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Deep Questions with Cal Newport

Ep. 275: Accomplishing Hard Goals

Mon Nov 20 2023
goal settingproductivitywork-life balanceknowledge workpassion developmenttime management


In this episode of Deep Questions, Cal Newport discusses how to succeed with transformative goals, the benefits of reverse goal setting, and strategies for managing workload and optimizing knowledge work. He also explores the importance of developing passion and discipline, balancing clinical work and research, and using Blinkist for book summaries.


Accomplishing hard goals requires significant effort and there are no shortcuts or magical solutions.

Newport emphasizes that transformative goals require dedication and perseverance.

Reverse goal setting is an effective approach for achieving goals.

Working backwards from the ultimate goal helps create a more directed and efficient path.

Passion is something that is cultivated, not discovered.

Developing passion requires curiosity and discipline.

Managing workload and obligations can be done through slow productivity and time blocking.

Setting specific quotas and using structured scheduling systems can help prevent overload.

Balancing different parts of a job requires mental separation and distinct approaches.

Dealing with each part separately can lead to better efficiency and effectiveness.

Blinkist is a useful tool for getting book summaries and main ideas quickly.

It helps in triaging books and getting an overview of various topics.


  1. Introduction
  2. Succeeding with Transformative Goals
  3. Reverse Goal Setting
  4. Achieving Fitness Goals
  5. Overcoming Choke Points
  6. Managing Workload and Obligations
  7. Optimizing Knowledge Work
  8. Developing Passion and Discipline
  9. Managing Workload with Time Blocking
  10. Balancing Clinical Work and Research
  11. Using Blinkist for Book Summaries


00:11 - 07:30

  • The podcast is called Deep Questions and is hosted by Cal Newport, a professor of computer science who writes about the impact of technology on our lives.
  • The podcast aims to provide concrete advice based on big ideas discussed in Newport's writing.
  • Listeners can watch the podcast episodes on the website.

Succeeding with Transformative Goals

07:05 - 13:11

  • In this episode (275), Newport discusses how to succeed with transformative goals, which are goals that have a remarkable impact on one's life.
  • He mentions three common mistakes people make when pursuing transformative goals: underestimating the effort required, relying too much on checklist productivity, and falling for the algorithmic lottery effect.
  • Newport emphasizes that accomplishing hard goals requires significant effort and there are no shortcuts or magical solutions.

Reverse Goal Setting

12:42 - 19:22

  • Reverse goal setting is an effective approach where you start with your ultimate goal and work backwards to determine the necessary steps.
  • Working backwards allows for a more directed and efficient path towards your current situation.
  • To work backwards, start with the goal and then move one step back at a time, specifying the concrete activity that gets you closer to the goal.
  • Create links from step to step using evidence and determine how to add each step back in.

Achieving Fitness Goals

19:01 - 25:45

  • Reverse goal setting is a method that provides a specific and realistic path towards achieving goals.
  • It helps in changing mindset and developing consistent health disciplines.
  • The process involves starting from being out of shape and overweight, then progressing to consistent health discipline, improving diet and daily activity, exercising with a specific diet, and eventually hiring a trainer for further progress.
  • Common fallacies like underestimating effort or relying on shortcuts do not lead to notable fitness results.

Overcoming Choke Points

25:21 - 31:47

  • Regularly publishing videos on your YouTube channel is an important first goal to understand the mechanics of YouTube and build an initial audience.
  • Transitioning from regularly publishing videos to gaining 50,000 subscribers is a choke point that many people struggle with due to the difficulty of finding the right combination of factors for a sizable audience.
  • Going from 1 million subscribers to 100 million subscribers is another challenge due to the stochastic nature of outcomes. There is a range of different outcomes, with different likelihoods, making it hard to predict success.

Managing Workload and Obligations

31:22 - 37:18

  • Reverse goal setting involves changing your goals or acknowledging chokepoints as milestone checkpoints.
  • Chokepoints can be eliminated with better planning or identified as checkpoints to reassess progress.
  • Stochastic bridges require revising goals based on the expected value, not the maximum value.
  • Planning for the maximum outcome of a random step is not smart planning; focus on the expected value.

Optimizing Knowledge Work

36:54 - 44:03

  • The speaker discusses the importance of taking advantage of abundant free time by building a good scheduling system.
  • They share their own summer scheduling system, which involves no meetings on Mondays and no appointments or professional meetings on Fridays.
  • The speaker emphasizes the need for structure to make the most out of unstructured time and to have flexibility in scheduling.

Developing Passion and Discipline

49:28 - 55:48

  • Passion is something that is cultivated, not discovered.
  • Passion is developed through a combination of curiosity and discipline.
  • The Rock's passion for acting and wrestling was cultivated through discipline and curiosity.
  • Discipline and curiosity are the starting points for developing passion.

Managing Workload with Time Blocking

55:25 - 1:01:55

  • Slow productivity can help manage workload and obligations during the pandemic.
  • Building a reasonable workload and activity load can help prevent overload.
  • Setting specific quotas for different types of work and activities can guide decision-making.
  • Using quotas allows for saying no based on predetermined limits rather than random busyness.

Balancing Clinical Work and Research

1:01:43 - 1:08:18

  • The caller, Rachel, has two different parts to her job: clinical work and research.
  • She realizes that these two parts are in different market types: clinical work is an auction market, while research is a winner-take-all market.
  • Rachel is seeking advice on how to approach her split market career and prioritize between the two parts of her job.
  • Cal suggests having mental separation and dealing with each part of the job separately.

Using Blinkist for Book Summaries

1:19:41 - 1:26:28

  • Blinkist is an app that provides short summaries of nonfiction books and podcasts in just 15 minutes.
  • The hosts use Blinkist as a triage service to determine which books they want to read.
  • People also use Blinkist to quickly get the main ideas and terminology of a particular topic without having to read entire books.