“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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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.

A Lesson From Van Gogh

Well, June 3rd has come and gone. The first of the last hurdles is now over in the race to  complete my recording.  I’m very pleased with the results.  Today I head back up for four more days of work in the studio. This time I will record two songs on guitar and we will review all of the songs recorded thus far to determine what will make the cut for the cd.recording studio

One of the songs I’ll be recording next week is actually a re-do of a song I recorded last October called “A Stone’s Throw.” I didn’t like how the recording turned out but I didn’t want to give up on the song so I re-arranged it stylistically and now we’ll give it another go. It is the first song I ever wrote, which was about 4 years ago. Truthfully, it’s not the kind of song that I feel I am gravitating toward writing now. But giving it recorded voice feels necessary for closure to that period of my song writing.

For some reason, Stone’s Throw has undergone more revisions than any song I’ve written thus far. I’ve changed the key, the lyrics, the rhythm and the arrangement. Some songs are written quickly and have an immediate coherency while others, like this one, seem to evolve with fits and starts.

portratureI have been reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo. In his early correspondence, Van Gogh details his experiences of learning to draw, especially the human form. He works and re-works countless sketches, using live models, hours and hours a day. Landscapes too require much trial and error to get right. He expresses worry over the expense of using so much paint on studies that are then discarded. He tells Theo that he tries to draw with charcoal as much as possible while practicing so to save the costly paint for more evolved compositions. Pot of paint

Van Gogh’s letters reminded me that all artistic work really is work, no matter the artistic form. What we see as the “finished product” is the result of countless hours by the artist of honing their craft. None of us are immune from the learning curve. Van Gogh did not sit down one day and produce a masterpiece. I don’t know if I will ever produce a “masterpiece” but I can certainly attest to the fact that if you want to create something of value then you must buckle down and do the necessary work. It is unavoidable. You can’t go around to get to the other side, you must go through. Is this not true of life in general?

So, back to my song. Actually all of the songs I’ve written. The writing of the melody, the lyrics and the arrangement isn’t the end. The recording process is part of a song’s evolution. Sometimes you just don’t know how it’s going to sound until you record it.  All artists have songs that didn’t turn out as they hoped or just weren’t right and were either abandoned in the studio or reworked in some way. Of course, I’m hoping that this next attempt at  “A Stone’s Throw” will be a keeper for the cd. But I’m learning to remain open to the fluidity of the process trusting that no matter what happens, ultimately having done the work will produce the reward.Painted Background 259

“Insist On Yourself”

June 3rd is looming large on my calendar. On Friday I go back into the studio to record the last two piano songs for my cd. Later in the month, I’ll spend four more days recording on guitar and reviewing all of my songs in preparation for release. I have been working on this project for more than a year now and am finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.IMG_2283

IMG_2288Deciding to write and record my own songs was a giant leap into the unknown. An endeavor begun in middle age, with no knowledge of how to do it, and with only a fledgling’s self-confidence that I could do it. But when the opportunity presented itself to quit my day job a few years ago, and to focus on my music, I knew it was now or never.

It had never occurred to me when I was younger that I might possess enough talent to do such a thing. My religious upbringing encouraged conformity not individuality. It was an inhospitable environment for creativity to thrive. Nevertheless, my desire to create never died. It was just lying dormant, awaiting the time when I would evolve into the person who was confident in, and comfortable with her own uniqueness. The person I was always meant to be.

 “Insist on yourself: never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half-possession…Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.” —  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Two months ago I had only one song written to record on piano. Because we rent a large studio with a grand piano for the day, I knew it was necessary to have two songs ready to go. I had an idea in progress for a song, with a chorus already written, but I could never get any traction going on the verses.IMG_2290

After two weeks of laboring over it, I made the decision to cut bait and try for something new. The only thing I had in the wings were some lines inspired by the Greek myth about the Three Fates; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the three women who determine the length of a life. One spins the symbolic thread, one marks its length, and the third cuts it.

The Three FatesRecently I visited an elderly friend who expressed to me that she had never allowed herself to develop her life’s potential. She had so many dreams and ambitions that never came to fruition because it meant leaving an unhappy marriage, something she could never get the courage to do. Now in her mid 80‘s she was looking back with regret over what might have been.

I was reminded of another friend, who for most of his life, has viewed the world through a very narrow lens. He likes bullet lists, how-to formulas and five step programs. He believes that the most important thing you can learn in life is how to control your emotions. But in the last few years he has glimpsed the vitality and richness of other cultures and world views beyond his ken. The world could be his oyster, but does he have the courage to loosen his grip on control? Will he take the leap into the unknown?

As I pondered my friends’ life stories and my own life’s metamorphosis I saw the thread of commonality and a song began to coalesce and emerge. No matter our individual circumstances, if we are evolving we will reach a point of awareness when we say life has been “thus” but now it can be “thus.” We will reach a point where it will take blind courage to move forward. And we will become aware of the thread growing shorter.

The Fates of Time                                                                        

Looking back at the beginning
You had a formula for winning
Your secret was control
You wrapped your heart in a blindfold

So you took it on the road
In every town a sold out show
People hungry for a cure
Will buy a remedy like yours

But life always seems to stray
From the best of plans we lay
And walls buckles from the strain
Of a ruse you can’t sustain
Not even one more day

Chorus: 
‘Cause the Fates of Time are spinning
Measuring and trimming
The days, the hours, the time
You’ve left to find
The thread of meaning in your life

One day you catch a glimpse
Of a happiness you’ve missed
It’s a passion in your soul
That won’t bend to your control

So embrace uncertainty
You have all the strength you need
Take the leap, it’s not too late
To become yourself, don’t wait
Not even one more day

‘Cause the Fates of Time are spinning
Measuring and trimming
The days, the hours, the time
You’ve left to find
The thread of meaning in your life                                            

words and music by Penny R Pierce
copyright 2016 all rights reserved

 

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Texas Star Rising

CarieJuettnerBioDear Readers,

I’m so delighted to introduce to you our featured poet, Carie Juettner, to help us celebrate National Poetry Month!  Carie is a poet, short story author, and novelist in Austin, TX. Her work has been published in Nature Futures, The Texas Observer, and The Texas Poetry Calendar, among other places, and she has a story forthcoming in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things. In addition to writing, Carie substitute teaches, shelves library books, and speaks to students about poetry. You can learn more about Carie, find links to all of her published work, (along with some great photos of her pets) on her blog,  cariejuettner.com

Below are two poems that you will love along with a short interview with Carie!

Wildflower Season

Highways are bridges across red seas,
oceans of blue—
bodies of color that wave
when the wind blows.

Tourists in our own land, we wade
through ankle-high blooms, then venture deeper—
trying to capture something
that can’t be caught in a photo.

What we want to remember
is our moment of awe
when we crested that hill
and gasped at the painted landscape.

One bluebonnet looks just like the next up close.
They are not zebra stripes, nor snowflakes.
Their power lies in the collective,
beauty in numbers.

Let’s put down our cameras,
keep our kids in the car,
stop stopping on the side of the road
to see the blanket turn to threads,
the ocean of blue become a dried up lake
of bald spots and litter.

Let’s just drive, look,Bluebonnets
enjoy with our windows down.

Make a U-turn if we must.

© Carie Juettner

This poem won first place in the Austin Poetry Society’s Mary Oliver Award in 2015 and is published in Best Austin Poetry 2014-2015. Follow this link to get your copy!

The Bohemian Freethinker chats with Carie Juettner

BFT:  Carie, has Austin and or Texas, always been your home? Your poem “Wildflower Season” about the beautiful bluebonnets indigenous to Texas reveals an inspiration from your specific locale. How does sense of place inspire you? Give us an idea of where your inspiration comes from.

Carie: I’ve lived in Texas all my life. I grew up in Richardson, which is near Dallas, then came to Austin to attend college at UT and, like a lot of people, I stayed. I’ve been in Austin for over fifteen years now. It’s a great town.

I’m definitely inspired by place. I’ve been published several times in the Texas Poetry Calendar, so most of those pieces are Texas-themed, and I have another wildflower poem, a haiku actually, that appeared last August in The Texas Observer. I also love Big Bend National Park in south Texas and am always inspired to write when I go there.

BFT: In one of your essays about teaching, you state that you knew you wanted to be a teacher as early as the 9th grade. When did you discover that you were also a writer, and a poet in particular?

Carie:  I started writing poems in 9th or 10th grade. I still have them. They almost all rhyme and most of them have dramatic titles like “Dancing with Danger” and “Flirting with Disaster,” things I never actually did. 🙂 I started journaling and writing poetry more seriously in college, and I got my first poem published in the 2009 Texas Poetry Calendar.

All throughout my teaching career I wanted to “write a book someday.” But that’s about as far as the thought went. It was just this vague notion of something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what the book would be about or when I would write it or how. In my last year of teaching, I got an idea for a novel and started making notes. Then I made the big decision to quit teaching and jumped into writing with both feet. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about both the craft and business of writing over the past four years. And there’s still so much TO learn.

BFT:  Although our focus is on poetry today, you are actually a published author in other genres including horror, and young adult fiction. Does one inform the other, or one flow from another? Do you usually have a work in progress in multiple genres simultaneously?

Carie: I do think that the practice of writing, in any genre, makes you a better writer in all genres. I think the succinctness of poetry and the focus on imagery and language aids my prose, and sometimes when a short story is getting too long and I’m having trouble reeling it in, I try to visualize it as a poem in order to focus and find the heart of it.

I ALWAYS have multiple projects going at once, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. In one way, it’s nice to have something else to work on when I get stuck in one piece, but at the same time, that makes it easy to jump from one work-in-progress to the next over and over rather than making myself focus and struggle through the hard parts.

Right now, while I’m looking for an agent for my first middle grade novel, I have a poetry chapbook and a horror short story both in revision and another middle grade novel draft I need to get back to.

BFT:  Your poem, “Poetry Tumbles,” was published in the 2015 Anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival. The festival has already occurred in 2016, yes? Was it well attended? Is poetry alive and well today?

Carie: Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend AIPF this year, but I do think poetry is alive and well today, at least in Austin. I’m on the board of the Austin Poetry Society, where we have a fairly small but very devoted group of poets who enjoy attending our meetings and listening to our guest speakers and entering our monthly and annual contests. We’re always looking for new members and volunteers though, so if you’re a poetry lover in the Austin area, consider joining. http://www.austinpoetrysociety.org

In fact, Austin has is a great community for writers of all types. A few months ago, I raved about all my favorite local literary events and organizations on my blog. You can check it out here: https://cariejuettner.com/2015/09/01/writerly-resources-in-austin-tx/

                                                                      Poetry Tumbles 

Poetry tumbles down the street
skittering into gutters
wrapping around crepe myrtles
and live oak branches
sailing out from under parked cars,
marred by tire treads

Poetry collects in doorways
lurks in bushes
pastes itself to fence posts
like flyers for lost cats.
It teeters on rooftops
threatening to jump

Poetry rings the doorbell
in the middle of the day
then runs away, laughing.
It digs holes in the garden,
then lounges on a lawn chair
nibbling ripe plums
birds eggs in nest
Poetry yawns, stretches  
wiggles its bare toes
and rubs its eyes,
curls up in a bird’s nest
and falls asleep
camouflaged as eggs.

© Carie Juettner