Skip to content

Cal Newport Never Allows a Cell Phone in This Room

The room: A room in his house that he has dedicated strictly to deep work. I think it's a den: a study or small library. He never takes his cell phone into it.

Dr. Cal Newport: How to Enhance Focus and Improve Productivity
In this episode, my guest is Dr. Cal Newport, Ph.D., a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and bestselling author of numerous books on focus and productivity and how to access the deepest possible layers of your cognitive abilities in order to do quality work and lead a more balanced life.

I really like Newport. The Dartmouth/MIT grad oozes a common sense humility when it comes to mental habits.

Consider the cell phone. He has one, and it's not one of those "dumbphones" or "wisephones" or whatever they're called. He has a smartphone and he uses it, but he doesn't use it for social media. Social media on a smartphone is too tempting or addictive, so he doesn't even load the apps onto his phone.

Me? If I wanted social media on my phone, my first mental stride would be, "I'm aware of the potential problems, so I'll be fine."

My approach is just a quiet form of arrogance, and it's one, I submit, none of us should entertain in this era of the algorithm. I like to think that, within my mental sphere, I'm stronger than social media, but Newport doesn't think he's mentally stronger than the algorithms. He seems afraid of them, so he won't try to engage in battle. But Newport is a mental giant and aware of the dangers. Surely he could vanquish them, but no: he doesn't think he can.

Perhaps the rest of us ought to follow his example.

Two More Things

Yes, I am putting this entry under my "One-Thing" files, but I have three things. The two other things from this excellent podcast episode:

  1. Switching costs are huge. Don't forget about them. It takes approximately 15 minutes to get focused on a project. Every time you get interrupted (or allow yourself to get interrupted . . . by your phone), it takes 15 minutes to get back into "it." If you check your phone every fifteen minutes, you never enter an optimal focus state, and that's a huge problem for your mental world (and, though Newport doesn't say this, probably your physical world . . . we're sacramental creatures, with the spiritual and physical (the brain and body) wrapped together).
  2. Children are far more vulnerable to screen problems than adults. Newport points out that, when screens first became ubiquitous, there were a few Cassandras screaming about the risks on children, and then a few doctors and researchers started pointing out the risks, and then a lot of doctors and researchers joined. Now, he says, pretty much everyone agrees that it's either a huge problem or a huge risk that we still don't understand. Bottom line: Get your kids off the screens.

Qualification: Newport is fine with video games, as long as they're not online and not "free." He said the online and "free" video games are purposefully designed to be crack cocaine for the brain. The designers are focused on keeping your attention than providing a cool game. The video game designers, on the other hand, don't care as much about keeping your attention. They just want to sell you the game. They're not primarily concerned about how much you play it after you pay for it.