Autumn has come

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The other morning I stepped outside to go to work and discovered that autumn had arrived. The sky was that perfect blue that you only see in September. Geese were flying overhead, calling to one another as they flew toward warmer climes. A slight mist was floating over the trees, bushes, and the flowers in my garden. The air had the faintest crispness, hinting at the cooler weather soon to come. Just like that, in the space of a day, summer had turned to autumn.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. It’s a time of new beginnings, of starting over, of turning the page of my life. As I was growing up, January never seemed as strong a new year as September, when the season began to change, new classes were starting, new books were bought and begun, and new unknowns were yet to be explored. New notebooks were full of white, clean pages, waiting to be filled with thoughts and ideas, facts and questions, many of which would influence my soul and my mind from then until the present.

Even now, when I no longer go to school myself nor teach others, I still view September as the beginning of my year. I turn over the calendar page to September and breathe a sigh of relief—the heat of August is waning and cool weather is right around the corner. Sweaters, my favorite garments, will soon be required in the mornings and evenings. Lap blankets and hot tea will accompany me to our back deck, as I read, write, and ponder the world while my nose grows rosy in the chill and my fingers and cheeks get cool.

Autumn is also a time for reflection. As the world around us readies itself for winter, I watch all the non-essential things be cast off. Plants stop blooming, trees drop their leaves, birds fly off and leave their old nests behind, animals prepare to sleep, and insects die after taking care to leave eggs for the next year. Everything prepares for cold days, in which only the truly necessary things will be kept.

So it’s a time for me to get back to basics, too. What is truly necessary in my life? What activities and relationships and duties are sapping my strength and dividing my attention unnecessarily? What is not in line with my most important goals, the things I believe I’m called by God to accomplish? Which thoughts are entangling me and keeping me from walking this particular path in a God-honoring way?

It’s a time to regroup, to choose again from all of the good opportunities for growth and service, to decide on the best things that fit in to the calling on my life at this time. With prayer and pondering, I consider each activity. I measure, not just my time but also my energy and margins, to determine how many extra things I can fit in to my schedule. I weigh the benefits (to others as well as to myself) of every opportunity before me to decide whether or not it fits in with my life goals, my family’s needs, and the gifts with which I have been blessed.

Autumn is a time for new beginnings, for shedding expectations and unnecessary encumbrances, and for looking to future blessings and work with a joyful heart. How glad I was, the other morning, to see that autumn had arrived!

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Working toward focus and thought

As you know, I’ve been slowly reading through Deep Work by Cal Newport.  It’s funny how many things pop out at you when you are thinking about a particular subject or person or place.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve read or heard several things to help with learning to think and focus more deeply.

My friend, Kelly, wrote a great post on mindfulness and meditation while walking here.

This past week, a local author spoke to the writers groups, which I facilitate.  He mentioned how Henry David Thoreau walked in order to write.  Emerson wrote, “The length of [Thoreau’s] walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”  In fact, walking was so important to Thoreau that he wrote an entire essay on it:  Walking

Another article I read talked about taking two hours a week to think without anything other than a pen and paper.   Now that would be helpful if I could be disciplined enough to get away from phones and tablets and computers long enough!

So, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to carve out deep thinking time, but I have yet to work it into a regular routine.  My goal is to create a schedule that allows for deeper thinking and writing over the next few months.  Now that the weather is cooler, walking is more likely to occur and slowly I am developing an early morning routine without distractions in order to think and write.  Progress is being made albeit at a snail’s pace.

Deep Work – Rule #2

When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds.  On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand.  Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.

All of those times tended to have moments, even hours,  of boredom.  There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts.   I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.

Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom.  These days, escape from boredom is only a click away.  We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat.  We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly.  When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited?  Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.  He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction.  In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation.  While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem.  Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it.  If you do this  two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.

In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. 

When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way.  The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom.  Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too?  If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.