Cal Newport: "Do Less, Do Better"

When students are struggling, burned out, or wondering how to become superstars, they turn to Cal Newport. Cal is a graduate student at MIT, and in between publishing papers on network theory, he's written several books on what sets successful students apart from the crowd (hint: it's not taking on more projects). Cal also runs the student advice blog, Study Hacks. Cal gave the Forum an exclusive interview.

KB: Most traditional advice about success correlates working hard with being successful; the students who work the hardest enjoy the most success. You advise people differently. Could you explain why?

CN: It's important to be clear. There's a difference between "hard work" and "hard to do work." I completely agree that hard work is crucial. Both satisfaction and interesting opportunities come from becoming very good at something, and this requires the application of hard focus, again and again, over a long period of time. Most standard beliefs about success, however, think "hard to do work" is important, which means, for example, juggling a very difficult course load, managing dozens of activities, regularly working late into the night to keep up with all of your obligations.

What I tell students is do less, but do what you do better. This is the foundation for being both successful and happy.

KB: Why is it that more people aren't advising students to follow a similar strategy?

CN: When it comes to impressiveness, it's much more straightforward to just take on a really demanding load and have people say "wow, I can't believe you're doing all that," than it is take the time to become really good at a small number of things and let those lead you to really impressive places.

KB: What have you learned since you started researching successful students? In other words, how has your philosophy changed over time?

CN: When I started writing about successful students, I focused on the small-scale tactics such as time management and study habits. I figured, naively, that if you could fix these, you could have a successful and happy student career. Over time, however, I noticed that many students would just react to more efficient habits by piling on even more work. I realized that if I wanted to improve their lives, I needed to tackle the root issues of what students think makes them impressive.

KB: One problem that I've noticed is that some students, especially students without a clear idea about what they want to do, pursue many activities because they're worried that focusing too much in one area means they have to give up pursuing other topics they're also interested in.

CN: People place too much emphasis on their "interests." We live under this myth that we all have passions lying dormant inside of us, and if we can just identify and follow them we'll be happy in life. I think this is nonsense. People who are passionate about what they do are very good at what they do. If you want interesting passionate work, choose something and get good at it: this, in turn, will open up all sorts of interesting opportunities in your life. Dabbling with passing fancies is not going to give your life meaning.

KB: What are the biggest difficulties for students who are starting to try your philosophy?

CN: Two things:

First, the idea that doing lots of stuff is impressive is ingrained in the American student psyche. It is scary for many students to take the plunge into radically reducing their course and activity load and committing to immersing themselves in a small number of things.

Second, this approach requires hard focus. I don't mean hard to do work, like staying up late in the night, but more like 1 - 3 hours, most days, of uninterrupted concentration. Most people are bad at this...at first. Attention is a muscle, and expose to constant text messaging and Facebook status checking diminishes that muscle. Many students are frustrated that they can't just jump right into monk like focus. But it comes with practice. Start with 20 uninterrupted minutes spent no where near a phone or computer. Every two weeks add 10 minutes.

KB: You stress the importance of removing distractions and boosting your ability to focus for long periods of time. Could you talk about when you realized this was a problem for you, and how you fixed it?

CN: I talked about this some above. But I will also add that I take my ability to focus really seriously. I'm a theoretical computer scientist and a writer, for me to regularly engage in focus-busting activities would be like an athlete with a milkshake habit. Here are some things I do to help keep my focus muscles strong: I'm not on Facebook (nor have I ever been). I'm also not on twitter, or any other social media thing that generates regular distracts. I am generally hard to contact if I don't know you. I have a non-smart phone, on purpose. I'm bad about returning calls and e-mails, so people don't expect much from me in terms of quick responses. I do huge amounts of work away from a computer. I practice sustained thought every day in the 1 - 3 hours I spend walking my dog and working out.

KB: Many CMC students plan to enter government, finance, or consulting after college, and the career path for these fields is more or less rigid; what advice do you have for these students?

CN: Do less. Do better. People love students who show the ability to be a star. Notice, this is different than students who show the ability to handle lots of simultaneous work. If you follow the do less, do better motto, this will open up interesting opportunities that you might never imagined now.

In addition, if your approach to student life is to sacrifice now so you can get a job that will make you happy later, you're absolutely wrong. Practice now living a life that you both enjoy and is interesting and successful. If you don't get in this habit now, it's likely that you'll spend the next 30 years stuck in the "sacrifice now, be happy later" mindset, until, eventually, you realize you've never really been happy with what you're doing.

Finally, at the risk of being blunt: don't go into finance. The only people I know who are happy in finance are jerks. And the money is less useful than you think. Do less. Do better. And let that take you somewhere worth going...