Q&A: How being a digital minimalist can help you do ‘deep work’

Consider Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport – the Marie Kondo for your digital life. The author of the new book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World” takes stock of the damage of using our phones as our “constant companions,” and basing our social lives around our social media feeds has done to our attention spans and quality of life.

His book proposes a 30-day “digital declutter,” in which readers chuck most of the technology in their lives, then bring it back slowly, paying attention to what’s really useful.

Ladders asked Newport how to apply digital minimalism to our work lives, and about the idea of “deep work,” the subject of Newport’s previous book.

How can we apply the idea of being a digital minimalist to work?

Newport: The digital declutter was originally focused on technologies that are not work-required, so instead of email we’d focus on things like social media, things we use outside of work. But what I’ve found getting feedback from people who’ve tried this process is that the impact on their work lives have been surprisingly profound because there’s been this overlap between the things you let have access to your time and attention, and it has a real effect on how your time and attention functions throughout your whole day, including the work day.

Digital minimalists, even though they might be starting from the standpoint of say, “Let me clean up my digital personal life,” they’ll all get this big boost to their professional performance as a side effect from it.

There’s a couple of things that happen. So if you go through a minimalist declutter and get rid of most of the things that are pulling your time and attention, and then put rules around the things that remain so they give you more value than they do cost, one of the things you get out of this is a much calmer, much less frenetic mind. So then, when you’re at the office, and you’re working on something that’s important, something that’s hard, you don’t have the same twitch of “I need to look at something, “I need a browser tab open”, “I need to look at my phone.”

Yeah, I think there’s an interesting influence coming from the personal to the professional here. In particular, one of the changes that started in the personal realm and had a big impact on those types of professional behaviors was when the major social media platforms, in particular, Facebook, significantly re-engineered their user experience, around the time that they were shifting to mobile, and around the time they were preparing the IPO and they needed to get their revenue numbers up. They changed the user experience from a more static “I post stuff about myself and then I go see what you posted about you,”  into this more slot-machine model where every time you click the app there might be a new pile of social approval indicators sitting there for you – likes, or comments, or photo tags.

These things did not exist in the original Facebook experience, but gave you reason to keep compulsively checking back on the app, and so, the social media platforms transformed our relationships with phones from something like making a phone call, or putting on a song into this “constant companion” model because it generates more revenue. Once we were used to that, I think it carried over to the workplace, and I think – and this is just a conjecture – if Facebook hadn’t done this reengineering of their experience towards compulsive use, we probably wouldn’t find ourselves compulsively checking email as much as we do outside of the office, or looking at Slack when we don’t need to, because that helped transform out brain into this mode of “I need constant information.”

It was engineered, not natural. It was engineered for a very specific purpose, but now it has very general consequences.

Can decluttering and setting rules around digital use lead to more productivity for things people want to get done in their personal lives?

Yes, and I think I’ve observed this. When people minimize their digital life they find it much easier to stay focused on what they’re working on, and they sort of also have more cognitive energy to put toward important projects, versus the trivial. I think digital minimalists in their professional lives get a lot more done.

With this explosion of the phones as our constant companion, do you think it hampers productivity in the workplace?

Well, in some sense my last book, “Deep Work” is one really long argument for why sustained concentration with no context shifting, no inbox-checking, and no phone-looking, produces substantially more value than more fractured attention, and so that whole book was basically making the argument that we’re severely undervaluing concentration and severely overvaluing convenience and flexibility of communication.

I cite a lot of research. I think probably the most relevant strands of research for this particular topic is the psychology research on attention residue, which essentially says – and we can measure this pretty clearly in the lab – that if you’re working on something hard – you’re writing an article let’s say – and you briefly switch your attention to something else, like your inbox or some social media feed, and then you come right back to the article, there’s a cost to that shift and creates an effect called context residue. It reduces your cognitive performance and it takes a while for it to clear out.

Workers today think they’re single-tasking because for the most part they only have one thing open, they’re not doing three windows open at the same time, but because they’re doing these quick checks every 10 or 15 minutes they keep themselves in this constant state of attention residue… so while most workers don’t realize it, they’re working at this reduced cognitive ability. So we place ourselves into a cognitive state in which we’re much worse at working and we don’t think we’re doing it, we don’t even realize it’s going on.

Do you have any advice for getting starting in doing deep work?

Well, in the workplace, it’s key to make a clear distinction between activities, one being deep and one being shallow work. So, deep work is when you’re trying to concentrate on something hard and produce new value with your brain. Shallow work is everything else, it’s the logistical stuff, you know, it’s the train running on time. Shallow work is important, but if you don’t do deep work you’re not moving the needle, you’re not producing value, so deep work really makes a difference.

Once you make this distinction, your attitude towards both starts to be very different. In particular, when you’re doing deep work, it has of be 100% on the track, because as we talked about, even a glance at a phone or an inbox gives you this attention residue, it completely reduces your cognitive performance, and you’re no longer doing deep work. And so I advocate for a hard distinction between those two modes. When you’re in a deep work mode there is no phone, there is no inbox, there is no browser tab; all you are doing is one thing with intense concentration. And when you’re in shallow work mode, you can do that. Just keep those two things separate, don’t blend those things out.

Do you think people have to be able to control their environment?

Yeah, so if you have an office shut the door. If you have an open office put on the headphones so people know not to bother you, whatever it is you need to do. Some people have to do it first thing in the morning when it’s easier not to get bothered. In some places, when it comes to doing deep work, people will sit with their boss and figure out, Let’s agree on what the ratio of deep to shallow work hours I should be doing each week. Once you’ve agreed on it you can work with the boss to figure out what changes do we have to make so we can hit that number that we agreed on.

And this a simple way to actually lead to large cultural changes pretty quickly. If you separate depth from shallowness and go all in when you’re doing depth, you’re gonna start producing massively more value if you’re in a knowledge work job. It’s almost like a superpower when you start separating those two modes.