Tag Archives: Cal Newport

Life updates, spring 2018

It occurred to me the other day that I have not updated my blog in MONTHS. I realized that I should probably remedy the situation, but I quailed at the idea of writing some long book review or deep-thoughts post on, like, LIFE, man. So, I decided instead to do a little bullet-point post of stuff that’s been happening with me lately. (This is not unprecedented; when I first started this blog in 2012, I used to write short little posts about inconsequential nonsense all the time. Here is one on a hilariously named brand of South African crackers. And here is one on — no kidding — all of the chores and errands I had to do one day). Anyway! Here are a few things that have been going on in my life:

  • I’ve decided to get off my duff and attend a fiction workshop this summer. I’ll be attending the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Ohio in June. This means I’ll be spending a week sleeping in a dorm room on an extra-long twin bed, away from my kids and Al, a prospect which is both exhilarating and anxiety-producing. Hopefully I’ll come away from the week feeling inspired and having generated a whole lotta new fiction. More updates to come!
  • Since reading Back Sense, I’ve tried to stay physically active, but have struggled to find a workout that doesn’t jack up my back while giving me endorphins. (Pilates on the Reformer is great for the core, but it can be kind of tedious). Finally, in December I found Barre3, which combines elements of yoga, Pilates, aerobics, and ballet barre and is hard but fun. I much prefer it to other barre-based workouts I’ve tried in the past (looking at you, The Barre Method). And, bonus, the studio here in Old Town offers childcare! I have been going three times a week and I’m feeling strong. Plus, it gives me an excuse to wear cute grip socks.
  • In podcasting news, Whine & Roses is kaput, since Previously.TV decided to drop their coverage of all Bachelor-related shows (*single tear*). But since Whine & Roses met its untimely end, I’ve been a guest on both Extra Hot Great (discussing the Netflix dramedy Everything Sucks, among other TV things) and The Blotter Presents (discussing the classic, 2004 true crime documentary The Staircase), so check me out!
  • I’ve started keeping track of my reading. I read a lot (30-90 minutes a day, sometimes more, never less) and I wanted a record of what I’ve read so that I can look back and remember, if not, say, specific plot points or characters, the general idea of each book. Here’s a photo of my reading log, which shows that I’ve read 16 books since January 7, which comes out to roughly one book a week. At this rate, I’ll finish more than 50 books this year, and without this log, I won’t stand a chance at remembering all of them, let alone writing about them. (NB: I used to write a lot more fiction book reviews on my blog but I felt as if I was shouting into the void. But even if I never write another review again, at least I’ll have my own record of what I read).

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  • After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Catherine Price’s How To Break Up With Your Phone, I’ve been working hard to change my relationship both with my phone and the internet in general. In practice, this has meant deleting all social media apps from my phone (painful at first, liberating later) and spending way less time looking at social media sites on my computer. I’ve found that stepping away from Twitter and Facebook has lessened my interest in them; in other words, as long as I stay away, I find it easy to maintain my distance. But it’s SO easy to slip back and let them waste my time. I’m trying to find a balance between NEVER going on social media sites and spending hours mindlessly scrolling. Meanwhile, I was such an Instagram fiend and find it so addictive that I have deleted it off my phone and must re-download and sign in every time I want to use it. It may sound like a needlessly baroque way of controlling my social media usage, but it works.
  • I learned to crochet! Not much to say about it except that I’m proud to add another yarncraft to my arsenal. When the grid goes down, I’ll have no idea how to grow food or find clean water, but I’ll be warm as hell. Maybe I’ll knit (or even crochet, now!) myself a post-apocalyptic lean-to.

That’s it. You’re all caught up with my life. Byeeee!

Paradigm shifting books, part 2: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”

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I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.

I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.

Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)

The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.

I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)

My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.

Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.