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Deep Questions with Cal Newport

Ep. 287: Minimalist Notes

Mon Feb 12 2024
Efficient Information ManagementNote-Taking SystemsProductivity StrategiesADHD and LearningTechnology ImpactConcentration and FocusCapturing IdeasEmail Communication


Cal Newport discusses efficient information management, note-taking systems, and strategies for improving concentration and productivity. He emphasizes the importance of reducing friction in capturing and organizing important information. The episode also explores the impact of technology on our values and the benefits of slowing down for better productivity. Newport shares insights on managing ADHD, effective email communication, and the process of capturing and reviewing ideas. Overall, the episode provides practical advice for cultivating a deep life amidst distractions.


Reducing Friction in Information Management

Cal Newport emphasizes the importance of reducing friction in capturing and organizing important information. Simple note-taking systems and project-specific storage locations can help lower friction and improve efficiency.

Customizing Study Advice for ADHD

Students with ADHD or neurodivergence can benefit from structured and intentional systems for attention. By customizing study advice to fit their needs, individuals can turn ADHD into a superpower.

Measuring Technology Impact

Technology should be measured based on its impact on one's values and whether it helps or hinders the things they care about. It's important to evaluate technology from a perspective of intentionality and determine if it aligns with personal goals.

Improving Concentration and Productivity

Establishing rituals, avoiding context switching, and dedicating focused blocks of time can help improve concentration and productivity. Slowing down and focusing on quality rather than quantity can also have a positive impact on one's work.

Capturing and Reviewing Ideas

Cal Newport shares insights on capturing and reviewing ideas. He recommends using project-specific tools for idea storage and reviewing idea notebooks when needed.

Effective Email Communication

Using process-centric emailing can save time by avoiding back-and-forth messaging. Clear guidelines and steps in emails can help streamline communication and improve efficiency.


  1. Introduction
  2. Efficient Note-Taking
  3. Organizing Project-Specific Notes
  4. Efficient Information Management
  5. Improving Learning and Memory with ADHD
  6. Measuring Technology Impact and Focus
  7. Improving Concentration and Productivity
  8. Slowing Down for Better Productivity
  9. Capturing and Reviewing Ideas
  10. Effective Email Communication


00:11 - 07:42

  • Cal Newport is a computer science professor and digital theorist who gives concrete advice about big ideas on his podcast, Deep Questions.
  • He is happy with the response to the pre-order campaign for his new book, "Slow Productivity," and thanks those who have supported him.
  • Cal mentions that they need more calls for their podcast and encourages listeners to submit their questions or leave a voicemail through the provided URLs.
  • The episode's deep dive focuses on cultivating a deep life by efficiently managing high-quality information amidst distractions.
  • Cal discusses his minimalist note-taking system, which he prefers over complicated software and philosophies.
  • He explains the concept of friction in work and how it can either be beneficial or problematic depending on the context.
  • Friction is acceptable when it comes to tasks that require deep thinking and writing, like John McPhee's approach to article preparation.
  • However, friction becomes an issue when dealing with incoming information or tasks that require energy and time.
  • Having a relatively complicated note-taking system can deter people from taking notes or engaging with certain tasks due to increased friction.

Efficient Note-Taking

07:17 - 14:07

  • Friction is a problem when it comes to capturing information effectively.
  • Elaborate note-taking systems aim to capture everything, but it's important to keep some information in your brain for filtering and prioritizing.
  • Simple note-taking systems can lower friction and allow the brain to be involved in curating and making sense of information.
  • The corner marking method is a low-friction way of taking notes on books.
  • With the corner marking method, you mark a corner of the page to indicate something important, and use small marks in the margins to highlight important lines or paragraphs.
  • The corner marking method is effective for capturing information and allows for easy retrieval later on.
  • It doesn't require transcribing into an elaborate system and doesn't significantly slow down reading.
  • One shortcoming is that you still need to remember which book had important ideas about a specific topic, but this helps filter out less useful information.
  • Remembering the book allows you to use the gist of what you learned in constructing knowledge schemas in your head.

Organizing Project-Specific Notes

14:07 - 20:59

  • The speaker suggests storing notes relevant to projects in the location where you will work on that project.
  • For professional projects like writing books and articles, the speaker uses Scrivener and creates a separate project for each piece. Relevant ideas or notes are added to the research folder of that specific project.
  • For academic articles, the speaker uses Overleaf, a web-based software for collaborative writing. Notes and ideas for potential papers are added directly into the document.
  • The same approach can be applied to personal projects by creating a dedicated folder or space where all relevant materials can be stored.
  • By adding new information to these project-specific locations, it refreshes the mental picture of the project and allows for more background processing, leading to new insights.
  • When it comes to ideas about life not connected to work or projects, the speaker recommends having an awesome physical notebook that is cool and aspirational.
  • In this notebook, important or lasting ideas from previous notebooks can be summarized during regular reading sessions.
  • This low-friction approach with minimal custom software allows for capturing and organizing important ideas without overwhelming oneself.

Efficient Information Management

20:37 - 27:30

  • Adding little friction allows for capturing and organizing important information efficiently.
  • Having notes in the same place as your work projects helps to maintain a comprehensive understanding of the project.
  • A complicated note-taking system may be enjoyable for some, but it is not necessary. A simple system is sufficient.
  • There are no specific products or software packages recommended for note-taking.

Improving Learning and Memory with ADHD

27:01 - 33:40

  • Many students with ADHD or neurodivergence find it helpful to have structured and intentional systems for their attention.
  • Having structure and intentional systems can turn ADHD into a superpower by allowing individuals to activate hyper focus on a regular basis.
  • It is important to customize study advice to fit the best practices for ADHD, working with counselors or doctors.
  • Declining attention spans and the ability to learn are topics of concern, but it is a myth that we should always strive to be focused and feel guilty if we can't be.
  • Mindless activity on computers and phones is not inherently wasteful of time, but it becomes a problem when it keeps us away from more important things and lowers the quality of our lives.
  • It's important to measure technology from our values and determine if it helps or prevents us from doing the things we care about.

Measuring Technology Impact and Focus

33:15 - 40:37

  • Technology should be measured based on its impact on one's values and whether it helps or hinders the things they care about.
  • Kids need more protection when it comes to unrestricted access to the internet on their phones, as it can distract them from other activities.
  • Notifications are not the main issue when it comes to our inability to focus on devices. It is the addictive design and emotional stimulation that keeps us coming back.
  • Collaboration methods that rely heavily on email require constant checking of inboxes, regardless of notifications.
  • Discipline is necessary to build a deep life focused on what truly matters, making superficial pleasures of the attention economy less appealing.
  • Flow state is overrated and not always ideal. Important work activities may require straining one's brain beyond their comfort zone for growth and improvement.
  • Addictive video games aim to keep users in a flow state for extended periods of time, gathering data along the way.
  • Flow states are valuable but should not be the sole focus in work or technology use.

Improving Concentration and Productivity

40:12 - 47:04

  • Romero is struggling to concentrate on his dissertation while working a full-time job.
  • The speaker suggests treating the dissertation like training for a marathon and recommends dedicating a block of time in the morning for focused work.
  • Context switching caused by frequent email checking can negatively impact concentration and productivity.
  • Working on the dissertation after a day of hyperactive hive mind workflow can result in decreased cognitive abilities.
  • Establishing rituals and structure can help improve concentration and productivity.
  • The speaker recommends reading "Deep Work" and focusing on Brian Shappell's rituals for writing his dissertation while working full-time.
  • The speaker compares their own strategies for avoiding distraction during podcasting to Romero's need to avoid falling victim to the hyperactive hive mind.
  • During book launch time, the speaker consolidates tasks into mega blocks of focused work and temporarily becomes less responsive to emails.

Slowing Down for Better Productivity

46:47 - 53:02

  • The speaker has experience in designing systems for publicity teams and minimizing urgent communication.
  • Caitlyn is struggling with time management and finding it difficult to get back to work after taking breaks.
  • The speaker suggests embracing slower productivity and spending longer on tasks instead of rushing through them.
  • By taking things off her plate and winding down earlier in the day, Caitlyn may find that her output remains good and no one else will notice the change.
  • The speaker recommends developing a non-work interest and changing one's relationship with digital tools for better mental health.
  • Finding more adventurous places to work can help keep things interesting and motivated.
  • Slowing down and focusing on quality rather than quantity may not have a significant impact on one's career.

Capturing and Reviewing Ideas

59:25 - 1:06:23

  • The podcast discusses the cover design of a book by Cal Newport, which aims to visually capture the concept of slowing down and focusing on what matters in productivity.
  • The host and guest talk about how the cover is different from traditional productivity book covers, which usually feature big text and single color backgrounds.
  • They describe the cover as a path through the woods leading to a cabin, evoking a sense of slowing down and producing meaningful work.
  • A listener calls in to ask Cal Newport about his process for going through idea notebooks once they are completed.
  • Cal explains that he now keeps ideas related to specific projects in the tools he uses for those projects, but still uses idea notebooks for ideas not tied to any particular project.
  • He mentions using digital tools like Remarkable or physical notebooks like Moleskine or Field Notes for idea capture.
  • Cal suggests reviewing idea notebooks when needed, such as when planning for future projects or when relevant opportunities arise.
  • The hosts briefly discuss the challenges and low margins associated with making and selling notebooks compared to digital apps.

Effective Email Communication

1:12:13 - 1:19:31

  • Jose shares a work-related case study about using email effectively.
  • Initially, he was using multiple communication channels like WhatsApp and email, resulting in back-and-forth messaging.
  • After realizing the inefficiency, Jose drafted a clear email with all the necessary information and links to supporting documentation.
  • Once people had clear guidelines and steps to follow, they were able to complete their work without the need for reminders.
  • This approach of process-centric emailing can save time by avoiding weeks of back-and-forth messaging.