CNLP 403: Cal Newport on Why You’re Distracted and Unproductive at Work, How to Structure Your Work Life Far More Effectively, and Cultivating Influence Without Social Media

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, talks about his latest project (A World Without Email) on how to create much higher productivity at work by getting rid of the tyranny of email and apps like Slack.

Cal shares why knowledge workers are so inefficient, how to create better systems, the future of AI and how he’s grown his influence without ever having a social media account.

Welcome to Episode 403 of the podcastListen and access the show notes below or search for the Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts and listen for free.

Plus, in this episode’s What I’m Thinking About segment, Carey shares a couple of productivity hacks that he’s found really helpful.

Guest Links

Cal’s Website

Episode Links


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Let’s talk about time—and how 24 hours never seem to be enough to get everything done.

But as a leader, if you want to see growth, you eventually realize that you can’t do everything on your own. Not well, anyway. Your job is to be the visionary but instead, you spend countless hours on tasks that could be done easily—and arguably better—by someone else.

And that’s where the powerful, multiplying effects of delegation prove mission-critical. Because, when you entrust others to do that for which they were hired, you not only free yourself from a busyness mountain but you also, in turn, develop the kind of employees that allow your business to grow.

That’s why BELAY—the incredible organization revolutionizing productivity with their virtual assistant, bookkeeping and social media strategist services for growing organizations—is offering a free download of their incredible Delegation Worksheet today.

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Conversation Links

A World Without Email by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

Deep Questions with Cal Newport (podcast)

Why Remote Work is So Hard—And How it Can Be Fixed by Cal Newport

Cal Newport Articles in The New York Times

Is Email Making Professors Stupid by Cal Newport

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

9 Little Productivity Hacks That Deliver Way More Than You Think by Carey Nieuwhof

Carey’s Daily Email

*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Insights From Cal

1. The most productive way to get work done is to tackle one thing at a time, and give it your full attention until it’s finished

Whether you’re an administrative assistant, a manager or an author, you have multiple tasks you need to complete. Many people pride themselves in their ability to multi-task, but Cal says you would actually do better work if you focused on one task at a time, rather than trying to do multiple things at once.

2. The cost of “task switching” is higher than you think

In Cal’s research and writing, he’s found that every time you switch from a task to checking your email, or engaging with another platform, it takes 15-20 minutes for your brain to deeply engage with that new task. Sadly, today’s average knowledge worker is changing tasks every 15 minutes or less, and it’s causing people to never actually focus deeply on any one task.

Cal suggests you schedule individual tasks, and says that anything that takes your deep focus should get one hour of your focus, at minimum. This way, you get 45 minutes of focused time to tackle that one thing.

3. When working as a team, don’t aim for what’s easiest systematically, aim for what’s most effective

One of the biggest things that will help your team become more effective is creating a workflow system that isn’t based on email or Slack. Using project management systems like Trello, Asana or Basecamp will take time and effort to set up, but it they will also save your team countless hours once the system is operating like it should.

Quotes from Episode 403

The most convenient and flexible way to do something is not necessarily the most effective way to do it. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet The way to adjust to the remote economy is to get more processes in place. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet You produce higher quality with less total time invested when you're very concentrated versus scattered. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet It's not about having just the right tool, it's about optimizing the right thing. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet We get a better return on attention capital when the people do less things, but they do the things they do better. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet Deep work is what really produces the new value—the stuff that drives most organizations, most teams or most personal growth. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet We are not good at quickly switching our attention. It takes time. If you're going back and forth, it is not a good state to put yourself in. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet Concentration is more important than we realize. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet The key thing in your discussion is shifting the goalpost from what's going to be easiest to what is actually going to make us most effective. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet The average knowledge worker is checking an inbox once every 6 minutes, and we know it takes 10, 15, 20 minutes to get your attention back. That means the average knowledge worker is in a persistent state of reduced cognitive capacity. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet That 30-second glance at your inbox has just wrecked your ability for the next 15, 20, maybe 25 minutes because you have exposed your mind to these other obligations. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet There are certain technologies that when you introduce them to a culture, it changes the culture. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet Focus on what matters. Don't waste too much time on what doesn't. - Cal Newport Click To Tweet Specialization is a key to scale. Click To Tweet If you're like most people, you have about a 3 to 5-hour window a day where your energy is at its highest. Click To Tweet Don't squander your best hours. Often you spend them indiscriminately. Click To Tweet A focused leader is a productive leader. Click To Tweet Take a break to find a breakthrough. Click To Tweet

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Next Episode: Chris Heaslip

Chris Heaslip launched 14 companies that didn’t work before he launched one that did. Growing from 1M to 100M in revenue in four years, Chris explains what happened, how it happened and how to navigate explosive growth. He talks about burning out, coming back and launching his latest venture, Leadr, and why caring for your team is one of the most important competitive advantages any leader can have.

Subscribe for free now so you won’t miss Episode 404.

CNLP 403: Cal Newport on Why You’re Distracted and Unproductive at Work, How to Structure Your Work Life Far More Effectively, and Cultivating Influence Without Social Media


  1. Amanda on March 19, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with most of this, but I think you could also argue that setting aside chunks of time like he is suggesting is a luxury. I work 3 part-time jobs from home while being a stay at home parent. Most of the time, I cannot schedule my day consistently, let alone devote hours of uninterrupted time to one task. Multi-tasking is a necessity.

  2. Steve on March 16, 2021 at 11:00 am

    Does this apply to listening to a podcast while working? 🙂

  3. Shauna on March 15, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    Wondering if any night owls have figured out work hacks at this point… I struggle with needing to give my family my time (which I want to do, and love to do), but also knowing my most productive hours are night hours. Probably 6PM-11PM. I honestly probably got the most work done during our full COVID shutdown because I was on kid duty most of the day and worked during my husband’s lunch break, my kid’s naptime, and after her bedtime. However, it led to perpetual exhaustion and was really unsustainable because I was “on” from 7AM-12PM daily. (Also I ironically had to stop this podcast 3 times to deal with kiddos. Uninterrupted time is very hard to come by for working parents, especially the default parent.)

  4. Stu Roy on March 11, 2021 at 11:21 am

    Interesting. In my day job, I’m in a fast paced environment — sales of office equipment, office products & machine service. My work life IS an interruption — emails to texts to phone calls to internal programs.
    Even moreso through CV19 season, we’ve found that purposing to hyper-communicate w/ clients pays off greatly. When your life is interruptions, making sure all parties know status of things brings comfort & loyalty.

  5. Mark on March 11, 2021 at 8:44 am

    This is great if you can set your own schedule and determine what is most important. When your corporate bosses decide that no email is to sit more than a few minutes without a response and clients expect immediate turnaround, you have to multi task and swap over, working on 2 or 3 things simultaneously.

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