Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of six books, including Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. You won’t find him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, but you can often find him at home with his family in Washington, DC, or writing essays for his popular website

Cal and I talk about a variety of things including how social media companies have made their tools and platforms addictive; how much Cal spends in front of his computer; and the balance between mobile and desktop use. We had a really interesting conversation and one that I hope can benefit everyone working with data and maybe overwhelmed with all of the socials.

Episode Notes

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

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Hi everyone. Welcome back to the PolicyViz podcast. I am your host, Jon Schwabish. On this week’s episode of the show, we are going to switch gears a little bit. I’m excited to have Cal Newport on the show. Cal is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He’s also the author of six books. His current book is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, and I thought it would be interesting to talk with Cal about how we can all do a better job with the technology and the social media platforms that we use all the time and every day. So we sit down and talk about how he uses social media platforms or doesn’t, how social media companies have made their tools and platforms addictive. And as a computer scientist, I was also interested in how much time he spends in front of computers in these tools. So it’s a little bit of a different discussion because it’s not necessarily focused directly on data visualization or directly on presentation skills, but these are the sorts of things that obviously pervade all of our lives and our readers’ lives and our audience’s lives, and so I found the book really interesting and was fortunate enough to get Cal to come on the show and have a conversation with me. So I hope you will enjoy this week’s episode of the PolicyViz Podcast with Cal Newport.

Jon Schwabish: Hi Cal. Thanks for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Cal Newport: Of course, it’s my pleasure.

JS: I’m really excited to talk to you. You got this new book out that I just finished, really enjoyed it, it was a nice read. I felt both stressed out as I was reading it, but also at the same time eerily calm. I was like, I could feel where I could strip out all the digital mayhem in my life by going through it.

CN: Yeah. Well, that’s the secret. You need to make the reader stressed and then offer them the only solution that will help them.

JS: Right. And my wife was watching the Marie Kondo special on Netflix, and so, it’s like, I’ve got both of these things going on at the same time. I can get rid of all of my old socks, and I can get rid of all the old app on my phone. So it was great.

CN: Yeah, that works for me, and if I could just get her viewership and readership that would also be good. I think people care a little bit more about the old socks I guess than Facebook.

JS: Yeah, they might. Well, before we dive into the digital minimalism that this book is about, maybe you can just tell folks a little bit about yourself and your background.

CN: I’m a computer science professor at Georgetown University, but I also write public-facing books, more recently about the intersection of technology and culture. As a technologist, I figured that’s an interesting topic for me to sometimes delve into. So, digital minimalism is my sixth book actually, and it really gets at some of these issues that I, like a lot of people, have been noticing going on in our culture at the moment.

JS: And that specifically is our addiction to technology, to apps, to mobile phones, I mean, you’re diving in specifically on this one on this sort of noisy digital life.

CN: Right. There seems to be this growing sense of unease that people are having about their digital life. It really tipped about two years ago where we shifted from the self-deprecation “addicted to my phone” sort of laughing into this actual serious unease. So I got pretty deep on this topic because I would hear about it a lot from my readers, and I think the right way to categorize what’s going on is that the issue people have with their devices in their personal life is really not about usefulness, so the question is not, “In what I doing, when I’m look my screen, is it completely useless or is there some worth?” Because, of course, there’s some worth, there’s a reason why you signed up for these things and download these things. The issue people seem to be having is with autonomy. So this idea that they’re looking at that screen way much more than they should, to the exclusion of things they know are more powerful, so it’s that sense of I’m losing control of how I actually spend my time and live my life that’s starting to get people upset, and that’s what I’m trying to address with this book.

JS: I want to talk about the balance between the mobile technology and the desktop technology, because I think that’s a tension for a lot of people who spend their days in an office. But before we get into that, can you talk a little bit about how the social media companies have made their tools and their platforms addictive – you talk about a lot in the book, but I’m just wondering if you could give people a sense of what they are doing so that we are hooked on their services?

CN: This is important to understand, we think about today this constant companion model of smartphone use where we always look at our phone, all day long. We think about that as being somehow fundamental to the technology that of course this is what you would do if you would have smartphones. But if you look into it, it’s actually more recent than that, and also more arbitrary, and the social media companies really had a lot to do with that transition. So essentially, what happened is maybe six years into the existence of the major social media platforms, Facebook in particular, they realized they weren’t getting the revenue numbers they needed for their IPO to succeed. Their IPO needed to succeed because of course there’s these early stage investors that wanted a huge 100x return, so they needed – the promised land was going to be a big IPO. Even though services like Facebook were popular and people liked them, it wasn’t generating nearly enough ad revenue to support this IPO. So they had this big question – this was right around the time that Sheryl Sandberg was brought onboard at Facebook, they started to get serious about revenue, and they had this question: how do we really prop up or push up the revenue numbers from these services like Facebook? This is where they actually went ahead and reengineered the social media experience where it used to be relatively static, you would post your relationship status, your favorite movies and maybe photos [inaudible 00:05:53] vacation and maybe you would check what your friends are up to on Monday, but you’d have no reason to check again until the next week. You went from this relatively static, “I post, you post, we look at each other post” into instead an experience in which, all day long you had a stream of social approval indicators coming inbound to you, delivered through the app on your phone. So this is like the like or tags of photos or comments or favorites on Instagram. We think of this as being core to social media, but it actually came relatively late into the game. What this gave them was a stream of rewards that you could tap into every time you tap the app, and that’s what really changed our experience with smartphones from something to be used as a tool, “Oh I don’t know how to get to this restaurant, I got to look up Google Maps, and that’s great, my phone’s awesome,” where it change from that tool into something that we can’t help but checking. And that was entirely engineered because these companies needed to find a way to get us to look at this phone 10 or 20 times more than we were before. So now we have this constant stream of rewards coming at us intermittently throughout the day, the rewards about us, the rewards about people thinking about us which is very hard to resist, and it completely transformed our relationship with our phones, and put us on the track we’re on today where people are getting increasingly exhausted.

JS: So it’s this constant need for approval and likes, both to support others and also to see what people are saying about us?

CN: Yes, and the arbitrary nature of that’s what’s important to emphasize. I mean, originally the Web 2.0 vision was you could contribute your own content to the web in addition to just reading content coming from large companies or magazines which is this brilliant vision and part of what makes the web so magical and so powerful. So original Facebook, for example, was just, hey, we’ll make that process easier. It’s a pain to sort of set up your own blog and have a domain and we can just simplify, we will basically run a blog for you. So this notion of no, no, I have these indicators all day like likes and retweets and favorites, that was largely invented. It has nothing to do with Web 2.0. It has no fundamental connection to actually using the social internet in any sort of profound way. It was instead pushed originally by Facebook and then spread to all the other companies because it plays with our psychological vulnerabilities in such a way that it makes it almost irresistible not to keep tapping on that app.

JS: You talk in the book about loneliness and social media, and there’s a part in the book where you talk about how the more someone uses social media, the more likely they are to be lonely. I wonder how these things go back and forth. Does social media in some sense make us more lonely and are people who are lonely to begin with more likely to use social media and how does that that causality go back and forth?

CN: Well, there’s been a debate in the research literature about this, and now, like in 2018, if you look at the more recent studies, you can see a converging consensus which basically says it depends how you use it. So here’s essentially the converging consensus, is that there are two things that make us unhappy when we use social media. One is social snacking, that’s the term the psychologists use, and that’s where you replace deeper more meaningful connections with lightweight connection on social media. So you say happy birthday or congrats with three exclamation points when your friend has a baby instead of actually calling someone or going to their house to see how they’re doing. So it’s not that the social snacking is in itself negative, it’s that it’s replacing things that are very, very positive, and that’s a big reason why a lot of people feel more lonely when they use more social media is because it’s replacing more of this important connection. We also know that social comparison can be a source of negative affect. So if you’re looking at people’s beautiful Instagram photos of their family and feeling inadequate, that makes you feel bad and social media is good at that. On the positive side, what seems to be making people potentially happier from using social media is when it allows them to sort of find and connect with groups that are spread out. So maybe a group of people that share some sort of property or some sort of affinity that’s important to you but are relatively sparse so that you can’t actually find a group that satisfies these traits that are in your local town or something like this. So using social media to find across the country, across the world like-minded people, the research not surprisingly says that’s a source of social positive feeling.

JS: Well, this is one reason I wanted to chat with you because the data visualization field is very active on social media, especially Twitter, but there’s also these other platforms, there’s a big Slack channel right now, there’s another platform that people use, Instagram is big. I wonder how you think about people who use those sorts of platforms not just to see if their friends are having babies or on cool vacations, but they’re using it as sort of a mix between work and pleasure. The same sort of things happen with the likes and the retweets and the thumbs-up and I’m just wondering when you talk to people about their anxiety with social media, but they’re using it in a way that’s sort of mixing their work area but also there’s an overlap with friends and entertainment together, so I’m curious how you think about folks who have that sort of experience with their social media needs.

CN: This is one of the motivating ideas behind the digital minimalism philosophy which says the key to trying to navigate these various benefits and cost is that you need to step back and get much more intentional and a lot less haphazard. So the people who seem to succeed, the sort of the digital minimalists who get huge value out of tech without feeling a lot of the sense of loss of autonomy or negative affect, they do so by getting really clear on these are the things that really matter to me and then stepping back and saying what’s the best way to deploy technology to satisfy these things than happily miss out on everything else. So this is why you’ll see, for example, it’s common for like a depth digital minimalist to maybe use a certain social media platform in a surgical strike type manner, like, there is this group of X that I connect with in a Facebook group or something like this and I get great value out of it, but it’s not on my phone, and that’s not an excuse for me just idly browse this whenever I’m bored. I instead log on Wednesday and Sunday nights on my desktop, I have to type the password manually so there’s a little bit of friction, and then I can really go and catch up with what people are doing. This is what I see people who are really succeeding with leveraging this technology, that’s basically the minimalism idea. Get out the big win huge value from the tech and then be very careful about stepping away from the more ad hoc or haphazard uses which is what allows the sort of negative cost to clutter up without us even realizing.

JS: So tell folks about the digital minimalism. You have a plan for people to put in place so that they can start to, I don’t want say disconnect, but maybe disconnect in a strategic way from all these platforms.

CN: Yeah, I think of it like decluttering. Actually, I use the term “digital declutter” because I think it’s actually an apt metaphor. So if your closet, for example, is completely overstuffed and things fall out every time you open it, that makes you feel bad, you don’t like it. But the solution no one would suggest is, well, you got to stop wearing clothes, get rid of all your clothes. They say, you got declutter the closet. I mean, this is Mary Kondo, go in, empty it out, find the stuff that you really like, put it back in and get rid of the rest, and you’ll be happy. That’s minimalism being applied to your clothes. So digital minimalism is taking that idea and applying it to your digital life, especially your personal digital life, because what you have to do for work is a complicated issue, there’s other stakeholders there, so we’re going to put that aside for now, so I can’t get you off answering your boss’s email for now. But looking into your personal life, it’s the same idea. So essentially, the digital declutter process I recommend is that you clean out the proverbial closet, so you step away from all these apps and services that you have actually downloaded, you figure out what you actually care about, what you actually want to do with your time outside of work, and then you start from scratch figuring out what do I actually want to put back in. And what you end up with is not an empty closet but a closet where you really like the stuff that’s in there and it’s giving you a lot of value.

JS: It’s giving you joy. In the Mary Kondo world, it’s giving you joy.

CN: Yes, it’s funny because I didn’t know much about Mary Kondo till after this book came out, and now I know way too much about Mary Kondo.

JS: Maybe she’ll come to your house and we’ll see, we could have a minimalism faceoff, that would be – I mean, the thing, I will say this, the thing that I like about the show at least, and I’ve only watched one episode, but the thing I do like about the show, and actually I think it comes through a little bit in your book as well, is that there’s no judgment. So when she goes into someone’s house, she says, “Here’s your closet of clothes, do you want to keep that sweater, fine, keep that sweater; you want to keep the jacket, fine, what are the things that you don’t want to keep?” So your message in this book is not to get rid of everything, it’s to keep the things that you like and to use them in a more strategic way as opposed to just sitting there looking down at your phone, endlessly scrolling.

CN: Yeah. I mean, this is the key idea of minimalism, which is an ancient philosophy, Marcus Aurelius talks about this. Thoreau talks about this. I mean, it’s been around for a long time, and it’s been applied to many different areas of human endeavor. But the core notion of minimalism is sort of exactly what you’re talking about, which is find the big wins, the things that really matter, put attention on that, that’s not controversial. But the hard part of minimalism is, and do so to the exclusion of other things that bring you some value but not as much. So this is easy when we think about clothes, because, like, yeah, I guess, I could kind of justify why I have this old T-shirt. I mean, maybe I might need it one day when I’m painting the house. But really, it’s just clutter, it’s not that important, so I’m going to get rid of it. We’re used to it with clothes. When it comes to our digital life, however, this is new to us. We still tend to have this maximalist attitude which is, I can think of a reason why this app might be useful like Twitter, there’s these accounts I follow that are funny, and I get some comedy out of it. You find these little bits of use and we want that to justify keeping the old shirt in the closet. But minimalism says, you’re better off not disbursing your energy that way. Focus it on the things that really matter. So yeah, there is no right or wrong answer. I mean, for someone like me, I might say, I don’t understand why I would ever spend time on Instagram. But then I’m researching this book and I meet all these visual artists that say, looking at other artists’ artwork on Instagram is at the absolute core of my creative life. It means that I can be an artist without having to live in Soho and have to be within walking distance of the major galleries is just fantastic democratizing force within the arts. So experiences like that teach you there’s very few good or bad. I mean, maybe Tik Tok is an exception. I still can’t figure out why that could possibly be valuable. But for the most part, there’s no good or bad technology, it’s just intention versus haphazardness.

JS: You’ve mentioned how it’s the approval and the engagement, but is also a part of it a fear of missing out, I wonder if people, you know, if I don’t check my Twitter feed I’m going to miss some important story or miss some important thing? So when you hear from readers, I’m guessing that’s a sentiment you hear from readers, how do you talk about this fear of missing out when it comes to these digital experiences?

CN: Well, that’s classic maximalism. So the classic maximalist idea is that if I miss out on something valuable, it’s as if someone took that value from me, and so you have this loss aversion, like I got to avoid because you think about it like someone’s taking something from you. I got to avoid losing value and so to do so I got to make sure that I don’t possibly miss out on anything. But the minimalists know that you’re going to get a much higher reward in your life if you instead take all of that energy and put it on things that for sure are really important, that net-net you’ll end up better. So I think this is a core notion behind minimalism, the core notion behind my approach therefore to digital tech is, yeah, there’s lots of stuff you’re going to miss out on. Who cares? Take that energy and put it on things you love, your life is going to be much better.

JS: So I want to switch a little bit because you talk a lot about in the book about looking down at our phone and swiping through the apps, and I wonder is there a difference between the apps on our phone versus when we’re sitting at our desktop; and a lot of people, we’re sitting at our desks a lot of the time and there are probably countless books, I just finished one on leadership and neuroscience about checking your email every 20 seconds is such a distraction you can never sort of concentrate and focus. But I wonder is there a difference between the mobile side and the desktop side of things.

CN: There are differences. For one thing, the mobile side is just always with you, which is why digital minimalists often are very wary about what they allow on their phone, because they really don’t want things to follow them everywhere if they have to be sitting down to use something that’s going to really cut down the urge for compulsive use. When it comes to social media in particular, we know starting around 2011-2012, the major platforms, starting with Facebook, really put most of their energy into the mobile version, and so a lot of the features that make these addictive, that make it compulsive exists in the app. So I’m surprised by how many people, for example, have gone through this experience with me where I recommend that they try taking let’s say Facebook off their phone, not quit, just take it off their phone. They’ve swear to me, like, I need it for all these important reasons, but just adding that little bit of friction that, oh they have to log in at their computer, they find that they never touched it again. So there is a difference, I think keeping your phone minimized, down to a tool that does a few number of things that you really do need to do on the road, like, maybe listen to audio, look up directions or what have you, or look up the menu for a restaurant or something like that; text messaging, so you can say hey to your friend, I’m over here, come meet me – minimizing it down to those core things that are sort of inherently mobile, their value, you need to do it on the fly, and then leaving the other things just a generic entertainment and connection, and to the extent possible, business productivity, leaving those to the desktop, that alone is going to make a big difference.

JS: So here’s the question: how many apps do you have on your phone?

CN: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ve never had a social media account.

JS: Yeah, I know you don’t have the social media, so I am curious as to the apps that you find valuable. Clearly, I mean, you have like the standard things that come packaged with whatever platform you’re on.

CN: Yeah. Well, so it’s my wife’s old phone, so there’s like a bunch of stuff on here, I guess, that she had downloaded. But in terms of apps I use, I occasionally text message, the browser is useful sometimes when I need to look up whatever. I mean, I’m literally looking at my phone now [inaudible 00:20:25] talk to you. I have my podcast, I do listen to a lot of podcast, and look at this thing and – yeah, I am trying to look at this thing.

JS: And then probably Maps right?

CN: I do use the Maps, yeah. But I mean, it’s surprising. Yeah, so basically, not much [inaudible 00:20:44] the United app, that’s useful. I travel a lot, like it’s [inaudible 00:20:48]

JS: Yeah. So the United app is a good example for me, because after I read your book, I went through and started cleaning out my phone and I’m not the kind of person who tries to fly one airline, I just – whatever is cheapest. So I have all these apps from all of these airlines, I’ve got the Southwest app and the United app and the American Airlines app. So instead of starting to delete them, because I’ll probably have to add them back on for the trip next week, I just put them all in a folder and just sort of tuck them away. But it is true, as I was going through them like, well, when is the next time I’m going to fly SAS, it could be months from now, but it’s still hanging on there on the phone.

CN: Yeah, but it’s probably not going to affect your life that much. I mean, the interesting observation is that once you’ve removed from your phone the apps in which people make money every time you tap on them, the apps that monetize your attention and therefore are engineered to foster compulsive use, once you take those off your phone, it just completely changes your relationship with the device. It goes back to something that’s more like Steve Jobs’ original vision for the iPhone, which is this minimalist idea that this is a wonderful tool that does a few things that you find really useful, it does it really surprisingly well. So it’s sort of a joy to use. When you use Google Maps, like, oh, this is great, I can kind of drag and I can stretch it. Wow, what a great piece of technology, it works great, I’m really glad I have it. That’s the original vision of these phones, is it’s a toolbox, it does a few things really well. So what’s unusual is this notion of like this is a source of distraction or entertainment, and that’s where people begin to start to worry. So once you take off the distraction or entertainment and turn it back into a tool, your relationship really changes, you say, yeah, that Jobs guy was onto something, I love this thing.

JS: Yeah, he was onto something, yeah. Let me ask one last question and that’s about kids. We’ve been talking a lot about a lot of these apps, well, maybe they’re not for just grown-ups but I’m thinking about my daughter who’s going to enter middle school next year and there’s already kids in her grade that are sort of always on Instagram or always on Facebook. So do you have to change your approach or adapt the way you think about digital minimalism for kids?

CN: Well, with kids, I think two things are important. One is modeling. So they need to see you not on your phone all the time when you’re at home. I mean, what I recommend sometimes to parents is just keep the phone by the front door. And if you need to look something up, go look it up. But don’t let them see you always looking at this thing, because no matter what you say or what rules you try to set, or what lectures you give them, or if you play my book, the audio version of my book, every time they’re in the car, it’s not going to stick if they see that you’re doing the opposite. So parents often have to get their own house in order before they can speak sort of credibly to their own kids about what a healthy relationship with these tools would be. Second, the research I see makes me very worried about adolescents, especially adolescent girls and social media. I think this is something where our culture needs to change. I know it seems like everyone is using it. I think it’s really dangerous. I don’t think the adolescent mind, what it’s going through, can properly handle the forces that have been baked into social media on smartphones. The good news is there seems to be a change percolating out there and this is coming in part from parents and educators, it’s also coming in part from teenagers who are getting exhausted by trying to maintain Snapchat streaks. I mean, they don’t really like this either, and so I think a change is coming where parents are going to feel more emboldened to say, “I don’t care, you don’t get a smartphone with social media when you’re 13. You can’t have it. We’ll figure out how to get around that later,” and where kids are increasingly going to say, “I’m kind of glad that you laid down that rule because, man, what a hardship and a burden it is to try to constantly be manipulating all these subtle things online.”

JS: Right. Well, it’s an aspiration to keep our kids, I think, free and clear of some of these things and we’ll see. I kind of want that like, I’m sure it’s out there, the handbook for digital kids, but I feel like it’s a combination of your book and the books about shaming online in social media, there’s a toolkit there somewhere for adolescents that probably every middle school kid should sit down and read.

CN: Right, or maybe it could just be a pamphlet that says, don’t give them a smartphone, figure out the issues that [inaudible 00:25:02] work backwards and solve the issues that [inaudible] [00:25:04] don’t give them a smartphone and that’s it.

JS: Yeah. Well, great. Well, thanks for coming on the show. I will link of course the new book Digital Minimalism, your previous book Deep Work, and of course I think you have three or four other books, I’ll put all those on the show notes, so people can check them out. Thanks for coming on the show. It’s been really interesting.

CN: Yeah, thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

Thanks everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll think a little bit about some of these technology changes that you might incorporate into your life. I will say this that after reading Cal’s book I went through my phone and started deleting some of those apps that I never use and grouped them together and things so I wouldn’t see them and they wouldn’t clutter up my daily life. So maybe you’ll be able to take some of the things that we discussed in this week’s episode to heart. If you would like to support the show, please consider rating a review of the show on iTunes or Stitcher or your favorite podcast provider. If you would like to send a little financial support my way, that would be great. I have a Patreon page set up where you can donate as little as 3 bucks a month to help me pay for transcription services and audio editing and all the good stuff that I need to bring this show to you every other week. I think that’s all we have for this week’s episode of the show. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you’ll be able to use it. Until next time, this has been the PolicyViz Podcast. Thanks so much for listening.