Tuesday, August 15, 2017

"Deep Work" for the Christian Life

NOTE:  I've also put together a general writeup on Deep Work here.

You are sitting at the kitchen table in the early morning intending to spend some time praying.  A minute later you hear a buzz and can’t help but to glance at the notifications on your phone.  Back praying once more, your mind wanders and you find yourself thinking about a meeting at work later that day.  This prayer time is going nowhere.  Why can’t I focus?  Why is prayer so difficult?

Sunday morning you are sitting in church listening to Pat preach.  You’re jotting down his points in Evernote on your phone.  Then a notification pops up.  Then you’re checking an alert on Facebook.  Back to writing some notes.  And back and forth.  As you drive home, your wife asks what you thought about the sermon--you draw a blank.  How can I not remember anything from 30 minutes ago?

You arrive early at the office and open your inbox.  Opening up your Chrome browser, you get a few tabs going: Facebook, Twitter, The Washington Post, your Gmail.  As you answer a few emails, you swing back and forth between your inbox and Facebook feed, then you read a bit of a news article.  Then back to looking up some information for a report that’s due later that day.  You blink and the day is over and you’re driving home wondering:
Where did my day go?  What did I even accomplish today?  

You are waiting in the line at the post office.  The overworked clerk is fighting a losing battle with the outdated shipping software and you resign yourself to losing the next 30 minutes of your life.  So you spend it swiping.  Swiping through Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, reading some news, sending a text, reading an email, deleting some old ones.  Getting things done.  The thing is, you leave the post office, feeling unfocused and tired.
Why does my mind race around?  Why do I feel so distracted?

At your Missional Community everyone is going around the room sharing prayer requests.  After two couples have shared you realize you have no idea what they said.  You had glanced a few times at your phone--really just to check a few irrelevant “breaking” news alerts that buzzed in your pocket and then found myself thinking about a multi-meter that you needed to return to Lowes.  You made it through listening to another couple’s prayer request and then your mind was meandering again thinking about how to phrase your own prayer request.
Why is it so hard to listen?  Why am I listening but not really hearing?

Can you relate to any of these scenarios?  
Do you desire to have a closer relationship with Jesus?  
Do you want to learn more of the bible?  
Do you want to have a better prayer life?  
Do you want a quieter, quiet time?

If so, then Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World is for you.  While the intended audience of Deep Work is clearly a secular business one, the lessons that he lays out are ones that can benefit anyone that desires to “be better.”  For the follower of Jesus, his call to limit distraction and to focus on the priorities in your life (and to figure out what those priorities are) should be a convicting one.  For the Christian reader, Newport’s thesis that learning hard things quickly and efficiently requires intense distraction-free focus (i.e., deep work) should ring true because these very principles are affirmed in scripture.  

Take for example, one of David’s songs (Psalms 46).  He ends it by echoing God’s call to each of us.

Be still.  And know that I am God.

God isn’t calling us necessarily to a physical stillness, of course, but instead he wants us to quiet our minds. He calls us to a focused meditation on his very nature.  After spending several verses extolling the virtue and might of God, David beckons the listener into a denouement—a  time to reflect and direct one’s thoughts to the nature of our Creator.  In Deep Work, Newport examines the biological process of myelination—the science of which affirms the idea that the very type of continual, undistracted, focused reflection that David calls us to can build a deeper understanding and relationship with God.

But what does biology have to do with your relationship with God you ask?  Well, myelin is a layer of fatty lipids and proteins that grow around your nerve cells.  The more myelin that builds up, the faster these nerve cells fire off.  The buildup of myelin (i.e., myelination) comes when you focus solely on a specific task or skill.  The specific ‘circuit’ associated with that task fires off repetitively as you work which triggers cells to produce and envelope your nerves with myelin.  This process then creates a ‘permanent’ skill or knowledge base.   Where learning and myelin buildup go awry is when one tries to multitask.  Multi-tasking fires off multiple circuits at once and doesn’t allow your body to isolate the specific circuit in order to learn a new language or write that term paper--thus no myelin is produced when you are distracted.

This God-designed biological process is important because it confirms Newport’s thesis: “learning is an act of deep work” and if you want to do it quickly and efficiently, you need to maintain an intense focus on the subject at hand.   If you want to get better—in your marriage, your academic studies, your relationship with God—you have to do the (deep) work.  Newport offers a useful equation for the reader:  

High Quality Work Produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus).  


The deep work of prayer

Prayer (i.e., the time we spend talking to God), is perhaps the foundational element of our relationship with Him.  Looking to the Gospels we see Jesus modeling both time spent in prayer and a focused and undistracted intensity in His prayer life.  The gospel writers repeatedly describe Jesus’ concerted efforts to seek out the “deep work” of building his relationship with God as He withdraws and spends undistracted time in prayer and communion.  Some key examples include:
  • Shortly after beginning his ministry, Jesus withdraws to pray in solitude early in the morning (Mark 1:35),
  • After hearing the news of John the Baptist’s beheading, Jesus goes off by himself to pray (Matthew 14:13)
  • Before naming his disciples, Jesus prays to God all night (Luke 6:12),
  • Before and after feeding the five thousand, Jesus prays in solitude(Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:31; John 6:15)
  • At Gethsemane, Jesus enters into three different prayer periods (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14)
  • With his dying breath on the cross, Jesus’ prays the words of King David’s own song of trust in God amidst feelings of abandonment (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5)
Jesus’ lifelong focus on prayer is best captured in Luke’s wry observation that “Jesus often withdrew to pray” (Luke 5:10).  In other words, prayer was a focused habit for Jesus.  The question for followers of Jesus then is how do we advance toward that same place.  Following Newport’s template for producing high quality work (in this case, a deepening relationship with Jesus), we can focus on spending focused and intentional time with God.  Using themes from Deep Work, I’ve created a month long challenge geared to help retrain and refocus our thoughts from distraction toward myelination in our relationship and prayer life with Jesus.

Take the 30 Day Deep Work Challenge

  1. Find rest on your Sundays.  Turn off social media on Sundays.  Disable internet connectivity on your phone as soon as you leave for church until you get home (or at least turn off those pop up notifications on your phone).  Use this time to do the deep work of growing as a Christian.  Orient your heart and focus your thoughts.   The “attention residue” from even a quick glance at an email during the sermon degrades your ability to re-focus on learning and internalizing the message.  Focusing takes practice.
  2. Wake up and put first things first.  Resist the urge to check social media/email when you first awake.  Spend those first moments actively focusing your thoughts on Jesus.  Thank him for three things in your life.  Spend time reading or listening to the Bible and thinking about its application to your own life.  Get up 15 minutes early if you need to.
  3. Schedule your nights and weekends and create value.  Be proactive—not reactive.  During the week, set aside blocks of time for important tasks/projects/papers.  During these time blocks, disable internet connectivity.  For your nights and weekends, write down three spiritual and/or personal goals/projects.  This could be anything from learning about the theology of baptism, to memorizing a Psalm, to making a long-term tithing plan, to serving your community as a family, to being a better dad or husband, to reading with your kids, to playing catch with daughter, to doing a puzzle with your son, or to starting a missional community.  Set aside an undistracted hour during the weekend to make progress on those goals.  
  4. Embrace boredom and leave your phone in your pocket.  At least once a day, resist the urge to check your phone while stopped at a light, while at the post office, or while waiting in line at the Safeway.  This addiction for on-demand distraction is literally short-circuiting your brain so that when you want to concentrate on deep work, you won’t be able to.  
  5. Tell Someone.  It’s easier to stay accountable if you know someone’s going to ask you how it’s going.  


Friday, August 11, 2017

Kruse's Keys:Deep Work: Read It Because It Will Change Everything


Note:  I've also written another post: "Deep Work for the Christian life" here.

This was one of the most useful books that I have ever read.  Deep Work will make you better and if you focus--it will make you the best.  I especially enjoy books that lead to other books and this one is packed with nearly 20 of them! Were I running a company, business, platoon, or squadron I would buy a copy of this essential read for every worker under me.

Key Quotes:
  • "The way to be a better comic is to create better jokes...[and write every day]" -Jerry Seinfeld
  • "There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration...but I hope my work makes it clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible plan...the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration." -Mason Currey
  • "Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants." -David Brooks
  • "If you want to win the war for attention...say 'yes' to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else."  -David Brooks

Key Takeaways:
  • You want to be well-myelinated in order to be great.  Myelin is a layer of fatty lipids and proteins that grow around your nerve cells.  The more myelin that builds up, the faster these nerve cells fire off.  The buildup of myelin (i.e., myelination) comes when you focus solely on a specific task or skill.  The specific ‘circuit’ associated with that task fires off repetitively as you work which triggers cells to produce and envelope your nerves with myelin.  This process then creates a ‘permanent’ skill or knowledge base.   Where learning and myelin buildup go awry is when one tries to multitask.  Multi-tasking fires off multiple circuits at once and doesn’t allow your body to isolate the specific circuit in order to learn a new language or write that term paper--thus no myelin is produced when you are distracted. 
  • HQW = TS x FI
  • Combat"attention residue" (as defined by Sophie Leroy).  It's very difficult for our mind's to switch from one task to another, especially if one task is not completely finished.  We are then aided when we can focus on one task for that extended (and undistracted) period of time.
  • Don't let busyness define you.  Without clearly defined metrics for success or what constitutes accomplishment, people default to busyness and long hours as a proxy for productivity.  You can buck the trend by focusing on deep work and tasks.
  • Your attention's focus becomes your worldview--this becomes relevent in dealing with adversity but also in a mindset that avoids focusing on the shallow.  A shallow focus drains your brain neurologically.
  • Meaning doesn't come from your work but your mindset. Your work or profession doesn't have to be an especially meaningful one--instead you can derive meaning by the way in which you approach your work.
  • There are 4 Deep Work Scheduling philosophies:  
    • Monastic: Typically not part of a large, interdependent organization and thus you can seclude yourself completely for extended stretches of time
    • Bi-Modal:  Your job or requirements require non-deep pursuits.  In some cases, the shallow pursuits "pay the bills" so that you can spend extended periods in deep work.
    • Rhythmic: You use the chain method (p.111) to incorporate depth into your daily life. This means building set times for deep work into your schedule and giving yourself visual cues to prompt the deep work.  Aim for 90 minute blocks. 
    • Journalistic: This is the varsity approach where you enter deep work states when you can.  In essence you 'switch on' deep work and crank out productivity.  
  • Create Rituals--you need to determine:
    • Work location and duration
    • Work rules and processes (e.g., no internet, words per hour etc.).  If your job is internet/email intensive--schedule your internet/email blocks.  *When an internet need arises outside the designated time blocks, practice delaying its use at least 5 minutes.  
    • Deep work support (e.g., coffee, right food, light extercise etc.)
  • Figure out the how (i.e. the execution):
    • Focus on the wildly important
    • Act on the lead measures (i.e., the time spent in deep work periods--so track your hours)
    • Keep a compelling scoreboard (i.e., create a visual focus point to track your progress)
    • Create scheduled accountability (e.g., a weekly review)
  • Shutdown.  Shutdown at the end of your workday.  Stay shutdown at night and on the weekends and on vacation.  
    • Downtime aids insights
    • Downtime recharges your "directed attention", enabling deep work
    • Evening work is almost always not that important and most often just induces stress as you think about something that can't be solved till the next wday
    • Create a shutdown ritual that frees your mind (p.151-4)
  • Be Bored.  Rewire your brain to break the cycle for on-demand distraction.  Sit in line without looking at your phone.  Let your mind wander.
  • Take an internet/social media sabbath for one day a week and one week a year.  See what you are missing in the life around you that exists outside a screen.
    • Social media short-circuits the connection between attention and value by promoting a shallow alternative where everyone pays attention to everyone's postings of little/zero value.  
    • The ideal is that we strive to create things of value that are valuable apart from social media 'likes' or attention
  • Meditate productively (while running or during commutes/long drives)
    • Fight distraction and lazy looping (i.e., move your thought process forward)
    • Structure your deep thinking
  • Make your free time count.  It sounds counter-intuitive but schedule your free time for concrete purposes/objectives.  Instead of exhausting you, this will promote fulfillment in your inner being and prevent you from haphazardly filling your free time with meaningless activity.  
  • Commit to Fixed Schedule Productivity.  This was one of my favorites because the default understanding in most offices (especially military ones) is that hours/"busyness"/physical presence= productivity. In a fixed schedule one adheres to a finite end time (e.g., 5PM every day) and then finds productivity strategies to accomplish what's needed to be done in that amount of time. Otherwise, in an undefined day the hours get filled with shallow, trivial pursuits and end times get pushed for no productive reason.
  • Send Better Emails.  Process-centric ones.  Properly executed this can revolutionize your work day.  
    • Just the act of scheduling when you check your email (and getting those checks down to a few times a day) and batching your replies will skyrocket your productivity past everyone else in your office.  The biggest hurdle is to just TURN OFF your email between those scheduled times.   
    • The next step comes when you write your replies.  Resist the urge to dash off a quick reply--instead take the time to look at what the actual project/mission is in the email and what's the most efficient way to bring it to a close.  In other words, lay out the solution or possible options so that the addressee can make a decision without a myriad of emails flying back and forth.  
    • The other shortcut that I use (not from the book) is that when you anticipate that its going to be an overly complex or lengthy email--just pick up the phone and call--this has saved me countless hours.  
    • Finally, not every email merits a response--don't let superfluous poorly written emails consume your precious time.  A corollary to this is to RESIST THE URGE TO REPLY TO GROUP EMAILS.  Think long and hard if you really need reply at all--unless you are the only one with specific knowledge you probably don't need to descend into that black hole. 
Key References:
      NOTES:
      26  Talent is not a bulk item, that is, a bunch of mediocrity does not = talent.  "There's a premium to be being the best"

      36  Being good at something = well-mylinated.  Myelin is a layer of fatty lipids and proteins that grow around your nerve cells.  The more myelin that builds up, the faster these nerve cells fire off.  The buildup of myelin (i.e., myelination) comes when you focus solely on a specific task or skill.  The specific ‘circuit’ associated with that task fires off repetitively as you work which triggers cells to produce and envelope your nerves with myelin.  This process then creates a ‘permanent’ skill or knowledge base.   Where learning and myelin buildup go awry is when one tries to multitask.  Multi-tasking fires off multiple circuits at once and doesn’t allow your body to isolate the specific circuit in order to learn a new language or write that term paper--thus no myelin is produced when you are distracted.

      37  Learning is deep work--it requires intense focus and concentration.

      38-39  Should publishing be the measure of a professor's worth.  Adam Grant as most productive professor at Wharton and highest rated teacher

      40  High Quality Work = time spent x intensity of work

      42-3  Attention Residue as examined by Sophie Leroy:  As revealed by two experiments,
      people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate that people find it difficult to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers. Being able to finish one task before switching to another is, however, not enough to enable effective task transitions. Time pressure while finishing a prior task is needed to disengage from the first task and thus move to the next task and it contributes to higher performance on the next task.

      48  Stand up meeting to reduce bloviation--i.e., people less likely to drone on if they are standing up--refers to SCRUM project management

      58  Principle of the easy(est)= without clear direction and input, we will do the easiest task/thing

      62  for managers: lack of clear metric for success promotes anxiety.  And without a good idea of what accomplishment means, they default to busyness...thus:

      64  Busyness becomes a proxy for productivity.  But you can buck the trend and focus on the deep work

      76-7  Focus on the good.  Our worldview is actually shaped by our focus NOT our circumstances.

      82  A "shallow" workday is a neurologically draining one
      91  Your work or profession doesn't have to be an especially meaningful one--instead you can derive meaning by the way in which you approach your work.

      102-117  The rules for Deep Work Scheduling:  there are four types

      119-120  The importance of good rituals

      121-6  Grand gestures and their importance.  To go deep, first go big

      131  Hub and spoke office architecture: this is NOT an open office plan with breakout rooms.  With hub and spoke, the focus is on the sound-proofed offices (i.e., the spokes) for the deep work and then encourage interactions with the hubs.  

      133-4  Whiteboard effect speaks to collaborative deep work where multiple individuals depend on the progress of another group to advance their own deep work.

      135  figuring out the how--recommends using 4 DX for this

      136-142  4 DX: focus on teh wildly important and track it.

      144-50  Why shutdown:  UTT, ART, low importance to check evening

      151-4  make a series of steps: shutdown ritual

      160  Social media sabbath

      161-3  Schedule your internet time

      167  Teddy R's intense work aka sprints

      168  Roosevelt dashes (creating artificial  deadlines)

      176-9  How to memorize a deck of cards

      207  Study Hacks blog: value vs. attention and social media

      213  Schedule your free time

      229  Shallow work definition: How long would it take to train a fresh college graduate to complete certain daily tasks of mine

      236  Fixed schedule productivity

      248  Process-centric emails

Monday, May 1, 2017

2017 Reading List

You can see our lists from 2011201320142015 and 2016.

The Last Will and Testament of Senor da Silva Araujo (Cape Verde)




Read It Because:
This translated piece of Cape Verdean fiction is beautiful, sad, and meandering as it examines the life of a poor peasant boy made good as a successful business owner.  Senor da Silva's life unfolds in a non-linear, often-dreamlike fashion at times as we follow his life through the reading of his last will and testament.  The strength of this novel lies in its examination of  themes both broad and mundane. The author offers the reader a glimpse into the way in which the independence struggle affected the lives of the ordinary businessmen and local politicians as da Silva struggles to position himself to prosper however the struggle might end up.  Far more interesting, though, is the investigation by da Silva's illegitimate daughter (suprise!) into a mysterious (and perhaps fantastical) love obsession named Adelia.  As the details surrounding Adelia are slowly revealed, a melancholy shadow falls over the life of da Silva as he grapples with love, rejection and loss.   The reader is left to wonder: was Adelia actually real or was she a mad creation by a man unable to find his place in Cape Verdean society and life in general?


*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
My full post is here.






Sleepwalking Land



Loved It Because: Mia Couto has crafted a surreal, engrossing tragic tale of the hopelessness of life during the fifteen year long civil war that consumed post-independence Mozambique.  I went into this novel knowing little about Mozambique's history apart from a broad knowledge regarding the brutality with which Portugal ceded independence to its colonies.  


Reading this novel won't give the reader even a brief overview of the country's civil war, instead Couto focuses on pulling the reader into the pysche of those affected most by war--the ones not doing the killing--the women and the children.  Early on, Kindzu the narrator relates one of the most bizaree stories that I've ever read--his younger brother is forced to live in the family's henhouse bu their insane father, and then forced to act like a chicken--for so long that he eventually becomes one and disappears.  This type of magical kafkaesque storyline is repeated throughout Sleepwalking Land, as the oprhaned narrators (yes, plural) struggle to exist in a country that is dying under their feet.  The very idea of life turns Kindzu into a fatalist as he remarks at one point: "the best things in life are those that don't lie ahead"--meaning that pleasure and meaning can only be found in distant memories or in the most immediate present. 


*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
My full post is here.





The Warmth of Other Suns


Read it Because: You can't afford not to.  Before the publication of Warmth some seven years ago, there had never been a definitive and comprehensive analysis (at least in the ethnographic sense) of these waves of migration that began following the reconstruction era as Jim Crow set in.  Wilkerson's book is significant because of the short historical space between 2017 and the enslavement (through legal means or socio-economic means) of a race of people.  Let the following statement sink in:


Just 77 years ago, in 1/3 of the US, killing blacks was not a crime.

Most of us have relatives at least who were young kids 77 years ago!  It's often far too easy to dismiss a movement today--#blacklivesmatter comes to mind.  Now while I may not agree with every single tenet of that movement, reading this book opened my eyes to the historical headspace from which its leaders and followers are coming.  While the idea of the de facto legalized murder of a race seems a preposterously distant one to me today, it probably doesn't to many of the African-Americans in this country.  Because they have family members STILL ALIVE who endured it.  They know the history. 
Much of the conflict in today's society would at least be softened if both sides took the time to know one another's history--their backstory.  Wilkerson has presented a gift to Americans--she has captured a fundamental piece of our history that before only existed buried in the margins of dusty newspapers and crumbling, fading memories of aging octogenarians.  By weaving the personal with the historic she has brought to life the brave flight of millions who sought a better life only to find roadblocks, but who fought on--hoping to give their children and grandchildren a better life or at the very least the chance to bloom
.
My full post is here.





Vakio Milamina

Loved It Because: it gives you the inside scoop on the culture and politics of Madagascar. Soamiely is the rare Malagasy author who writes in (great) English about these things.  I lived in Madagascar for three years and often read Soamiely's posts on Medium but it was only once I was back stateside that I realized that he'd written two books (his other: Ambony-Ambany (Upside Down) is available to purchase on Lulu.com).  

Vakio Milamina (i.e., A Quiet or Smooth Read) lays out the authors thoughts on life in Madagascar through a series of very loosely related essays.  In particular, I loved "It's All Part of Growing Up" which is basically a 6 page rundown on the political history of Madagascar.  Other essays like "Fiadanana and Moramora" made me laugh--moramora IS the quintessential essence of being Malagasy (from a vazaha aka foreigner perspective).  It captures the incrementalism of progress (or de-evolution) and a peace with slowness that one notices even after only a few days in the country.  Perhaps most useful for any visitor/tourist is his essay "Our Unambiguously Ambiguous Art of Conversation" in which the author lays out why a Malagasy will seldom ever say 'no'.  If I had realized this early on I would have saved myself a lot of stress and frustration. But there's no reason to read just one essay--Vakio is the wonderful book that can be read in a single sitting or on a short plane ride.  You'd also be well served to follow him on twitter at @soamiely 


*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.
My full post is here.





The Hard Thing About Hard Things  
Pending writeup.  I listened to this one on Audible. My full post will be here.

 




















Prodigal God
Pending writeup.  This is on my yearly re-reading list.
My full post will be here.























Deep Work

This was one of the most useful books that I have ever read.  Deep Work will make you better and if you focus--it will make you the best.  I especially enjoy books that lead to other books and this one is packed with nearly 20 of them! Were I running a company, business, platoon, or squadron I would buy a copy of this essential read for every worker under me.

My full post is here.




















Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Pending writeup.  My full post will be here.




























Chaos Monkeys
Pending writeup.  My full post will be here.















CURRENTLY READING:
Hawaii

My full post is here.























UP NEXT:
Transit  by Abdourahman A. Waberi (Djibouti)


My full review will be here.
*One of my Reading Around the Continent books--the full list is here.