Tag Archives: work

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.”


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.

Sound Advice Thursday: the lying colleague

Dear Steph,

I’m in a bit of an awkward situation. Somebody I interact with on a professional level recently lied to me, like, to my face, and as the tarnished words came out of her mouth, her eyes were totally giving her away. The lie was so stupid and insignificant and most of all, I can’t understand why this person did this, especially considering that in less than 12 hours, it would be so obvious that she lied, and not just to me. I was going to let it go but I’m so curious to find out why she did this and whether she thinks I’m stupid or was it just a childish mistake? Should I confront her since this is work related or just let it go and pretend it didn’t happen? I saw her last week and it’s crickets between us because of this elephant in the room. 


Somebody Make This Stop

Jiminy Cricket has had it up to here with this sh*t

Jiminy Cricket has had it up to here with this sh*t

Dear SMTS,

Liars are the worst, right? We’ve all come across people who, for whatever reason, can’t stop themselves from fibbing, even about stupid, inconsequential stuff. I once knew a guy who used to lie about everything — everything — for seemingly no reason. He’d tell us tall tales about what he got up to over the weekend, the women he supposedly charmed, the victories he’d won — but he’d also lie about petty things, like what he ate for dinner last night. My only conclusion about this guy and his propensity to — embellish, let’s say — was that he just could not help himself. Lying was like breathing for him. I think it probably had something to do with attention-seeking: every story had to be inflated or polished in order to make the storyteller sound grander, braver, smarter, or wittier, even when the stakes were low. I wonder if this same thing is going on with your colleague.

You didn’t say what your colleague — let’s call her Judith — lied about, but there are a bunch of reasons why someone might tell a stupid fib at work. Maybe she messed up and was embarrassed to tell you about it. Maybe she had told the same lie to someone else and was trying to be consistent. Maybe she was trying to wrangle an advantage for herself by withholding information from you. Whatever the reason, Judith lied, and now you’re left wondering why.

But let me ask you: would knowing why she lied really make things better? And, assuming it would make things better, do you think she would actually tell the truth if you confronted her about this? The thing about liars is that, well, they lie. So if you back Judith into a corner and ask her “Why did you lie to me about [x]?”, chances are, she’s gonna lie to you about her reasons for lying to you. I suppose it’s possible that she’d come clean and ‘fess up to her dishonest ways and beg for forgiveness, but the odds are low. And if she did tell the truth, well, then you’d know, I guess, but there would be no guarantee she wouldn’t lie in the future. To paraphrase 3LW, liars gonna lie.

So what do I recommend? Unfortunately, since you say the lie was about something inconsequential, this is one of those situations where you just have to let it go. I realize this is easier said than done, but I think it will save you some grief when dealing with Judith in the future. Instead of maintaining a chilly distance with this woman — which she might very well be oblivious to — I say treat her normally, but keep your sensors up around her. That is, forgive, but don’t forget. In a professional context, it pays to be wary around dishonest people, so be careful with the information you share with Judith, take whatever she says with a large grain of salt, and, to the extent possible, verify what she tells you with someone else, if you must rely on the information she gives you. Realize that if she lied to you once, she’ll probably do it again, and proceed accordingly. But maintaining an awkward silence with her is not going to help matters. Better to just act professionally but keep your guard up for future fibs.

Good luck!


Lady of Leisure

Yesterday I took a break from writing. Well, not entirely. I wrote a blog post in the morning, and then frittered away an hour reading blogs and news, and then I went to the gym, and then I got a pedicure and had lunch with a friend. And then I came back home and thought, What shall I do now?

The reason I took the break from writing was because the previous evening, I had finished the latest round of revisions on my novel and had sent it to one of my readers/critics to look over before I did anything drastic, like send the manuscript off to agents. Now that my revisions were done, at least for the moment, I didn’t feel like writing anything, but I also didn’t feel like just sitting there, useless. I had to think of something to do.

I thought, Maybe I’ll pick up my knitting again. I have some nice knitting books and I figured I could do some knitting exercises and practice a bit before attempting to dive into the world of sweaters and bunnies. I searched our apartment and realized that I had not actually brought my knitting needles to South Africa. I brought the knitting books, but not the knitting implements. Which is like me, really.

Then I thought, Maybe I’ll read. But I read every day, a lot. All the time. I had just spent my entire pedicure reading (and ignoring the pedicurist’s snarky comments about my dry heels). A crossword puzzle? I do those every day, too, when I watch TV or listen to podcasts. Watch TV? Too defeatist. Cook? It’s 3:45 pm. Go for a walk? I live in Johannesburg, so that’s not gonna work. Go to the gym? Already did that.

Photo on 2012-07-29 at 14.15


The problem is, there’s this urge in me to always be doing something, to always be busy, to always be thinking. It’s hard to suppress it. At times when there is genuinely nothing for me to do – for example, when I am waiting for feedback on my manuscript – I feel that I must occupy these quiet periods with something useful, or at least creative, or else I am just taking up space, and then what good am I? Point being, I could definitely never be a Lady of Leisure. I would go bonkers. I’d probably end up institutionalized by how bonkers I’d go. But I realize, of course, that this is a good problem to have: deciding how to pass my afternoon when there are no demands on me. But, to be honest, it’s a struggle.

Eventually, I decided to compromise by watching Brideshead Revisited (the 1981 miniseries with Jeremy Irons, not the ghastly movie version with Michael Gabon – the horror!) and doing a crossword puzzle. Not exactly what you’d call productive, but at least I’m not watching The E True Hollywood Story: Lindsay Lohan (again). Eventually, I ended up planning and cooking dinner. I made this, one of my all-time favorite Middle Eastern dishes, which I used to chow down on with some frequency when I lived in Detroit. It turned out well, but next time I’d add sultanas, I think.

Anyway. I really wish I had brought my knitting needles.