Clerestory

Dry November: Day 8

November 08, 2019

This week I listened to a podcast that James Clear and Cal Newport did together, on concentration and habit formation. Much of it was about the synergies between their respective books, Atomic Habits and Deep Work, though they also discussed Newport’s other books (particularly Digital Minimalism).

I’ve read three of Newport’s books but not Clear’s. Quite a few things interested me:

  1. When Clear is asked about how to form a creative (deep work) habit, e.g. writing, he basically concludes: “You can’t.” This is because creative acts are necessarily conscious, whereas an established habit is basically unconscious. (Merleau-Ponty would say that it isn’t even a mental kind of knowledge; it’s the body’s knowledge how to do something physical.) However, you can form the habit of physically getting yourself into the position to do the deep work.
  2. “A habit must be formed before it can be improved.” Often people start tweaking before a habit is fully-formed, which can endanger the habit.
  3. Pros spend a surprising amount of time on their systems. Newport reports that one of the most surprising things is how much time is spent at the systems level rather than the execution level. To put it another way: “The meta element is large.” This lines up with Karl Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice; he says that experts continuously increase the complexity of their models and strategies (his overview is really worth it).
  4. Newport suspects that deep work (which he also calls “the craftsman mindset”) is deeply satisfying because it delivers three things we seem to be evolutionarily wired to need: (1) Mastery, (2) Impact, and (3) Autonomy.
  5. Clear’s notion that “Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you wish to become.” And Newport’s corollary, that “Distractions may be troubling because they represent a vote against mastery.”

There are other interesting things in the podcast; the four aspects of successful habits, the balance between strategy and effort, the downsides of habits, “monk-mode mornings”. Highly recommended.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.