My best self
When I flew to Hong Kong two weeks ago, I was feeling distracted and pulled in many divergent directions as my busy autumn season had already begun in earnest. Our Advance was just another item on the to-do list and anticipating the work ahead in this program was rather daunting when paired next to my other responsibilities. But on returning home, recovering from jet lag, and reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, some excellent disciplines have resurfaced to make my working hours more productive and life more meaningful.
Newport’s recommendations are not rocket science. But he boldly practices these countercultural disciplines in a world which often insists on the opposite. I’m tempted to summarize the book with this simple counsel: Deep work can only happen when you turn off the freaking internet. In the past twenty-four hours since reading it, I have practiced this simple habit: When entering into a period of deep work, write a note beside your computer the time that you can go back on the internet. This is the simple way, for example, that you can acquire two blissful hours of focus free from responding to pestering emails or sucked into distraction on BuzzFeed.
Aside from that jewel, the book was replete with examples of things I’ve done in the past but need to intentionally renew for ongoing productivity.
- Become harder to reach: Last winter I decided to stop becoming available to people seeking my free advice. I created a paywall and appointment scheduler so that those making appointments would now need to provide their credit card number. It’s a sender filter as described by Newport, and it’s given me a small income stream as well as the joy of not spreading myself too thinly.
- Practice the grand gesture: When I wrote my book, I decided I wouldn’t be able to focus in my home office, and besides, I needed a different atmosphere to challenge me for this work. My wife and I rented an inexpensive flat in Guatemala on VRBO for a month, and after 30 days of viewing a perfectly-shaped volcano looming over Lake Atitlán, I had 75% of a book written. “Grand gestures” are the dramatic and unusual choices you make to jolt you forward in creating new products.
- Discover the silence: Newport doesn’t mention the power of spiritual retreats though he does mention meditation. In the past I’ve found directed and undirected retreats, silent or not, to be fertile ground for deep work, both for personal inner healing and for strategic planning with my business.
Newport also recommended various new practices that will enhance my productivity. Here are three I’m beginning now:
- Schedule the internet: My normal practice up to now has been to have all tabs open when attempting deep work. I would be distracted by email notifications, text messages, and social media feeds. This has to stop. Newport counsels, “Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”
- Learn to embrace boredom: This is a tough one. Turning off and tuning out will result in boredom which we will be tempted to remedy with distractions. But entering into the emptiness is a pathway forward toward clearer thinking.
- Develop a shutdown ritual: This is a new strategy that I can see becoming a fruitful practice. When concluding the day’s work, spend 10-15 minutes shutting down. Plot out the next day’s deep work blocking off time segments, respond to emails that need attention, and reducing your inbox to zero. “The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another.”
Reading Newport’s book reminded me of a daily planner journal I had once started but my commitment to it petered out. The Best Self Journal was a great tool for me for awhile; it is time to renew its use. (Keep me accountable; ask how it’s going.)
This ritualized planning is one that will be useful to me and could be useful to you also. Kathy Anne Cowie, in her review of Deep Work, learns:
“Rituals and routines encourage deep work, Newport asserts, with scheduled intervals of intense focus and breaks to recharge energy required. He stresses the importance of downtime and offers a ritual to assure that unresolved issues from the workday do not battle for attention later in the evening: logging in tasks and creating a plan for the next day.
When I review the extent of items on my to-do list, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control. However, discipline and focus using the ideas from Deep Work will give the needed structure for better productivity.
 Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 161.
 Newport, 243.
 Newport, 125.
 Newport, 169-174.
 Newport, 161.
 Newport, 169.
 Newport, 151.
 Kathy Anne Cowie, “Book Review-Achieving Success in the Face of Distractions, Organizational Change, and Conflict” Global Business & Organizational Excellence 35, no. 6 (October 9, 2016): 84–88. Accessed October 11, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1002/joe.21716.
9 responses to “My best self”
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You are just amazing don’t you know! It was nice to see you again in HK.
I googled “freaking” and found multiple derogatory meanings and actions, most of which I do not think you intended to communicate when you were adding emphasis to your summary of the book; turn off the internet. LOL!
You know, when I was a negotiator I told my bosses, “it depends” when they would ask me how to solve the latest crisis event in public safety or seize the objective in a military operation. Solutions to leadership challenges really do “depend” on so many variables, factors, influences, and people. Therefore, neither me nor Newport can offer a leadership playbook that fits every situation. I use a variety of traditional and non-traditional approaches that are grounded in servant leadership and the overriding influence, love, and grace from the Holy Spirit as my deep work guide.
We are all wired differently with various skills and for the Christian, supernatural gifts from the Holy Spirit for Kingdom work. Sadly, I did not see any Kingdom focus or discussions from Newport. He reminds me of the parable of the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-22) who asked, and I paraphrase here, “teacher, what deep work must I do to have a distraction free life?”
I like your grand gesture and discover silence practices. Good post!
I am shuddering with the thought of you googling “freaking”. 😉
I think your AOG coin is one way towards what we could perhaps call ‘deep prayer’. It is a ritual or routine that takes us from the surface into the depths. Practiced consistently, it can become a liberating tool as one seeks God.
Congratulations with your new endeavors at the University! I don’t know how you have the time or energy. Don’t burn yourself out my Brother. The principles outlined in the book are going to come in very handy to help you stay balanced…
Thank you for highlighting the jewel to turn off the internet, as well as the other nuggets. I am definitely going to practice a few of these, especially “embracing boredom”.
Again, don’t push it too hard Mark. I am going to be asking you in the future if you are getting pressed too much. We all care about you and don’t want to see you maxed out. You are way too valuable to have that happen! Don’t let the reward for good work be MORE WORK.
Thanks Jay. I appreciate that and ask for your prayers as my life becomes a little more complicated. Even more a need for deep work now. 😉
Great post, Mark!
Okay. I’m sold. I looked at the video before even skimming your post and I’ve already placed the Best Self Journal on my Amazon wish list.
I was curious your take on Newport, because of your background in entrepreneurship. It’s difficult to balance the needs of productivity with promotion and still have time for personal rest. I found Newport’s suggestions a bit extreme; however, after reading your interpretation, I’ve come to appreciate more of his concepts.
Thank you for breaking this down and giving practical tools. You mention that you created a “paywall and an appointment scheduler” in order to created personal boundaries. What was the reaction of your audience when you implemented this software? Did you find that people complained about no longer having free access? I’ve found that automated tools and delegation of social media scheduling has enabled me to retain an element of freedom. However, I need to schedule hours of deep work with my team for social media strategizing before I can remove myself from the equation. It’s a balance of choices. What other forms of software or printed material has helped you carve out more time? I’d love to jot them down and implement them into my own life.
I think most of those who previously got free advice from me detest my new paywall. But I had to do it to recover a bit of dignity – my time is valuable and I can’t just give it away for free… I have bills to pay too!
More than software or printed material, can I recommend you explore going on a silent retreat? Here is a retreat house near you in NJ: http://www.fhop.org/ I love my times in these simple retreat homes, both to enter the silence and to have space to hear God.
Thank you for your vulnerability in this post. It is easy to get distracted and even when we implement change it takes effort to stay the course as you indicated. I think our culture actually endorses distraction and the appearance of busyness, even if that pace is achieving little.
You have always appeared to me to be someone who has a handle on the reflective life yet you suggest in your post that it continues to be a struggle for you as well. How do you think applying some of the precepts you mentioned will enhance your work? Are you concerned at all that not being available all the time will have a negative impact on your work?
Thanks Dan. I’ve found that choosing to not be available 24/7 is actually a statement that I am not essential. I am not the Saviour. I am redundant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a wonderful freeing place to arrive at. I’ve found that my work is enriched by my times apart and times of enforced solitude and silence.
I love that your post is full of your own vulnerability, business savvy, and planned change. I respect that you are learning to respect yourself! Brilliant! How do you hope to implement the new deep work strategies? I agree with you…it’s time to turn off the freaking internet!