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Dr. Cal Newport: How to Enhance Focus and Improve Productivity
Dr. Cal Newport: How to Enhance Focus and Improve Productivity

Dr. Cal Newport: How to Enhance Focus and Improve Productivity

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Cal Newport, Andrew Huberman
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Mar 11, 2024
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Welcome to the huberman Lab podcast where we discuss science and science based tools
for everyday life.
I'm Andrew huberman, and I'm a professor of neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford School of Medicine. My guest today is dr. Cal Newport. Dr. Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He did his training at MIT and he is currently both a professor and the author of many best selling books focused on productivity.
Uppity focus and how to access the specific states of mind to bring out your best in terms of cognitive performance and indeed in terms of performance in all Endeavors one of his more notable books is entitled deep work rules for Focus success in a distracted World deep work is a book that has had tremendous positive influence on my work life and indeed my life in general because it spells out how exactly to go about doing one's best possible work for me. That's in the
Of Science and podcasting But it includes tools that I and many others have extended to other aspects of their life as well. And it's a book that I highly highly recommend. Everybody read cow also has a new book out. Now. It's one that I'm currently reading entitled slow productivity the Lost Art of accomplishment without burnout and as the title suggests, it gets into specific protocols to avoid burnout and to bring about one's highest quality work over the greatest amount of time. Today's discussion starts off with extremely
We practical steps that any and all of us can use in order to enhance our level of focus productivity and creativity Cal shares much of his specific practices and also offers some alternative practices. For those of you that perhaps do not want to disengage with social media or with smartphones or with email to the extent that he does. I found the conversation to be extremely useful in the sense that I indeed among social media. I use email I use my phone and texting quite often. So I'm not somebody who's willing to
Pletely disengage from those tools, but I share in the sentiment that those tools can often be an impediment to doing one's best work. So today's discussion gets into not hard and fast rules for enhancing focus and productivity, but a variety of different tools that you can select from in sort of a buffet to suit your particular needs. We also of course discuss the specific research studies around focus and distraction task switching and context switching all of which support the specific protocols that Cal offers. So whether you're somebody
Who has issues with attention and focus or whether you're somebody that's just feeling overly distracted by the number of things in your email inbox or the number of texts or what's happening out in the world by the end of today's episode. I'm confident that you will be armed with the best science supported tools that is protocols in order to access the states of mind that will enable you to do your best possible work before we begin I'd like to emphasize that this podcast is separate from my teaching and research roles at Stanford it is however part of my desire and effort.
bring zero cost to Consumer information about science and science related tools to the general public in keeping with that theme. I'd like to thank the sponsors of today's podcast. Our first sponsor is Helix sleep Helix sleep makes mattresses and pillows that are of the absolute highest quality spoken many times before on this podcast about the fact that quality sleep is the foundation of mental health physical health and performance and to get the best possible night's sleep. It's absolutely key that you're sleeping surface. That is your mattress suit your specific.
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We're focused and alert. I'm better able to do all the things that I need to cognitively physically throughout the day. So if you're interested in upgrading your mattress, simply go to Helix sleep.com huberman take that brief two-minute quiz, and they'll match you to a customized mattress ideal for you. You'll get up to 350 dollars off any mattress order and to free pillows again. Go to Helix sleep.com / huberman for up to three hundred fifty dollars off and to free pillows. Today's episode is also brought To Us by Maui Nui venison Maui new
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Berman to get 20% off your first order again, that's Maui Nui venison.com huberman to get 20% off. Today's episode is also brought To Us by Juve Juve makes medical grade red light therapy devices now if there's one theme that I've consistently put forward on this podcast, it's the powerful role that light has on our mental health physical health and performance. Juve makes medical grade devices that emit both red and near-infrared light red and near-infrared light is so-called long wavelength light and it's 8:00.
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Home and when I travel it's only about the size of a sandwich. It's very convenient to use. I also have a Juve whole body panel and I use that about three or four times a week. If you would like to try Juve you can go to J 0o V v.com huberman Juve is offering an exclusive discount to all huberman lab listeners with up to four hundred dollars off select Juve products. Again. That's Jus J 0o V v.com huberman to get $400 off select Juve products and now for my discussion with dr. Cal
Word. Dr. Cal Newport. Welcome, dr. Hubermann, it's good to see you. I'm a huge fan. I've been a huge fan ever since I read deep work. I can't say that. I have adopted all the principles but that's on me. Not you you provide incredible incentive for why one ought to pursue deep work and slow productivity in service to high-quality true productivity Etc some of the protocols as we'll call them are incredibly easy to implement.
Others take some discipline. So I'd like to talk about both sets today. But the first question I have is do you own a smartphone? I do have a smartphone. Yeah. Well, here's the thing. I don't use social media. So it turns out smart phones aren't that interesting if you don't have any social media apps on it. Yeah, what's that like, so there's nothing if you have nothing to do is engineered to try to grab your attention. The smartphone actually goes back to 2007 Steve Jobs keynote address smartphone, which is this is a really nice.
Phone and your music you can listen to things on it and the phone interface is really good and look there's a Maps app and you can like look at maps on it. Like it's actually a useful piece of technology that you're happy to have but you don't use it that much. What about text messaging do you text message? And if so, do you get into conversations by text or is it more of a plan and meet type tool? I try right? So I try I do use text messaging. I mean, this is how like my wife gets in touch with me.
But I'm notorious somewhat among my friends of my the ability to capture my attention with text messages really hit or miss because I'll go hours without looking at my phone. So it's not this default appendage. I think for a lot of people if you know someone you can basically assume like look if I text them they're going to get right back to me. My problem is I'll go two three four hours, you know without looking at my phone and then they'll be text messages on there from conversations that people were trying to start and I typically just have to declare text bankruptcy a few times a day like you like if they really
Needed me. I guess they would have called so I do text but I'm not considered to be very good at it a few other questions about your phone practices just makes me nervous is your phone in a drawer on on the desktop while you're working is it face down face up is the ringer on as it off, you know if I'm writing or that's nowhere near me. Yeah, and it could be anywhere. It's not going anywhere near me. So I have in my house to different offices basically, right? So there's a home office the printers there.
The filing cabinets are there like the nice big monitors their you pay taxes that type of thing then have a library and there's no permanent technology in the library. No computer in there. No monitor no printers. Nothing like this. I have to sort of custom-built desk. I had made by a company from Maine that makes desks for college libraries. Like that's what they do. So I had this like custom fit desk to fit into it's not that big of a space. That's where I go to right. I'm surrounded by books that I've really carefully curated.
What's where each shelf like what type of book it has on it so I can look different ways for different Inspirations. I got a fireplace so I can just turn on a fire if I need it. I'll bring my laptop in there too. Right if I'm going to write on a computer and my phone doesn't come in there. Yeah, you don't you don't look at you don't look at a phone in that room and it just helps it's a ritual right? If I'm in there. I'm thinking I'm creating with this sort of same patterns of cogitation that we would have been using for hundreds of years when people have been thinking professionally if I want to be near a printer.
R and I want to go on to a web browser and pay my taxes or whatever have a different place for that.
I'm curious about the fireplace. I have this Theory based on my understanding of visual neuroscience. And the fact that when we're looking at visual scenes that have some degree of predictability to them we get into a mode of anticipation are thinking is at least somewhat linear and so forth when we are looking at say ocean waves or in a skyscraper. We're staring down at the street.
Say New York City and the cars are moving and obviously not random fashion. But at least to our visual perception pseudo-random, you're not tracking any one thing that the Mind goes into this sort of state where our thoughts become nonlinear. They're not anchored to any kind of if then kind of what I called EPO duration path outcome kind of trajectory. It's not a lot of Neuroscience on this but there's a little bit same thing happens when you're looking at an aquarium, by the way, so I wonder whether or not staring at the fire.
Which is something that humans have been doing for many many many thousands of years because it has that random aspect to it. Does it tend to spark creativity linear thinking at what point in your writing do you turn into the fire and stare at it? That's interesting. Actually. There's a neurological explanation when I use the fire is actually when I read right? So I chairs by the fire but I think for exactly this reason right because when I'm reading I'm looking to spark ideas right like, okay. What am I? What's my take away?
From this what's the connection you're making between this thing you're reading here and this idea over there that type of connection making a lot of my brainstorming. I read by the fire when the weather allows it. I also walk a lot. So I want to share something similar going on like when I'm trying to work through an idea for an article or a math proof or something like this almost always I'm going to do that on foot and there might be something similar going on there where you're encountering. It's not entirely exotic stimuli, right? So it's not. Oh my God, you know, my attention is being drawn butter.
You know, you don't quite know what you're going to see and you also have that that circuit quieting effect of the walking's your motor neurons are going you can tell me if I'm getting this right or not. Yeah have the motor neurons are going and you get some inhibition going on and some of these key networks, which allows you to actually maintain the the internal focus on a concept a little bit better. So I do a lot of my original focused ideating on foot but a lot of my serendipitous ideating will be with the fire going right. It's still where I read by the fire. And so when I read that I get a lot of my original idea
have this theory that the two opposite states of mind that both facilitate creativity and productivity look something like this and you can tell me whether or not this map standing you thing that that you know one is just as you described our body is in motion and could be running walking might even be in the shower or something of that sort, but we aren't trying to direct our mind toward a specific linear trajectory or outcome. It's not
it's not like working out an equation or a theorem the same way we would if we were at a piece of paper or writing out a sentence a structured paragraph So it's body in motion mind not Channel toward one specific Target. The opposite extreme to me is body still mind very active which resembles rapid eye movement sleep when we learn a lot and neural rewiring occurs and dreaming but for which there's also a lot of examples of very accomplished.
Creatives using that sort of thing of meditative like approaches, you know forcing oneself to be still and thinking so it sounds like you incorporate both and I'm curious as a computer scientist who writes code does theorems there's a lot of math where you can't just kind of wing it. There's a right and wrong answer involved. What is your mode for sitting down and working through something that's linear and hard. Yeah that
it's interesting the way you talk about it, right? Because when I'm walking and this is actually something you can train, you know, and I talked about this one of my books once that you can actually train yourself to maintain your internal I of focus more stably while you're walking right so I called this productive meditation in deep work actually and I practice this in grad school, right? Okay, so I'm going to work on a particular problem while I walk and then you actually practice bringing your attention back to the central.
And I don't know exactly what's happening. But you get a little bit more facility working with your working memory a little bit more efficiency with bringing stuff in and out of the working memory. And so I trained myself that I could actually write a couple of paragraphs in my head. Maybe not word for what basically word for word like figure out how I'm going to do it or figure out enough steps of a math proof to capture like a key Insight like okay. Now I'm gonna get around this then you have to sit down and actually formally capture that yeah for me. That's still working with notebooks.
Though when I was coming up in grad school and I was just Excavating these thoughts recently. We were talking before the we recorded that you know, I just wrote this essay about what I learned as a grad student that impacted all my writing as a grad student in the theory group at MIT, which was just purified concentration. This is where all the Deep work ideas come from, right? I mean, it was just world-class concentrators there. The method was very still more than one person whiteboard. So if you have two or three people staring at the
Same whiteboard. You're actually going to up the level of concentration you achieve because if you let your attention wander you disengage that attention. There's a social capital cost has now fallen out of the Whiteboard effect discussion that's going to be a problem. So you actually maintain your focus at a higher level and then when someone else is making their move, okay, you know, what about this and they're working math. It's all math on the board. You're giving that the highest attention you're capable of because you want to keep up right? You don't want to fall behind. So it was like this Hack That was figured out.
Out in the theory group that if you put two or three people at the same white board the try to alkalize these insights into actual mathematically precise proves you get 20 30 percent boost in your concentration level and that could make all the difference. Right? If you're working on a very hard proof 20-30 percent boost could be the difference between solving it or not in one of these situations where you're at the Whiteboard or chalkboard and their two other individuals facing it. Are they interrupting you or is the etiquette in that scenario to just let the person go
Tell their natural inclination to raise a hand and scream help whoever has the marker on the board. They're the ones talking. Hmm. So you go to okay, what about this you say and now you're working you're writing down equations or drawing your diagram and everyone is just watching and then when they're done they want steps back and looks at it then you can step forward. Okay, but what if we did this and then you still work on it, so when I got built some offices or worked out some offices near my house, like one of the first things we put in there was a whiteboard.
So they could have computer science collaborators come because we can't work on Theory otherwise like it is the thing we need is a whiteboard right when I started grad school. They had just built this new 300 million dollar Frank gehry-designed building for the computer science artificial intelligence laboratory and the Linguistics, but half of it was computer science. I know those buildings because the peak hour and the McGovern Neuroscience with ordinary. Am I and those buildings are very interesting people should check them out if they're ever in Cambridge yet the Scandal Square stop the status in
Get right down the street from the commercial. Yeah. So the sixth floor was where the theoreticians were. This is where I was so I you know, they open that building the year. I started my the doctoral program and what did they want to show me when they when they brought me to stingy million dollar Building look at our white boards, and that's what they were proud of they had filled the common space on the sixth floor the theory floor with these freestanding double-sided whiteboards was like a maze of whiteboards and this is what everyone was so excited about was you look at our whiteboard coverage. Yeah surrounded by a 300 million dollar.
Emil the I tried I was trying to explain to someone recently having good whiteboards to us as like an astronomer saying look we got this great radio telescope like this is going to allow us to get data to work on that. We wanted otherwise have access to I think to a theoretician that's why you see a white board because you know, if you want to think at the very highest level you need two or three people staring at the same thing taking turns with the marker pushing each other past for their comfortable. I love this because I often think about visual maps that represent our internal memory stores and plans Etc.
For productivity. I've always relied heavily on the on the Whiteboard getting one for home. I have one here in the podcast studio all of my podcast notes for the my solo episodes are distilled down to four eight and a half by 11 notes that which are photographs of the the Whiteboard. Yeah, and I don't use a teleprompter. That's why I've been accused of using one before I don't even know how that would work, but it's extremely useful to use the Whiteboard and I think because idea
Has are so easily put up there and removed. There's something about writing on things that are vertical as opposed to on a flat surface. I really because that's actually the way our visual perception casts things. We don't cast visual perception under the ground where you sit we experience the visual world mostly in front of us. I think the cognitive map and the visual map are inextricably linked for at least four sided folks. So I think there's really something there. So in the absence of colleagues to sit
There and boost our attention by 25 to 30 percent.
What could one do do you have a you said you have a whiteboard at home? I certainly use the Whiteboard. Do you work on it the same way you would in those early days just within the absence of colleagues looking on. Yeah. Yeah see work on it. Just like someone's there. The other hack is using really good notebooks. That's always made a big difference for me paper Note Paper notebooks. Okay. Yeah. Yeah the recently I've been messing around with a remarkable, which is one of these digital notebooks where it's eating.
Ecology. It's like a Kindle but you can write on it, but you have endless pages on it. So I've been messing around with that recently, but I remembered when I was a postdoc, for example, I found it recently I went and bought a lab notebook because those are expensive at least for a postdoc right like $70 because a lab notebook has have archival quality paper. It's bound its bow people might not realize is lab. Notebooks need to be kept for many years. Yes, you you're not supposed to tear Pages out of them. And so they tend to be bound. So if you have terrible handwriting like I do you just have to deal.
That yeah, you can't rip it out and it's thick thick paper acid free archival paper big sturdy covers, but I bought this because I thought okay. Look I'm going to take it more seriously because I think that's also part of what goes on with the Whiteboard is your mind thinks about writing on the big vertical space as a public crystallization of thoughts. I'm putting this up for people to see even if there's no one actually there to see it and so you take it more seriously, right? If I'm writing on a whiteboard in class. I'm not just going to put up nonsense like I'm gonna be very careful about what I
I'm writing because you imagine there's an audience. This is something for other people to see and so you get a little bit of a similar effect. If you have a very nice notebook. You think I don't want to waste pages and somehow that helps with the thinking so then I found this notebook because I store my old notebooks in my closet. So I found it when I was working on a recent book. I found it. I went through it right and then I started ticking off this turned into a paper this turned into a grant this notebook I used to for maybe two years only use maybe about half the pages. It's all very
Our full meet script and diagrams. I think I found seven different peer reviewed papers or funded grants where the core ideas were in this notebook. So it's like that $70 was an incredible investment because when I when I got to work in that notebook, it must have been pushing my thinking to a new level because it was an incredible concentration of actual publishable results were coming out of his Pages. Yeah. It seems like we would all do well regardless of our field to have some very low
Cobar method of capture where if we just have an idea that spontaneously comes to mind that we can capture that in a voice memo or there is a and phone notes segment, but then something as you're suggesting like a whiteboard like a bound notebook where the moment we look at it. It brings about a level of seriousness to our to our thinking and our actions are like this is different than just texting and what we're really talking about our kind of layers.
Sophistication but not in a snobby way in terms of highest productivity and quality to out of bubble gum wrapper on the floor type levels of quote-unquote productivity. Well, I mean, I become a fan of this idea of having specialized capture for specific type of work. So for example, I'm a big believer in pretty quickly. You want to capture ideas in the tool you use to do that work. So when I have ideas for an article or a book
Book I'm going to go write the scrivener, which is specialty this especially software writers use the right right? I'm going to go right to a scrivener project and start putting these in the research section of that scrivener project when I'm working on a math or computer science thing. I might work out proof ideas on paper, but I pretty quickly want to get that into a latex document. So the markup language that you use for doing sort of like applied math papers, right the the tool we use to actually write papers. I'm going to move an idea into there as soon as I can.
Going to
move proofs out of a notebook and into formally marked up like you would for a paper, you know, as soon as I would so this idea this is something I've been meaning to more is capture the notes in the tool. You're going to use take out the middleman in some sense. Right? So it's a reducing friction, but also puts you in the right mind space like okay this idea. I'm going to put it where I'm going to need it later as opposed to a more elaborate third-party system that you construct that you then later pull everything out of as needed. This would have been doing more recently.
Let's just get straight to the tool. I'm eventually going to use with maybe a high-quality notebook intermediary. If I'm actually literally working out thoughts some math. You have to work out thoughts but I'll get that into an actual paper format pretty quickly. Tell me what you think of this what I always call protocol if I want to learn something from a manuscript. I read or a book chapter. Yeah. I used to highlight things and I had a very elaborate extracted from my University days system of
There's an exclamation marks and underline that mean a lot to me that Justin. Yes, bring me back to a given segment within the chapter but a few years ago. I was teaching a course in the biology department at Stanford. And for some reason we had them read a study about information retention and and I learned from that study. The one of the best things we can do is read information. Yeah in whatever form a magazine research article Etc book and then to take some time away.
From that material maybe walk maybe close ones eyes, maybe leave them open doesn't matter and just try and remember specific elements. How much does one remember then go back to the material and look at it. And I've just been positively astonished at how much more information I can learn when I'm not simply going through motor commands of just underlining things in highlighting them but stepping away and thinking okay. Yeah. They I don't know. I don't remember how many subjects that were all go back and check that maybe make a note and okay they did this then they did that and then like and then it's crystallized and and
As I say this, I realize of course this should work. This is the way that the brain learns but somehow that's not the way we are taught to learn. Yeah. Well, I'm smiling because I when I was 22, I wrote this book called How to Become a Straight A Student, right? And the whole premise of the book was I'm going to talk to actual college students who have straight A's and who don't seem completely ground out right like not burnt out and I'm going to interview them right in the protocol was
how did you study for the last test to study for how do you take notes for life? So I was just asking them to walk through their methodology. The core idea of that book was active recall. That was the core idea that replicating ideas ways to say is replicating the information from scratch as if teaching a class without looking at your notes. That is the only way to learn and the thing about it was it's a trade-off. It doesn't take it sufficient doesn't take much time, but it's incredibly mentally taxi, right? This is why students often avoid it is difficult.
The sit there and try to replicate and pull forth. Okay. What did I read here? How did that work? It's mentally very taxing, but it's very time efficient. Right if you're willing to essentially put up with that with that pain you learn very quickly. And not only do you learn very quickly. You don't forget it's almost like you have a pseudo photographic memory when you study this way you sit down to do a test and you're replicating like whole lines from like what you what you studied idea is sort of come out fully formed because it's such a fantastic way to actually learn.
And it was Mikey like the whole premise that got me writing. That book is I went through this this period as a college student where I came in freshman year was like a fine student not a great student but a fine student and I was rowing crew and I was sort of like excited to do that and then I got to develop a heart condition and had to stop congenital wiring in the heart atrial flutter thing and then I couldn't row crew anymore the prolapse some sort. It was a circuit Reen circuitry.
You that would lead to a extremely rapid heartbeat. It's like really rapid like the cardia right you get to 250 beats a minute just and it could be exercise-induced. Right which is not optimal. You could take beta blockers which would moderate the electrical timing but beta blockers reduce your max heart rate. And if you're a athlete or the entire thing that matters is your max heart rate. So you're doing something like 2,000 M rows. Your performance on beta-blockers just goes down. It makes no sense. It's like being a basketball player that weighs weighted shoes. It's too frustrating.
And also makes you super mellow. I was pretty mellow guy, but I was a worse rower. So so I stopped that I was like, okay, I want to get serious about my studies. I decided to get serious about my studies and writing right? That's when I actually made the decisions. They didn't stuck with for the next 25 years after that but one of the things I did to get serious about my studies is I said, I'm going to systematically experiment with how to study for tests and how to write papers and I had I would try this. How did it go deconstruct.
Try this how to go deconstruct experiment and active recall is the thing to turn me all around and so I went from a pretty good student to 40 every single quarter sophomore year junior year senior year. I got one a - between my sophomore year through my senior year. It was like this miraculous transformation. It was active recall. I rebuilt all of my studying. So if it was for a Humanities class, I had a whole way of taking notes that was all built around doing active recall for math classes. My main study tool was a stack of white paper.
All right do this proof white piece of paper and just can I do it from scratch if I could I know that technique if I don't all right, I'm gonna come back and try it again later completely transformed, you know, I did so well academically that's why I ended up writing that book The basically spread that message to other people. So I'm a huge advocate for active recall. It's really hard but it is the way to learn new things. I'd like to take a brief moment and thank one of our sponsors and that's a G1 H. G1 is a vitamin mineral probiotic drink that also contains adaptogens.
Started taking a G1 way back in 2012. The reason I started taking it and the reason I still take it every day is that it ensures that I meet all of my quotas for vitamins and minerals and it ensures that they get enough Prebiotic and probiotic to support gut health now gut health is something that over the last 10 years we realized is not just important for the health of our gut but also for our immune system and for the production of neurotransmitters and neuromodulators things like dopamine and serotonin in other words gut health is critical for
Proper brain functioning now, of course, I strive to consume healthy Whole Foods for the majority of my nutritional intake every single day. But there are a number of things in a G1 including specific micronutrients that are hard to get from Whole Foods or at least in sufficient quantities. So ag1 allows me to get the vitamins and minerals that I need probiotics prebiotics the adaptogens and critical micronutrients. So anytime somebody asks me if they were to take Just One supplement what that supplement should be I tell them a G1 because AG one supports
So many different systems within the body that are involved in mental health physical health and performance to try a G1 go to drink AG one.com huberman and you'll get a year supply of vitamin D3 k 2 and 5 free travel packs of a G1 again. That's a drink AG one.com hubermann. And as you point out is it's very time efficient. Oh, yeah, you know, I mean it was a problem. It was a social problem for me that I would have to pretend during finals period that I was going to the library, too.
Study because I would be done studying does active recall. It's brutal, but it's incredibly efficient you sit down there. I would have my cards I would mark it. Okay, I struggled with this. I put it in this pile. I got it done and put it in this pile. And so then you would just go back to the I struggled with it pile and work on that and then make a new I struggle with a pile and these would exponentially Decay and some like a few hours. You could really Master with a few other tricks that work. You could really Master the material pretty quickly. And then what am I supposed to do? I didn't do all nighters. They want to make any sense like
active recall is how you prepare. It's going to take four hours. It's gonna be tough. So do it in the morning when you have energy and then you're done. I love it. I learned essentially all of neuroanatomy looking down the microscope at tissue samples and then I would try and take photographs with my eyes. I do not have a photographic memory, but then I would get home in the evening look through the neuroanatomy textbook lie down and try and fly through the different circuits in my mind. And then if I arrived at a structure in the brain that I couldn't identify.
I would then go check my notes and go back. So I'm just so basically I learned neuroanatomy, which I you know, I'm poor at a great many things in life. But neuroanatomy. I'm solid at and then some if I may say so and it's because there's a mental map you can move through it, you know fly through it dynamically and that it's the same process not all things lend themselves to that approach. I'm guessing maybe we could think of a few that don't I guess if people were learning music, yeah.
It might be tricky. Maybe they need the sheet music in front of them. I don't know. I'm not a musician. Yeah, I mean, I studied a professional guitar player at one point. You were a professional Guitar by studied 100. So for a book everything's from some book I've written a lot of books. I wrote a book ten years ago where I was trying to figure out his part of it. How do people get better at things and so I spent time with professional guitar player. He said I just want to see how he practiced like, what does this actually look like and what I learned from them is like what they do is yeah, they have the music in front of them, but for them, it's all speed.
So they take a piece he was working on licks for he was a new acoustic style player and they had these kind of Bluegrass you type licks and he probably had to memorize and he knew how fast he could comfortably play it for them. It's all about adding 20 percent to what their comfortably doing. And then that that push past where they're comfortable and the thing I remember writing about him was he was concentrating so hard to try to hit this lick 20% faster than he was used to it as a huge forget to breathe. So he'd be like going going going and then just gasp you know, like
His body would have you know for some for some to breathe. So yeah there it seemed to be all about deliberate practice. So like how do you they don't waste any time professional musicians waste no time doing things are comfortable doing every time they spend practicing and this is also incredibly difficult. But every time they spend practicing is almost entirely in a state of I'm not comfortable with this. But if I focus as hard as I can maybe I'm going to pull this off like I'll pull off the Sonata at this new speed. I'm trying to do maybe I'll pull it off.
The maximal growth stimulating State and so I wrote in the in this chapter. Why was he so much better at Guitar? Then I was at the same age because I played a lot of guitar when I was younger and was in rock bands, right? And this kid was young, right but really really good and I said, okay now I realize it I can recognize me when I look back at my time playing guitar at his age. I played stuff. I knew how to play like that's what was fun. Like. Yeah. I want to like jam along with the songs. I knew or you know rip some pentatonic scales, you know to like a gym.
Hendrix album it was fun. And he spent almost no time the pro spent no time having fun practicing was your brain had to be you know, uncomfortable. So I learned a lot from that, you know, this actually led to a bit of a battle because of my readers there was this a this battle that emerged where people were trying to combine unders Ericsson and deliberate practice with mihaly csikszentmihalyi and flow and really they were trying to make flow.
Apply everywhere. Like it's all about flowed deliberate practice is flow. Everything is flow. The whole thing is to go into a state of flow and I remember on doors talking about this at some point and say like no no like the state of practice that makes you better it's the opposite of flow right in flow you lose track of time when you're practicing like that professional guitar player, you know every second that passes by because it's like incredibly difficult like what you're doing your mind is rebelling it's not natural, you know, it's not fun. It's not the skier going down the hill and it's
Saul Instinct, it's you it's all you thinking about exactly what you're trying to do and so, you know, I began to push this point out here is like it's not all about flow like actually getting better at things is really painful sometimes deliberate practice is not the same as flow and there's a lot of fights about this for a while. I think there's a lot of flow Advocates that just wanted life to be flow all the time, but I think honors was right because I watch these professionals practice like that's what it is. It's not fun. Well everything we know about neuroplasticity, which of course is the nervous systems ability to change.
In response to experience says that there needs to be some neuro chemical or electrical condition that changes in the nervous system in order to queue up plasticity and to my knowledge one of the most robust of those is the release of the so-called catecholamines dopamine epinephrine norepinephrine dopamine because it's involved in so many things can be a little bit of a distractor. So let's just say epinephrine norepinephrine adrenaline. Noradrenaline.
Create in the body and mind to some extent of state of alertness and often a state of agitation. But if you think about it in the absence of some neuromodulators like those that change the conditions for wiring of neurons. Everyone loves fire together wire together. Yeah, beautiful statement by Carla shots, not Donald Hebb. Dr. Carla shot said that not Donald Hebb, but why would neurons need to change their patterns of connectivity if you can complete the operation the nervous system
It's too it doesn't feel discomfort. It creates discomfort, but the nervous system needs a cue to okay, this is different. I'm failing and it's the failures that actually trigger the plasticity is the discomfort that cues that conditions are different now. Otherwise, there's simply no reason to devote energetic resources to rewiring neurons and I feel like we don't learn this when we were kids we and I think as kids we can learn so much without that feeling of agitation. We got into these modes of looking for flow.
And I have respect for the research on Flow and the people who are balding by like to talk about flow a little bit. The only thing I really know about flow for sure is that backwards? It spells wolf. So what a vicious blow it such an attractive idea, right? Is that Star Wars? It's like you have the force or and you're going you're doing things without thinking and awesome, but I can't flow myself through a paper. Yep and extract the critical date. I can't create a podcast in flow, but when it's done
It feels great. Especially if you nail the the key metric, so what do you think about flow? Let's I'm not trying to beat up on it. I just want understand how you place it in the framework of learning and and deep work if it belongs there at all. It doesn't have a big place in it in the Deep work framework. And this was what the controversy was for a while and I knew my Haley a little bit like we correspond to some I knew honor is a little bit like we correspondence. I'm so I sort of felt like it was you know, and both of them actually tragically died in the last
Three or four years. I think yes, very sad. Yeah, I think both recently flow doesn't play a big role in the deep deep work framework, right? So when I would try to justify deep work, so I why focusing without distraction was important I was drawing a lot more on ders work, right because why is focusing without distraction important? Well, you have to quiet the neural circuitry so you can isolate the circuit that's actually relevant to the things that you're doing, right? You're not going to get better at something if you have noisy circuitry this
Is and that requires a really intense concentration? So that is one of the big advantages of deep work was if you're used to that cognitive State you're going to learn things faster and I think it was all on Durst understand why so if you're not distracted, I'm really focusing hard on what I'm doing trying to learn this new thing you're giving the right mental conditions, but it's not a flow State. I always used to say, okay when you're when you're deep work is not flow because of this like a lot of deep work is you're trying to do something that is beyond your comfort zone and that's going to be difficult. That's a state of deliberate practice and it
Famous paper about this we're on ders actually explicitly says deliberate practice and flow are very different and I wrote an essay years ago called the father of deliberate practice disowns flow and I can people are really flow partisans out there. It's interesting. I think people just like the idea because it feels good. But me flow is the feeling of performance is the way I think about it. It gets really hard to train for certain sports. But then when you're actually performing you're in the game you can fall in the
Flow right because then everything is under and it's really hard to train guitar. But like when you're performing in front of a big crowd you probably maybe you fall in the flow. Maybe you don't but you could write but it's the performance State not the practicing getting better state. So to Me Flo has very little role in how I think about what I do is I cognitive professional. It's just not something that comes up that often. I agree that we learn through focused work and that flow does manifest itself.
During performance and sometimes so much so that people exhibit virtuosity is the surprising themselves. Even at what's in there. You know, that's kind of I always think of it's a what is unskilled skilled Mastery virtuosity virtuosity seems to incorporate some sort of random elements of maybe even the performers not done that before and they surprised themselves or something like that. Who knows these are these are words for for something that isn't easily Quantified in the first place, but in terms of deep work,
And getting a little bit back to kind of practical steps towards deep work. I also have to ask you because I didn't perlier when you are on your laptop in your library with your fireplace and these books it's a beautiful image. Actually they've drawn for us in our minds is the Wi-Fi connection to your computer activated or you offline. It's connected because it doesn't really matter to me, you know, because what is it what's drawing my attention? I mean the most important decision. I think I made technically speaking to be
Cognitive worker is I didn't like a social media. Like I think we underestimate the degree to which our problem with digital distraction is not the internet is not our phones. It is specific products and services that are engineered at Great expense the pulley back to them when you take that away the internet is not that interesting but I don't have a cycle of sites to go to you know, I can check my email but I don't really know where else to go and I could go to the New York Times I guess but then you've seen the
calls right? They change it once a day. There's just not much I've set things up. So there's not much this that interesting to
We've all heard of fomo fear of missing out. I feel like there's the other thing which is fear of missing something bad. Right? Let's sort of like an anxiety a more primitive anxiety within us that if we are not engaged on social media or looking at our phone often or texting often that it's not that will miss the party. We'll miss the emergency. You don't seem to suffer from those kind of everyday ills. Yeah. I mean, it doesn't happen that much when I have a phone.
You know
a standard. No, I mean I have my phone I guess if I'm working away from it. Yeah, I guess that's true if there was an emergency but this was the case for a very long time, right? We didn't have smartphones till really relatively recently. This is you know, 15 years ago. So we were just used to this until yesterday essentially that there's this periods of time where you're out of touch like you're at a restaurant with someone you're out of touch until you get back to your office like we were okay, you know, we weren't plagued by emergencies that that led to disaster.
His results because we couldn't hear about it right then go to the movies like you're out of touch right and be a couple hours. So you're in touch again. And so I you know, it's not something that's affected me as much it is so maybe I'm working without my phone nearby. A lot of people have this response they begin to sort of catastrophizing like what if this happens or this or that and I'm thinking, you know, I survived before that my parents survived without that like my grandparents survive without that. I don't worry about it as much you know, and some of this maybe is just this doesn't upset people as much as it used to the fact. I don't use a lot of these apps.
My phone but it really does upset people right? There's well. What about this? What about that? What about this? And I don't know how much of this is just maybe I'm oblivious and how much of this is people back sliding explanation for why they do need their phone while they do need to look at all the time, but I get a lot of it, you know, maybe they're upset and you don't know because you're not looking at your phone. That's right. Hey, I'll tell you what, that's a blessing not knowing how upset people are at you. Yeah. It's a blessing is a semi-public figure. I'll tell you that. Yeah, I can comment on that, but I won't.
I am on social media and I do enjoy it as I've got started posting on Instagram and then expand it to other platforms including the podcast but there's a threshold Beyond which it becomes counterproductive for sure. I think there's information there like questions that people ask often informative. It's sort of like adding a class and asking are there any questions sometimes the comments that people bring back are truly informative towards both where they might have some misunderstanding but also sometimes
Really terrific ideas. Yeah, so there's that but I completely agree that this is a very precarious space and I'll just real a quick anecdote years ago. I gave a quick lecture down at Santa Clara University south of Stanford and I was talking about this issue. I recommended your book and a student came up afterwards and he said you don't get it at that time. I was in my early 40s. It said you don't get it, you know, you grew up without social media and the phone and so you've adopted it into your life, but
But we grew up with it and when my phone he's speaking for himself in the first person when my phone loses power, I feel a physical drain within my body and when it comes back on I feel a lift with in my body. So I'd love your thoughts on their not you think the phone and perhaps social media as well are in some ways an extension of our brain that's almost like another cortical area that contains all this information. It's a version of us this gets into Notions of AI that we can talk about as well. I know you're involved in Ai and
About AI but you know to me the when the phone is used in that way. It really is a almost like a piece of neural Machinery of sorts. Yeah. I mean, there's two ways of looking at it. Yeah, so there is the the sort of cyborg image I suppose right like you are you're extending your plug it into this newest fear like you have this sort of digital Network extension of information what's going on? There's also the much more pessimistic view, which is none of that feeling is to
Feeling of a moderate behavioral addiction, right? So you'll hear the same thing from a gambler. I really when I'm away from being able to the playwright the make my bets or do whatever like I feel really if I feel not myself and then when I'm when I'm around it and I can play make some bets play some poker whatever it is looking at the chips. I feel I feel myself that ships right like they would say so there it could be both of these things could be true. I think the modern behavioral addiction side is is more true than a lot of us want to admit actually like it does feel bad because
Modern behavioral addictions build these these feedback response loops and then you get the dopamine system going when anticipation because what's on there is things that have been engineered that you're going to get this sort of Highly engaging stimuli. And then you see the Deliverance of that stimuli right this really nice piece of glass on a piece of metal. I'm going to press this sort of carefully this icon whose colors have been chosen because we know it's going to hit various parts of our neural alert systems to be as engaging as possible and I'm going to see
Thing in there that's going to generate some sort of emotional response. So, of course when you see that thing sitting there you want to use it and when you can't it's a stymie dopamine response, you're like this. This is not good. I'm uncomfortable. And I think that's a big part of it as well because I've had this, you know, I've had this argument with with some people and by the way, I see both sides of this like there are great advantages to what people are doing with these tools. It's just that it's all mixed up with all these disadvantages and it becomes very difficult. It's like the alcohol on the neighborhood.
Too potent, you know and and people are going there to socialize and they're coming home at 3:00 in the morning, you know passing out, you know, it's like if the balance is off not that there's not something good there but the balance is off so becomes pretty difficult to navigate. So I think some of that is what's going on, especially with the younger generation that was raised on it, which is why by the way, I think the cultural norms are going to change around this. I think we're going to think about unrestricted internet usage not as something that we just sort of bequeath on youth as they become 10 years old but something
we're actually much more careful about probably something just going to be post-pubescent is going to make a lot more sense. Once you've had more brain development. Once you've had more social entrenchment you sort of understand your identity Etc because we recognize you know, the flip side of plugging this thing into your brain is yeah you have access to more information but it also pumps out into your brain. So I don't know I lean a little bit heavier towards the pessimistic read because I know too many people because of my books have really reduced the impact of these things in their lives, and they
Don't on the far side of that transformation. They don't typically report a great impoverishment and experience experience. They don't report I'm less mentally agile the information at my fingertips is less. I'm missing out on life if there's typically this coming out of the fog on the other side of it where they're like, oh this is fine. So, you know, I'm a little bit suspicious about exactly what this mechanism is. Yeah. I think you're right about the moderate behavioral addiction peace years ago when I was starting my lab I had grants to
right and I found the phone to be pretty intrusive for that process. So I used to give the phone to somebody in my lab and announce to everyone in my lab that if I asked for it back prior to 5 p.m. That day we give everyone in the lab. I think it was a hundred dollar bill. My lab was pretty big at the time. I was a junior Professor. They did not do not sorry academic institutions not to be named pay us very much despite what people might think and and it was difficult several times throughout the day or more. Like I really want to look at that thing, but the end of the day
I'll tell you that no one got paid. I got my phone back but it's wonderful the amount of work that you can get done when that thing is out of the room. It's my it's my superpower, right? I don't work that hard in the sense that I don't do long hours. Like I'm not constitutionally suited for long hours. This was never my thing my brain tires, right? I mean, I'm good for for four-and-a-half good hours a day of actually producing good stuff with my brain, probably Max, but you know, I don't use my phone that much I don't use the internet.
That much and I prioritize it and a lot just gets done it just sort of piles up over time, you know, and there's a sense of like you must be burning the midnight oil and you have all these things going on. But again people I think underestimate it's not the the underestimate the impact of this. It's not just the the accumulation of time you spend looking on your phone. It's also this network switching cost right? Because like the phone is very good at inducing a network switch and that's an expensive time consuming energy consuming neuronal operation.
Task-switching. I'm going to switch my focus of attention from this to that like we can't do that in two seconds, right? That's a hard process. It takes a while. It's why when you sit down to work on something really hard you have that feeling of for the first 15 minutes. This is terrible, you know, and then after like 15 or 20 minutes you sort of get into the groove. I always assumed part of what's going on is it takes a while for your brain to really start Marshland? Okay. So what semantic networks do we need to start activating hero? We don't need this inhibit this we're not doing that anymore. It takes a while.
So what happens then when you have a lot of these quick checks to social media, you're jumping in on email back and forth is you have this disaster catastrophic pileup of aborted tasks, which is happening. Right? And so it's not just the total time you're looking at let's say email or social media. It's the 15-minute window. You have to add a round each of those checks in which you have this cognitive disorder that really adds up and then you realize oh, there was no time during my day in which I was more than 15 minutes.
A from looking at something that induced a network switch the data. I like to cite which was looking at email and slack checks and knowledge workers is came from rescuetime a software company. The median average interval between checks was five minutes. So the median and the mode was one minute in this data set. So it was like we are we are checking all the time. That means you were never in a state then in your day where you don't have a confused cognitive space where you don't have partially you were switching to this task, but then you
Which back to this task before that finish before you could fully lock it in this task? You look back over here. And so you spend your entire day in the state of cognitive disorder, which is going to be reduced cognitive output. Right? So you get rid of that. I mean, I always say like one of my advantages is not that I'm doing anything smarter. I'm just avoiding. Sometimes the dumb thing just holding slowing other people down you get rid of that and you feel like you're on the world's best neurotropic or something like this like, oh, I'm just doing this thing. I'm doing pretty well. Now I'm done. You know why it doesn't even take that long.
I mean, I think people underestimate what's going on here. I'd like to take a quick break to acknowledge. Our sponsor element element is an electrolyte drink that has everything you need and nothing you don't that means zero sugar and the appropriate ratios of the electrolyte sodium magnesium and potassium and that correct ratio of electrolytes is extremely important because every cell in your body, but especially your nerve cells or neurons relies on electrolytes in order to function properly. So when you're well hydrated and you have the appropriate amount of electrolytes in your
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It tastes best if they are put into water dissolved and then heated up I tend to do that in the winter months because of course you don't just need hydration on hot days and in the summer and spring months, but also in the winter when the temperatures are cold and the environment tends to be dry. If you'd like to try element. You can go to drink element spelled LMN t.com huberman to try a free sample pack again. That's drink element.com hubermann. Yeah would like to drill into the concept of context and task switching.
Being a bit more. I do think that the brain has something akin to a transmission system where you know for people that drive and have driven, you know, the amount of energy that needs to be used in order to accelerate a vehicle to get up to a you know higher gear. It's very different than the equal amount of increase in speed at a given gear, right. So as to whether this is you hear this if you're not familiar with turns emissions as it sounds like our home it sounds
If there's it's more facile it at higher speeds while how could it be that you're burning less fuel at higher speed so it's not exactly that way. But but I think the brain houses these sort of transmission systems and what you're describing with people switching back and forth and checking email and phone Etc and back to the work that should be at hand is sort of akin to going up and down the gear system constantly. Yeah trying to arrive at a given destination and sure you might arrive but you're going to burn far more fuel. It's the least efficient way to go about it you want to get into
To that deep Groove and I think when we hear about flow, I feel like at least for me that's the sort of notion of flow that I'm looking for dropping into that deep Groove. Even if there's some friction within that groove of the challenge of the work that I'm doing. It's about not thinking about anything else. It's really about Focus. Yep. I'm and the word flow is just a wonderfully attractive word that I think gives us the false impression that we can just drop into things like a square wave function sit down pen and paper go and there's
No possible way that neural circuits could work that way. Now we go. Let's invent a term and I'm gonna you tell him to turn make sense. I'm events on the fly. But neuro semantic coherence. This is going to be my alternative term for flow when you're working on something hard. It's not that you're in an actual Flow State where you lose track what you're doing you're concentrating really hard but I'm saying neuro semantic coherence is you get to this place where the sort of relevant semantic neural networks are all those that are activated are all relevant to what you're doing and
you've overtime inhibited most of the unrelated networks that were fired up before and so you get in this sense of it's hard maybe not losing track of time. But like I'm all focused on this, you know, I'm grappling with the the bear here the the math equation the book chapter whatever it is and so it's something different than flow. But it's also different than Linda Stone had the term partial continuous attention, which is what you're that cognitive disaster of them constantly Network switching back and forth. So we'll call it neuro semantics.
Here in cycle 2 coin that term because it's you have this coherence of the semantic neural networks on what you're doing. And that's the feeling of I'm getting after this hard problem and it might be really hard to do. I mean, I know the feeling of trying to solve a math proof for me for example could be so difficult because I mean, what does it actually feel like in your head when you're solving a math proof? It's a lot of you hold this here and then you try to get to the next step by doing this and it doesn't work. We have to keep holding this here was takes a lot of concentration. Okay, let
Try this that didn't work either but this look promising. Okay. So now I need to go back and in my mind's eye update the setup and now let me try this. So it's a lot of holding things in your working memory and keeping them loaded while you try and extension then evaluating how that work without and so it requires just internal concentration which isn't pleasant. But in neuro semantic coherence, it's all this happening in your world, you know, is that in that proof? So maybe that's what we should be pitching but people should be looking for is yeah forget flow, but also,
Member like this default where you're like the rescuetime data set participants checking email once every five minutes that's cognitive nonsense. That's crazy. That's like you're trying to you know play football and you're covering over one of your eyes and wearing like a 50-pound rucksack on your just like handicapping your abilities here for no reason, right? So what's in between is this idea and that requires Focus, you know, our cars deep work. No, we're playing football and then every three Downs or so running into the stands and having a conversation trying to work out.
Something challenging with your spouse or whatever then going back and try to totally different place that ye are risk of throwing into different to many analogies and stories. I'll just briefly say I went and saw the play in New York with my sister this year. I think it's Harry Potter and the cursed child or something like that. I didn't really enjoy the play that much but the set stuff was amazing and they have these magic library that I think is very very relevant here where essentially the book that you open has a certain topic anime spells.
Johnny's Harry Potter again fun show but great set stuff, then didn't really resonate with me too much in any event. And then the books around it change their topic that but are related to that Central book. And then if you look at one particular thing, like maybe it's potions or something. I'm making this up and then all of a sudden that the books the books around it change they become either more specific. There might be a distant but related idea that could lend itself to creativity. So sort of a that's the way the brain works in cognition is that we get into a frame of of us are in discussion.
Or a certain theme and the books on the Shelf change according to their relatedness based on memory of past what's going on now and plans for the future. I think anytime we look at we change context and we look at you know a raccoon video on Instagram