Recommended reading: Deep Work by Cal Newport

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

At some level, I’ve always understood deep work—the sort of work where you sit down and focus on your task for 20 or 60 or 90 minutes, long enough finish a difficult task, or make real headway on a big project.

Even when I was quite young I’d use it to get large amounts done on some big project I’d made for myself. Deep work let me create codes and ciphers for securely communicating with Richard Molenaar. It let me create maps of the wooded areas in our neighborhood where we’d play, and then assign fantasy or science-fictional elements to them. Once it let me write quite a bit of scripture for an imaginary religion. Deep work let me create maps and keys for D&D adventures I was going to be DM-ing.

I’ve never quit using deep work on my own projects. At Clarion writing a short story every week entailed a great deal of deep work. Writing an article for Wise Bread was best accomplished with an hour or so of deep work.

For other people’s work—in school, in college, and as an employee—I more often used it to enable procrastination: On any small or medium-sized project I knew I could sit down a couple of days before a task was due and crank through the whole thing in one or a few long sessions of focused work.

Given that it was such a useful capability, I’ve long thought it was kind of odd that I never really honed my capability for deep work. But through the lens of this book, I think I’m coming to understand it now.

I used to think it was because I was lazy. It was only when I quit working a regular job and started writing for Wise Bread that I came to understand that I was never particularly lazy. Rather, I just didn’t want to do stuff I didn’t want to do. Lacking that understanding I did a poor job of arranging my (work) life so that there was a lot of work I wanted to do and only a little that I didn’t want to do. Once I had work that I wanted to do, I jumped right into using deep work to get it done.

Although I take my full share of the blame for not doing a better job of maximizing the work that I wanted to do, my various former employers also deserve plenty of blame. They routinely deprived me and (most of) my coworkers the opportunity to engage in deep work.

First, they tended not to assign people a single top-priority task, but rather a set of tasks of shifting priority. (I don’t think they did it in order to be able to blame the worker when they focused on the tasks that turned out in retrospect not to be the right tasks, although that was a common result. Rather, they were just abdicating their responsibility to do their jobs as managers.)

Second, they were (especially during the last few years I was working a regular job) constantly interrupting people to ask for status updates. (One randomly timed query along the lines of “Are you going to have that bug fixed by Thursday?” which from the manager’s point of view only interrupted me for 20 seconds could easily undo 60 or even 90 minutes of stack backtrace analysis.)

At some level it was clear that the managers understood this, because there were always a few privileged engineers whose time for deep work was protected. The rest of us resorted to generating our own time for deep work by coming in early or staying late or finding a place to hide or working off-site—all strategies that worked, but not as well as just being able to close the door of our office and focus.

It wasn’t all bad management though. There were times when there was no external obstacle to doing deep work, and yet I’d not be highly productive. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve come to understand what was going on here: When I suffer from seasonal depression I find it very hard to do deep work. As a coping mechanism—as a way to keep my job when I couldn’t do the deep work they’d hired me to do—I started seeking out shallow work that I could manage to be productive on.

It’s from that perspective that I found Deep Work even more interesting than the book that lead me to Cal Newport’s work, his more recent Digital Minimalism (that I talked about briefly in my recent post on social media).

The first part of the book is about what deep work is and makes the case that it’s valuable—things that, as I said, I understood. The rest of the book is largely devoted to teaching you how to arrange your life to maximize your opportunities for bringing deep work to bear on the work you want to get done. That part, in bits and pieces, helped me understand myself in a way that I really hadn’t before.

Deep work is the way to get a big or difficult task done, but everybody has some small or easy tasks that also need to get done, so there is plenty of opportunity to make effective use of shallow work as well. Newport lays out the distinction well and provides some clear guidelines as to when and how to use shallow work to do those things where it makes sense, and in a way that protects time for deep work. He also talks about the appeal of shallow work—it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s “productive” in the sense that a large number of micro-tasks can be quickly ticked off the list.

It’s been very good for me to be reminded of all these things, because it’s easy to fall out of the habit of using deep work to do big or difficult things. The sort of rapid-fire “productivity” of shallow work has its own seductive appeal, especially in the moment. It’s only after a week or a month of shallow work, when I look back and realize that I haven’t really gotten anything done, that I tend to remember the distinction—and then pointlessly feel bad that I haven’t made any progress on the big things I want to get done.

Deep Work by Cal Newport is a great book for anyone who wants to do big or difficult things. (Also for people who manage such workers, although I don’t expect they’ll want to hear the message.)

Recommended reading: Ultralearning

I just finished Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott H. Young.

It’s a good book. I think it would be particularly interesting to my brother, who of course won’t read it because he imagines that its implicit pedagogical underpinnings would not accord with his own. In fact, to the extent that I understand either one, I think it accords almost perfectly. (In particular, that learning is an activity of the learner.)

Even if he were to spend five minutes looking at the table of contents, he’d still be inclined to reject the book, because three of the nine principles are about drilling, testing, and memory retention. Since he won’t read past that he’ll never see the nuanced discussion on these topics.

What kinds of things should you invest the time in to remember in the first place? Retrieval may take less time than review to get the same learning impact, but not learning something is faster still . . . .

One way to answer this question is simply to do direct practice. Directness sidesteps this question by forcing you to retrieve the things that come up often in the course of using the skill. If you’re learning a language and need to recall a word, you’ll practice it. If you never need a word, you won’t memorize it. . . . Things that are rarely used or that are easier to look up than to memorize won’t be retrieved.

Young, Scott H. Ultralearning, pp. 127–128.

Still, it’s an excellent book for anyone who is interested in undertaking any sort of learning project. There are good, practical tips how to start such a project (how to decide what to learn, how to decide how to learn it and find resources, how to manage the project once you get going).

The book works especially to normalize the behavior of undertaking a learning project that might be considered extreme in terms of its size, scope or speed.

Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career by Scott H. Young. Highly recommended.

2019-07-01 15:28

I have lost actual physical paper books many times over the years—loaned and never returned, accidentally left somewhere, dropped in the tub, left on a windowsill and rained on, literally worn out from re-reading. Many were lost when my house fell down. One was confiscated by a teacher. I’ve not yet lost an ebook.

Book Review: Happy Money

Does money come with new-agey energy flows or emotions attached? For most of my life, I’d have said no (or more likely just rolled my eyes at the question). As you might expect from an economics major, I bought into a free-market model of how money worked.

Experiences over the course of my career, gradually convinced me that those ideas were . . . Well, not wrong exactly, but incomplete. I came to understand that money isn’t the kind of neutral object that it is in economic theory.

Ken Honda’s new book will let you skip over the 25 years of first-hand experience it took me to figure this out.

If you think money is a neutral, transactional artifact, then it just makes sense to earn as much as you can in the easiest ways possible. Because I was a software engineer whose career started in the early 1980s, it was pretty easy to find a job that paid well, and salaries grew rapidly, so I was doing just fine as an employee. There are certain things that come along with being an employee, the main one being that you’re supposed to do what your boss tells you to do.

I was okay with that. More okay than a lot of my coworkers, who objected when the boss wanted them to do something stupid or pointless.

My own attitude was always, “Yes, attending this pointless training class is a waste of time that I could be spending making our products better. But it’s easier than doing my regular work, and if my boss is willing to pay me a software engineer’s salary to do something easier than write software, I’m fine with that.”

The idea that I was fine with that turned out to be wrong. In fact, putting time and effort into doing the wrong thing is a soul-destroying activity. Getting paid a bunch of money for it doesn’t help. That money is, in Ken Honda’s terms, Unhappy Money.

Money that flows into (or out of) your life in a positive way is Happy Money—money that you receive (or give) as a gift, money that you earn by doing something useful (or spend to get something that you want or need). Unhappy Money is money lost or gained by theft or deceit, paid grudgingly by someone who feels cheated or taken advantage of—or, as in my own case, paid willingly, but paid to someone who doesn’t think what he’s doing to earn it is worth doing.

Honda’s thesis is that if you adjust your life around this idea—so that your own money flows are all Happy Money (and that you refrain from receiving or spending Unhappy Money)—your life will improve. My experience is that this is true.

If that insight is the key to the book, probably next most important is understanding that “There’s no peace to be found in always wanting more,” which is one of the points I tried to make when I was writing for Wise Bread.

To be honest, probably one reason I like the book so much is that a lot of the practical advice sounds a lot like what I talked about for years at Wise Bread. (For example that the strategy of just saving more quickly reaches limits in terms of its utility for making your family more secure.)

Much of the book is on the details of how to shift all aspects of your financial life toward Happy Money. There’s a long discourse on what he calls your “money blueprint”: The attitudes and practices passed down from parent to child (or rejections of those attitudes and practices), people’s basic personalities, and simple ignorance about how money works. A crappy money blueprint will predictably lead to people into cycles of Unhappy Money flows.

I’ve been interested in money for a long time, at least since sixth grade. Between studying economics in college, and embarking on an enduring interest in investing, I’m sure I’ve read hundreds of books on money. Among them, Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace with Your Money stands out.

Adulting my to-read pile

For some time now I’ve found myself in the middle of an unusually large number of books. Actually, that’s not quite true—I’ve forever gotten myself in the middle of multiple books; what’s different lately is that I’ve found it difficult to crank on through to the end of them.

I recently figured out why, which led to me telling Jackie, “I used to be able to just sit down for four or six hours and finish a book or two or three, but I don’t seem to be able to do that any more.”

Jackie of course immediately spotted the issue, which was why I put it that way. “With your new focus on movement,” she said, “you’re much less willing to just sit down for four or six hours to do anything.”

I actually have data showing this. My new Oura ring has a feature to alert me if I spend 50 minutes sitting (or standing) still, but that nagging function is going virtually unused—I’ve gotten exactly one ding for a “long period of inactivity” in the past month. I just don’t sit still for as long as fifty minutes any more.

Getting in plenty of movement is great, and I certainly feel better for doing it, but until recently has had an unfortunate side-effect: I’ve found it very easy to waste those less-than-fifty-minute blocks of time.

In fifty minutes I can check my email, scroll through my twitter feed and my facebook feed, read a couple of articles people have shared links to, and check my RSS feeds. And then after going for a walk or a workout (or just making a cup of coffee), I can waste another fifty minutes.

But fifty minutes is plenty of time to get something useful done, such as reading a chunk of a book. Just lately, finally, I’ve been using those blocks of time that way. (Like a grownup!)

By applying myself to reading books, I am making good progress. I just finished Eliot Peper’s Borderless, which was excellent, and I’m more than halfway through Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep, which is absolutely fascinating. I hesitate to start Sean B. Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful until I finish the sleep book. But, having made some progress, I feel like . . . . Well, not like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. More like I figured out how to go spelunking in the book-reading caverns without bonking my head, scraping my knees, and getting a crick in my back.

It’s not like the old days, when I could curl up in a chair (or sprawl out on the floor) and read for hours. But it’s probably better.

Currently reading: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, ISBN: 9780062368607

Currently reading: I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, ISBN: 9780062368607

IndieBookClub

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little kid, but very much not a tracker of things I read. In 6th grade I could have gotten some little prizes for reading a lot, if I’d been willing to go to the trouble of documenting the things I read, but I seriously could not be bothered to do so.

Very occasionally though, I miss having a record of things I’ve read, such as when somebody asks me, “Read any good books lately?”

I never signed up for Goodreads, and was glad I had not when they got bought. (Letting large corporations use my data to improve their bottom line bugs me on principle.) But just now I learned about IndieBookClub, which (like micro.blog) provides an interface for posting—in this case your reading activity—to your own website.

As a non-tracker from way back, I’m probably not likely to become a tracker just because there’s a new cool tool for tracking, but you never know.

Edited to add: I have posted my first book.

Losing a job

My friend Mart lost her job this week.

I know all about losing a job. Over the years I was fired or laid off four times.

Getting laid off is humiliating and insulting. The process is stressful and and unpleasant. The aftermath, where you have to deal with your feelings about the fact that other people kept their jobs while you lost yours, at the same time that you deal with having a sharply lower income, layers more stress and unpleasantness on top of that.

Losing a job is also frightening. It fills your future with unknowns.

The middle time I was laid off, my former employer hired an expensive outplacement firm to help us make the transition. We had a series of meetings at an off-site location where a counselor gave us advice on dealing with the emotional and practical issues. Although the somewhat simplistic advice was another layer of insult piled on top of the insult of being let go, it was actually pretty well done. I used what I learned there for pep talks that I’d give former coworkers when they were let go. I used it as the basis for part 1 (losing a job) of the Wise Bread series I wrote on getting by without a job.

These last few decades—as the whole economy has adjusted to eliminate the working-class jobs that used to provide a middle-class standard of living—losing a job has become even worse than it was back when I lost mine.  And yet, while losing a job is a pretty bad thing, but it’s not always purely bad. Even people who love their job don’t love everything about it. (Mart in particular, I think, loved books a lot more than she loved her job at a bookstore.)

Still, losing a job sucks, even if things go as well as possible after that.

Visit Mart’s website! Consider buying her book!

Toby’s books on the shelf

We went to Undercover Books in Christensted on St. Croix so my dad could look for Birds of the West Indies (which they had, and which Dad did get a copy of). While we were there, Steve noticed that they had copies of Tobias Buckell‘s books on the shelf, including this signed copy of Xenowealth. (Sorry, Toby, for carelessly covering part of your name in the photo!)

A great bookstore, by the way. Excellent SF section, excellent selection for tourists (books on local history, pirates, etc.), great selection of books for locals, books by local writers prominently displayed. I also really like their tortoise-under-a-book logo.

 

A short dialog

“I have finished my book,” I said, closing my library book.

“I have finished my book,” Jackie said, closing her library book at the exact same moment I closed mine.

“How syncronisical,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie said. “Syncronisical is exactly what it was.”

“It’s a good word,” I said.

“Yes,” Jackie agreed. “It doesn’t get used often enough.”