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.

 

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Deep Work – Part II

In the first part of Deep Work, Cal Newport defines what deep work is and makes a case for why the world needs it. I read this part but since I already had a fairly good idea about the definition and didn’t need convincing, I didn’t linger over Part I.

The second part of the book was where the meat was and I have spent a lot more time there. He has four rules of deep work. Rule #1 is… wait for it… Work Deeply.

Newport says:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.” P. 100

He then goes into some ideas on creating those types of routines and rituals. Some of his ideas were new to me and were helpful to think through. For instance, I get up early because I am a morning person and do my best work in the mornings. However, I have been squandering a lot of that good time in frivolous things. So I’m rethinking my morning routines, reading articles such as How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day, Bookend Your Days: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines (morning routines are for women, too!),  Establish a Consistent Morning Routine: Maximize Your Mornings, and 6 Elements of a Powerful Morning Routine

Another point Cal Newport makes in this section is that being “lazy” at times actually helps your deep work and creativity. By leaving work behind for a few hours a day, you give your brain a chance to work on things in the background and come up with new ideas for problems you are seeking to solve.

I think also that time spent reading and thinking about non-work things gives you a chance to refuel your mind so that you have a constant flow of new thoughts and ideas to chew on.

Do you have any morning routines that help you work more effectively and/or use your time more wisely? I’d love to hear about them.

Finding My Focus Again

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’m not reading as much, not thinking as much, and definitely not writing as much. I could blame it on all of my responsibilities at home, work, and, until last June, home school, but the reality is that I’ve lost my focus and find it all too easy to distract myself with frivolous things.

I know that I’m not alone. Everywhere I look, I see articles and TED Talks and books discussing this problem. While they have talked about the problem, the most common solutions (take an internet break, throw your phone away, go off to the woods to a cabin with no wifi) are out of my price range or impractical or not concrete enough to help.
However, a couple of months ago I picked up a book which is helpful–Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’m about two thirds through it and am taking copious notes (alas, it’s a library book so I can’t mark it up).
I know I’m not the only person out there to struggle with focus and the ability to read, write, and think as deeply as I used to so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as I work my way through the book. Stay tuned for future thoughts as I blog my way through the book. And, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library and check out this book. It’s one of the most helpful productivity books I’ve read.

Book Review – The Splendour Falls

Chinon, France – with Château de Chinon on the hill

 

Emily Braden has been convinced to go on vacation with Harry, her charming but unreliable cousin.  Harry is going to the town of Chinon in France to look for the lost treasure of Isabelle, one of the Plantagenet queens, and he arranges to meet Emily in Chinon.  Unsurprisingly to Emily, Harry fails to show up on the agreed upon date.   So begins another of Suzanna Kearsley’s wonderful romantic historical mysteries.  

At first Emily thinks nothing of Harry’s absence, but as the days go by without hearing anything from him, Emily grows concerned that perhaps Harry’s failure to appear is more than just his usual forgetfulness.  As she gets to know the other guests in the hotel in which she is staying, she becomes entangled in not only the mystery of Queen Isabelle’s lost treasure, but also the more recent mystery of another Isabelle, who supposedly hid a treasure before taking her own life in World War II.

The cast of characters include a charming Frenchman and his delightful child, two Canadian brothers, an American couple, and an old retainer with secrets of his own, all of whom draw Emily further into the mysteries of Chinon.  Ms. Kearsley’s delightful descriptions of Chinon gave me the sense of being there, and I admit to spending an evening looking at photographs of the French town and reading more about this historical little gem of a city in the Loire Valley in France.  

I was alternatively entranced and dismayed by the unfolding events and kept reading “just one more chapter” until the wee hours of the morning.  The ending was eminently satisfying–the mystery of both of the Isabelles is resolved as is Harry’s disappearance.  My only disappointment is that I would have liked a bit more detail about the two Isabelles and their times.  However, all in all, it was a satisfying read for anyone who likes historical thrillers set in an exotic locale with a bit of romance thrown in, too.

 

A new Mary Stewart?

 

Reading Clipart Image: Girl or Young Woman Reading a Book While Laying on the Floor

Girl Reading

When I was a girl, I loved reading gothic-type romances by authors such as Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Madeleine Brent.  Historical novels were also favorites so when I first read a book by Mary Stewart, I was overjoyed that there was history as well as romance and suspense.  I read all of her books, which our small town library contained, and then reluctantly moved on to other authors.

Last year I happened upon a wonderful website:  https://openlibrary.org/ On that site are digital copies of many older books that were published too recently to be in the public domain but are old enough that they aren’t in the library anymore.  Much to my delight, they had most of Mary Stewart’s books.  Over the next several weeks I was able to borrow and reread my old favorites:  Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, This Rough Magic, and others.

As I read, I kept thinking of how much fun the suspense and romance are and how many historical facts, geographical descriptions, and literary allusions there are in her books.  I don’t often come across an author who not only writes well but also includes all of these details which give the novel depth as well as educates the reader in history and geography.  Plus, they are just plain fun to read.

One such writer today is Susanna Kearsley.  I read a couple of her books last year and enjoyed them, but when I picked up The Splendour Falls last fall and started reading, I realized almost immediately that here was a writer who could just about fill Mary Stewart’s writing shoes.  History, romance, adventure, suspense–it had it all.  I could hardly put it down and, for the first time in years, read past midnight to find out what would happen next.  I went on to read Season of Storms and was reminded of the gothic thrillers I enjoyed so much.  Her book, The Winter Sea, took me back to Scotland in the 1700’s during the Jacobite uprisings while Every Secret Thing was a thriller set in modern day Canada as well as Lisbon, Portugal in the 1940’s.

In each of her books there are elements of suspense and romance, but the amount of historical research that has obviously been done gives her books a depth which is often lacking in other romantic thrillers.  Like Mary Stewart, she includes a plucky heroine, an exotic locale, and a mystery to be solved.  There are usually charming and/or quirky secondary characters and a man with whom the heroine will develop a friendship, even if he doesn’t seem her type at first glance.  While Ms. Stewart sometimes included a smattering of history and atmosphere in her novels, Ms. Kearsley takes it further and often gives a more in depth historical background to either her place and/or her heroine’s story.

I am so glad to have discovered Suzanna Kearsley’s books and I look forward to many more happy years of reading to come.

The Burning of the World and A Bunch of Sweet Peas

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914

The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován

The Burning of the World is the translation of a personal diary kept by Béla Zombory-Moldován during the first year of World War I.  The author was a young Hungarian artist who was on holiday abroad when war erupted in Europe in August 1914.  He quickly returned home, reported for duty (he was a reserve officer), and was thrown into the chaos that was the Eastern Front at the beginning of the Great War.  He writes of his feelings about the war, his concern that it isn’t quite as glorious as everyone is saying, and the sheer terror and chaos that he found in his first battle.  The end of the book tells of his injuries and the three months he spends convalescing, trying to forget all that he has endured and will endure.

While the writing is quite beautiful at times and evocative of the place and time, it could be rather choppy and disjointed at other times.  One thing I found difficult was that the numerous notes were at the end of the book.  Since the author was not writing for publication, these notes were often essential to determine who people, places, and situations were.  Yet having to constantly flip to the back of the book to read them interrupted the flow of the narrative and I had a hard time staying with it.

I was glad to read a bit about the Eastern Front as I had not read anything about it before this, but I suspect that there are other memoirs that would be clearer and easier to understand than this one, which is a shame since there are moments that the author’s thoughts and words really connected with me.  Recommended, with reservations.

 

 

A Bunch of Sweet Peas by Henry Donald

In 1911 the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, offered a prize of 1,000 pounds for the best bunch of sweet peas.  Expecting 15,000 entries, they were inundated with over 40,000 entries, among which were the flowers of an obscure Scottish parson and his wife.  The story follows the steps the parson and his gardener take to grow a beautiful bed of sweet peas–only their second year growing them–, the drought that threatened to kill the flowers only weeks before the competition, the trials to determine the best way to send them by train, the judging, and the final decision.  I listened to the audio, narrated by Judy Dench, which was a delightful way to “read” this story.  I will probably want to read it again as I’m sure I missed some of the details and because it is just so heart-warming.  It’s a sweet little story and was the perfect choice for lying in bed with the flu.  Recommended.