The Cal Newport Collection: Great Reads for the Nonprofit Leader

June 2023

My friends and colleagues know I am quick to reference Cal Newport for any number of strategic topics related to nonprofit leadership. Reading Deep Work was a game changer for me, and forced me to reconsider how I was spending my time and to give up the myth of multi-tasking as a way to greater productivity. (Hat tip to my friend Clay Hodges for getting me a signed copy!).  

It occurred to me that many of my colleagues in nonprofit leadership were also grinding their way through an endless to-do list, and really didn't allocate time to high-quality deep work that their organizations needed (as well as what they needed to stay engaged in the vital mission work that attracted them to the sector in the first place).  While not his first publication, Deep Work is his most prominent, and a good place to start. Newport is an author, computer science professor, and productivity expert renowned for his insights on work, technology, and focus. With a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT and as a professor at Georgetown University, Newport has shared his expertise through a series of influential books. Here are four of his best works to enhance your nonprofit leadership library:

1. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. As mentioned previously, this book explores the concept of deep work, emphasizing the importance of focused, uninterrupted work in an age of constant distractions. Newport provides strategies to cultivate deep work habits and maximize productivity that could be a game-changer for you as well (as well as a relief!).

2. So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Challenging the conventional wisdom of "following your passion," Newport advocates for developing rare and valuable skills that lead to fulfilling and meaningful work. He shares insights on building career capital and crafting a satisfying professional life. This is one I am quick to recommend to those emerging leaders early in the nonprofit career. 
3. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Newport delves into the detrimental effects of excessive digital consumption and offers practical guidance on embracing a minimalist approach to technology. He presents a blueprint for reclaiming control over one's digital life and finding balance in the digital age. If you're like me, the allure of digital alerts are hard to resist, but we are exhausting our brain power if we don't implement strategies to resist.
4. A World Without Email.  Newport's latest book provides a compelling vision for a more efficient and productive workplace by challenging the status quo of email-driven communication. Newport examines the drawbacks of constant inbox checking and unstructured messaging, proposing alternative systems that prioritize deep work, reduce distractions, and foster meaningful collaboration. By reimagining our approach to communication, Newport shows how nonprofit organizations can reclaim their time, boost productivity, and foster a culture of meaningful and impactful work. 

Clearly Newport brings a familiar theme to all of his work: we're too distracted, and not dedicating the time we need to produce the kind of qualitative work of which we are capable. My colleague Lea Williams and I use this refrain in every Mastermind session we conduct: have you carved out some time for deep work this week?  I'd say it's a good question to ponder as you look at your calendar this week too.
Dr. Patton McDowell, CFRE, MBA, is the author of the best-selling Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership and host of the weekly podcast, also titled Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership.  He founded PMA Nonprofit Leadership in 2009, and has coached and consulted with over 275 nonprofit organizations. A Certified Fundraising Executive and Master Trainer for AFP Global, he also serves as an Executive in Residence at Cornell University's Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.