Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, where he specializes in the theory of distributed algorithms. He previously earned his Ph.D. from MIT in 2009 and graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004. He is also known for his books and blog posts of contrarian, evidence-based advice for building a successful and fulfilling life in school and after graduation.
You’ve written about milestones vs. hour tracking and your desire to have a simple strategy for productivity. For people who don’t work in academia, how would you suggest they adapt your method?
The key underlying idea here is that, if you don't go out of your way to push yourself to produce at the top of your capabilities, you won't. Productivity systems can help you do this, but if they're not simple, they're likely to be abandoned. That post was about the value of having clear short-term milestones for your most important work. If you miss the milestone, then there are only two possibilities: either you're not dedicating enough time to the work or your approach isn't working. Both answers are useful.
An easy way to put this idea into practice is to first adopt the habit of a weekly review that you either conduct at the end of the work week (say, Friday evening) or the beginning (say, Monday morning). During these meetings, you can set the milestones you want to accomplish for the one or two most important projects on your plate and also check in on the milestones from the last week. Take some time to really think. Are your milestones realistic? Are you hitting your targets? If not, why? Some serious reflection once a week can help generate a lot more productivity.
You’ve also written about increasing intensity and reducing time. What insights have you gained about how to increase intensity in a work context, and how to achieve the uninterrupted focus that is required to do that?
A few things help increase your intensity.
First, be clear about how long your session will last. Some people use timers to really emphasize that the work that follows takes place during a bounded period in which you will focus on maximizing your intensity.
Second, be clear about what you are going to attempt to accomplish in the session. Your intensity needs a target. A simple rule is to always try to produce an artifact from each session (for example, some sort of write-up) that will force you to work deeply.
Third, create an environment conducive to intense focus. If you can get away from connected devices, do so. Don’t bring your phone with you, work on paper if possible. If you cannot, turn off the wireless drivers. If you’re in an office, shut the door. If you can identify a new location that you use only for this type of intense work, that is even better, as it helps shift your mindset away from distraction.
Your book So Good They Can’t Ignore You argues that “follow your passion” is bad advice. In it, you espouse skills over passion, which is interesting because “passion” is such a buzzword in people’s bios lately. What leads you to this belief?
When you study people who are passionate about their work, you see that passion tends to be a side effect of approaching the work in the right way, not a starting point for deciding what to do. In my research, I found that the majority of people who end up passionate about their work did not start with a clear vision of what they wanted to do with their lives. The path to a satisfying and meaningful career is more complex than simply matching your job to some pre-existing intrinsic trait.
The reason that I focus on skill in my writing is that I think this is a more honest and useful way to talk about build a working life you love. As you get better at what you do, your working life gets better!
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