Georgetown professor, podcaster, and best-selling author of ‘Deep Work’ and ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ has the key to meeting goals and having free time. His personal success is proof that his techniques work

Cal Newport in his home office in Takoma Park, Maryland. He prohibits cell phones and screens in this space.Greg Kahn
Iker Seisdedos

The plan for the day — a radiant Monday at the end of June, with no classes to teach — included two hours writing his new book, one preparing the next program of his podcast, two more to record it, another two for the scheduled interview with EL PAÍS, as well as a 30-minute-long meeting in between. By around 4:30 p.m., Cal Newport — a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and the author of successful books on labor in the age of distraction — ended his well-spent workday. Newport explains that, in the evenings, he turns off the computer and tries to spend time with his wife and three children. He rarely works on weekends.

It seems easy when he describes this routine at his home in Takoma Park, Maryland, an elegant suburb of Washington that overwhelmingly supports the Democratic Party. Newport has two home offices. In the one on the ground floor — a bright room with a fireplace, Klein blue shelves (with translations of his books into some 45 languages) and a closed laptop on an oak table, custom-made by a firm in Maine — mobile phones and “fixed screens” are prohibited. And, in his office on the second floor, it looks like a storage room: there’s junk everywhere, along with a printer, a scanner and a desktop computer.

“Actually, I don’t know what procrastination is,” says Newport, a firm defender of time blocking: a technique that involves scheduling how you’ll spend the following day and following the plan to the letter. “It may be difficult for me to start, or I may delay projects… But once I get started, I don’t waste any time until I’ve put in the hours I’ve set out to do.”

Newport turned 42 the day before his interview with EL PAÍS. He was born in Houston, where he lived until he was seven-years-old, when his family moved to New Jersey, near Princeton University. There, in the shadow of the Institute for Advanced Study — an independent center for theoretical research in the same borough, which was the intellectual home of Oppenheimer and Einstein — he discovered what interested him: “The world of ideas” and “standing in front of a chalkboard.”

At a very young age, he had already founded a start-up. “I grew up in the era of the software barons, the age of Microsoft’s ascent… I was adept at technology,” he recalls. While studying at Dartmouth — an Ivy League university, like Princeton — he got a publishing contract at the age of 21. His first three books offered advice to students.

Cal Newport
A whiteboard in Newport's recording studio.Greg Kahn

After rejecting an offer from Microsoft (“it was a lot of money, but I wouldn’t have been able to continue writing”) he ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned his doctorate. Later, while he was considering where he would continue his academic life (he ultimately ended up choosing Georgetown), the idea arose for So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion In The Quest For Work You Love (2012). His writing stemmed from the questions he asked himself when he was about to “set off on a career journey that could last for the rest of [his] life.”

In the book, Newport tries to convince the reader that being guided by passion when choosing a profession isn’t a good idea. This is contrary to what Steve Jobs told Stanford students in a famous graduation speech: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” To dismantle this myth, Newport reviewed the life of the founder of Apple. “Loving what you’re working on is much better than working [in a field] that you’re passionate about,” he argues.

What exactly does he mean by this? Well, he already says it in the title of his book: “become so good that they can’t ignore you.” Newport posits the idea of becoming an expert and developing “rare and valuable” skills that allow you to accumulate the so-called “career capital” that’s necessary to get “a great job.” He applied this formula in his own life. That’s how he became a rare mix — part-technologist and part-writer — who also has a podcast, a blog and a newsletter with 100,000 subscribers.

“They put in a lot of hours and still felt frustrated”

At first, it was difficult. The book didn’t do as well as he expected. Four years later, he published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), his biggest bestseller to date. He estimates that between 1.5 and two million copies have been sold in English. “I guess I knew how to read the zeitgeist,” he shrugs. “It came at a time when knowledge workers were beginning to feel increasingly burned out after a decade-and-a-half of using email and [after coming out of] a brutal economic crisis. They didn’t really know why they felt burned out… they put in a lot of hours and still felt frustrated with the results of their work.”

That was also the book in which he came up with the most popular label of his career up to that point: the concept of “deep work.”

“My job isn’t to convince people of something that they don’t think is true or have never heard of,” he emphasizes. “I’m just helping people better understand what they already believe. Being able to put a name to something changes the way you categorize and understand it. That way you know [the difference between] ‘deep work’ and ‘shallow work.’”

Cal Newport
Cal Newport, pictured in the studio where he records his podcasts.Greg Kahn

The cultivation of “deep work” doesn’t involve working more hours, but rather doing your tasks with intensity and without distractions (such as email, news, social media, etc.). This allows a person to finish up sooner and in one shot, at a reasonable hour. “We thought that technology would make us more productive… and that hasn’t been the case,” Newport sighs. “Innovations allow us to do certain things — like get information much faster — but [technology has] added so much noise that we actually produce less than our grandparents.”

In the following years, Newport delved into his criticism of technology from within, delving into how it wreaks havoc in the workplace. He touches on these themes in Digital Minimalism (2019) and A World Without Email (2021). He doesn’t have social media and has waged a public crusade against it, despite the pressure that he felt for many years. “[Social media platforms] seemed like a kind of progressive force, capable of democratizing ideas and connecting the world. Social media was also seen as essential for your career. Today, nobody believes that anymore.”

TV is like sliced bread, while social media is like ultra-processed food

Newport takes a look at The New York Times website a couple of times a day. He can go hours without checking his cell phone, to the despair of his family and friends. And he doesn’t plan to let his children have phones until they’re 16. “The oldest is 11, so things are about to get interesting,” he smiles. At his son’s school, he acts as an advisor on these matters. However, he doesn’t think that the younger generations are lost just because they’ve been born under the digital influence. “Another thing I’m worried about is what the technodeterminist storyline say: ‘Hey, this new technology is here, so, you know, we’ve just got to use it.’”

When asked if he also contributes to the proliferation of these tools of distraction, or participates in a market in which our attention is bought and sold — given that he has a podcast, which he records in a studio a couple of blocks from his house, as well as an e-newsletter — he smiles. “Reading a book is like organic food: you can stuff yourself, it won’t be a problem for your health. Moderately processed foods — like sliced bread — are television, movies, podcasts and newsletters: they should be taken in moderation, but they’re acceptable. And then, there are the ultra-processed foods… the Oreos, the Doritos. Low-quality and very addictive. That’s where social media comes in.”

Cal Newport
A corner of Newport’s recording studio. The skeleton is named Jesse, after Jesse Miller, the producer of Newport’s podcasts.Greg Kahn

The pandemic — which was accompanied by the promised liberation of remote work, the endless deluge of Zoom meetings, as well as the tyranny of Slack and other forms of instant communication between employees — pushed many of Newport’s ideas to the center of the debate. “[The pandemic] accelerated all those problems… And, in the end, it was a good thing, because it made us alert,” he points out.

During the lockdowns, he began to collaborate more regularly with The New Yorker, where he addresses these issues. He denies that he offers “self-help,” preferring to call his writing “pragmatic nonfiction.”

“My books contain ideas, but also advice. And that confuses [some readers and critics] who are looking for one thing or the other.” The professor also wouldn’t define his work as being a criticism of late-stage capitalism. “[For those on the left], they’ll say that the reason we’re so busy and so overloaded and so exhausted at work is because the owners of capital are trying to exploit labor. Capitalism is the problem. But I tend to have a more technosocial perspective. When I criticize e-mail, I do so because the tool has wreaked havoc among workers… But by increasing distraction, it also causes losses for companies.”

From his experience during the pandemic arose the idea for his latest book: Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout (2024). In it, he advocates for “doing fewer things, at a more natural pace” and taking care of “the quality of work,” so as to avoid physical and mental burnout. His next book — which he worked on for two hours before his interview — will be a continuation of Slow Productivity. He plans on taking the teachings “beyond work, to life in general.”

After saying goodbye to EL PAÍS at his front door, Newport returns inside to continue with the rest of his strictly-scheduled day.

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