“Deep Work,” What It Is, How To Get It

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say- ‘come out unto us.’ But keep thy state, come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity.”

                                                —–  Ralph Waldo Emerson from “Self Reliance”

Although written 176  years ago, Emerson’s astute words are eerily relevant today. Just substitute the words Email, Text, FaceBook or Twitter for his list of “emphatic trifles” clamouring for attention, and Emerson could easily be speaking to a 21st century audience. For who among us hasn’t heard the siren call of these addictive network tools, and social media platforms, and then surrendered to a “weak curiosity,” when we meant to be accomplishing our “real” work?Photo by Rami Al-zayat on Unsplash

The first time I read Emerson’s insightful critique I felt instantly the sting of recrimination. I saw myself lured into confusion time and again, seemingly against my will. In a recent blog post, I examined how I use author Steven Pressfield’s rule of distinguishing between what is urgent and what is important to establish the priorities for my work. Once I know what I want to accomplish as a writer and an artist, I do those things first. But I also have a “weak curiosity.” Sadly, it is not enough to sequester myself in my studio because those “emphatic trifles”, only a click away, are incessantly knocking at my closet door.

Why is it so hard to resist their power I have often wondered? Is there any antidote to their addiction?  And, how can I build my resistance, so that I can regain control of my own attention and feel satisfied with my creative accomplishments at the end of the day?

I recently discovered Cal Newport’s book entitled Deep Work, Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, IMG_0971which addresses these very concerns. His book confirmed what I innately knew, that an environment of quiet focus is essential to produce quality work. But it also helped me to understand why and how technological connectivity can actually hinder my productivity, making me think twice about how much of it I want in my life. Most importantly, Deep Work provided me with tools and rules that I can use to minimize the powerful allure of the Internet and Social Media while maximizing my creative goals, both daily and for the long term.

Cal Newport, is a theoretical computer scientist and assistant professor at Georgetown University who has managed to become a successful blogger and respected author- without the help of Social Media, as he proudly claims. He defines Deep Work as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

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Photo of the author from the book jacket

He begins his book with the basic premise that now, and in the future, the best jobs and careers in our “technologically driven and constantly changing information economy” will be awarded to those who possess the Deep Work skill, because Deep Work allows you to “master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level again and again.” The problem for most of today’s knowledge workers, as he sees it, is that they have lost, or have never learned this skill.

Newport further asserts that it has now been well studied and well documented that much of the blame for this dearth of skill lies with the overconsumption of what he calls “network tools.” They are: “… a broad category that captures communication services like e-mail and SMS, social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the shiny tangle of infotainment sites like BuzzFeed and Reddit. In aggregate, the rise of these tools, combined with ubiquitous access to them through smartphones and networked office computers, has fragmented most knowledge workers’ attention into slivers.”

While initially his book seems to address those workers in his own sphere of computers and technology within the framework of 9 to 5, his book is for anyone who wants to succeed at anything that requires concentration, whether that be in a conventional workplace or not. It is for anyone who wants to know the sense of well-being and gratification that come from fully engaging their minds. For me, I found his concepts applicable to my own work as a writer and musician.Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Deep Work is divided into two parts. In Part One the Author begins by making three claims: Deep Work is Valuable, Deep Work is Rare, and Deep Work is Meaningful. Already convinced of the validity of these statements, I felt the urge to skip ahead to the practicum in part two, but I had many “aha” moments learning some of the neuroscience behind how our brains tackle cognitively demanding tasks which Newport divulges in part one.

For instance, studies reveal that multitasking creates a brain byproduct called  attention residue that impedes our focus on each subsequent task that we engage in. And then there is the fascinating psychology behind the state of “flow.” That sense of well-being and deep satisfaction that can only be entered into by a total immersion of concentration. Interspersed amongst the studies and research, Newport shares real life success stories of individuals who have understood the value of deep work, how they have used it to their advantage, and how assiduously they guard it, including one executive who took a round trip flight to Tokyo just to have all those hours of distraction free time on the plane to write his book!

In part two of Deep Work, entitled, The Rules, you will find both good news and bad news in the application of a Deep Work regimen. A first bit of good news is that, as humans, we have a limited capacity for cognitively demanding work, so you needn’t imagine yourself isolated and chained to your desk for hours on end. According to the Author, even experts, accustomed to intense concentration, only have about four hours a day worth of this “brain strain” in them. As novices, we should shoot for an hour and think of our Deep Work practice as a muscle we can build gradually with training. So, baby steps.

Now a bit of bad news. We are going to need willpower to attempt a Deep Work practice and “we have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as we use it up.” Citing recent psychological research on the subject, Newport informs us that “your will… is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires out.”  All day long as we resist distractions including television, the Internet, Social Media, (and all those other “emphatic trifles,”) we are making withdrawals from our willpower account. Between limited resources of willpower and undeveloped brain power it is imperative that we have a strategy in place before we begin.

To that end, Newport offers a variety of Deep Work scheduling philosophies to try out coupled with the support of routines and rituals and other pragmatic practices. He suggests that you “execute like a business” and employ tactics of lead measures, goals and accountability. But he also offers up the surprising good news that any Deep Work Practice needs a shutdown ritual that includes permission to leave tasks undone at the end of the day and to periodically be lazy, all without guilt.Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

Perhaps more than any other, the Deep Work rule of “Embrace Boredom” spoke most directly to my personal dilemma of distraction. According to behavioral research, 24/7 access to “on-demand” distractions, (like the internet via your smartphone, or a t.v. remote and hundreds of channels) is literally addicting to the brain. And, Newport writes, “…constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.” (emphasis mine) Scientists say we have rewired our brains in this way making it difficult to flip the switch to “concentrate” even when we want to.

So, while we must train our brains to tolerate long periods of concentration, we must simultaneously and consciously work to overcome our brain’s craving for novelty and distraction. In other words, we need to “Embrace Boredom.” For practice, see if you can resist checking your smartphone every time you find yourself waiting for a friend or standing in line for more than five minutes. Newport suggests that we take breaks from focus rather than breaks from distractions, and he lists various strategies on how to schedule Internet usage even if your job requires constant Internet and email use.  

Photo by William Evan on UnsplashRule # 3 may be the most difficult and controversial of all, “Quit Social Media.” Albeit given with a dash of hyperbole and wishful thinking, Newport’s advice is worth your consideration and he makes a solid case for why we should quit it. Newport argues that FaceBook, Instagram, Google +, Twitter, and Snapchat, et al., are Social Media tools, and like any other tools we use, we cannot justify using them with what he calls an “any-benefit” mindset. We must weigh the pros and cons and find a middle-ground. In this chapter he elaborates with great tips on how we can assess our own individual needs and discover which tools truly add value to our work and personal life. He would also like you to remember that besides being highly addictive,

“These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers. They can be fun, but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they’re lightweight whimsy, one unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you from something deeper.”

Herein lies the crux of Deep Work I believe, and it’s why Cal Newport’s book has so resonated with me. The myth that Social Media has somehow made us a more connected human race was busted long ago, and most of us would admit that we know the vacuous feeling of too much Internet and Social Media. How it drains us and leaves us fractured and unfocused.

For me, the concept of a Deep Work practice is to live more consciously and deliberately, choosing to protect my limited resources of time, energy, willpower, and concentration. I do not want to give others the “power to annoy me,” with their “emphatic trifles” as Emerson would say, due to my “weak curiosity.” More days than not, I want to know the satisfaction of having fully engaged my brain in the creative work I have already determined to be deeply necessary for my sense of well-being. I want to close my ears and my door on the confusion.

Dear Readers, can you relate? What Deep Work is inside you that you need to get busy doing? What are your biggest and most persistent “emphatic trifles” that are keeping you away from that work?

 

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To Know A Mockingbird

To know a mockingbird, is to be inspired. Every morning while I sit on my back porch with my cup of coffee I am serenaded by an enthusiastic mockingbird cycling through his extensive repertoire of songs. And it’s quite impressive. From atop the highest limb of a tree, he sings his heart out creating the illusion that my backyard is filled with an incredible number of different species of birds.495618280_e7b9c69764_z

I am suddenly reminded of a report I wrote about the Mockingbird in grammar school. These feisty, clever birds, have an amazing ability to mock or mimic numerous other birds’ calls as well as duplicate the sounds of insects and frogs. They can even imitate human made sounds like the beeping of a garbage truck backing up. Here is a great recording of a mockingbird serenade.

Long admired for their musical prowess, these wild birds were popular as cage birds in the U.S. during the 19th century. So popular in fact that their numbers dwindled greatly along the East Coast. Adults were captured, as well as fledglings from the nest. A talented singer could sell for as much as $50, a hefty sum for the time period.

Perhaps then, it’s no coincidence that one of the most popular songs during the Civil War era was “Listen To The Mockingbird,” written in 1855. The music was composed by an African-American named Richard Milburn and the lyrics were written by Septimus Winner under the nom de plume, Alice Hawthorne, (his wife).200 The song’s lively, happy melody belies its sad subject matter. A forlorn man is remembering his true love, Halley, who lies “sleeping in the valley.” While he grieves her loss the mockingbird is “singing oe’r her grave” faithfully, day and night.

To people of both the North and the South, “Mockingbird’s” theme of love and loss was especially poignant, as many a true love perished during the war. According to the New York Times, (November 5, 2013) it was such a big hit that 20 million copies of the sheet music were sold! It was apparently well-known that the song was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites.

“Listen To The Mockingbird” is still loved today and is considered a Bluegrass standard.  In 2013, Dolly Parton and Stuart Duncan recorded it for the album Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War. Dolly’s tremulous harmonies on the chorus evoke the sweet lilt of a bird’s song. If you’d like to give it a listen here is the link:

But back to my mockingbird. It’s been a long time since my fourth grade report so I decided to refresh my knowledge. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, a mockingbird continues learning new songs over his or her entire life span and can learn as many as 200 different calls, songs and sounds! Amazing! They just keep adding to their repertoire. They are life-long learners, something I strive to be. I knew there was a reason I thought these birds were so special, even as a child.  I encourage you to stop and listen, and get to know a mockingbird in your own back yard and maybe you’ll be inspired too.

Do What’s Important First

“you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and you must do what’s important first.”— Steven Pressfield

For most of us, life moves at a break neck pace of multi-tasking days as we juggle the competing demands on our limited resources of time. IMG_0518A mobile device seems necessary to organize and plan the details. Being a bit of a Luddite myself, I still prefer to make written “To-Do” Lists. Mine look something like this:

  • -Today
    -The Week Ahead
    -Before the End of the Month
    -Long Term Projects for the Year
    -House Projects
    -Things to Shop for On-line   etc.etc.etc.

Despite our technological efficiency and our herculean efforts, we still say “I can’t find the time” to do this or that. A true statement. There is no more time to be “found” lying around unused somewhere. We cannot lengthen a day. The solution then, is not about finding more time, but about taking time. And if we take time for one thing, we take time away from something else. If we add here, we must subtract there, like it or not. This is simple math, but of course, it’s not easy to do!

How, and what do we subtract? How do we spend the time that we take?

About 2 or 3 times during the year I get to the point where I feel totally overwhelmed. Not only by my “To-Do” lists, but by all the new and interesting activities, people, and places that I want to incorporate into my life. Overrun by choices and the demands on my time, I quickly lose focus and catch myself spinning aimlessly, unable to accomplish anything.

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Me, trying to keep it all under control

Do you know the feeling?

 

When this happens I know that I need to sit down and re-read my “Life Priority List” to remind myself of what I consider to be my life’s over-arching essential goals and direction. It’s my personal vision statement so to speak. It’s my Big Picture “To-Do” List that helps me regain my perspective. It’s my compass to help me find my path when I can’t see the forest for the trees. Here is the gist of it:

-contemplative time to read and write in my journal
-maintain and build relationships with friends/family
-creative expression through song writing and blogging
-development of my piano/guitar/writing skills
-Mind/body wellness through exercise, meditation, etc.

In his motivational book, The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield talks about how, as a professional writer, he must continually discipline himself amidst the demands of the day in order to get his work done. He writes,” I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first.

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Me, when I can’t see the forest for the trees

I love the simple truth of this statement and have it taped to the wall in my studio. Like Pressfield, I must discipline myself each day to resist the siren call of the urgent, (basically everything on my “To-Do” Lists), and make my work my priority. I must first sit down and hammer out a set of lyrics, or practice chord progressions in the key of A flat, or flesh out a blog idea. I must take time to do what’s important or I will never find the time. I only feel overwhelmed when I lose sight of this. When I look at the map I’ve drawn for my life, suddenly it becomes clear what I need to subtract to regain my equilibrium.

 

Sometimes what’s urgent and what’s important are the same thing. Only you can decipher this. But if you know the difference between the two, and keep your priorities as Ground Zero, then you will not be subject to the relentless Tyranny of the Urgent with its insatiable appetite for your time. Funny thing, you may discover as I have that when I do my important work first, I feel more energized and I can let go of the stress of whether everything on those “To-Do” Lists actually gets Done.

Dear Readers, do you know what your big-picture life priorities are? How do you cope with the Important versus the Urgent in your daily life? Do share.

“Everything” a poem by Mary Oliver to Celebrate National Poetry Month

by Guest Blogger, Joy Heaton*

Have you ever experienced a moment when you thought “this is everything!” and you wanted time to stop so that you could hold it forever? Perhaps it was kissing a first love, watching a surreal sunrise, or holding a cooing newborn. Everything becomes clear, pure, and transcendent. Your thoughts, feelings, desires, and terrors all disappear in a light called Eternity. But, as we all know, time cannot be stopped and moments cannot be captured…except perhaps by an artist’s brush or a poet’s pen.

EVERYTHING     by Mary Oliver

No doubt in Holland,
when van Gogh was a boy,
there were swans drifting
over the green sea
of the meadows, and no doubt
on some warm afternoon
he lay down and watched them,
and almost thought: this is everything.
What drove him
to get up and look further
is what saves this world,
even as it breaks
the hearts of men.
In the mines where he preached,
where he studied tenderness,
there were only men, all of them
streaked with dust.
For years he would reach
toward the darkness.
But no doubt, like all of us,
he finally remembered
everything, including the white birds
weightless and unaccountable,
floating around the towns
of grit and hopelessness––
and this is what would finish him:
not the gloom, which was only terrible,
but those last yellow fields, where clearly
nothing in the world mattered, or ever would,
but the insensible light.

 Pulitzer Prize- winning poet, Mary Oliver, invites us to ponder the truth and clarity of these illuminated moments in her poem, “Everything,” about the artistic sensitivity of Vincent van Gogh. This poem draws sharp contrasts between the carefree boy and the disillusioned man, the dark mines and the sunlit fields, the laborious work and the idle leisure, the reaching and the unreachable, the black dust and the white birds, the hopelessness of reality and the hopefulness of eternity. 
Oliver captured in words what van Gogh brushed onto canvasses; the clarity and brightness of light when juxtaposed with darkness. Even in death, van Gogh may have been reaching for a light that transcended time and held illusive bliss.
The curse and blessing of artists like van Gogh is the ability to see the world in a different light and to pursue that light until all that seems different is recognized as variations of light on a starry, starry night.
* Dr. Joy Heaton is Executive Director of Just Compassion, Inc.  Her doctoral thesis at Columbia Theological Seminary examined the practice of attentiveness as expressed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver.

Why Women March

By now we all know that history was made on January 21, 2017. What an awe-inspiring sight to see millions of women in this country and around the world, marching in unity. Epic in Proportion. Powerful.

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Wilmington’s Women’s March        Photos courtesy of Sandra C.

To my amazement, I read comments on-line and on social media from people who could not understand what the Women’s March on Washington was about. One guy on my Facebook page  pejoratively referred to it as “your so-called” march. When I read that I thought, “there, that is it exactly. That is why women march.” “So-called” is such a put down, such an attempt to belittle and invalidate. Women are sick and tired of having their accomplishments demeaned. Too often our voices, concerns, and issues are ignored or bullied into silence.

To not understand why women marched in solidarity on January 21st is to not understand why Alcoholics Anonymous exists, or other support groups like cancer survivors, veterans, or MADD. There is hope and healing when you discover that you are not alone. Now imagine how it feels when you discover that millions of people around the world feel the same way. The Women’s March on Washington, in all its forms and in all its places, was the tangible reality of that fact. It’s like never having seen the ocean but being told how expansive, powerful, and majestic it is. And then one day you see the ocean for yourself, you witness its grandeur with your own eyes.

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Wilmington March

To be sure, women marched with many agendas and for a wide range of issues that day. Each woman came with a personal life experience or story that motivated them. You cannot have a gathering of that magnitude and not expect that to be the case. After all, each woman is still an individual! The point is that in our current political environment, and around the world, groups of every kind, under the larger umbrella of women’s rights, are being marginalized, ignored, abused, and discriminated against. Thus the mantra, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” and “Human Rights are Women’s Rights.” 

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Great Question!

Finally, we acknowledge all of the men and boys; fathers, partners, brothers, sons and male friends, who marched alongside the women.

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Not just about women

Their presence affirmed that the march was in fact bigger than just about a bunch of bitchy women with an axe to grind. The multitude of voices who used the March for their platform were speaking for the (here-to-fore) silent majority of humanity, not the minority as detractors would like us to believe. It is imperative that we keep raising our voices and remembering that while there are those with money to buy political power, there is another form of political power, Power in Numbers.

Dear Readers, did any of you participate in a March on January 21st, or have a story about someone who did?

 

 

Resolutions, or Just Good Intentions?

img_0339I feel energized with expectancy when the calendar year flips. Granted, nothing is really different between December 31st and January 1st, but psychologically the new year is a boost to a fresh start for all sorts of things. Of course, it is impossible to bottle that “freshness,” and it isn’t long before our noble resolutions fade into merely good intentions. Right? “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as the saying goes.

All the same, I enjoy reading my journal entries from throughout the year on December 31st and then putting down on paper my aspirations for the coming year. I began 2016 with a very specific goal, completing my cd, and I did it! I don’t recall ever having such a specific goal for the year ahead. But it felt great to persevere and succeed. You can listen to samples and download from iTunes at this link or purchase physical cds from cdbaby at this link.

In her book, “This Year I Will…” M.J.Ryan suggests that one way to help us focus our resolve is to give the new year a name such as “The Year I Reclaim My Health” “The Year of Learning to Say No,” “The year of Household Projects” etc. I’ve decided that my 2017 will be “The Year of Public Performing.” 

Those who know me, know that I am a very reluctant performer. The truth is I don’t enjoy performing nearly as much as I do writing and recording my songs and I get nervous which makes me like it even less. But I know that sharing my songs live is a missing component in my musical aggregate. To that end, I am seeking out local places to perform that suit my musical style. In addition I am working every day to build and solidify a sufficient playlist.

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Write out your “Year of” Resolution and tape it up in a prominent place

Besides my commitment to performing, I am simultaneously gathering ideas, scribbling down lyrics and plunking out bits of melody at the piano all in an effort to create new songs. That work is always on-going and I hope to share more of the process with you as the year progresses. And I’ll let you know how the performance challenge is going. The year is still young, but so far so good. 

Dear readers, what will 2017 be “The Year Of” in your life? I’d love to hear!