Book review: “Deep Work” by Cal Newport

I had the opportunity to read a book recently, Deep Work by Cal Newport. Newport is a Computer Science professor at Georgetown. He wrote a book that I picked up when I started my graduate program, called How to be a Straight-A Student. I’m not sure how much it applied to students in graduate school, but as I’m not doing much research,  I needed improved study and work habits. Deep Work was one of my attempts to examine on how I could work more effectively and quickly, and I think it’s more relevant to my learning goals.

Newport divided the book up into two sections, one defining what “deep work” is and why it’s important, and the other focusing on tactics that allow one to employ deep work into their routines. I certainly appreciated that it was a teacher writing the book, nonetheless a professor in my chosen discipline of computer science. He threw out lots of examples relevant to the tech world and programming.

His first arguments were laid out by outlining deep work and its place in our society. The book loosely defined it as work performed in a distraction-free environment where your mind is allowed to push its limits. Newport acknowledged that we’ve transitioned to a ‘knowledge economy’, where what you know translates into value. He threw out the example that browsing Facebook and Twitter are easily done by many people, making that skill low-value, whereas knowing how to write programs in a certain language is far more valuable. Further, the ability to quickly learn new valuable skills and produce on them increases one’s professional value. Newport introduces the deep work habits of people who have made enormous contributions to our society, including Carl Jung, Bill Gates, Don Knuth, and several journalists and professors. He also helped outline why deep work is becoming exceedingly rare in our increasingly networked and connected world, where interruptions to thought and attention are so easy. Finally, he made arguments on why performing deep work is meaningful to one’s self on multiple levels.

Newport then went on to give hints and suggestions on how to engage in deep work more frequently. He laid out several professionals and their approaches to deep work, whether it was extended seclusion, a daily rhythmic, ritual, or one that allows for spontaneity and flexibility. He offered methods that allow individuals to monitor their deep work and check their progress to see that things are actually getting done by citing a case study from Intel. He again brought up examples of notable people who were deep workers that were able to produce significant amounts, such as JK Rowling and Teddy Roosevelt. He makes a strong case to eliminate or drastically reduce social media use, and even offers a method by which to whittle them down by deciding on their necessity. He closed the second portion by listing ways that one can reduce “shallow work”, or logistical tasks that may seem menial and repetitive. Some I will definitely employ.

I was very inspired by this book and will be working to incorporate many of these steps into my daily routine. I know that I can’t go off into the woods for a month or so like Carl Jung, so I can’t isolate myself. I do know from Newport’s other book that I am best off working in the mornings. An even better work morning is produced when I limit my interaction with my smartphone and the internet, so I will be working on how to schedule time with both resources. I’ll need to come up with ways to monitor my work progress, comparing my hours put in to a task or subject versus the goals completed. In a previous job, I would take note of my start and end times and realized that while I was working around 42-46 hours a week, it often felt like 60. Quite the opposite came from reading this book. I read the 263 pages quickly and thoroughly in about 3 hours. Sadly, I am pretty proud of my completion of this book because it’s rare that I will see one through to completion. Granted, most of my reading is non-fiction and reference, so it may be a future goal to commit to reading more books in their entirety.

Deep work is a great practice for those who want to develop a sense of meaningful work, while also giving themselves completely to a task at hand. It’s a practice of presence, mindfulness, and focus that goes hand-in-hand with the theme of this blog, and it’s something I will work on employing as time goes on. Thanks for the great book, Cal.

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The good kind of lazy.

The good kind of lazy.

I always note how I don’t write enough and it’s never been more true as it is now. Compared to past instances, however, I don’t feel as bad about it.

Over the past year I have been studying topics in computer science. It started with an introductory Java course, followed by data structures. Where it takes me is yet to be seen, but I enjoy the problem-solving and application of logic. I will be taking discrete mathematics in the fall, and to prepare for the course, I decided to take calculus this summer. 

I’ve never taken calculus and I had a lot of fear leading up to the course- math is not my forte and it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve taken ANY sort of math course. And this was a grueling schedule too- all of Calculus 1 in eight weeks.

It has definitely been a challenge and my body has suffered a bit as a result. Significantly less exercise, less sleep, less grocery shopping time which translated into more fast food and less of a food budget, and less “me” time.  For the sake of my body, I’m not sure if I’d repeat it again. But it’s been worth it- so far I’m pulling a decent grade in the course and feel more prepared for the fall.

We are preparing for our final two tests. At the end of this week’s last lecture, the professor handed out a pre-test worksheet that assessed our progress in the chapter. After receiving the paper I packed up my things to head home. Before I left, I hovered over the desk of another student to watch him work a problem. He is likely one of the best students in the class and I wanted to see how challenging the worksheet was for him as a gauge for the time I’d need to invest on studying this weekend.

He was stuck on the question. He explained to me his problem-solving approach, attempting to use two different methods that we’ve tried in class. One ended in a lengthy amount of work, and the other wasn’t very applicable. He wasn’t sure what to do and felt like he reached a dead end. He was ready to go ask the professor for help.

Shooting from the hip, I asked, “Why can’t you just try this?” My answer and approach was elementary, basic, and lazy. But it made sense. And it solved the problem. And it reminded me of a programming principle that is good to apply to our day-to-day living:

Step back, consider alternative routes, and keep things simple.

All too often when learning math in high school, teachers would tell me that I was “making things tough on myself”. They meant that I made problems too complex, long, and confusing. This time around, my new approach is paying off as I learn how to apply it to higher-level math and programming. And as I continue to move on in work, life, and relationships, I try to remember the same principle: don’t over-complicate issues, step away, and consider the path of least resistance. Play around with the issue; don’t reinvent the wheel.

Here’s to remembering that as this course wraps up.

 

One thing.

Right now, I am writing a blog entry.

I have my word processor window taking up the whole screen area on my computer so as not to notice any other windows, notifications, or other distractions. Ideally, the desk that the computer is sitting on would be bare. I prefer it that way. The desk is not clean because I am not cleaning right now. I am writing a blog entry. I am only focused on the one thing I should be doing right now, which is writing a blog entry. I am doing it because my calendar told me that tonight, I would write a blog entry.

Later on, there will be something else to focus on. Later on tonight, I will work on learning about data structures. After that, I will prepare myself for the work week. After that, I will talk to a friend, then exercise, and clean up my living space, before getting ready for bed. During each of those times, I will only worry about the one thing that I am doing right at that moment. At a previous moment, all I worried about was making a schedule for the week ahead. This morning, I planned out today’s schedule with more detail.

 

What is the most important thing? The thing you are doing right now. Do it well, immerse yourself into it, make it the only thing you are worrying about.

What is the most important time? Right now. The past is gone, the future is yet to come.

Who is the most important person? The person or people you are with right now. Do what you can to make them feel that their needs are eased by your presence.

 

Yes, this philosophy is not perfect. We need to think or plan ahead. But if you are thinking or planning ahead, make that all that you are doing at the moment. Plan the snot out of whatever you are planning. And when you have a plan, move on. You can come back to it later.

Yes, while I am focusing on my blog entry, thoughts have come into my head about my plan for the rest of the night. I stopped writing for a second to think about if what I’m writing aligns with things I have read, and I wondered if I should check and see if my dinner had cooled down enough to put away in my fridge. I thought for a few seconds about the music that I hear from a neighbor’s house.

I let the thoughts go. I will worry about them later.

Right now, I am writing a blog entry.

How much better is our work; our time investment; the relationships we maintain and build; when we only focus on doing what we are doing in the present?

I find it therapeutic both work and at home to ask myself: “what is it I am doing right now? Is it a conscious decision? Am I worrying about something else?” If the answer to any of those three is something resembling uncertainty or “no”, then I probably should move on to something else to with more of a conscious effort.

Right now, I will spell-check, edit, and post my blog entry. Then, I will go do something else.

One thing.

You’ll be OK -re-post from Zen Habits by Leo Babauta-

The following is an re-post from Leo Babauta’s blog Zen Habits (found here). We all (including me) sometimes go through mini-bouts of anxiety and thought-spirals. It is important we remember that they are temporary and that our minds tend to focus on bad outcomes that might not come true anyway. Please read on.

A link to the original article: You’ll Be OK.

——————–

You’ll Be OK

By Leo Babauta

You’re walking down the street, and you’re worried about being late for meeting someone.

You’re anxious about what they might think of you. You pass some people and worry a bit about what they think of you, without realizing you’re doing it.

You’re worried about some things at work, and all the things you have to do in your personal life (taxes, errands, bills). You have this feeling you should be doing more, doing something else. All the time.

You worry about how you look, about how you’re perceived, about how you’ll do, about whether you’ll fail, about how much you have to do, about what you don’t have, about what you’re missing out on, about how you compare to others.

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We all worry about these things.

Here’s the thing: in all of these cases, you’ll be OK. Life will turn out just fine.

We’re always worried about what might go wrong, about the bad things people think about us, and so on. We’re focused on the bad outcomes only.

Those bad outcomes are just a few possibilities out of many, and they’re unlikely to come true.

And even if they do (let’s say someone thinks badly of you), the bad outcomes rarely ever mean anything disastrous for our lives.

Even if the bad things come true, you’ll be OK.

Picture the things you’ve worried about in the last few years: little things mostly. And in all of those cases, you turned out fine. Life didn’t collapse.

If you start to build confidence that you’ll be OK, you can let go of the worries (when you notice them). You can feel good, rather than being consumed by worry and anxiety all the time.

You walk down the street, relaxed, with a smile on your face.

——————–

P.S.- I have been terrible about sitting down and writing lately. Shame on me. It’s for good reason though- I’m investing time in things that at the moment are more important. It’s nice to see that the site is still getting traffic despite my lack of activity.

Tom

Slowing down.

The picture at the bottom of this post is an x-ray of my left small (pinky) finger. In the middle of December I unknowingly fractured it. At the onset, I thought it was merely bruised. I finally decided to have it looked at and x-rayed. It turned out that I fractured it in three different places and required surgery. Last week, I had two pins drilled into the first bone and joint of the finger to better align the bones and joint as they heal.

Life has moved at a slower pace as a result. The surgical dressing after the operation limited the clothing I could wear because of how think the dressing was around my wrist. Picking up things, cooking, working at a computer, driving and even sleeping have proven to be more challenging with one functioning hand. In a Chicago winter, it can be pretty frustrating. Extra layers of clothing are required and I need to constantly clear snow out from my vehicle and walkways. While I am right-hand dominant, I use my left hand more frequently for lifting, throwing, grabbing, eating, even brushing my teeth. The dominance isn’t distributed perfectly. The pain isn’t too bad, not enough to merit painkillers. It’s been a trial and experience.

The splint I now wear does help in practicing awareness and mindfulness, though. Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog has a guest-post from about a year ago on Craig Ballantyne’s 12 rules to live by. His seventh rule features two mantras: 1) “Nothing matters”, and 2) “It will all be over soon”.

While those may well be the mantra of a very depressed person, it can also help the majority of us in learning to see ourselves through both challenging times and rewarding ones. Spilling coffee on the kitchen table because of my splint isn’t the end of the world. I just laugh it off and clean up. My splint will be off in four weeks, I will have better control and dexterity then. I remember that life is finite as well, and to make the most of the time I do have, be it by learning, writing, spending quality time with my inner circle, or taking care of myself.  It’s not worth wasting time complaining or feeling sour about the splint or other restrictions.

My drum corps motto applies here too: 3) “Figure it out”. I tore up some thermal shirts from Goodwill so I’d have a warm layer that could fit over my cast. I’m wearing non-lace up shoes as much as possible to save time and frustration. And I’m not feeling bad about asking others for help. I am appreciating the fact that I have people who are willing to aid me and I look forward to the chance to pay their good forward. Until then, I’ll be drinking lots of milk.

2014-01-03

X-ray showing the pins drilled into my finger.

 

Twenty things to say.

It’s been a while- I have a couple posts in the pipeline but I find it hard to regularly sit down and write. I set a calendar reminder for every two weeks to write something up but constantly find myself with more to do. Putting more content up here needs to be a higher priority.

I hope you were able to enjoy Thanksgiving in some way or form. It’s been a good time to reflect on people in my life who are often taken for granted. There have been chances to reflect on my shortcomings with people and time to remember people who are no longer in my life, but made a significant impact on it.

A family member sent me a link to a video by Soul Pancake that I think is a little more poignant today, but is still worth viewing every day. One of their recurring characters is Kid President, a third grader that dons a suit and offers some encouraging views through his charismatic demeanor. Kid President’s most recent video is below- and I know there are a few things in there I need to remember to say more often to people daily. I’ll let the video speak for itself.

Some of my favorites are #14, #12, #10, #5 (!), and #2. Thinking about the last few posts- it takes a certain amount of awareness and vulnerability to say some of these things and truly mean them. It takes vulnerability to offer someone a corndog!

Building off of Kid President, I’ve learned a lesson lately with the difference between “I’m sorry” and “excuse me”. For a while “I’m sorry” became my default apology- whether I was in the way of someone’s path in the hallway; trying to acknowledge a cough, sneeze, or other bodily function; or trying to form a genuine apology. A friend called me out on my  bad habit and told me that “excuse me” is for things that you’ve done that you will inevitably do again- we’re going to bump into people, sneeze, and interrupt. “I’m sorry” should be reserved for actions you truly regret- hurting someone emotionally or physically, saying something out of character, or making a genuine mistake. Lately I have been working on forming the habit of using “excuse me” for my little miscues, and it’s made “I’m sorry” take on more weight and meaning. It’s a little thing, but I think it makes a difference. That’s something I’ll continue to work on.

The holiday season is upon us- hopefully remembering these 20 things might make it go little smoother, especially in our interactions with strangers.

Tom

Connecting to vulnerability and perfect moments.

The two pieces of media from the last post say a lot about the connections to reality, life, and each other that we need in order to feel happy and fulfilled. In a previous post, I mentioned that a personal ideal of mine is to stay connected to those within my inner circles, so these pieces of media struck a chord with me.

Maybe you didn’t have a chance to view them. A quick synopsis:

Brian Finkelstein’s Moth story describes two events relating to suicide. The first details the abrupt ending to his own personal struggle with the issue. The second event explains an experience in where he tried to help end a complete stranger’s similar struggle and his desire to communicate the value of “perfect life moments” with the stranger.

Brene Brown is a researcher whose TED talk on vulnerability also connects her personal experience with a desire to communicate her revelations to others. Through her research, she has found that at the core of shame is a resistance to being vulerable to others, which impacts our desire for connection to other human beings. She called shame the ‘fear of disconnection’.

In other words, Brown explains, when we experience shame, we fear that whatever is causing us shame is an imperfection no one can know about. She found that her research subjects who had a strong sense of love and belonging believed that they were worthy of that love. Brown compared that to those who did not have the same sense of connection. She found the difference was that the connected and loved had the courage to tell stories with their whole heart. They embraced imperfection and the willingness to put themselves in a vulnerable position, to say “I love you” first, to do something when there are no guarantees.

It’s important to be perceptive to “perfect life moments” as Finkelstein has, instead of caught up in the chaos and entropy that spiraled him into a suicide attempt. He found out his girlfriend was cheating on him, got a bottle of tequila and his dad’s gun, and drove and drank. He pulled over to a beach, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth…and threw up from too much tequila. The calm that followed- a quiet moment alone in the midnight ocean- was enough for him to realize that those moments were all he needed to live. Nothing else mattered-he had enough.

These two talks come together at the intersection of heightened awareness and knowing that we are “enough” and that we have “enough”. Suicide is one of the most extreme attempts to assert control over someone or a situation- it screams a person’s conclusion that they will never have enough, so it’s better that they have nothing at all. Finkelstein’s experiences are amplified compared to ones Brown talks about: people cope with the stress, fear, and anxiety of wondering if they are ‘enough’ by over-doing it: over-spending, over-medicating, over-eating, over-drinking, over-indulging in potentially addictive behaviors.

But instead of spiralling into self-destruction, either slowly or instantaneously, we can wake up. We can be aware of the perfect life moments that occur daily. We can feel fortunate to be connected to extraordinary people and be able to share struggles and imperfections with them. We can look around and realize that what we are and what we have is enough.

Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a rather extreme event for us to change our perception and begin thinking that way. Maybe it’s a loss of a loved one, or job, a change in health, hurting someone, or being a new environment. The silver lining is that those moments, those times when we feel helpless, are perfect moments to be aware and to embrace the vulnerability surrounding us. Only then can we realize how connected we are to life and those around us.

Once again, the talks, posted below:

Brian Finkelstein: Perfect Moments

Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability