Oct. 20, 2022

The Knowledge Management Series: Cal Newport | A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

The Knowledge Management Series: Cal Newport | A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

In the age of computers, our communication channel is almost always open to anyone who wants to reach us. For knowledge workers, this means their inbox becomes inundated with emails, leaving them mentally tired and unable to work efficiently. Cal Newpo...

In the age of computers, our communication channel is almost always open to anyone who wants to reach us. For knowledge workers, this means their inbox becomes inundated with emails, leaving them mentally tired and unable to work efficiently. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and Don't Follow Your Passion, has written a new book called A World Without Email. Cal claims that our current approach to knowledge work is broken and that he has a the blueprint to fix it.

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Srinivas: Welcome back to Unmistakable Creative for what is probably the fourth or fifth time.

Cal Newport: Time. Yeah. Yes. It's always glad to be back. I get lonely when too much time goes by without having a chance to chat with you. And maybe that's why I write books.

Srinivas: You can talk to me. That's great because I love your books.

Srinivas: I'm always happy when you have a new one, and I'm always like, "Oh, when's the next one coming out?" So you have a new book out called "A World Without Email", all of which we will get into. But, as from previous experience, we're not going to start by talking about that. And I was thinking about where to start with this one because I've asked you things about your childhood.

Srinivas: I asked you about your parents in previous interviews. So I realized there was one area that I hadn't touched on. And this is one that I do want to know about. I know part of the answer to this question, but do you have siblings? If so, what birth order was you and what impact did that have on what you've ended up doing with your life?

Cal Newport: What's your life's purpose?

Cal Newport: So what should I be thinking about here? I don't know. So you're wondering if that might've affected being in the middle, basically. What's the answer?

Srinivas: It evolved partially because they were immigrants and I was the experiment in which they were like, "We don't know what the hell we're doing in a new country." And she was the one who benefited from all their screw-ups on me. So I always wonder, particularly if you're not the oldest, what kinds of lessons your parents taught each of you, and how is it that the trajectories of your lives...?

Srinivas: There's both. Like looking at what you pick up from older siblings. I think that, to me, the contrast having had only one where I'm the older when I look at what my parents taught her versus what they taught me is really interesting.

Cal Newport: That's interesting. I have three siblings. I have three, so I'm one of four and I'm the second. So I'm not sure. What does that signify? Is that a natural skepticism of technology? Is that the cliché of two out of four? So yeah, I had a whole mess of siblings; I would say, I guess that's one way of thinking about it.

Cal Newport: I think one thing for sure, that was probably important is that I had a bunch of siblings and I was relatively low maintenance. So I didn't generate acute concerns that needed parental attention. So there's a lot of busyness going on of just trying to keep up with my various siblings and various things they needed or various issues they were having.

Cal Newport: And as a result, I had a ton of autonomy, which probably was pretty influential. So I did not have a setup where maybe if you're an only child or there's a helicopter parent they're asking, "What are you working on? What are your grades? What are you?" I was basically a free agent. I think they vaguely knew my grades, but not really.

Cal Newport: Different?

Cal Newport: There are a couple of basic rules. Like you have to do a sport and you have to do an instrument so that you learn a little discipline, but that was basically it. By the time I was 16, I had started my own company, was traveling around, had bank accounts, and was doing five-figure contracts with companies. And they all just vaguely knew what was going on because I wasn't low maintenance, and there were a lot of other things demanding their attention.

Cal Newport: That sense of a time. I felt really strongly, growing up as a teenager, that was probably very positive. Like I probably explains why, when I got to college, pretty soon I got a book deal or I became the editor of the humor magazine at the college, or I had the sense of feeling very autonomous.

Cal Newport: I can figure things out. I can be independent. And so maybe there's something there, right? Maybe there's my independent streak in my thinking goes back to the autonomy that I was given, growing up. Yeah.

Srinivas: Because the thing that strikes me, that's so funny about this is that, they didn't ask you about your grades or any of this stuff...yet. I know this from having read your books; you went to MIT. You don't get into MIT by having lousy grades. And, Indian parents, that's all they ask you about is your grades mainly. They don't ask about the grades.

Srinivas: What about your siblings? Did they have their careers turn out differently than yours?

Srinivas: They don't put your report cards on refrigerators when you get straight A's; is that your only question, why didn't you get straight A's?

Cal Newport: But my memory is, a couple of things there, and then I'll talk about my siblings, but my memory there is that at some point in early junior high, I figured it out. Colleges start looking at your grades, starting in freshman year or something. Then they're not interested in your grades before high school.

Cal Newport: Yeah, the, I should say, okay, this isn't, this is not really watering it down. I went to MIT for grad school and Dartmouth for undergrad.

Cal Newport: I learned that I could be very strategic, such as very strategic, like great. I didn't have to think too much about this until I got to high school. And so I had more erratic grades in junior high, and I think that my parents had been closely following and they might've been worried about it. There could have been some pressure there, but there was a lot going on and I knew it didn't matter.

Cal Newport: And in some sense, like that record wouldn't be captured. I think also I had done well, and this is really dredging up memories. I think you know, we did, we took SATs there's this program where you like, take the SAT. I remember that. Yeah. And I had an in middle school as like, it wasn't recorded anywhere, but I had done well on that.

Cal Newport: And there were those like CTY programs. I don't know if you know about those that Johns Hopkins ran. So I was invited. So they assumed maybe I'm smart, but also when I got to high school, I was like, okay, now grades start to matter. And I do think I tried harder, but I was pretty lazy.

Cal Newport: So yeah, it's interesting, I was relatively lazy. I didn't take a killer load, but a pretty hard load, but I was a smart guy and I could do pretty well, but again, I'm coming from a public high school where it's, maybe that's one or four kids to an Ivy League school in any given year, and that'd be a big deal.

Cal Newport: So there wasn't this huge pressure there. But I think I was also just interested. I ran a business and played in a rock band. I was very well read and I think I just came across as an interesting person to the admissions officers. I had good grades, but not the best SAT scores.

Cal Newport: I think, I don't know. Anyways, I'm just, I'm, I don't know why I'm bringing this up in this conversation, but just do that.

Srinivas: People, so don't worry. I just want to know these things because I'm curious about them.

Cal Newport: I became a serious student in college. That's the whole story behind how to become a straight-A student; I went to college and did okay.

Cal Newport: My freshman year. And then I got really serious about it, I wanted better grades. And that's when I went through this whole, let me experiment with study habits and note-taking, and then transformed into a very good student. So starting the fall of my sophomore year, I became a top student for the rest of my college experience and graduated from Dartmouth with a 3.95, and was ranked number seven out of a thousand students in the class. That all happened in college.

Cal Newport: Like at some point I realized, wait, I'm paying a lot of loans to be here. Okay. I want to get more serious about it, but, that came a little later. But my siblings are all very smart. Two of them went to the Naval Academy and the New School; one was on subs and one was working the reactors of aircraft carriers.

Srinivas:  One question about this: you became Cal Newport, the author, the guy who writes the books about how to be a straight-A student. I'm wondering, did your younger siblings take that advice to heart and apply it themselves?

Cal Newport: Oh yeah. I, yes. To some degree. We're close in age. So by the time I was writing those books, my youngest sister was still in school. I used to talk to her a lot. Obviously, my older brother was out of school by the time I wrote those books, and my younger sister was still in school.

Cal Newport: Yeah. I definitely remember my youngest sister, especially when she was in med school. We would talk a lot about it. And I think, during college, a lot of people have a hard relationship with this type of advice sometimes because it's not really what college is about for everyone, but when you get to more professional schools, things are more transactional. I'm in medical school to learn this because I want to get this residency because I want this job.

Cal Newport: And my brother works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as a head safety inspector at a nuclear power plant. My sister works at Booz Allen and my other sister came. So it's something going on there? So it's a sharp group of kids, I'd say. Yeah.

Cal Newport: When you move on to a more professional setting and environment, it's much more transactional. I think that makes a

Srinivas: Perfect segue to talking about one thing that I know, that I will never leave a conversation with you without asking you about it. And that is the state of education today, particularly in light of the pandemic, and I do recall the fact that we started with college and the fact that you became a great student.

Srinivas: 'Cause I think that one thing that I saw, particularly at a place like Berkeley, was that everybody who comes there is basically, at the height of their high school class, they're all valedictorians. We think we're really smart. And then you get there and everybody's a thousand times smarter than you are.

Cal Newport: So I do remember that with my youngest sister. I don't think I talked to her much when she was in college about how to study, but when she was in med school, she was like, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's just get some tactics. Let's get some strategies, let's get after it because it's definitely a mindset."

Srinivas: For me, it was like, the worst grades imaginable. I went from being a straight-A student in high school to graduating with a C-minus average. And I think part of it was, I never learned how to study, but why is it that you don't think people actually learn this or actually navigate the dynamics of school?

Srinivas: We actually talked about a girl who opted to go to Brown versus another girl who went to a lesser-known school and she thrived. Whereas the girl who had gone to Brown, who was this amazing student in high school actually, was very average in college. So why does that happen? One, and then two, you're a college professor.

Srinivas: Like what causes that sort of person who basically is, a genius in high school to become an idiot in college? Not that I was a genius in high school or an idiot in college, but I think it might've been if it wasn't "Outliers", it was the other book, "David and Goliath" that Gladwell wrote.

Srinivas: Who has been teaching in the midst of a pandemic? So, what has all of this revealed to you and to the system at large about what the future of this is going to look like?

Cal Newport: Asked you the question of why students are so bad at being students. I think there's definitely a sort of social-developmental aspect of people's college experience that can take precedence over a more professionalized approach.

Cal Newport: And you're going to college right after high school. People are coming at it later in life after, whatever, serving overseas or working at the same time or having families. They're like, "Let's get to work." So they love it. Give me advice, give me strategies.

Cal Newport: It's the job, actually, this is easier than most jobs I've had before. And they do really well. They do really well. But when you get students that are okay, yeah, of course, I'm going to college and I'm 18 and I'm going off to Berkeley after finishing high school. There's a lot of other factors at play in that experience, is what I've come to learn, and like I was talking with my sister, there's a lot of other factors at play.

Cal Newport: Professionalization of your habits will aid you in avoiding behaviors that might reflect poorly on you. It might make you seem nerdish, or it's simply not at the top of your mind. It's a really interesting dynamic. But I've noticed that a lot, I've noticed that a lot of students are content being bad at being students.

Cal Newport: And what I'm basing this off of is looking at my book on how to study, because the big audiences for my, how to become a Straight A student book are non-traditional students, people who are coming back later in life. I've done a lot of work over the years with GI Bill vets returning and going to school on the GI Bill first-generation students who are maybe working at the same time, people in those contexts, which is different than the standard US path of being 18.

Cal Newport: You're trying to discover yourself. You're trying to find yourself as an adult. You're trying to find separation from the identity that you had based on your nuclear family household. You care a lot about the presentation of self and construction of self, and there's a real concern.

Cal Newport: And I don't know that one year of highly disruptive higher education is enough to make a giant change. That's my new working hypothesis. I think everyone is just riding off the year as a suffering year because everything, and actually most schools, is open.

Cal Newport: So I think that's for sure. And then what's the pandemic doing? I'm still not sure. I, my, what I leaned back on is this notion that we often, and I heard someone say this, so my apologies that I'm not citing the right person, I heard someone say this earlier in the pandemic, we often overestimate the force of a temporary disruption and underestimate the power of inertia.

Cal Newport: It depends on where you are. A lot of this is politically based, like the regional and political context, like how open your school is, or not, much more so than, let's say, viral background. But my sense is that there are hundreds and hundreds of years of this rough model of education of going to these schools and being there in person and this and that. The pandemic is probably not enough to cause a severe rupture in the model.

Cal Newport: So it may seem, a lot of things grow into really interesting metaphorical truths. Yeah. I guess the

Srinivas: The thing that struck me in particular, I'm curious what your perspective is on this as a professor even my dad is dealing with the same thing; he's teaching his classes via Zoom.

Srinivas: And I think the thing that struck me most was when people at Harvard were like, "What the hell? We're going to pay $50,000 a year, the same tuition to watch somebody give this lecture on Zoom that I could watch for free? Encore, Sarah. I'm like, how does that make you feel when you think when you see that? Does it make you angry?

Cal Newport: Yeah. Yeah. Especially at a school like Georgetown, which is heavily tuition-dependent. Yeah. Yeah, no, I look, there's a long list of things that were very annoying about this year, which has given the university's cover.

Srinivas: You're a professor in the system that actually makes this happen. At the same time, your salary is dependent on those students, isn't it?

Cal Newport: So let's say there had been a counterfactual. There would have been more of an impetus for us to say, “Wait for a second, what's going on here with this model?” But I think that anger, which kind of makes sense, would have been directed at “Wait for a second, I'm watching this video on Zoom that was pre-recorded.”

Cal Newport: MIT has the same class being taught so you can download the video from there. And so why am I watching Cal instead of Eric's domain teaching algorithms or something like that? I think it was somewhat obfuscated by the fact that every other aspect of people's lives had similar frustrations going on.

Cal Newport: And so it might have avoided some of the disruptions. I think it also emphasized the value students placed on being on campus, being around each other, the activities, and the physical location of it. The whole thing, I really picked up on this for my students very strongly. A couple of months was okay.

Cal Newport: By the time we got to the fall, they were fraying. And the thing they were afraid of was that they had to get out of those houses. They could be back in their parents' house, back in their old bedroom. It felt so restrictive. I think that's where I was starting to see a lot of mental health impacts.

Cal Newport: And so that is one lesson I learned is that there's this huge value that these 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds have if they're so lucky to have this opportunity to say, look, I'm on a 300-year-old campus or 200-year-old campus with old stone buildings. And we live in the dorms and we have, and we go to pep rallies for the basketball team and those types of things.

Cal Newport: I think we're playing a really important role in this sort of social development of a lot of these young kids. So that's where I saw the frustrations, the Zoom stuff, I think you're right. Oh yeah, it's not great. But it was at home and that's what was starting to frame up.

Srinivas: I think that makes a perfect segue to talking briefly about social media and the role of social media in the pandemic. And, as I was telling you before we hit record, I think it was probably January when I had probably gone on a 90-plus day hiatus, with almost no activity on Facebook.

Srinivas: And then Indian matchmaking came out and my social feed was a hell of a lot more interesting all of a sudden because it wasn't, as I said, just attention, but attention from women and as a single guy, I'm like, oh, this is something I want to pay attention to. And to be very candid with you, it became a really big distraction for about six weeks.

Srinivas: Okay, at home?

Cal Newport: I think the pandemic helped underscore and support the dualistic nature of technology that I talked about in Digital Minimalism, where I use a charioteer metaphor from Plato and talked about how you have the noble steed that sort of represents your base instincts.

Srinivas: And it took a while to get back to it. But that being said, for a lot of people, this has been their lifeline, during a pandemic, this has been their way to connect with other people. And so, as somebody who has been a vocal critic of social media, from deep work up until now, what have you discovered about its role in the midst of a situation where we're all stuck?

Cal Newport: And I think people saw this dichotomy very clearly, especially during the strong lockdown phases of the pandemic, because on the one hand, there are tools that the social internet provides, that were really empowering, like the ability to talk with family, the ability to talk with friends, the ability to use video.

Cal Newport: You can actually see the face of family members that you weren't able to see in person, maybe by leveraging WhatsApp or texting, so that you could have more conversations with your family than you might normally. And it would have been very isolating without these technologies. In fact, we probably wouldn't have been able to even do shelter-in-place orders without these technologies, because it just wouldn't have worked; society would not have functioned. On the other hand, social media, if we're going to get really narrow, let's talk about the giant attention monopoly platforms, Twitter, Tech-Talk, and Instagram - for a lot of people, these were a massive negative during the pandemic, especially Twitter. A lot of people fell into a doom-scrolling habit.

Cal Newport: And then you have the noble steed that represents what's good. And the soul is like the charioteer, that's trying to control these two things. And when it comes to using technology, when deployed intentionally, you can empower the noble steed. When used casually, it superpowers the ignoble steed, and everything goes off course.

Cal Newport: I think it probably had an impact on our response to the pandemic. And so that's, I think that's a perfect example of that dichotomous nature of technology. You know, look, I can deploy some of these tools to connect to people I care about in a way that would be physically hard. Fantastic. But I can also get sucked into YouTube rabbit holes and end up in a fetal position under my desk, which was terrible for people.

Cal Newport: And so I think it just validated the nuance of the hypothesis. Let

Srinivas: Me, let's go a little deeper on this idea of fame, because the reason I brought up Indian Matchmaking in general with you was, and I thought about emailing you the entire time this was happening saying, "Hey, I'm having to deal with a level of attention."

Cal Newport: I would say Twitter became a giant source of stress and anxiety and anger for a lot of people. You take a pandemic day. Yeah, mix it up with a contentious presidential election. And you're just on this thing, doom scrolling, and it was just making people angry and it was making people anxious and it had a lot of real ramifications for people's mental health.

Srinivas: When you navigate that sudden flood of attention, like what is that doing? And then more importantly, how the hell do you not let it derail?

Srinivas: That's unlike anything I've dealt with before. And on the one hand, it's flattering, but on the other, it's annoying because I quit all this stuff. You wrote this piece about Bryce Harper, the baseball player, and I very distinctly remember that. When you're dealing with something like this, and I'm nowhere near as famous as a baseball player with a $430 million contract, what is it that you see play out there that makes that particularly effective or, conversely, negative? I remember even you and I were talking about this where you said NBA players who tweeted before the night of a game actually scored fewer points if I remember correctly.

Cal Newport: You? It's an incredibly powerful force that has been, I don't want to say it's been supercharged. It's more like it's been democratized, right?

Cal Newport: So the negative impact of sudden celebrity attention is due to the realities of the delivery mechanisms. If you go back 20 years it was very narrowly applied to a very small number of people, like really big movie stars and really big sports stars. Social media has essentially democratized the negative aspects of sudden attention to a much wider group of people.

Cal Newport: We're having some notoriety, which is useful, but it also democratizes the negative aspects of celebrity. And I think it's a real issue. And so I talked to a lot of people in professional sports because they're really worried about this, the impact of this on professional sports performance. That's why I wrote about Bryce Harper.

Cal Newport: He doesn't do basically any of that. He has like a team that posts some stuff occasionally, but he just doesn't care. Especially once the season gets going, you wouldn't see him on there, engaging with his audience, and why? Because it's an intensely cognitively demanding endeavor to try to hit a 97-mile-per-hour fastball out of the park.

Cal Newport: And like every 10 percent distraction back there in the back of your mind is three batting average points and it matters. And it could matter to your team's success or to your success. And so you definitely do see that. And I think people are, you experienced, so you tell me you like it, it's weirdly manipulating of your emotions, right?

Cal Newport: Because it's almost irresistible. There are few things more irresistible than someone saying something about you. Over here, you can't resist. You can't look at it. And then it gives you these highs, but then these killer lows, and then you seek the highs to try to offset the lows, but it's like with drug addiction, the highs stop being able to do that.

Cal Newport: Because now you have the delivery mechanisms through which people can actually discuss you and give you the attention and directly reach you in this sort of infinitely scalable way. And it's a, it's an issue. It's both a benefit and an issue. Obviously, being able to democratize celebrity opens up more opportunities because there are lots of different professional endeavors.

Cal Newport: And then the low-stakes tasks start to pick up. Oh, I

Srinivas: It was madness. And yeah, you're right. It was this addictive thing where you just couldn't stop for a while. It was like, wow, this is nuts. You add a layer on top of that, the fact that there are billions of Indians in the world. And then you add to top of that, every one of my parents' friends saw it and descended on my parents like vultures.

Srinivas: I had a point where I was like, I couldn't take this. This is insane. So I said, look, you guys want to set me up with anybody? I'm like, this is my cousin. I'm like, she's the filter. She is the gatekeeper. I won't talk to anybody but her from this point forward. Yeah. And even then it's taken a long time to get back to some semblance of

Srinivas: And the other person got a lot of negative attention. It was crazy. And, I remember even one of the other girls, I was talking to her at the end of the week. I'm like, this is insane. And she had a situation where she had 800 followers on Twitter. And by the end of the week, when that show aired, she had 70,000 or 100,000.

Srinivas: I mean, I remember for the first week it was just like, holy shit, who are all these people? And on the flip side of that, it was just like, oh, I'm a single guy, and there were things said about me that weren't that nice.

Cal Newport: Yeah. Let me ask you about this because I think you're a really great case study about reality and myth. I think a lot of people, especially younger people, think that what I want is that celebrity if I had a lot of followers and a lot of people paying attention to me online, everything good will be built on that.

Cal Newport: But that's often not at all what you should be seeing. So let's consider what you mainly do in your life, right? You have this business you've been building that is successful, but also highly impactful and puts you in close connection with these people that you serve, who are getting a lot out of you, you have investors that you're serving.

Cal Newport: And I think it's impactful. And I liked the people I work with and I think I'm making a difference in the world. And that has none of the anxieties of someone famous person trolling me or getting mad at me or being racist. I don't know what the ramifications would mean, but I think it's a bad thing.

Cal Newport: You're probably thinking about how much more significance that probably is in your life, but we don't get that model as much. If you're 19, you're like, no, what I want is to be on Netflix and they get a lot of followers, but yeah, that's going to get you basically a lot of anxiety and a few highs. We don't hear the alternative model, which is actually what's going to be better suited for your human nature, is to build up something important.

Cal Newport: Normality.

Cal Newport: Whatever, am I giving a tech talk on Clubhouse or something like that? All that negativity you don't have when it's, I'm slowly building something I sometimes call "quiet productivity". I'm slowly building something that matters deeply.

Srinivas: I don't want to be known for this. I want to be known for unmistakable creativity. That, to me, is far more meaningful than a brief moment on TV. Yeah.

Srinivas: I always started when people would ask me about it, I said, "Look, to me, this is an inflection point."

Cal Newport: But I guess I'm well-known enough that, unlike in semi-regularly-based spaces, I might be recognized right. Someone on the street. But I don't have any social media. So, to me, that's it's just surprising and foreign. I just have no idea, are people happy about me? Mad about me? Not thinking about me?

Cal Newport: And it's not. Yeah. And to be really well-known, I don't know, look, here's some, here's my experience. I'm not at all famous.

Cal Newport: And I'm not very happy right now. It's like I don't know, maybe everyone hates me, or everyone loves me, or everyone's ignoring me. No, but not knowing has been, yeah.

Srinivas: It's funny because your name has come up numerous times on the podcast, when I was talking to Nir Eyal and I think I remember sending you that conversation and he was like, "Yeah, you're more optimistic than I am about this."

Cal Newport: Or a fantasy, they're going to shelve it in the fantasy section at Barnes & Noble. I've actually been working on that book since 2016. So right after Deep Work, I began laying the groundwork. It took me about four or five years to pull together all the threads. I put it on pause, wrote Digital Minimalism, came back to it, and kept working on it.

Srinivas: And I remember thinking, I'm like, "Man, I get the two of you together here to battle it out." But that being said, I think that what you just said makes a perfect segue to talking about this entire concept of a world without email. So what prompted your desire to even write a book and a world without email sounds like a dream come true at this point?

Cal Newport: I'm just really not plugged into any of that. And I have to say it's incredibly freeing because my sense is I'm probably known enough that if I was on social media, it would be a really large cognitive footprint. The emotional footprint of that existence would probably right now be a major drain on mental cycles.

Cal Newport: I was like, yeah, I've already emailed too much or this or that, but let's just talk about the value of focus and how to train yourself to focus and why it's important. And the feedback was, wait a second. I don't think you realize how impossible it is to do this. And so I really got interested in this question.

Cal Newport: Why is it so hard? Like why are companies so consistently set up in such a way that it's very difficult to actually do the thing that you were hired to do, to use your brain and produce value? And it was a massive story, right? That's what I discovered. I needed five years to write it because there were so many different threads that were wrapped up tightly, that when you pulled on them, there was this huge, magnificent story that explained why we work this way.

Cal Newport: So it's more of an opus-style book. And basically, I wrote Deep Work, which came out in 2016. And there's this really urgent follow-up question to me about that book, which is, why is it really so hard for us to find time to do deep work? If you remember in that original book, I didn't talk much about the causes.

Srinivas: You open the book by saying that the underlying value of constant electronic communication that defines modern work is never questioned as this would be hopelessly reactionary and nostalgic like pining for the last days of horse transport or the romance of candlelight.

Srinivas: And you make a pretty strong criticism of why email has been actually detrimental to knowledge work, and having read the book and spent a lot of time applying your concepts, I happen to agree with a lot of it. But let's start with how we actually got here in the first place.

Cal Newport: Why is it so bad? What does the future hold? It just seemed really grand. So this book, Deep Work, opened up that rabbit hole and I fell down it for a while. Wow.

Srinivas: Because I know that you talk about the reduction in productivity that email causes and I think that's obvious to most of us, we're not unaware of that. But, part of it is knowing what to do with it, but look, let's just start there with these two concepts: email reduces productivity and email makes us.

Cal Newport: Yeah. I don't think people recognize the degree to which it's reducing productivity. So if you go down into the research, I talk to these researchers, read all the papers, really went deep on what happens when we have to check email all the time and actually that's the right place to start. Do we check email all the time?

Cal Newport: And if you have slack in your company, that shrinks, right? So it's constant. That's about as close as you can get to constant, especially when you recognize that number includes things like lunch hours or meetings where maybe you can't be checking your email. So that means you're checking it even more frequently in the times that you're actually able to work.

Cal Newport: People we know that we can't solve right now, the question's too big. It's ambiguous. I'm just checking my inbox because I'm in the middle of a conversation, Trini and I are going back and forth about whatever scheduling for a podcast. I'm just checking that, but I'm seeing all these other messages.

Cal Newport: So I gathered all the data we have on that. And the answer is a hundred percent definitively. Yes. And it's been getting more and more with each year. The number I like to cite is in this one, very large study. Once every six minutes was how often knowledge workers are checking their email.

Cal Newport: So we check it all the time. It's constant checking and the damage that this does to our brains and our happiness and our satisfaction is massive. The human brain cannot do that in context. When we look at an inbox and we see hundreds of messages, most of which we cannot resolve at the moment, right? These are issues that are being brought to us by other people.

Cal Newport: And then you turn your attention back to what you were doing. Having exposed yourself to all of these unresolved tasks that are waiting there and connected to people who need things from you and your brain goes haywire because when it sees all these messages, it begins the process of, okay, we have to switch our context.

Cal Newport: It also exhausts us. I think a lot of people have that experience where they're trying to do something while checking email a bunch. And at some point, you just get so fatigued that you give up and think, "I'm just going to stay on my inbox." It's not a failure – you've literally tired out your mind!

Cal Newport: We have to begin suppressing these networks and amplifying these networks to get ready to deal with these new things. And halfway through that process, you bring your attention back to the thing you're writing or the code you're trying to type up or whatever it is. And your brain is now in a cognitive capacity or frame of crossed wires and a jumbled context shift that makes it incredibly hard to.

Cal Newport: God, there are all these people who need me and I'm not responding to them and it's getting worse and worse every minute that I'm not looking at my inbox. That is a worst-case scenario from the perspective of taking these deep social networks deep in our brains and trying to design a way of communicating that is going to get us very upset.

Cal Newport: You tire out your mind with all that context-shifting, can't do it anymore. And you're actually trying to do something productive thinking. And then you layer in this other reality that this mode of communication where you pile up messages faster than you can keep up completely conflicts with our deep social wiring and makes us feel very anxious.

Cal Newport: And so we have this background hum of anxiety because there's a conflict between this fundamental way of communicating and fundamentally how our brains work.

Srinivas: And my anxiety at the end of that day was off the charts. And I think I was waiting for a response from a potential sponsor. And then, years later I was like, oh yeah, I'm going to go snowboarding all day. And I've noticed this over and over again. I can literally go a day and a half without looking at my email once and nothing bad happens.

Srinivas: And, often, only good things happen. And I don't end up wasting a lot of time. Which is always talking to me. I always joke that, unless you're the president of the United States, you have no reason to be checking email multiple times a day. And even then, you probably don't.

Srinivas: It's funny you say that because I remember, I think it was around 2014, sometime, in March or April, right before planning our event. There was one day where I, and I think this was pretty remarkable, this was definitely prior to deep work where I literally must have checked my email a hundred times a day.

Cal Newport: Yes. There are a lot of messages in there, but our company has expectations around response time. Nobody is expecting a response. It's fine. The deeper part of your brain is still going to get anxious, that rational part of your brain that knows the rules of emailing company culture. Can't influence that really fundamental, deep social network.

Cal Newport: And I'm the person who doesn't have email. So they have a chief of staff who does that for them. But this is a key point, though, because one of the big things I argue is that even if the rational part of your brain says, "It's okay because look, last week I went snowboarding all day and nothing bad happened."

Cal Newport: And one study, I talk about that captures this. What's that insidious study, where they brought in research subjects to do some sort of fake experiment on a computer that allowed them to hook them up to heart rate monitors and skin galvanometers—like the stuff you could use to measure stress? And at some point in the experiment, they have the researcher come in and say, "Ah, your phone is messing with our instruments, so we're just gonna move it," so they would pick up your iPhone and they would move it across the room. And the reason why they focused on iPhone users is they could turn off the "Do Not Disturb" because it's on the side of the phone. So they turn it off surreptitiously as they moved it across the room and then you'd go back to the experiment and then they would text the phone, and you'd hear it.

Cal Newport: Yeah!

Cal Newport: Now here's the thing rationally. These subjects had put their phones on "Do Not Disturb." So they had been completely fine rationally with this idea of, "I can't be reached. I'm not going to hear it. If something comes in, I'm completely fine with it. My phone's on 'Do Not Disturb' is going to last a half hour, but when they heard the phone ring.

Cal Newport: All of those markers of stress response that were being monitored by the fake experiment, all of them shot off the charts because that deeper part said, "Someone in your tribe is tapping you on the shoulder. You're ignoring them. If you ignore them, they're not going to give you food next time. There's a famine and you're going to die."

Cal Newport: And it doesn't care about your company, no norms, or your rational explanation. So it's not that this is malicious—no one designed email to try and make us miserable. It's just an unfortunate, but an unavoidable side effect of this means of communicating. Join the uplifting global event of the year inspired by Japanese tradition—Asics World Ekiden is a free virtual relay that you can run to race the global community.

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Srinivas: I think we're all pretty aware of the fact that email is not only killing our productivity but is also fairly ineffective. Yet, it's still the backbone of communication in 90% of knowledge organizations.

Cal Newport: And so we can establish here that an email is a terrific tool. If you need to deliver information, you need to deliver it. It is far superior to a fax machine, voicemail, or memos. There's a reason why it spread so rapidly - once it became available, it solved real problems - fantastic tool.

Cal Newport: Yeah. And so this is the key distinction. So right now we can leverage the tools that make asynchronous communication more efficient. I think the concern people have is, if I don't use email to send a message, what am I going to use? Fax machine or a voicemail?

Cal Newport: We'll just rock and roll the inbox. Let's go back and forth. Hey, what about this? Do you want to come on over? When should we do this? And from this client, what's going on with that? Just back and forth, unstructured, unscheduled messaging. And we can just do this with anyone, on any issue, in the company or out, that's the hyperactive hive mind.

Cal Newport: It's not inevitable that you work that way, just because email is a tool. But it is how most people migrated their work habits once this tool arrived. And so when I call my book a world without email, what I really mean is a world without the hyperactive hive mind as the main way that we actually collaborate or coordinate.

Cal Newport: So this hyperactive hive mind rapidly emerged following the arrival of email. It's how most, and there are some key exceptions here, but it's how most knowledge work organizations now organize themselves. And the problem is, Hey, if you're going to broadcast, let's say, there are announcements in our company, they are broadcast via email.

Cal Newport: So what's the actual problem? The way we began to work was once the email was available. So once email arrived on the scene, we switched over to a workflow that, as you said, I call the hyperactive high-five. As we said, now that we have low-friction digital communication, in addition to just using this to replace what we used to do on the fax machine, in addition to using this to replace what we used to do with memos, in addition to using this to replace voicemail, let's now actually work things out, like collaborate together with back-and-forth unscheduled messaging.

Cal Newport: I don't really care about the technology. And so I have to constantly tend those channels to keep this high-flying chatter. That's where we get the pain of email—once we start using it to collaborate this way.

Srinivas: And, and it's funny because there's also this issue of, we don't want to become overly dependent on channels, like social media that we don't own, because they can make changes any time that really hoses us. So with that in mind, what would you think about this?

Srinivas: Yes!

Cal Newport: In other words, the way you're implementing them, it's just, I don't know. We'll figure it out on the fly and that doesn't scale. I know the training your company, in particular, is really into this process-oriented thinking. So a lot of them probably have a lot of familiarities when you're reading the book, but a lot of people, they've never thought that way.

Cal Newport: And so once you name them, you can say what's the right way, or what's a better way to actually do these. And it opens up so much innovation. And so small businesses know this. So you mentioned extreme revenue growth. You can look at traction, you can look at The E-Myth Revisited.

Cal Newport: Book after book in the small business space comes back to the same thing. Figure out what your actual processes are and then figure out how to make those better. All growth comes from that. That mindset needs to extend to just about everybody because if you still have processes, it's just that they're really bad.

Cal Newport: The email communication is serving underlying processes. You have the answer-client-question process to produce podcasts, and the episode process to put together a white paper for the publication process. You might never have named them before. You might not have thought about them before, but all of this back-and-forth ad-hoc messaging is serving these processes.

Srinivas: It's funny because right after I read your book, we have an AirTable contact form for guest pitches and it's really simple.

Srinivas: If I say yes, it sends somebody an email automatically saying, yeah, we'd love to have you. If I say no, it sends them nothing. I'm like, why the heck am I getting this delivered to my inbox? There's no need for that anymore. So I immediately turned off the zap that was sending the emails to my inbox, and now I only have one place.

Cal Newport: What do you mean? I get emails, I respond to them, and we have meetings on my calendar. We rock and roll, which means they're proverbially stuck in a small business that has the opportunity to grow to this sort of metaphorical, large revenue.

Srinivas: 'Cause it was like, I'm looking at the same thing in two different

Cal Newport: It's not time. It's not complexity, it's not pain or convenience. It is how much-unscheduled back-and-forth messaging is required for this process to complete. And you want to minimize that number, right? So you want to keep that in mind. So, you gave a good example there a way of going from a guest pitch to booking a guest that does require essentially what you have, that one incoming email, and then you just click something in an Airtable.

Cal Newport: Places. Yeah. And so I think this is useful, right? So let's rattle off some concrete examples. The main thing I want to emphasize in these examples is that based on the research we know about the cognitive hit from context-switching, the metric you're trying to minimize when you're optimizing these processes should be the number of back-and-forth messages.

Cal Newport: That's a fantastic example. Another example is the way I work with my publicist for booking podcasts, for book publicity. We have a shared document where she puts the opportunities in there along with the scheduling information. Okay, here's a link to schedule, if they have a scheduling link, or if not, here are the times that could work.

Cal Newport: I check this document twice a week and I go through and add my responses and update it. Then she adds all the details further down in the document. There's zero back-and-forth messaging involved, even though I'm doing dozens and dozens of interviews that sometimes require lots of back and forth.

Cal Newport: That's a process. Another example of one of these processes could be, we have a team that uses Trello and each client has a Trello board. Everything we're working on for that client is on a card. Every related file is attached to a card, every list and process is on one of these virtual cards, and the columns capture their statuses.

Cal Newport: That is the poison. That is the thing you need to look at with huge skepticism.

Cal Newport: We have these short, highly structured meetings at regularly scheduled times where we look at who's doing what, do you need it? How's it going? Zero inboxes involved, no messages involved. And yet these clients had all the information stored and progress has been made. So there are dozens of examples.

Srinivas: Even, the other thing I did right after this is, we have an ad sales team and I'm like, you guys send me a lot of emails and I'm glad that you're sending me emails. Because it's all potential revenue.

Cal Newport: But I do think it's useful to hit a few and then keep underscoring that your key here is minimizing back-and-forth messaging. You want to minimize that even if it requires more overhead upfront, back-and-forth messaging; the need to do the hit-the-message, ping-pong back-and-forth across the net. That is the killer.

Srinivas: But I said the amount of email is causing context switching, so I was like, I'm going to set this up in a document on Notion. I want you to put everything there. But let's talk about it. I think that actually is a perfect setup. Cause I think Notion really, in my mind, was designed with this idea of reducing context switching in mind.

Srinivas: But let's start with the Attention Capital Principle and you talk about four or five different concepts with the two that I think there, there are a couple that really intrigued me. One was building structures around autonomy. The second was minimizing context overload, which I think we've more or less covered.

Cal Newport: How do they apply? The structure is important because there's a good reason for it that's largely unknown. I pulled it out of the book and I don't think anyone had reported on this until I did. And why? If the hyperactive high bind is so ineffective, right?

Cal Newport: If it makes us so unproductive and makes us so miserable, why have we stayed with it so long? And a big part of that answer is that in knowledge work, we have a huge emphasis on autonomy. Unlike industrial work, where we break things down into processes and have assembly lines, knowledge work is too complicated and too skilled.

Srinivas: And then the idea of an assembly line. Can you talk about those and how they work?

Cal Newport: We can't tell a computer programmer how to write code. So just give them objectives and let them figure out how they organize their work and get things done. This goes back to a single individual. It goes back to Peter Drucker. He helped midwife the whole idea of knowledge work. He actually coined the term "knowledge work" and he really helped American industry understand what this type of work was, how it's different from industrial work, and how to deal with it.

Cal Newport: No individual can do this very effectively on their own. So how do we escape that trap? My argument is that Drucker was right. That is how knowledge workers actually execute their work. You know how you write the algorithm; if you're a computer programmer, it is highly autonomous, you can't break it down into steps, so leave people alone to figure out how they do.

Cal Newport: If they want to be more productive, they can buy a [my] book, but it's not, we shouldn't be thinking about how they organize their work. Just, we just need really clear objectives. Here's our [OTRs], rock and roll, right? And I argue, this is what has got us into this trap because you can't get rid of the hive mind in an organization, unless you actually have the organization on board with it, we need to change this with other processes.

Cal Newport: And he hit again and again, and I document this, decade after decade of autonomy. And this principle of autonomy is one of the big reasons why we've been stuck with the hive mind because we're just used to this notion that if I run a company unless it's like a small business or something if I'm a manager of this or that, look, I'm not going to tell my workers how to work.

Cal Newport: But everything that surrounds the actual execution. So all the details about how we identify tasks and review tasks, assign tasks, and make sure that people have the information they need to execute the tasks and report. Once they're done, all of these things that surround actually executing should not be left up to the individuals.

Srinivas: It's funny. I think the assembly line struck me so much because even before I read your book, I had been writing about this idea with our privileged, mighty network listeners.

Cal Newport: You're like, "Look, it's not my job to tell people how to work. But if everyone is fighting for themselves, you're going to end up with the least common denominator when it comes to workflow collaborations. Fire up the inbox, and we'll just rock and roll."

Cal Newport: That's where we need organization. Think of what's the process. What is the process that surrounds this type of work, build a structure around the autonomy. That is the balance I think we need to actually get, but it's hard to underestimate the degree to which it's so pervasive. Drucker's influence, you run a team.

Srinivas: But the rest of it is very much like an assembly line where you have inputs, outputs, raw materials, and labor, whereas today labor is the combination of your own habits and all the apps and tools you use. But I think that it seems so contrary to doing creative work. Yet, if you want to produce media at scale, you have to run it like an assembly line.

Srinivas: Because the whole premise of the membership is, we're designing content to basically help you make your ideas happen. And I said you want to think of creative work like a factory in a lot of ways. The part of it that's not a factory is the part that you bring to it.

Srinivas: Yeah, it's like a lot of the stuff we were talking about last week.

Cal Newport: An assembly line, except instead of what you're doing, is turning the bolt on the steering wheel 45 degrees, repeatedly, when the steering wheel comes to you, you're recording a podcast. So, it's nuanced; there's structure. Here's how the materials move.

Cal Newport: And we fought a lot about it, but I need to step back when you're actually doing the work. But the other thing that's important about the assembly line is that if we step away from the specifics of industrial manufacturing, what we learned from Henry Ford's story, which is a very important lesson for today, is that the way they used to build cars, just like the hyperactive hive-mind and knowledge work, was very inefficient and very inflexible and very unnatural.

Cal Newport: So the way they were building cars was very natural. It's a natural way you would do it. In fact, it was called the crafting method. What Ford did with the continuous-motion assembly line was a huge pain, right? It was really inconvenient. It required them to spend more money. They had to hire more managers and it was very difficult to get right.

Cal Newport: They call it the crafting method. You put a chassis on some saw horses and a bunch of craftsmen would sit around it and build it. It was the same way that, whoever holds, the original or Benzes or whoever, the original German car makers, the way they built the cars. And if you wanted to scale it up, you just get more staff and more teams, and everyone would have their own car that they would sit around and they would work on.

Cal Newport: And until they got it right, it caused a lot of little bad things to happen because until you had all of the different stages calibrated properly if you spent too long here, the whole assembly line would come to a halt. So everything about designing the assembly line would have been a huge frustration to everyone involved: to the investors, to the workers, to the managers, like, "We're going to have to spend more money to do something more complicated that requires more managers and keeps breaking a lot."

Cal Newport: We don't get paid for the number of bits of information we see, we get paid for whatever it is, the books we produce, the ad campaigns that go out, the computer code that is compiled, and the processes that might push that to the best levels to make us most effective. They might be like the assembly line a hundred years ago, and be a giant pain to figure out.

Cal Newport: Our goal is certainly not to reduce friction to the lowest possible levels. I think we fell into this weird trap with technology-mediated knowledge work productivity, where we felt like, oh, our whole goal here is to make it as low friction as possible to communicate and access information. But no, we don't get paid for the number of emails we send.

Cal Newport: So that's what I also like about that story don't fear inconvenience. Don't fear a lack of simplicity. Don't fear friction. None of those are what you're trying to optimize for a bit.

Cal Newport: However, it was a hundred times more productive and made him the richest person in the world. And I think that part of the assembly line lesson is also really important because it says, looks, our goal in work is not to maximize convenience. Our goal in work is not to maximize what's going to be easiest.

Srinivas: I'm like, we're manually writing social media updates and stuff. And to your point, I spent probably the last three or four days trying to build out another full-blown Airtable automation to automate the promotion of guest interviews. And I wanted to shoot myself at the end of the day yesterday.

Srinivas: It's funny because I'd mentioned to you that a good amount of our production process was automated, but our promotion process was still clunky.

Srinivas: Not literally, but it was so frustrating because every time I solved one problem, I would run into one or another hurdle where I'm like, "Okay, this isn't going to solve this problem." I finally narrowed it down to figure it out, first I mapped it out using a mind map and I'm like, "All right, how is this going to look if we do this the right way?"

Srinivas: But then when I put it into practice, I realized it didn't align perfectly with the mind map. All right, great. Now I've got to go and fix all this stuff. I think that, that kind of makes a perfect segue to talking about two other principles you brought up. We've talked a lot about the process but you mentioned a couple of different things.

Cal Newport: So the task board, the revolution's a big one. Basically, the idea with any of these tools allows you to put virtual cards on a virtual board arranged in columns. So you could use Trello, you could use Kanban, you could use Flow.

Cal Newport: Who's working on what. And all the information relevant to what's going on and who's working on it is right there. And once you see a project run this way, you'll shake your head at what people normally do, which is all of that information is just implicitly spread across a ton of ad hoc messages, spread over a multitude of inboxes.

Srinivas: I think that we didn't get to, and that is the task board revolution and personal Kanban. And then let's talk about protocol.

Cal Newport: And when you do this comparison, you're like, "Wow, what a terrible way to organize a project! There are just all these random back-and-forth messages. And somewhere in my inbox is this file that a client sent. And I don't know who's working on it. I'll just bother them with a message and we'll go back and forth."

Cal Newport: Notion has a ton of power. I'm not as familiar with it, but there are a lot of different tools, right? That do basically this metaphor. It's a huge revolution because what it's doing is making the work happening within a company or a team transparent, and it's making it shared. Everyone can see what's going on.

Cal Newport: And one of the points I made in the book is that even if you're just doing this for yourself, it is much, much better than your work doesn't just live in your inbox. It's on these boards; you have one board for each of your different roles or projects. At these very set times, you go in and you check and update these boards in a very specific way.

Cal Newport: It's so inefficient and the inefficiency becomes so blatant. Once you see a beautiful flow board, oh, here's everything that's going on. You can see the icon picture of who's working on it. It's right there on the card. If you couple something like this with regular, highly structured, real-time check-ins, you get a huge boost of productivity.

Srinivas: It's funny you say that; we had Chris Fussell here who worked for Stanley McChrystal, and we're talking about the US military and al-Qaeda. And he said that the advantage that they had over the US military was the rate at which information spread.

Cal Newport: Again, this structure makes all of the difference compared to just having all of this information spread across our inboxes. Yeah.

Srinivas: And he said, basically what we realized is we had to create a collective consciousness, which is, sound very similar to what you're talking about.

Cal Newport: About here. Yeah. All the information is right here. We can quickly see who's doing what, and also, I think there's an added benefit. It allows you to be much more sequential in your work.

Cal Newport: And then when I was done, I could shut down that board and move on to something else. We, that is incredibly important to be able to have your cognitive context on one thing at a time and work on one thing after another, if you use a hyperactive line by contrast, you're in an inbox trying to find and relay information about that client while seeing simultaneously emails about all of your other.

Cal Newport: And what I mean by that. And it's just one of the stories from the book, the vicious marketing firms, what I have in mind, they had one board for every client and one of the things he really emphasized was what this meant was, okay, when I want to work on this particular client, I go to that board. I am now immersed in only that client like that's what I'm seeing.

Cal Newport: So all of those networks related to this client can be amplified. All of the neural networks related to other things can be inhibited. Now your mind is in a mode where you can do some good work on this client. And then I'd stay there with the board and work things through, and an update on the status of things.

Srinivas: Let's talk specifically about protocol. I love this chapter because it really made me think about email meetings and all sorts of stuff. So let's start with meeting scheduling and office hours. Then we'll talk specifically about short messages and non-personal emails.

Cal Newport: And also emails about a problem with the HR department and the parking changes, and that all gets jumbled together. And until you actually experience the alternative of, all I'm doing in my brain is this client until I'm done, you don't realize the degree to which having everything being visible to you all the time is an incredible drain on your ability to think.

Cal Newport: Once there's no good. How about Thursday? And then I say, okay, but maybe in the afternoon, tell me what times are good. And you have to say, how about three? And you have to say actually, three is not great. So maybe we can do it at four. The problem with that conversation is not only is it six messages, but you have to keep checking your inbox, waiting for the next message to come back to you.

Cal Newport: So I think meeting schedules are a great example. In most jobs, people have to schedule meetings. It happens all the time, and the way most people do it is, let's just go back and forth on email. It's an incredible cognitive drag because alright, hey, how about Wednesday now? You're going to get back to me and be like, okay.

Cal Newport: They say, "Here's our protocol for this repeated app. There's this interaction that happens all the time. And here's a protocol that's aimed to minimize back and forth. You do a little bit of work upfront, but then you get to reap the benefits of that effort, again and again, every time you run the more efficient protocol."

Cal Newport: When I'm talking about protocols, I, what I usually mean is, okay, here is a regularly occurring back-and-forth interaction that accomplishes a set goal, right? So it's a process, but for very specific things such as setting meetings, and my argument is that in these situations, it's usually worth putting in a little bit of hard work ahead of time.

Cal Newport: Because if you drag this out, you're like, I don't want to spend four days trying to schedule this meeting. So then if you scale that up to six or seven meetings being scheduled at the same time, Those seven meetings might generate 300 inbox checks in a two- or three-day period. It's devastating.

Cal Newport: Simply solved. If you say, let's just do a protocol up front and when it comes to the meeting schedule, there's actually a lot of tools that can implement protocols for you. So I'll use Calendly, which one I believe you use, or ScheduleOnce, or Acuity, or the shared meeting feature in Outlook or whatever, but I'll use one of these tools that allow me to do one-click scheduling, yep.

Cal Newport: We should meet. I think we should do it next week. If you go here, all my available times are there because I know you're busy. So just choose the one that works best for you. One message. And again, it seems minor at the moment because at the moment, it's very quick to just shoot off an email that says, "What's next?" but you have now saved 300 email exchanges in this scenario.

Cal Newport: So that's an example of a protocol, but anytime there's an interaction that is frequently occurring, that leads to a consistent outcome, ask the question: Can we do a little work upfront to figure out how to do this interaction with very few missteps? Yeah.

Srinivas: So there's one thing I do want to ask you about, because I remember you bringing up the fact that, often you are trying to force other people to change in response to the way that you're changing.

Srinivas: And the reason this struck me, in particular, is I had this guy just the other day with this exact example, and I gave him my Calendly link. And I gave it to him twice and he said, he replied back saying, "Please pick a date and time." And I was like, "Okay, let me know if this date works," and I'm like, "Wait a minute, you didn't get it?"

Srinivas: Which was pretty interesting to me, but I think that the more important question here is when you're dealing with people who you have to get on board, even the notion for example of getting our ad sales team to start using it, I'm having to change their behavior a little bit.

Cal Newport: Yeah, this, the social engineering aspect, the social dynamic aspect of moving towards these processes and protocols is very important, right? So I get into this a little bit to try to understand how to succeed.

Cal Newport: Don't have an auto-responder. Don't say, "Here, in order to serve my team better, I'll be blah, blah, blah." Just execute. And if someone gets upset, then you can apologize. But it's better to apologize to the small number of people who are actually upset than to teach a lot of people that there's a reason they should be upset.

Srinivas: Fortunately, they are adapting very quickly, but I don't know if that's always going to be the case.

Cal Newport: So don't announce it and just be careful in your presentation. So, like the way that you get bosses to use Calendly, you can say, "Look, I know your schedule is more crushed than mine. So what I did is I just put all of my available times in here. So you can choose one that works best for you." That way you're just flipping it around. So it's, "Oh, look, Shreeny went through a lot of trouble to make my life easier." Okay. All right. I appreciate that. Three, when working with teams, buy-in is crucial, right? And this is true for any traction or extreme revenue growth, or E-Myth Revisited work - all these books say the same thing.

Cal Newport: If you're trying to build a team, a process to have everyone involved in building the process, to empower everyone, to help polish the process makes a big difference versus just saying, "Hey, by the way, here's what we're doing now." So that's important. And then finally, be okay with sometimes people being upset, right?

Cal Newport: And there are a few different things that are relevant here. One, I would say really clearly, don't try to explain what you're doing. Let's say you're in a team and you don't really have control over your process. You work for a big employer or your boss doesn't like what you're doing. Don't try to explain what you're doing.

Cal Newport: It's like Ford's assembly line would occasionally get stuck because someone dropped the wrench at the steering wheel station. That's fine. In general, it's producing cars a hundred times faster. We sometimes, some people in general, really overemphasize and overestimate that fear of "what if this upsets someone?"

Srinivas: Let's talk specifically about email protocols, non-personal email protocols, and short message protocols. And I'll give you an example, because I had an autoresponder as you said, and it actually was just leading to a lot of unnecessary crap in my inbox.

Cal Newport: And just being comfortable with that. The assembly line was expected to get stuck five times a day. That was just part of what they factored in. So you can think about the same thing we're putting in place: processes and protocols. There'll be a certain number of annoyances and small, bad things that will happen.

Cal Newport: I never want anyone to be upset. I never want to. Or what if I miss a client opportunity because the way we have this set up is I can't just respond right away? And what if a client gets ignored and says, "Hey, you didn't hear from me, so I'm moving on and I'm mad or something like this."

Srinivas: And the one in particular that you're all too familiar with, at least for me, is pitches from potential book publicists for authors they're working with. And it's the same stupid galleys letter. Every time I can tell that no effort went into thinking about how this is a fit for us.

Srinivas: It's just the same letter that everybody gets. And I even wrote an article on Medium about how book publicists should pitch potential podcast guests. And, we've worked with the same publisher and they still don't listen. They do the same thing. I think the only reason they didn't do that to me was that you and I happened to know each other.

Cal Newport: But that's part of the cost you have to factor, into becoming a hundred times more productive.

Srinivas: So would that sort of, would that be the example? Let's talk about non-personal email protocols and short message protocols.

Cal Newport: It opens up tons of innovation that, when you're just in the hive mind, none of it seems relevant. So, one of the big things that pop up—I just think it's a cool idea—is you realize, “Hmmm, is this notion, for example, that we even just have email addresses associated with names, really the best way to do it?”

Cal Newport: So once you have this mindset of, oh, the issue is the hyperactive hive mind, let's think of better ways to implement all of these processes to define our business.

Cal Newport: As we know, email protocols like POP3 or SMTP are great for sending information asynchronously and sending files asynchronously. But this notion that it's going to be cal@georgetown.edu—which, by the way, is not my email address, so don't try to use that—but you know that it's like a person and that's what an email address is associated with.

Cal Newport: When we think about that objectively, it causes a lot of issues. It just means everything comes into the same undifferentiated inbox. There's no structure or control over what comes in or people's expectations. It's a huge source of stress. And so imagine instead an alternative in which we use email for communication, but our email addresses are associated with, let's say, clients; you're a client of ours.

Srinivas: It's funny you say this because I remember Dan Kennedy has this wealth attraction seminar, where he talks about email and he had a really funny saying, that said, "I separate my emails into two categories."

Cal Newport: And I'm just setting an expectation. It's much more abstract. Imagine having an email address for a team, so now I'm in the HR department and there are some new forms I need my developers to fill out, like tax forms or something. Instead of blasting everyone individually, there's an administrative announcement or requests email address for this developer team, and all that goes there. Where it goes into a common inbox and maybe the project lead aggregates this stuff and pulls it out into a memo that you go over for 10 minutes in the weekly status meeting. It just opens up a lot of ideas. And again, you're not going to have this type of thinking until you actually realize, "Oh, here's the whole game. We have a bunch of processes. We want to implement these in the best possible way to minimize back and forth." And suddenly everything's on this.

Cal Newport: Great. We're going to give you an email address at our company, clientname@company.com. Every communication you have with us, send it to that email. Now there's no one individual who feels like, "Oh, there's this interpersonal obligation. I have a client who has sent me as a person, a message and I have to get back."

Srinivas: People who are trying to give me money and people who are trying to get me to do something. And I remember thinking about that. I said you know what? I think I'm gonna do the same thing, except I'm not going to separate emails that way. I'll separate the email addresses that way. So I literally have an email address for people who generate revenue and another one for everyone else.

Cal Newport: Yeah. And then you can put, so once you've got different addresses, they're not just to see if an address is a person. Then you have the standards of personal interaction dictating all interactions, right? So like in general, in polite society, if we're in the same room and I start talking to you, you're not going to ignore me.

Cal Newport: Well, yeah, absolutely.

Cal Newport: You're whatever. We personify email addresses that are associated with names. So if it's just, a Shreeny@unmistakablecreative.com or something like this, I don't know, I'm sending you a pitch, I'm sending you a galley, and sending you a request. I'm trying to get you to jump on a call.

Cal Newport: I'm trying to get you to do a coffee. It sort of feels like I'm just talking to this guy and it's rude if you don't answer me. But if you get rid of that connection to a person, you can completely reset and build from scratch the expectation. So if there is a coffee request@almostaworkablecreative.com address, like, oh, alright, this is where I do coffee requests.

Cal Newport: And there are some notes here about how it works. I only do one a month and this information, whatever, I don't know how it works. Or here's like, Gallery Requested at hello@creative.com. Here's how it works: fill out this form, and send this information. If it's a fit, we will blah, blah, blah.

Cal Newport: When it's not associated with a person, you can build the expectations from scratch. So I do this. I don't have a publicly accessible general-use email address as a writer. You want to send me interesting links or news clips. I like that, but I have an address called calnewport.com. It's not public.

Cal Newport: It's interesting. And it has some rules. I appreciate people sending me things. I can't respond to the messages, but all these things get looked at. No one has any expectations I'll respond. If that was just, like, how [at] newport.com no matter what I said, people might say, why is this guy ignoring me?

Cal Newport: That's rude. So, there are these huge advantages you get when you disconnect these communication channels from individuals. Wow.

Srinivas: Okay, so let's talk about this whole short email idea. 'Cause you know, sometimes people will send me really long emails and I send one-sentence responses, and I almost have to always put, "PS: Don't take my brevity as a lack of caring about the email you've sent."

Srinivas: I just have more important things to do than write emails.

Cal Newport: But what I liked about this idea is that different people do this. I was talking about this former university president who did very short emails. That was his protocol, but it was the thinking behind it that caught my attention. So basically, his thought process.

Cal Newport: If I can't do this in a short email, by default, we're going to move to a different medium of interaction, right? So it's not that everything is going to be a short interaction. It's that only things that can be handled with a short interaction are going to happen via email and everything else will get moved to, we need to come to my office during hours.

Cal Newport: We need to set up a meeting with my assistant. We need to talk about this and do this back and forth. His main insight, which I think is correct, is that email is a fantastic medium for broadcasting information or sending electronic files; it's great for that. It's very bad for a conversation.

Cal Newport: Let's go back and forth and figure something out. So that was his simple rule. If I could answer it quickly, I will. And if I can't, then I'm going to push you towards another system so we can get you on the phone and get you in the office. But let's work this out in real-time, which I think is a very astute way of trying to think about navigating the value or lack of value when it comes to email.

Cal Newport: So the examples he gave were, he's a university president, so there were construction projects going on. And for whatever reason, there were a lot of things he had to approve, like the color of the tiles they were using for whatever. And he was like, "Email is great for that. They could just shoot it to me."

Cal Newport: What do you think about this? A or B, do you like this glass? I don't know, because yeah, it's no good. But if it was, we have a problem; we have a problem with our sprinkler system, and it's unclear what system we should use. Cause the codes have been changing. He would be like, okay, I can't resolve this in two sentences.

Cal Newport: So we're going to talk on the phone. And I thought that was a great heuristic. Yeah.

Srinivas: Let's talk about the specialization principle because I really liked the things you said about outsourcing, outsourcing what you don't do well. And then it reminded me of this experience I had, probably a couple of months ago when we were launching a new service or product.

Srinivas: I was trying to optimize a landing page for mobile. And my roommate comes to me. He's like, "You're the CEO of a damn company. Why the hell are you trying to optimize a page for mobile?" He said, "Somebody on Upwork could do that for $20 in 10 minutes."

Cal Newport: Yeah. This is the real tragedy. I think of the.

Cal Newport: Productivity revolution. Right? So starting, I'll start this with personal computers emerging in the late 1970s. And then through all the tools we got on computers, you got word processors, you got spreadsheets, you had a company intranet. So now through interactive web forms, you can enter information and gather information.

Cal Newport: It might be out by the time this airs, but I wrote this article based on the book for Wired, which gets into the history of the personal computer. And talks about how there was all this excitement. Like when we put computers on people's desks, it was going to have this huge productivity revolution.

Cal Newport: And then ultimately we get things like email, right? So we had all of these tools technology-based that made specific business tasks, lower friction or quicker. And so the promise was, oh, we'll become a lot more productive. And I'm talking about the economic metrics here. I actually am working on an article.

Cal Newport: Because when we put computers into the back office, we moved records and databases, we got inventory control systems. It was this huge boost in economy-wide productivity. Right? Huge win. So we figured if we put these on individuals' desks, productivity is going to rise, but it stagnated. Instead, throughout that whole period, it stagnated. A lot of research was done.

Cal Newport: It turned out the computer wasn't making people more productive, right? And I think something similar happened with email. So what was going on? We did the wrong thing with these productivity-enhancing tools. What we should have done is say, "Oh, this is great. This means that the support staff we have in place that supports the executives, coders, and ad copywriters, we can now make them even more efficient."

Cal Newport: So now our typing pool can use word processors instead of typewriters, and they're going to be even more efficient. And, maybe we'll even need fewer people in the support staff that do the same amount of work, or we can offer even more support with the same number of people. What we did instead is we fired the support staff and said, "Oh great."

Cal Newport: This is now easy enough that you can do it yourself as an executive. Like you, you're not going to mess with carbon paper and your typewriter, but you can use WordStar, you're not going to take messages on the phone because you have too many calls, but you can answer emails. And it actually brought down our productivity.

Cal Newport: So we made things easier, but then we moved more things onto each individual's plate. And so their overall ability to produce value went down. And so I'm calling for a return to specialization. I actually think the more efficient configuration of all this attention capital is to have everyone doing less, but doing what they do better.

Cal Newport: And part of the way you do that is you have to take a lot of this crap off of people's plates, and you probably have to hire dedicated people just to deal with the crap. And with all these high-tech productivity tools, you can now do this with many fewer people, but don't use productivity innovations to say, "Great!"

Cal Newport: Now everything is just easy enough that we can technically put it on our plate. It is technically possible for us to do this now because time is limited. And now we've just taken time away from them, they could have landed another client or written another legal brief. So that's the way I think we need to get back to specialization.

Cal Newport: We all do too much. We should all do much less.

Srinivas: Yeah. It's funny you say that. So I realized one day, I don't even know how to edit the podcast anymore because we'd gotten so dialed into the process. So my editor, Josh, and I've gone weeks without talking to each other and he still manages to publish every day without any input from me.

Srinivas: The only exception to that has been when he got appendicitis a few weeks ago, where luckily he had created a video to show me exactly how to publish an episode. Yeah. So that was the thing you said that really struck me in this section was this idea of simulating your own support staff. What did you mean by that?

Cal Newport: What?

Cal Newport: Yeah, so in the short-term let's say, okay. They haven't read the county report yet. And you still don't have support. You still have a bunch of crap on your plate, so simulate specialization. What do I mean by that? Bifurcate yourself into the two roles. There's like me who does the value-producing stuff.

Cal Newport: And there's me that does all the support staff and treats those almost as two different jobs you have, right? Like you're working two part-time jobs. So how you keep track of your tasks and your systems and everything for the support work is separate from where you keep track of tasks and your systems for when you're doing your main value-producing work.

Cal Newport: So when you're in your value-producing mode, you're pretending as if you have a staff, and you operate that way. And then when you switch over to the support staff mode, then you're like, "How do I do this as effectively and efficiently as possible?" And you don't mix them. And by not mixing them too.

Cal Newport: Let's get some Trello boards, let's get some automation because that becomes a whole new game over there. And the footprint of all that work begins to really shrink. And so until you can actually get that support staff, which I think we should have more of than we do right now, pretend like you have two different.

Cal Newport: Like on the scale, maybe you do a half day in one mode, half day in another one day in one mode, one day in another, but there's a really clear separation between those two things. Now you're saying, "Hey, it's the same amount of total work. Why does it matter?" But you get a lot more done because, a, you don't have that context switching.

Cal Newport: Switching costs of interleaving and all the crud with the value-producing stuff. And two, when you imagine your support life as a separate job, it's much easier to start to build out systems to start optimizing it. Let's get some Airtable going here. Let's get a little bit of Zapier going. Let's get a Calendly app here.

Cal Newport: You've got to make sure that you're very efficient with how you're spending your time.

Srinivas: I've read it myself. I've done all my revisions, gone through, proofread it, set it up to be published, and go from there.

Srinivas: Now, I think about this from a standpoint of something as simple as publishing a blog post because our blog posts are sometimes upwards of 5,000 or 6,000 words because we do these long, detailed guides; they require illustrations. And I sat down and mapped it out and I was like, the only useful thing I do in this entire process is written.

Cal Newport: It may, this type of thing makes a difference. And I think it's just easy at the moment to say, yeah, but it's fastest right now if I just answer this.

Cal Newport: Or just to do this. But we have to have that longer-term view of what's the drag of having to do all the stuff surrounding writing this blog post week after week after week. In the end, it's a really large cost. It's a really large drag.

Srinivas: And so I started thinking, I was like, oh, adding the images, putting it up on WordPress, putting it into different publications, like Medium. And I finally just outlined it and I handed it off to an assistant and I realized, now I've finished writing, and I'm like, all right, I've run this through Grammarly.

Cal Newport: I actually think that one of the exciting and also scary things that are going to happen in the future of work is that we can essentially have a presidential-style chief of staff. That's not a real person, but it's an AI agent, and it's going to completely change work. Imagine in your situation, the AI agent has talked to the AI agents of your publisher and your editor, and they've all communicated together. It just tells you that the best thing for you to be doing right now is writing.

Cal Newport: And here's some background, here's your source material. I gathered it for you. And when you're done, I'll take it. Don't worry about it. Okay. And you're done with that. Okay. We need you to make a decision on these three things, right? Just like Leo McGarry in the West Wing, we're all going to have the OMA.

Cal Newport: Gary, it's going to be a productivity revolution, right? Because that's the endgame by far; that's gotta be the best way to take the uniquely human aspect of human intelligence and produce value from these brains. The very best way to do it is to just have the brains do nothing. But the actual producing value part, that's where AI is going to get us, which is both exciting and scary.

Cal Newport: And I almost feel like my book is okay, but how can we get close to that in the meantime?

Srinivas: But I think that to me, if when this happens, it's going to reveal who has skills that are valuable and who

Srinivas: It's funny that you say that because, to me, I think it also takes us back to so much of what you've talked about. And so good. They can't ignore you so many years ago, because I had been writing this blog post about the hidden dangers of following your passion, largely based on things you've talked about in that book.

Cal Newport: Well, that's the scary part. So that, and also we're going to have a surplus at first because my contention is that we are incredibly unproductive because of the hyperactive hive mind.

Cal Newport: And I think it shows up in the economy-wide metrics. Non-industrial productivity has stagnated throughout this period that we made communication lower-friction and more ubiquitous than ever before in human history; we didn't get more productive. And I think we would have actually lost productivity if not for the fact that we added hidden second shifts in the mornings and evenings to try to make up for the lost productivity during the day.

Cal Newport: So we are, we're leaving a huge fraction of our potential on the table. If overnight, Google has some breakthrough and we all have Leo McGarry bots, you're going to need a fraction of the people we're using now to get the same amount of work done. Two professors are going to publish what five used to publish before, one lawyer is going to handle what three lawyers were able to produce when they had to check emails once every six minutes, right?

Cal Newport: In the short term, if that happens too fast, it's going to create a giant surplus of attention capital. And, I don't know where it's going to go. So it could open up brand new markets, which I think could be very exciting, or it could lead to a creative worker recession because hey, we only need a third as many workers to get the same amount of work done because we're not doing email all day.

Cal Newport: We're going to be way more profitable. If we fire two-thirds of the workers, those of us who thought that AI won't bother us because our work can't be automated. Don't be so sure because we don't have to automate what you do. We just have to make it a lot more productive. And when you have a similar sort of crunch, I tend to be more optimistic.

Cal Newport: Instead, we built the wealth on which the entire developed economies of the world were founded. Good things actually happen, and probably will happen, to knowledge or to productivity if we explode it. But it's a really interesting thought experiment, and I don't think we talk enough about it.

Srinivas: Sounds like you have a subject for another book.

Cal Newport: I think this change will come slowly enough that we will adapt and reassign this attention. Ultimately, it'll expand markets. It's what happened in the industrial sector. We had a 50x increase in productivity in the industrial sector from 1890 to 2000, as we got much better at building things. We didn't end up firing all the industrial workers.

Cal Newport: I've got it. I've got a subject for a bunch of, and I don't think anyone wants to hear me opine on economics that I guess, so what I'm trying to do is just convince economic types who are smart to write.

Srinivas: Amazing! As always, you have packed this with just nuggets of brilliance and wisdom that will somehow always lead to very noticeable and tangible changes in our lives.

Srinivas: I want to finish with my final question. And you've heard me ask this before, so I'm curious to see what it'll be now for the fifth time. What do you think it is to make somebody or something unmistakable?

Cal Newport: I should probably go back and remember what I said before, or maybe as far as structure if I don't, so I can see if it's consistent. I would guess my answer has been pretty consistent.

Cal Newport: You don't get too distracted by other things that are less important; you get after it and execute. And here's the thing I do well, which is important and I do it and it makes a difference. You can't go wrong. You do that, you are going to have an unmistakable presence, I think, in the world.

Srinivas: Amazing. As always, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us, to share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with our listeners. Where can people find out about the new book and everything else you're up to?

Cal Newport: To be so good that you can't be ignored, make yourself unmistakable, going all the way back to that book, "So Good They Can't Ignore You". And what I mean by that is that there's something you do, you do well, you've done the practice, you've built up. It's important, you're good at it. Yeah, focus on it.

Cal Newport: The new edition since the last few times I've been on here is that I have a podcast. So I have a podcast called Deep Questions where I take questions from my readers on all of these types of topics and we get into it. And so you can also hear more about these details on my Deep Questions podcast.

Srinivas: Amazing. And for everyone listening, we'll wrap the show with that. Thank you for listening to this episode of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. While you were listening, were there any moments you found fascinating, inspiring, instructive, or even heartwarming? Can you think of anyone, a friend or a family member, who would appreciate this moment?

Cal Newport: CalNewport.com. You can find out about the book and that's where my longstanding blog is housed.

Srinivas: If so, take a second and share today's episode with that one person because good ideas and messages are meant to be shared.

Cal Newport: The world is crazy. Social media is teaching kids how to cook in their kitchens. Now your office and your mom, shopping online. Watch, keeping up with all these changes in team sports. And it's going to take everyone in your business, working together to keep your customers engaged and happy from online to in-store customer service, to supply chain.

Cal Newport: Even the guys in the loading dock, everyone is working together to deliver personalized shopping experiences. Your customers demand commerce everywhere and SAP together works. Learn more@sap.com/commerce to get started.