Episode #1125 Cal Newport: Deep Work

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Cal Newport rejoins Moe to discuss ways to manage distractions and optimize your attention.


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Cal Newport

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. View Full Profile

The Defining Trait of the 21st Century: Attention

The 33voices Edge Dialogue series - with Moe Abdou & Calvin Newport


To think better, you have to concentrate better.  To concentrate better, you have to focus better; and to focus better, you have to be intentional and awake — and that’s hard work.  

At a time in history when our attention is pushed to the limit, the ability to focus without distraction is becoming one of the more defining skills of the 21st century.  A few years ago, I remember being captivated while reading Science reporter, Maria Konnikove’s book, Mastermind:  How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.  In it she does a masterful job of distilling Holmes’ thinking process into “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”  

She’s very convincing in her argument that “attention is a limited resource,” and like willpower, it requires a conscious will for anyone hoping to optimize its capacity.   “....Paying attention to one thing necessarily comes at the expense of another..” she states, “...Letting your eyes get too taken in by all of the scientific equipment in the laboratory prevents you from noticing anything of significance about the man in the room.  We cannot allocate our attention to multiple things at once and expect it to function at the same level as it would were we to focus on just one activity.  Two tasks cannot possibly be in the attentional foreground at the same time.  One will inevitably end up being the focus, and the other - or others - more akin to irrelevant noise, something to be filtered out.  Or worse still, none will have the focus and all will be, albeit slightly clearer, noise, but degrees of noise all the same.”  

In preparing for my conversation with Georgetown professor Cal Newport, I couldn’t help but begin to mesh his brilliant new book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, to Konnikove’s Mastermind, simply because Cal is exactly the type of individual who’s deliberate about building Sherlock Holmes type concentration.  What you’ll notice throughout our conversation and as you read the book, is a portrait of someone who has immense appreciation for the effort it takes to master complex topics. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the four rules that he lays out; for not only do they require commitment, but they’re likely contrary to your current beliefs.  

Here’s what we discuss:



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