Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

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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.

 

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.

Books I’m reading the week of August 14…

As always, I have several books going at once. From my post earlier this week, you know I am reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. My other nonfiction books are How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, which I am reading with a group of home educating friends, Openness Unhindered by Rosaria Butterfield for Sunday School class, and Morning and Evening by Charles Spurgeon as my daily devotional this year (I try to read through Spurgeon at least every other year. His words of love and devotion to Christ never get old and are always comforting and challenging).
In fiction, I am slowly working through Deborah Crombie’s mystery series featuring Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. I finished Necessary as Blood, the 13th book in the series last week and the other day I picked up the latest Isabel Dalhousie book, A Distant View of Everything, by Alexander McCall Smith. I thoroughly enjoy these books as I feel that Isabel and I would get along well. I have the same tendency to think about everything and anything although I’m not as good as getting myself embroiled in other people’s problems the way she does. I’m thankful for that.
What are you reading this week?  I’d love to hear about the books you are loving right now.

Planning for Senior Year

As you may be able to see from the pile of books above, we will be covering many subjects, including 20th century history and literature.  The chemistry book has not yet arrived, and the precalculus book is already being used for the dual enrollment class.

My planning is made so much easier by the wonderful book selections and schedules at Ambleside Online.  For the past 10+ years I have been hanging out over on that website, reading, learning, and borrowing their lists, schedules, and ideas.  This past summer I had the great privilege of meeting two of the creators of Ambleside Online, Lynn Bruce and Karen Glass, and their conversations were even more helpful and fabulous as I could have imagined after looking through all that the AO Advisory has done over the years.

Another main resource for me has been the ClassEd email group of which I’ve been a part since 2000.  These ladies (and gentlemen from time to time) have shared curricula suggestions, teaching tips, lesson plans, and prayed for my family for many years.  I know that we could never have done all that we did without their wisdom and support.  It really struck home how much they have supported us over the years when the husband of one of the long-time members of ClassEd mentioned how their family had prayed for our family for many years.  What a sweet fellowship we have begun on earth to be continued into eternity.

Along with Honors Chemistry and Precalculus/Calculus at our local community college, we will studying Latin, Bible, Art and Music appreciation, Shakespeare, and 20th century history and literature.  This is my third time through 20th century history in our homeschool, and while there are some bleak books written the past century, there are also some great books, which I look forward to discussing with my youngest son.  Some of the titles we will be reading: A History of the Twentieth Century, Testament of Youth , The Men Behind Hitler, The Hiding Place, Call to Conscience, The Hungarian Revolt, Economics in One Lesson, The Great Gatsby, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Chosen, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Sophie’s World, and Heart of Darkness.

We will also be continuing our reading through some of the Great Books together.  We have finished The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost.  Last year we started Les Miserables and will finish it this fall after which we will read Crime and Punishment.  This will be my first time reading Dostoevsky and I’m a bit intimidated but still looking forward to it.

Also, after attending an excellent workshop on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets this past summer, I’m adding T.S. Eliot to our poetry studies.  I’ve been given several titles to read in preparation of teaching Eliot’s poetry so that I at least have a glimmer as to what he is saying in his poems.  We will also read the poetry of the World War I poets and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

As I mentioned in my last post, I want to finish strong with my youngest son.  If we read and study these books, I believe that we will run our last lap of our homeschool journey well.

I’d love to hear about anyone else’s plans for this next year.  Please do share in the comments.

My year in reading 2015

This year, Goodreads did all of the hard work of compiling what I read. I’m glad I faithfully added titles and dates read, even if I didn’t always add a full review.

Goodread’s Year in Books for 2015

I had set a goal to read 100 books and went slightly over at 105.  My average rating overall was 3.8, which means I was reading mostly good books with an occasional bomb.

17 nonfiction books (if I include Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s plays in with fiction).

The rest were fiction.  Not quite as many non-fiction as I had hoped, but I find it easier to work through a novel quickly than a nonfiction book.  Perhaps this year I will be able to read at least 25 nonfiction, which would be about 25%–not ideal, but a better percentage.

I have a couple of reading challenges I’m eyeing and a Bible reading plan I am starting, both of which I will discuss in my next post.

I hope all of you had good reading years, too.  If you’re comfortable, please share how your reading year went in the comments.  I’d love to hear your experiences with books this past year.