Tag Archives: Technology

Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep WorkIt’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re all more distracted than we’ve ever been in history. At the same time, manufacturing and other manual labor jobs are going away, and today’s worker is increasingly employed in some sort of “knowledge work.” One would assume that knowledge workers need quiet focus in order to fulfill their career missions, but the very companies that lead the field are those that promote wide open workspaces, supposedly to foster collaboration. Even in more traditional companies, an open room filled with cubicles is the norm, and employees are expected to stay connected to electronic forms of communication at all times, sometimes even at home. How can we perform deep work in this sort of environment?

Cal Newport has employed strategies in his own life that enable “deep work” in order to become one of the most productive professors at Georgetown University, publishing far more than most of his colleagues in spite of his young age. Beginning with his personal experimentation and expanding to his research on top producers in several fields, Newport has distilled his findings in this book, subtitled Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He realistically offers a range of suggestions that can be implemented by people in various vocations and levels of authority. A CEO may be able to roll out a new initiative for his entire company, whereas a single employee who undertakes that same strategy on his own may find himself unemployed very quickly, so Newport is sensible about each plan’s feasibility.

One of his main points, approached from several angles, is to reduce the number of interruptions that occur in one’s day, particularly from electronic sources. On one end of the spectrum, he tells of the award-winning author, Neal Stephenson, who does not even have an email account. This is even more amazing when one considers that Stephenson is a science fiction writer. He refuses to create an obligation for himself to respond to people he does not know. This level of disconnectedness is impossible for most people, though. Rather, Newport suggests ways to limit our Pavlovian response to the “new email” signal, still responding, but remaining in control of our concentration on more important tasks. He presents questions to ask yourself about whether you should be using Twitter, routines to follow to start and end your work day, and architectural ideas for owners to build better work spaces for higher levels of production from their employees. All of his strategies can be tailored to suit a variety of vocations that would benefit from more focused time, from artists and writers to entrepreneurs and computer developers.

I first heard about this book while listening to a young pastor discuss his church growth strategy on a radio talk show. When I researched it, I discovered that it was on many lists of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2017.

Newport believes that the future belongs to the most focused workers, and that they are rapidly becoming the privileged few. Deep Work will empower and encourage you to incorporate new practices in your life that will ensure that you are part of that small group.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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John Knox: Shaken, Not Stirred

Image“I meant to make a Presbyterian last night,” Michael announced one Saturday morning, “but then I fell asleep and I forgot.” Since I have positive feelings towards Presbyterians in general and am extremely fond of several Presbyterians in particular, I was quite unsettled by this Frankensteinish statement. Michael saw my shocked face and gestured to the coffee table. “It’s a drink.” Aha! A “Presbyterian” is the name of a cocktail in a recent alcohol-soaked issue of Garden & Gun featuring a chilled silver cup of Mint Julep on the cover. According to G&G, Presbyterians are made of bourbon or rye with ginger ale. Sure they are. Other offerings include a Dark & Stormy, with dark rum, ginger, and other secret ingredients, and a Spicy Shrub Paloma, with tequila, lime, and expensive-sounding things. This one looks cool and refreshing, and is topped with a big bunch of sage. Check ‘em out here. No lightning bolts required.

ImageWill Spring Ever Get Here?

I don’t think I’ve seen this much snow in one winter since we lived in Kentucky. Every year, I say that I won’t be ready to dig a garden until we have at least one snowfall. Well, I have been so ready for so long! We’ve had several snowfalls or ice storms that were significant enough to keep us housebound for a couple of days, although we have been fortunate to avoid power outages, unlike some of our co-workers.

Now that it is officially, legally spring, the Bradford pears are desperately trying to bloom, but the gray skies and cool temperatures were making it tough. We finally had an almost sunny morning yesterday, so I stopped to take a picture of these Bradfords, standing all in a row, valiantly trying to push those blossoms out. Since it is forecast to be in the seventies this weekend, I was starting to feel hopeful about that gardening.

Then I got to work and someone said: “Did you hear that we’re supposed to have ice and snow again Monday night?” It makes me want to push the blossoms back in for another week.

You Promised: No Island

ImageYes, David and I are the last people on the planet to watch the series Lost. So many people talk about it without explanations that I started to feel as if I were missing a chunk of cultural literacy. Happily, it is available everywhere, so we ordered up the first season from Netflix, but before we started watching, I asked Michael, “This isn’t one of those shows where they land on a deserted island, and people get voted off the island each week, is it?” He replied, “You’re thinking of Survivor.” So I felt better.

First episode: A plane crashes on a deserted island. Hey, wait! Michael said, “Give it three episodes.” So we did, and we really like it. No one gets voted off the island, although a few people have died, and there are surprises all the time. Each episode highlights one character’s back story, so we’ve gotten completely tangled up in everyone’s lives. We’re at the end of season one, and we look forward to season two, right after…

House of Cards! Since everyone is talking about this now, I thought we’d get our cultural literacy in a few years earlier this time. Michael assures me that I will not like it, because it has too much profanity. He’s usually right about these things, but don’t tell him I said that. I’ll let you know. For those of you who, like me, wondered if it was only on Netflix streaming, I can tell you that season one is available on disc, too. Queue up, as they say in Britain.

Turns out that our new knowledge was gained not a moment too soon. Now that there is another jet—I mean, a real jet—that has gone missing in the Pacific, everybody is talking about Lost again! This time, I can just nod sagaciously and make cool remarks. Of course, it’s like being on the other side of the television show, as if we’re the people looking for Jack and Kate and the gang. Since I don’t know how the show ends, I won’t compare too closely, but I do hope we can find the real plane.

ImageEven Boomers Are Geeks

My husband called me on my office phone this afternoon: “I’m in the Wal-Mart parking lot, and I can’t find an email or text with the grocery list on it.”

“I didn’t send you an email or text with the list.”

Silent confusion on the other end.

“I said it to you. “ Pause. “This morning. At breakfast.”

“Oh!” Pause.

Me: “Do you want to hang up and I’ll text it to you?”

“No, I guess you can say it and I’ll write it down.”

Remember notepaper tacked on to the fridge with magnets? Not any more.

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You Are Here. Be Here Now.

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I looked in on my 27-year-old son one evening. He lives in a cave we call his office with two huge computer monitors (one is his 52-inch flat-screen TV), a tower PC, a server, a laptop, a smart phone, and now a Nexus 7. He wears gaming headphones about 23 hours per day and yellow Gunnar glasses to reduce eye strain. Moving further into the room, I could see that he was doing homework on the big screen, with four different chat screens open around the edges. He had a movie going on the smaller screen, which he was listening to through the headphones. He often has the webcam on, too, and is talking to several people at once. I held my arms out to the sides, palms up in meditation position, and said, “Be Here Now.”

Do you remember that ‘70s book by Baba Ram Dass? It was all about experiencing your life as it happens, not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Be aware of your environment and the people around you. Be fully conscious. All very Eastern spirituality and hippiness, and perhaps there were substances involved that would make his disciples not very conscious at all, but maybe we should think about the message.

I stood in line at the grocery store yesterday, and the guy behind me talked incessantly. Not to me, of course, but to an invisible person in his ear. I had seen him in the store earlier, and I saw him in the parking lot later. Always talking. Does he care at all about the people around him? We are making little tiny bubbles for each of us to live in, and yet we laud “community” all the time.

Reality check: Will you make it to the end of this post without checking your email?

Are you reading this with chat screens open? Are you watching TV at the same time that you surf the internet? Will you flip to a YouTube video to break up the reading? Do you check Facebook hourly or more? Are your friends really that exciting? Do you play games on your smartphone when there’s nothing new on Facebook? How many people are you following on Twitter?

What are your chances of getting through Proust? When was the last time you read a book as long as a Dickens novel? Or do you wait for the movies so that you can play Angry Birds at the same time?

Think of what this says about our upcoming presidential election. Many people will vote for someone because of a political ad that popped up before a YouTube video. Perhaps they will follow a candidate or campaign on Twitter and vote for the one with the cleverest tweets. There are a lot of people who get all of their news from comedians. Can a president be elected on the basis of stand-up comedy? Many people get very emotional about various causes, but how much depth is there in our philosophies?

When was the last time you prayed? Grace before meals doesn’t count. (Oh, now we’re gettin’ to meddlin’.) When was the last time you read the Bible and meditated on it? I am talking to myself here. We need to allow silence in our lives so that we can hear from God. (Those of you who are not Christians do not need to panic here. These are not the droids you are looking for.) How can we know what we think if we never stop to think?

Here’s something: let’s just try to notice how distracted we are. Try to spend some time every day “unplugged.” Play outside with your kids, or read to them. Try reading without having the TV on. If you’re interested in something, do some real research on it, and don’t accept other people’s opinions, no matter how many times they get re-tweeted. We can do this. We can be more thoughtful, well-informed, and peaceful.

Full disclosure: When I got to a tough spot while writing this article, I checked Facebook without thinking. FacePalm!

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