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SPI 765: The Path to Success without Burnout with Cal Newport

How close are you to burnout right now? If you buy into modern hustle culture, overworking yourself at the expense of your health is inevitable. But is this the best way to produce great work, and is “slow productivity” the answer?

In this episode, Cal Newport joins me to share an insightful look at the productivity habits of knowledge workers throughout history. This is a fascinating chat about how thinkers and creators managed their time before we adapted an assembly line model to innovation. Listen in and check out Cal’s new book, Slow Productivity, for more on this topic!

Today you’ll learn the three principles of accomplishing more without burnout.

Mastering this lost art is a matter of doing fewer things, working at a natural pace, and focusing on quality. Easier said than done—I know. This is why Cal and I dive into each of these steps and uncover the lessons from the past we can apply to our modern work patterns.

This is an important conversation that will shift your perspective on productivity and help you create a sustainable path to success. Don’t miss out, and enjoy!

Today’s Guest

Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University where he is also a founding member of the Center for Digital Ethics. In addition to his academic work, Newport is a New York Times bestselling author who writes for a general audience about the intersection of technology, productivity, and culture. His books have sold millions of copies and been translated into over forty languages. He is also a contributor to the New Yorker and hosts the popular Deep Questions podcast. Newport lives with his wife and three sons in Takoma Park, Maryland.

You’ll Learn


SPI 765: The Path to Success without Burnout with Cal Newport

Cal Newport: When you zoom into the scale of days or weeks on a lot of historical figures who are very accomplished, you will often be so surprised by how “lazy” they seem. Like, what do you mean you’re just on a boat today? Or you’re on a train going across the country? It’s all you’re doing for the next few days is you’re on a train, like playing billiards and reading books.

There was no notion of them being every day full out, busy, high intensity. That is the modern knowledge worker adapting an assembly line factory model to the production of information. It is not in any way a natural way to produce the best stuff you can over a lifetime.

Pat Flynn: How close have you ever gotten to burning out? Now, I know we all have different levels of what that might mean from just feeling really stressed, maybe even depressed, or in some cases, like some of my even colleagues and friends who’ve worked so hard for so long who have ended up in the hospital. And we are living in an age where just even worldwide, there’s a pandemic of overwork. And today, we’re bringing on a professor, an expert, Cal Newport, with his new book called Slow Productivity, which which is interesting because even when you hear those 2 words together, they almost are combative against each other. But no.

There are principles that we can follow, that we can actually begin to execute on right now. 3, in fact. one being doing fewer things. The second being working at a natural pace. And third, doing high quality work.

And what Cal does in his book is he goes back into time to discover some of the greatest people who have produced some of the greatest things and the kinds of things that they were doing around that time. And guess what? It’s very different than what we’re doing today. They were not in the same world, but we need to get back to that world and we’re gonna talk about it. We’re gonna go back into history.

We’re gonna talk about the definition of productivity and why it needs to change. So a lot to uncover in this episode. Cal’s second time on the podcast, his latest book, Slow Productivity, is what we’re gonna be talking about today. The last time he was on, we were talking about Deep Work, but this is an important one. Here we go.

Let’s enjoy the show.

Announcer: You’re listening to the Smart Passive Income Podcast, a proud member of the Entrepreneur Podcast Network, a show that’s all about working hard now, so you can sit back and reap the benefits later. And now your host, he’s pretty sure he could survive out of nature on his own for a few days as long as the temperature stays in the seventies. Pat Flynn.

Pat Flynn: Cal, welcome back to the podcast.

It’s been a while. Thanks for coming in today.

Cal Newport: It has been. It’s been too long, but I’m happy to be talking with you again.

Pat Flynn: And it’s timely too because we’re gonna be talking about a topic that is, I think, something that all of us have experienced before or have been close to experiencing, which is burnout.

Productivity is an important part of the conversation of being an entrepreneur and a lot of things we talk about here. But I love the tagline of your new book, The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout. That leads me to believe that literally everybody feels like we’re burning out right now, which we are. Why write this book? You write about a lot of things, but but why this topic in particular is important to you right now?

Cal Newport: This idea had 2 different sources. One, I think, of his internal and one is external. So the internal source is really personal. It’s, you know, I have 3 kids. They’re all 3 boys.

And during the period where this idea came to me, they all entered elementary school age. So it’s a come a critical age for boys and I got this sense that they needed as many hours as possible for me. Like, the dose response there was just linear. The sheer linear. The more hours, the better.

And that was new. That’s different. Your parenting relationship with toddlers and babies is more of a survival game. Keep them happy. Keep them alive.

This was different. Right? So I I was struggling with this idea that I was reaching the the peak of my abilities at the same time that my kids needed more time for me than they ever had before. And then externally, so while all this is going on, there’s the pandemic and my podcast listeners and my readers, they start expressing to me all this frustration with the word productivity. They were burning out at rates we hadn’t seen before.

The pandemic was pushing people over the edge, and they were starting to reappraise, what are we even doing here? What do we even mean by productivity? So those 2 things came together and I thought, okay. I wanna really reappraise this.

Like, what is our philosophy if our goal is to produce stuff we’re really proud of but not burn out, not have work take over all the hours of your life. What does that actually look like? And so those two forces came together. I started thinking about that question. I started writing about that question that led to eventually slow productivity as the idea I came up with.

Pat Flynn: You kinda have to do a double take on that title because productivity for most of us, it’s like faster, more and more means successful. How do we begin to remove ourselves from that? Because it’s so ingrained in our society now, especially with just how fast things are going. There’s almost a a romanticism with burning out in a way. Tell us why that’s bad.

Cal Newport: I mean, a big part of this romanticism is arbitrary. It’s why I start the book historically. So not let’s jump in with advice, let’s jump in with new ways of organizing your work. I went back and just asked a simple question, where does the current definition of productivity in knowledge work?

So people who use their brains for a living, so we’re not talking about factories, we’re not talking about farmers. But in knowledge work, what is our current definition of productivity and where did it come from? And the story that you you turn up is that you get to mid century, twentieth century, knowledge work as a major economic sector is just emerging so that that term knowledge work is coined in 1959. They don’t know how to define productivity. Right?

Because in a factory it was clear. How many labor hours go into the production of one Model T? It’s a number you can measure and improve. In agriculture, it was clear. How many bushels of corn per acre is this particular system of agriculture producing from us?

It’s a number we can measure. Knowledge work, now suddenly we had people in offices doing multiple different things. Their workloads were not that specified. The systems by which people organize themselves was left up to the individual. So productivity in the knowledge sector was largely personal.

You figure out how to organize your yourself. So there’s no uniform systems to evaluate. And what they did is they just looked to the industrial sector and said, well, why don’t we use activity as a proxy for useful productive effort? It’s the best we can do. We don’t know how to measure productivity in this new ambiguous environment so we’ll just say, seeing you do things is a mark that you’re doing something probably useful.

More activity is better than less. I call this pseudo productivity And we just implicitly adopted that as this is what we’ll use in lack of clear metrics or a deeper understanding of what we’re really doing, activity is better than nonactivity, more is better than less. And, you know, by the 1960s, that was just how we had implicitly decided we were gonna measure And I’m putting productivity in scare quotes here. We decided that’s how we’re gonna measure productivity.

And that was okay until we got computers, until we got email, until we got smartphones and laptops and more work than we could ever handle coming at us at all times in the day. The ability to bring work with us everywhere we could go. Those technological breakthroughs combined with this pre existing definition of pseudo productivity and that’s when the wheels really began to come off. That’s when we began starting to early 2000s to see knowledge workers really get burnt out.

Pat Flynn: Yeah.

I mean and even when social media came about, influencers having a say in a lot of this to accelerate that idea that the more you do, the better. I mean, I love Gary Vee, but he, at some point, I remember, said, you gotta sacrifice sleep. You gotta just get it done, like, if you really cared for it. And that was ingrained in me from an influencer. And I’ve learned my way out of that, but I’m imagining the millions of people, and I’m not trying to blame Gary for anything because a lot of people have said that, and and Gary is tremendous in in several ways. But it definitely added to the sort of hustle culture that we’re all a part of now. And you almost kinda feel like you’re losing or you you you feel like you’re getting left behind when you just aren’t busy all the time.

Cal Newport: Well, I think, certainly the online world added this extra element to distorting our understanding of productivity because the algorithms tended to prioritize or give more attention to these approaches to talking about production that were based on simple and extreme types of activities. I saw this most clearly in a space that’s close to home with me, a a subsection of the productivity world which is study habits.

Because when I was young, I wrote some books on how to study. And in fact, I have this book, How to Become a Straight A Student. I wrote my first year as a grad student, which is actually one of the best selling study guides that’s out there. So I know a lot about this topic. Starting the 2010s, you began to get these crazy videos online.

So it’s mainly a YouTube phenomenon, but also Instagram and probably TikTok, I don’t know, where people would study for 12 hours at a time. So they watch me study for 12 hours. And then someone else would come in and be like, I’m studying for 14 hours. Right? This was incredibly foreign from anything related to how you actually do well academically. I was a very successful student.

I wrote a very successful book about it based on research of other very successful students. Here’s how they really study. No one does that. It’s a a ludicrous way to try to sustainably gain good grades, but it played well on YouTube. Because if you think about like a Mr. Beast video or something, what do you need? You need like right upfront something extreme. I promise you I’m gonna show you something extreme and then you show that extreme thing. That plays well with algorithms, but the content of this made no actual sense. So I I think you’re absolutely right.

Internet culture, it’s not that it was reflecting. It’s my theory. It’s not reflecting an actual profound shift towards extreme hustling. It was magnifying the hustling that was actually out there because that plays better when you’re trying to get views, when you’re trying to get likes.

Pat Flynn: Right. And I mean, we could have a whole conversation, and this relates to your previous book, Digital Minimalism, and staying away from a lot of those things. I mean, you’re not on X and Instagram having these conversations. I mean, that that’s a whole another podcast episode. But I I I think we should go back in time, take the DeLorean back to some of the old traditional ways, which you do in your book. You go back to how it used to be and and look in history to see the most impactful and most creative philosophers and artists and writers and you kinda uncover what worked then.

And I think we need to go back to those times in a way. Can you help us define what productivity should be to get our best work out there?

Cal Newport: Yeah. This was my big idea about how to get a better alternative to pseudo productivity was that there used to be a time where we did have knowledge workers before the 1950s. Historically, we had philosophers and writers and painters and scientists who worked with their minds to produce value.

And because they were often supported through patriot systems, etcetera, had a lot of flexibility and autonomy in figuring out how they wanted to work. And so my idea was, let’s go study what they did with all this freedom and flexibility. They could do any way they wanted to organize their work they can. How did these traditional knowledge workers throughout history do it? And then let’s see if we can adapt those ideas to having a job with a boss, to having a job with clients, having a job where you actually have to to go to an office.

So so I’d look back towards these traditional knowledge workers much in the same way that the slow food movement look back to traditional eating and dining cultures to understand, these are the right people to study. Not what we did in the fifties or sixties. That was just pure pseudo productivity. We were trying to run our offices like GM. That’s not that interesting.

How did Georgia O’Keefe or Marie Curie or Isaac Newton or even the more modern examples of traditional knowledge workers? Mary Oliver, Lin Manuel Miranda, the people who had a huge autonomy in how they created valuable things with their brains, what are the core principles they they orbited around? That became my interest.

Pat Flynn: And what did you discover?

Can you offer a little bit of that? And, obviously, everybody needs to go read this book. I’m gonna comes out March fifth. I believe this episode will be out by then, so you can all pick it up on Amazon or I don’t know. Cal, do you have a different place you’d rather people go to to see it?

Cal Newport: You can buy it wherever you want or if you wanna experiment with it first, if you want an excerpt so you can sort of get into these ideas and while you’re deciding whether to buy. But let me tell you, there’s 3 big principles. So I found 3 big principles. The whole second half of the book is organized around them. Number 1, do fewer things.

Number 2, working at a natural pace. And number 3, obsessing over quality. Those 3 things, which I’m happy to unpack as much as we need. Those 3 things combined is the recipe for a slower type of productivity, by which I mean a approach to productivity where you’re producing really good stuff. Like, you’re proud of what you produce.

You’re making money. Your employer’s happy with you, but it’s sustainable and it’s human and you’re spending all the time you need with your 3 kids or whatever it is that’s important to you. Those 3 principles play a role in that.

Pat Flynn: Okay. Well, let’s dive into the first principle here, which is do fewer things.

I think that is just, in general, a great thing because a lot of us are saying yes to so many things. But in the context of productivity, what does that exactly mean? And I would imagine that the word priority comes into play here.

Cal Newport: Well, here’s the problem. There is no in most knowledge work setups, whether it’s at a big company or you work for yourself, no explicit tracking of workloads.

So there’s no here’s your 5 slots. What are you doing in these 5 slots? It’s all informal. What most people do is a psychological heuristic where you keep saying yes until you get so stressed by your workload that you feel like you have psychological cover to say no. I feel bad saying no, but I’m so stressed that at least I feel justified in doing it.

And so what we end up with is everyone has 20 to 30 percent too much to do because they wait till they get to that point to start saying no. One of my arguments when I looked into this is the reason why this is disastrous is having things on your plate is not without consequence. Like, as soon as you agree to something, even when you’re not actively working on that project or task, there is what I call an overhead tax that’s being charged. So you’re gonna have to send emails about it to other people. They’re gonna have questions.

There’s gonna be check-in meetings that are gonna show up on your calendars. Like, hey, can we hop on a call to see how this is doing? And there’s psychic space. Yeah. I know this is something that I need to do.

So the problem is as you load more and more things onto your plate, you get more and more of these administrative overhead tax activities. After a while, you’re spending most of your time servicing what’s on your plate. The overhead of what’s on your plate without actually even working on the things themselves. And then you fall further and further behind. This is what happened during the pandemic for a lot of office workers, where they were at that level of barely being able to keep up with their work.

The pandemic came and gave them 30 percent more job things to do. And they fell into this spiral where the overhead of dealing with this task took up all of their time, which was manifested with a lot of people having this phenomenon of 8 hour Zoom days. Right? Whereas meeting meeting meeting meeting meeting the entire day. Their whole day got taken over by the overhead.

So so having too much to do, it seems like you’re being productive. It makes you way less productive. And so drastically reducing what’s on your plate at any one time, actually can be the first step towards not just being more sustainable, but getting more stuff done when you zoom back out again.

Pat Flynn: When you start to chip away, I mean, we’ve seen things like, essentialism to help us manage how to do that. Right?

And and you kinda maybe have a ranking system, you’d be able to prioritize. You can understand, okay. Wow. From a high level, I am doing a lot of things maybe I shouldn’t be doing. So let let’s take those off the calendar or, you know, if you’re an entrepreneur, you might hand them off to somebody else.

But what what ends up happening, I find, is Parkinson’s law. You end up filling it up with more stuff to take that space. You know, it’s just like getting a house. The the bigger the house you get, yeah, you’ll just fill in all the rooms and then the overhead cost of that. Not just the, oh, cool, we have a bigger house. Maybe this is a great analogy. Right? You get a bigger house because it feels good and and great, but then you have more rooms to clean. There’s more your electricity bill goes up and there’s just a lot more to take care of.

So you’re actually, you know, worse off with a bigger house even though it makes you feel better. So how does one when we begin to remove things so that there are fewer things, remain doing fewer things instead of just, you know, put more things in into that empty spot?

Cal Newport: Well, that jumps ahead to the third principle. So we have to retrain ourselves to obsess over the quality of what we’re producing. So what’ll happen for a lot of people who are very overloaded and maybe they put in place there’s all sorts of ideas you can do to pull back on your load.

There’s things like time allocation. Okay. If I’m going to agree to this project, I’m gonna go find the time in advance when I’m gonna work on it. And if I can’t find that time, then I realize I don’t have enough time for it. There’s also notions of doing things like poll systems.

I only work on 2 things at a time. So, So yeah, you can put yourself in a holding tank and I’ll you can look at it. There’s a shared document. You can see where you are. I’ll give you an estimate of when I might get to it but I’m not working on this yet.

There’s lots of things you can do. But when people are used to being completely overloaded, what happens is their their conception of work is heavily biased towards the overhead tax activities, which is very action oriented, very much shoot off this email, reply to this chat, jump on this call, go in the shared doc, check these things off. And so it’s very difficult when they cut back on work and they have a smaller number of things to do they feel uncomfortable because there’s the activity is less. It’s not jumping around and doing things. Instead, what’s really needed is take a breath.

This thing we’re doing here, I’m gonna destroy this. Like, this is gonna be fantastic. I’m gonna keep coming back to this for 3 weeks. It’s gonna be better than anything I’ve ever produced. That actually requires practice.

And a lot of us are out of that practice. It’s it’s one of the number one things you see when you study these traditional knowledge workers is the glue that holds all these ideas together is that underneath it all, they’re obsessed with being better about the main thing that they’re doing. So we we do you’re you’re absolutely right. We can’t just slash what’s going on. We have to change how we think about what remains.

Pat Flynn: I love when you said, I’m gonna destroy this because imagine going into your email inbox saying, I’m gonna destroy these responses. Right? We don’t do that. But, like, I know that when I’m creating a a video for my Pokemon YouTube channel, I want it to be the most enter I want people to be on the couch, like, crying in emotion because of the thing that just happened, which is, like, kinda ridiculous to think about, but that’s where I find that I have the creative space to to make those things happen. I can’t do that if I’m I’m, you know, in the inbox or or, you know, in meetings all day.

So how does one discover what is actually meaningful and quality to them?

Cal Newport: One of the things you have to do is actually improve your taste. And this is an idea I think people often get backwards. So, I mean, I I tell this story in the book that that comes from Ira Glass, the NPR radio host. And he has this really famous interview that’s everywhere on the Internet.

Like, everyone’s seen it. And he talks about when you’re in creative work, at first the biggest issue is you can’t match what your taste wants. Like you you know what’s good, but you’re not there yet. So you have to just stick with it and and keep going and producing until you can actually, you know, get your work to the level of quality that you respect. You gotta stick with it.

I took a contrarian take on this because I said, well, he says that. But then I went and found an interview with Ira on Michael Lewis’ podcast. And they were going back and listening to one of Ira Glass’s first NPR radio pieces, which was about the 20 fifth anniversary of Oreos or something like that. And I was saying, this is really bad. But and I’m paraphrasing here.

I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, I thought I was, like, a great radio producer and this was great. I didn’t even realize, like, how bad that actually was. And that’s really critical because what that says is he was missing something in his famous interview. It’s not just I wanna match what my taste says is good.

You have to improve your taste. So like often like the first thing to do in getting better is learning what better actually means. Starting to expose yourself to people who are doing higher level work in your particular field, understanding what they’re doing, building appreciation. So even before you care too much about am I getting in my practice reps, am I stretching myself, you’re reading and watching and talking. You’re becoming a fan before you become a a creator.

And again, it’s something we don’t spend enough time on. There’s a real art to doing stuff at a high level. And the very first step of that art is just appreciating what other people are already doing.

Pat Flynn: I I love that so much. How how does increasing your taste differ from just leveling up the standard that you are okay with for, for example, publishing something.

Right? Like, I could say, well, I’m gonna make my writing better. I’m gonna I’m gonna be a better storyteller. So in my next YouTube video, in my next newsletter, I’m just gonna write better. And that’s me leveling my taste.

It feels like there’s a difference there between what you create, but also, like, your the the the things that you are discovering and and your excitement even about them.

Cal Newport: Well, in order to raise your standards, you have to have a good understanding of what the higher standard is. Like, I think back to my very first book manuscript, which I would have published in I was 21 years old. And I remember this pretty clearly that when that manuscript first came back from my editor, she was like, this is really good, but you’re starting every other sentence with the word so. It’s actually a little distracting.

And she said, oh, and also, you’re not using any contractions. You always will say do not, cannot, is not. Like, this is a little bit distracting. Didn’t even hit my radar of like, this is a little bit weird into writing because I was, you know, I hadn’t been writing that long. And my taste, you know, I I hadn’t been as exposed to good writing as, you know, maybe today where I’ve I read so much, I’ve written so much that that would instantly I would say, oh, this isn’t good.

And I would instantly understand why the very best craftsman in my field, like, what makes that better. So it’s not just about declaring you wanna raise your standard, it’s actually training yourself to make that standard higher. I need to expose myself to better stuff and understand why it’s better. I need to build appreciation for the next few steps up before I’m able to actually direct myself there. Because all deliberate practice, the fundamental activity of getting better requires activities designed to stretch your ability.

To design those activities, you have to know what you’re trying to do. They’re very intentionally designed. I don’t know how to make my YouTube video better until I really understand better YouTube videos.

Pat Flynn: I mean, it almost is like a lot of us are in our own bubble and we’re almost afraid to go out and explore other things outside of that. But I think that’s the key to creativity.

I think that makes the world a better place when we’re not stealing or or or mimicking or copying, but we’re getting inspiration from others and we become the inspiration for others to create and almost have it feel like play because it’s experimental. And every time I’m trying to get better and it would likely lead to just more excitement and interest in what I’m doing versus feeling like it’s it’s mundane work. We kinda skipped over one of the principles, and I wanna go back to that. And that second one, which is gonna be an interesting one, I imagine, for us to talk about which is working at a natural pace. What does that even mean?

Cal Newport: Well, if you’re gonna obsess over quality, you run the risk of burning yourself out that way. Like, oh my god. I gotta, you know, produce the the best possible article or YouTube video. I’m I’m up all night just like perfectionist lead trying to polish this. And work at a natural pace says, okay, you’re doing this important work, slow down.

So slow down in terms of time scale. So take how long your instinct was to spend on this and double it. Nothing bad’s gonna happen. And then add variation to your intensity on different timescales as well. You know, I I I really got after after it Monday and Tuesday, but took Wednesday almost completely off.

You zoom back out. This was a busy season, but I’m going quiet for the summer. I’m gonna actually pull back from a lot of things and regroup and rethink and then come back into it again in the fall. This showed up all the time in the traditional knowledge worker case studies in the book was this type of variation. one of the core examples of this, the idea that first got me thinking about this principle was Isaac Newton took forever to put together his masterwork, the Principia.

He he spent a huge amount of time, decades, coming to it, doing something else, coming back to it, working on something else till he finally published it. No one remembers how long he took for that. They just know he invented calculus and figured out gravity. Same thing Lin Manuel Miranda. I go a lot into his first play, Into the Heights, which won a bunch of Tony Awards before Hamilton.

7 years. 7 years from when he wrote his first version as a college student to when that finally debuted on a professional stage. He would work on it, come away from it, come back to it. So people often take longer than we realize producing really cool things. So it’s also we have to give ourselves a a bit of a break.

Slow down. There’s no reason outside of some exceptions to really be burning the midnight oil, to really be I’m I’m up for 4 nights in a row. Just slow things out, balance busy periods with less busy periods. Move your your definition of productivity not to what did I produce this week, but what did I produce over the last 3 years that I’m proud of? It’s it’s just a completely different way of thinking about pacing.

Pat Flynn: Yeah. I mean, it it definitely is counter to the sort of trends and and the things we’re seeing. And even with, like, productivity tools that are coming out and and whatnot, they almost kind of say, well, that’s fill in time with something. Like, do something that’s gonna move you forward. And I know in the entrepreneurial space especially, it’s not just the hustle culture and the grind, but it’s the algorithm that we’re trying to feed as well.

How would you speak to a YouTuber, for example, who is out there getting inspired by people like, for example, Mr. Beast, who is just on a different level, who has a video coming out every couple weeks that just blows the world away and and then we compare ourselves and and it’s just like, it makes us feel like either a, we’re not good enough. Our quality of work is not to that level. But also, like, I need just need to work harder. Like, I can’t slow down. Like, if I slow down, I’m losing time.

Cal Newport: Yeah. But if you look at a Mr. Beast from even just a couple years ago, if you look at a Mark Rober from just a couple years ago, those videos are coming out once a month, maybe even slower than that. Right? In other words, they were taking the time required to make something really, really good.

And then when it came out there, it would it would attract a lot of attention. That’s actually, I think, a counterpoint to a more pseudo productivity hustle culture type approach where it’s more I’m churning through. I want videos every day. I want lots of stuff going out there. I’m a Twitch streamer type where it’s just me all the time talking about things.

It’s a counterpoint to TikTok culture. I mean, I actually would look to them as we’re gonna spend a month working on this thing. And Mark Rober’s case, because he talks a little bit more about his process, there might be many months that go into one of those videos. We’ve just been working on this and it’s not quite right. Let’s try this.

And it gets edited down to 12 minutes, but it’s on a much slower time scale. And I think we feel a lot of Internet urgency and social media really pushes this to you’re gonna be forgotten if you’re not in the mix all the time. And those are the, you know, most successful influencer personalities at least on YouTube. They’re doing something quite different actually. It’s no.

No. No. What makes us big? What makes us get twenty million views or a hundred million views is that we went all in on this for a month. We went all in on this for 3 months.

We’ve been this is like a really larger than life thing we did. It’s too good to be ignored once it’s out there.

Pat Flynn: They’re working on fewer videos than maybe what it seems like. They are maybe not necessarily working at a natural pace, but are definitely not, you know, just churning things out. And the quality, like you said, of what they’re doing is is the Mark Rober example is perfect because he does go a little bit behind the scenes in in terms of what he does.

I mean, in his videos, he’ll say, I spent the last 9 months working with an engineer on this glitter bomb. And then we see the glitter bomb everywhere, and we think it’s an overnight success. And we’ve had people on the show before, like Chris Guillebeau, who’ve talked about the sort of myth of the overnight success. And there’s a lot of things that happen underneath the surface that that lead to those things. So it is seeming like back in the day, they’re just, like, chill out chill out a little bit.

Take some time. I know Steve Jobs, for example, even would travel to Japan and and take some time off, go to Kyoto, his favorite place, and the same sushi place and, you know, just just kinda take a break every once in a while. And and it’s okay to do that.

Cal Newport: I mean, look at look at any biography of major figures in politics or business from early twentieth century or before. It’s always, you know, Teddy Roosevelt taking a steamliner over to Europe where he’s gonna spend the next 3 months on a walkabout vacation before coming back.

It’s Edison. With all those business concerns, taking a a ship down to his property in Florida. He could be there for a month just monkeying around his greenhouses. He was like, yeah. I’m trying to find a a better natural source of rubber, you know, or or whatever experiments he was running down there in his greenhouses.

So time really unfolded at a different pace pre air travel, pre email, pre cellular phones. It was very common for very busy, very accomplished people, captains of industry, they would have these huge parts of their year where they were unaccessible or I need to go see our factory down in South America, our rubber factory. And that there we go. That’s 3 weeks I’m gonna be gone.

And you can’t really reach me. And I’m just that’s just what I’m doing. And they still built really big companies. And they still had innovations that changed the world. And they still got when you looked back retrospectively at everything they did was very impressive.

But their pace I come back to this again and again. When you zoom into the scale of days or weeks on a lot of historical figures who are very accomplished, you will often be so surprised by how quote unquote lazy they seem. Like, what do you mean you’re just on a boat today? Or you’re on a train going across the country? It’s all you’re doing for the next few days is you’re on a train, like playing billiards and reading books.

When you zoom in on historical figures who did big things, especially historical knowledge workers, there was no notion of them being every day full out, busy, high intensity. That that is a a distinctly modern notion. That is the modern knowledge worker adapting an assembly line factory model to the production of information, which is a terrible mismatch and a bad fit. It is not in any way a natural way to produce the best stuff you can over a lifetime.

Pat Flynn: It’s unhealthy. It leads to burnout. I know a few people who have been hospitalized because of overwork. What’s the real consequence maybe on a world level of what might happen if we don’t take care of this?

Cal Newport: Well, knowledge worker, I think, as an industry, as a sector, is in trouble. I mean, I think there’s a a productivity crisis going on that we don’t really recognize because we have no point of comparison.

But this started bubbling up in the early 2 thousands. People are universally burnt out. They’re universally spending the bulk of their time managing the administrative overhead of work instead of actually doing work itself. We are putting people, and I think this is a real source of the burnout, because we make all of these decisions about productivity personal, which is a unique idea to knowledge work, it is up to you to figure out how to organize yourself and then go buy a Cal Newport or David Allen book. It’s up to you.

It’s none of my business how you organize yourself. We put everyone in this impossible decision where every day they have to be making decisions between my family and my employer and a zero sum. And every minute I spend not doing something for my employer under this regime is bad for them. I’m always guilty. So it’s like a psychological horror show.

We’re gonna have a productivity crisis, a burnt out workforce. We’re producing at a fraction of what these human brains could be producing. So that slows down economic growth. That’s leading to huge sort of psychological issues, mental health issues. It’s an unhealthy economic system.

Much like it was before major industrial reforms. We need to do something about it. We’re in the cognitive equivalent of those unsafe, unhealthy days. That’s where we are in knowledge work right now. It’s just a psychological crisis, not a physical one.

Pat Flynn: Yeah. I mean, I I see it in you know, I follow a lot of anime, and there’s a lot of anime studios in Japan because Japan is very, very much based on the work culture and 12 hour days and 6 days a week. And a lot of people who work at these animation studios, they’re killing themselves because of it. It is terrible and and how might or what might you hope happens with your book? What’s the conversation that we should be having and and how do you imagine we actually make this change? Because I don’t see us slowing down as a world yet, unfortunately.

What needs to happen?

Cal Newport: Well, we first just need to say, what do we mean by productivity? You know, and I I did this. I surveyed 700 readers. One of the questions I asked, just to find for me what you think productivity means.

No one really maybe some people, but almost no one really had an answer here. Like, most people just ended up describing their job description. Oh, productivity is successfully and then they just sort of describe managing the projects because I’m a project manager. Right? There there was no real coherent answer to it.

So I think we need to get explicit about this first of all and say, well, what do we mean by productivity and let’s evaluate it? Because when we do get explicit, we realize the answer more often than not comes back to pseudo productivity. Activity is better than nonactivity. More is better than less. And once we put that on the table, we can evaluate that and say, what about alternative definitions that might be better?

And I think slow productivity is one of those alternative definitions. And I think the key thing here, because there’s a lot of critiques of the current state of knowledge work, especially since the pandemic. A lot of these critiques are coming at this from more of a labor politics zero sum perspective. We should do less as workers to make our lives better. Yes, that’s gonna make you as employers worse off, but this is the zero sum game. It’s like a union organization in an automobile factory. You’re worse off having to pay us more money, but we have labor power because we collectively bargained and and we’re gonna take that from you. Slow productivity is both more complicated, but also I think easier in some sense. Because when you get away from overload, when you get away from the constant intensity, when you refocus on quality, you produce more.

I mean, working these 10 hour days mainly just servicing the overhead of an overstuffed task list. If we actually zoom out and say, what do we care about? The anime that our company produces. The quality of the reports. The innovativeness of our software.

That does not actually help that. And if you put less work on people’s plates, not that this work doesn’t exist, but you don’t have to deal with it yourself until you’re ready for it. Work on a few number of things at a time. Do it really well. It’s not just making the employees happier.

You’re producing better work. Like, the companies are more profitable. The clients are happier. Right? I mean, in some sense, that’s what’s easier about this is what we’re doing is universally bad.

It’s not just bad for some people, but better for others. This is not a a zero sum exploiter, exploited dyad here. This is just convention. We don’t talk about productivity and knowledge work. We kinda leave it up to the individuals.

We fell into a bad rut and it’s making everyone miserable and is making organizations run worse. So my vision for the future is one where we have these alternative definitions of productivity that are more sustainable for people, but also just produce better stuff. I mean, just as better ways to do this type of work for everyone involved. And hopefully, we’re ready to to understand that now.

Pat Flynn: I hope so. I mean, I I wish I could tell every YouTuber who is focused so much on Shorts to just, like, can we just get back to, like, quality stuff now, not just putting things out there because you feel like you have to stay busy. And then there’s, of course, the little endorphin hit you get when you see a few likes on your videos and and and the algorithm helps you in that way. It’s just I appreciate you, and I wanna thank you for starting the conversation here about this and helping to change the definition of productivity. I think that is where we start, and I don’t know how this starts to percolate into our culture, but but I hope it does. And I appreciate you and hope you know, I want everybody to check out the book and and read it.

It’s gonna be great for you and and your companies. And, you know, hopefully we can we can have this be, you know, the start of a conversation that the entire world can have. So I I appreciate that,

Cal Newport: Cal. I hope you’re right about that because, man, we’re ready for it. But you know, I really enjoyed talking with you about this, Pat.

Pat Flynn: Yeah. This is great, Cal. one more time. Where can or where would you recommend people go to check out the book and more of your work?

Cal Newport: So the book is called Slow Productivity. You can find it wherever. You can find out more about me at my website, I also have the podcast, Deep Questions with Cal Newport, where we tackle these issues every week. I answer questions from real people and real jobs who are overloaded and wanna get away from that. So if you wanna get tactical, check out deep questions as well.

Pat Flynn: Thank you, Cal. Thank you for the work that you do and we appreciate you.

Cal Newport: Thanks, Pat.

Pat Flynn: Alright. It’s always a pleasure to have Cal on the show.

I wish him luck. I very much do wish him luck on this book because I want it to be something that starts a conversation worldwide. We are definitely in a time where burnout is real. It’s happening. It’s being amplified. It’s being accelerated. We need to slow down, but I like how Cal broke this down and and what that actually means so that we can still continue to produce great work. And that is something that I I’m very inspired by. So, Cal, thank you so much for this. Everybody go check out Slow Productivity, The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout and CalNewport.Com for all of the rest of his stuff.

But anyway, thank you so much, Cal. Thank you for listening in. I appreciate you and just all the best. Let’s slow down a bit, but let’s do it consciously. Let’s get inspired by other people’s work so that we can have a different level of taste for what it is that we’re doing and what it is that we’re trying to publish and accomplish out there.

So cheers. Here’s to you and your success. Bye.

Thank you so much for listening to the Smart Passive Income podcast at I’m your host, Pat Flynn. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. Our senior producer is David Grabowski, and our executive producer is Matt Gartland. The Smart Passive Income Podcast is a production of SPI Media, and a proud member of the Entrepreneur Podcast Network. Catch you next week!

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