Saturday, June 15, 2019

I followed Cal Newport's advice in Deep Work - this is what happened

Cal Newport's Deep Work offers advice for clearing your life of distraction, and upping your ability to get important things done. And just a few weeks ago I made it through the title, so thought it'd make for an interesting experiment to try out some of his ideas.

While the book laid out a variety of suggestions I figured the kicker for me was social media, as that's what takes up a lot of my time and attention. The thought was that if I could cut back on social sites my attention would naturally shift to more important things.

The Plan

In Newport's section on social media he recommended quitting your accounts for a month to get a sense of which were useful to you. But my plan took elements from a few of his chapters.

First of all I set out my deep work philosophy, which was to entirely separate my important work from leisure tasks. So for about a month I avoided killing too much time except for a few hours late in the day when I'd inevitably be totally worn down.

Social media was also central to this, but not in the vein of Newport's chapter on the same topic, only in the sense that this is where a lot of my attention tends to go.

Cal Newport
In the beginning

Starting out, I made a radical change at work - I'd only do useful things. If I had downtime between tasks, was waiting for something to run, or a bit worn out, I'd only let myself do things that had some kind of utility.

While doing this I couldn't help but notice how badly addicted I was to the usual sites. At times I'd type URLs before realizing I was doing it. And so it turned out that a big part of my habits were nothing more than visiting specific sites because that's what I'd spent so much time doing before.

But as I made an effort to focus I could feel my willpower growing. That instinct to check out different feeds faded, and my ability to focus was getting stronger. The key turned out to be breaking down the muscle memory that led me to time-wasting sites.

After a while

After a few weeks I got a sense of which accounts were actually useful to me - this being central to Cal Newport's section on social media.

Soon after the experiment started I deactivated my Instagram account and started a new one where I only follow intimate friends and family. I spent less time logging into Facebook. I realized that I don't have much use for Twitter. And internet forums are something that I genuinely value.

How I spent time on these sites changed too, in the vein of Newport's 'drain the shallows' advice. I started thinking more critically about what I shared and commented on. Before I posted I'd ask myself if I was adding value by posting or commenting, and also how much of my time the post was going to waste from fruitless conversation.

So when I realized my comment or post was just a drain on my time, I'd stop making it.

Embracing Boredom

I found this rule from Newport especially handy. It was a recommendation that when you find yourself bored or with the urge for the next adrenaline rush, to slow down and let yourself continue doing what you're doing.

So I started pushing myself to focus on what was happening in the present moment. And through this I recognized that just because I think about something doesn't mean it has to completely take over the task at hand. And so with time my willpower and ability to focus started a new, upward climb.

The Catch

Despite the above, after spending so much time focusing on work I recognized that constant concentration took a lot out of me.

So while it was great in theory to go all in and focus for long blocks of time, in reality the human mind can only expend so much energy all at once. Eventually fatigue would set in, and the things I'd been avoiding began acting as a stand in so I could rest.

I also noticed a trade-off while keeping instant messaging off of my phone. While I was definitely less distracted, there were a few times when people tried to get a hold of me and I didn't get the message until it was too late. And so it would seem like internet culture has dictated that people expect immediate replies, making it challenging to distance yourself from messaging apps without missing out.

Conclusion

By the time the month was up I had nearly forgotten that the experiment was happening. I had already realized a few things, and found myself slipping back into old habits.

And so if I were to change my relationship with the internet and other shallow parts of my life, Newport's suggestions would have to be an ongoing project. Fundamentally changing your habits can't be done in such a short time, they have to be worked on.

Moreover I learned that some of Newport's advice is definitely worth taking. I really did get more done, and I also discovered how much of my life, including time with friends and family, was being leeched by looking at internet feeds.

Once again, if this post interests you, I'd definitely recommend getting a copy of the book. If nothing else, it'll help you question some major parts of your life.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

A Review of 'Deep Work' by Cal Newport

Deep Work by Cal Newport gives an overview of 'Deep Work', why he considers it so important in the modern world, and a few ideas for getting more of it into your life. In this post I'll be going over the book's content with a short review at the end.



To the author the most important, challenging, and meaningful work we can do in our lives is done via long periods of uninterrupted focus. And so he considers it a central task of the modern worker to organize their life in a way so they can get more important things done via that focus.

What's interesting to me here is that to most this is obvious, but the idea is now relevant again with the rise of a barrage of apps sapping our time and attention. Because we live in such a distracted world there's now room for a title like Deep Work to remind us how to get things done.

A Summary

The title is broken out into two sections -  the first outlines what deep work is and why the author believes it's so important, and the second outlines rules for getting more of it into your day-to-day life.

Section One: The Idea

Newport goes into quite a bit of depth in this section, and I would definitely recommend reading the book, but the central idea of the title can be be tied up fairly tidily.

He argues that in the modern workplace (and sometimes at home, too) people find themselves in a constant state of distraction. Instant messaging, e-mail, and social media keep us focused on what he calls shallow work: stuff that keeps us busy but that isn't very important.

This distraction causes a drag on our time and attention, making it harder to do anything that's challenging and takes focus - deep work. And in such a distracting world this creates an opportunity for people who are able to manage their attention to get things done.

Section Two: The Rules

In this section the author lays out four chapters, each offering rules and ideas to put deep work into practice. The chapters all have a guiding theme, but moreover serve as collections of ideas and anecdotes.

Work Deeply

The brunt of this chapter covers philosophies for working deeply. For example, the 'Monastic' where a person becomes a recluse and focuses on deep work exclusively. Or the 'Bimodal' where a person focuses half of their time in distraction, and the other half focusing.

The idea was that if a person wants more focus throughout their day they should lay out a plan for how they're going to manage their attention.

Embrace Boredom

In this chapter the author describes boredom as a muscle that needs to be flexed. He explains that people default to social media and search for the next adrenaline rush at every opportunity. Five minutes of downtime? Check your phone. Have nothing going on? Turn on your laptop.

The problem is that we end up spending our lives always checking social media and searching for the next distraction, without ever breaking free and latching onto those things that take effort and provide value and meaning. And by embracing bored moments we become more able to flex this muscle and focus when we need to.

The author goes on to recommend splitting up the time you spend on distracting things, from the time you spend doing important work. Set a policy and stick to it, which he argues will help build your willpower. 

Quit Social Media

In this section Newport recommends quitting social media for 30 days. He reasons that this will give a sense of which accounts you need, and which don't really do much for you.

He explains that people view sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as default parts of their lives, but when you look at them through a different lens they're just forms of entertainment, and if you don't visit or post most people won't notice.

So a break helps you understand which of these sites are just a drain on your time. And if they do serve no purpose Newport recommends quitting them completely.

Drain the Shallows

In this chapter the author explains the difference between demanding and non-demanding work, and strategies for limiting the non-demanding (or shallow) work from your schedule.

There wasn't really a central focus here, just a set of ideas like becoming harder to reach by email, strategies on how to respond to email, how to schedule your work day, and setting a shallow work budget. 

A Review

I'm not a big reader of books like this, but after reading an article on this title I thought I'd give it a try.

I often find that the popular non-fiction I read doesn't have much depth, is filled with noise, and the ideas in them can be a bit vague. But in this title I found a fair amount of substance.

While it could be repetitive at times all of the chapters had something substantial to offer, and the layout and writing was well executed. It was also a quick and enjoyable read. And while I've laid out the brunt of it in this post, there's plenty more in the book.

Overall, if you're interested in doing more with your time I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

How western cultural values set us up for failure

A few months ago the hair salon I'd been visiting for a few years closed. I'd gotten to know a few hairdressers at that location, but when I switched to a local First Choice I was at the behest of a new group of people (ok, mostly women).



I've only visited the First Choice a handful of times so far, but let me tell you, there are some interesting women working at the location on Oxford and Gammage. Not one, but two of them have escaped their country of birth to come to Canada. The first came from Poland when it was under Soviet control, and the second came from a war torn Kosovo.

I won't spend too much time on emigration, but what amazed me about these women was that they had come to Canada and started a family from practically nothing. They were hard-working, likely didn't have much money, but were making a life anyway.

After meeting them I couldn't help but take a look at myself.

Truth be told, I've had a fear of failure since finishing up at school. No matter what I do or how well things are going there's a persistent voice in my head that tells me not to screw up. I've had the notion that anything but financial success was something I couldn't accept.

Then I got my haircut, and found out my hairdresser and her husband who drives for Uber are raising three kids.

And that's when it dawned on me - it's not the worry of money problems that really bothers me, it's the crushing expectations that come from growing up in the middle class, being of Western European descent, and a natural Canadian citizen.

Growing up my parents weren't wealthy, but made good salaries and retired with cozy pensions. I made it through post-secondary without much debt, and have had a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. All things considered I've lived a charmed life. 

People like me grew up in a culture where wealth was the primary indicator of someone's worth - where social status, trips, cars, homes are what signal your success to others. A culture that fetishized the rich, obsessed over productivity, and tirelessly thought about how to make more money. All at the expense of things that really matter - family, relationships, character, ethics.

But then, there's my hairdresser who came from a country torn apart by war and raised three children. Who may not have a glamorous retirement filled with travel, but she has a family. She may have problems, but she survives.



Thinking about the life my hairdresser leads I can't help but think that the real source of our misery isn't the usual ebb and flow of our lives, but instead the crushing expectations that come from the Western notion of success.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Going Where People Don't Go: On Studying Central Asia

[This post was originally published Aug. 3rd, 2018]

One of the driving forces of my interest in history comes from wanting to learn about the things that most people don't care about. Like a guy who leaves a party a few hours early, walks to a café, and pulls out an obscure book.

I'm not completely sure what led to my interest in Central Asia, it might have been a few minutes on Google Earth. But at some point in the past few years I was thinking about the countries just south of Russia, their odd names, and realized that I knew nothing about them, their history, or the people who lived there. I'm sure that at the time I had never uttered any of their names before.



And with alumni access to the libraries at the University of Western Ontario there were a huge number of books on the region right at my fingertips. So over a few month span I started checking out titles. The brunt of what I read about at the time were happenings in the region during the Soviet era, but to this day I'm still reading bits and pieces of it's long history.



And even despite my interest there isn't a ton to say to wow my friends, family, or online connections. For the most part the region is poor, close to agrarian (withholding Kazakhstan), with governments that are a hold over from the authoritarian Soviet days. For most of it's history Central Asia has existed as a kind of conduit between Europe and East Asia, landlocked from sea routes, and in the modern era it's held minimal global importance.



Yet to me there is something assuredly worthwhile about studying the region. That thing isn't as much any utility. It's the satisfaction that comes from looking in a place that no one else ever looks, taking a few extra steps around the corner and going somewhere that people don't go. 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reflections After Studying the Indigenous

A few years ago a bit of curiosity came over me about the indigenous of North America. Usually when people think about natives they think of the post-colonial era, and the political battles they've had with Europeans, but that's not what interested me. What interested me was what had happened during the thousands of years before Europeans arrived.


I wondered:
  •  How they survived
  •  What their cultural customs were
  •  About their religious beliefs

When I started out down this path it was difficult to find books on the topic, as a lot of what I came across focused on the colonial era. But with enough persistence I eventually stumbled on some decent books that had both compiled missionary accounts and given a good overview of how natives actually lived.



And after going through the books it seems like many Canadians have had their views of the indigenous shaded by the caricatures we see of them in popular media. Many of us look at Native culture as flat, two-dimensional, and, even if sub-consciously, inferior to the European brand, while in reality their lives were much more interesting than given credit for.

And while it may be true that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was a simpler mode of life, it was really just that - a lifestyle granted to communities who were in a different stage of technical progress, and who were based in a different environment.

But I digress.

The Indigenous in Contrast

What fascinated me the most about the Native way of life was the essentialism of their lifestyle. Because the majority of tribes in North America hadn't developed robust agriculture, their technologies were still fairly unspecialized. This meant that their way of life was 'close to the land' as they say, in sharp contrast to the Agrarian societies of the world.

The things they did to survive were closely tied to seasonal cycles, and subject to famine and the elements. They were close to nature.

This created a situation where the lives of different tribes were tightly tied to the environment they lived in. If they lived in the Arctic they could only hunt for animal life that lived there, and they could only build housing from the materials they had available to them. If they lived in Mexico they could only produce alcohol from the plant-life indigenous to that region, the Agave. 

But at the same time, and this is the kicker, when you pared back the complexity that was present in fuller, Agrarian societies of the world the basic elements of life were still there. Natives were not much different than those living in Europe:

  • their lives centered around finding food
  • they developed communities with a hierarchical structure
  • the family unit existed
  • they developed and discovered drugs and alcohol
  • conflict was a problem
  • tribal groups had religions and creation stories
The Agave

Indigenous Religion

One of the big reasons I set out to study natives at all was to learn about their religious customs. I've been studying religion for a few years, and the beliefs of hunter-gatherers was something that I'd not come across yet. 

One major thing I ended up noting here was that the religions of the indigenous were similar to that of Europeans in that they all contained a creation story. Before the invent of science the people of most communities around the world had a need to explain their existence, and so wherever you went in the Americas you'd find natives with beliefs about the world's creation and the Gods who controlled things.

The other major aspects of their customs were animism and educational myths.

On the first part, they believed that the animals they hunted had spirits, and that if they respected these animals it would lead to more successful hunts.

On the second part, in the majority of native tribes there came to be myths that were instructive for their youth. Children were taught that survival in the wilderness was serious, and that they had to adhere to strict rules and customs if they wanted to survive.

Flipping Over to Africa 

After studying the natives of North America I also spent some time with African culture. And in a lot of ways their lives were analogous with their North American counterparts. If someone wanted to study modes of living as a whole they wouldn't want to contrast different groups of hunter-gatherers, but rather hunter-gather communities with agrarian and modern ones.

On the whole I found it surprising how closely the lives of the African indigenous paralleled those in North America. Similar religions, similar hunting methods, similar tribal structures and habitation. In some sense their lives came about because that's what the environment dictated.

Wrapping Up

I know that blog posts and articles often have a teachable, lesson, or insight, but this one doesn't. Instead, this is just a topic that I've been interested in reading and writing about, and this site gives me a vehicle to do that writing. 

With subjects like this I'm also getting into territory where few people would have any interest, but that's not a concern. A while back I was writing on Medium and over time you could see the things people writing about becoming a bit clickbaity, and based on topics that would gather wide audiences, and inevitably profit. I'm not writing for profit, or for any other reason beside it being an enjoyable way to spend my time, and share with friends, family, and acquaintances.

And in that way writing about stuff like this is serving an even greater purpose than making money: doing something in my life that isn't about making money.