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.)

Playing at being off the grid

I’ve read several novels lately with characters engaging in the sort of OPSEC that you need to do nowadays if you’re undertaking activities the federal government would consider nefarious—beginning with not carrying your smartphone around everywhere you go.

Of course you wouldn’t want to leave your phone behind only when you were doing something nefarious. To do that would be like announcing “Nefarious activity beginning now!” Instead, you need to start playing at going off the grid now for no particular reason, so that when you go off the grid for reals it won’t be so obvious what’s going on.

The necessary OPSEC is hard to get right. One of the novels I mentioned, (The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler) has as a significant plot element how easy it is to screw up. In the novel a character’s actions are discovered due to her turning on her burner phone at a point close in time and place to where she turned off her regular phone.

As a slightly more sophisticated example, the NSA is known to have a system for “fingerprinting” burner phones, which works by spotting when one cluster of related burner phones all go dark at the same time, and then a similar-sized cluster, with a similar pattern of connectedness, starts up right after.

Just spending some time out and about without a cell phone is probably a good start. Establish a pattern of turning your phone off (or leaving it at home) for a couple of hours every day. It might make sense to establish a regular pattern of doing so, but one can easily go awry trying to set up false patterns. Perhaps it would make more sense to have no particular pattern of when the phone might be on or off.

Purely whimsically, I’m inclined to do this.

In fact, I’m going to have to: Next month I’m on jury duty for a week and cell phones aren’t allowed in the courthouse. I’m sure most people leave their phones in the car, so they can return to them over their lunch break, or at least get back to it as soon as they’re released at the end of the day. But the courthouse is in downtown Urbana, a place that’s easy to get to by bus, so I’m disinclined to drive there. But without a car in which to leave my phone, I’ll probably have to leave it at home.

That might mean 8 hours or more being out and about without my phone, which seems like a great opportunity to establish a pattern of my phone being left home while I do something else—serve on jury duty next month, but who knows what the month after? Nothing nefarious, of course. I’d never do anything nefarious.

Even places where cell service is spotty, such as this spot on the trail in Kennekuk Cove County Park, having a smartphone is completely normalized for me. I expect to be able to just take a picture like this. (And the idea that I might instead bring a camera almost doesn’t fit in my brain any more.)

As an aside: I wrote a couple of articles about going off the grid back when I was writing for Wise Bread. One was a book review of a rather interesting book titled Off the Grid. The other was an article about the trade-offs in choosing to live “off the grid” in the broader sense—not just off the surveillance grid, or even the power, gas and water grids, but more broadly the globalized economy, industrial agriculture, consumerism, etc. I can’t remember what I called the post, but Wise Bread published it as Going Off the Grid Is a Lot Harder Than You Think.

Writing in 2018

My writing this year ticked along at a low level, so low I was almost tempted not to bother reporting on it.

I continued to work on fiction by fits and starts, but I don’t think I finished a single story.

I want to be sure to thank Elizabeth Shack whose Thursday evening writing group, even though I didn’t make it as often as I meant too, still got me writing more than I otherwise would have. (It’s not a critique group at all. It’s a way to make writing a little bit less of a solitary activity. We gather in a coffee shop and spend a couple hours quietly working on our own stuff, with a few minutes of conversation at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It’s all very companionable and I miss it when I don’t go.)

I can’t even say I’m disappointed in myself for not writing more (which I used to be): Every day I get up and do exactly what I want all day. Sometimes that’s writing, and when I write I really enjoy it. Other days it’s something else, which I usually enjoy as well.

I used to put a lot of effort into arranging my life with writing in mind—making sure I had large blocks of time to write, making sure I had time to write every day, making sure I could get started writing early in the day. I think that worked after a fashion, perhaps more so for the non-fiction than the fiction, but I have largely given up on fussing about that stuff.

Along about the middle of the year I got email from the admins at Wise Bread saying that they were “switching gears” and would “no longer be commissioning articles” as they had been.

Once again, I’m not really disappointed. I was much more suited to their old model where I wrote whatever I wanted and then posted it. There were good reasons for them to hire editors—and the editors they got were great—but the way you have to work when you have an editor didn’t suit the way I wrote. (If I wanted to pitch stories and work on deadline I could make a lot more money writing for magazines.)

Before that shift I did publish two stories at Wise Bread:

I also did a ground-up rewrite of my old post “Treasury Bills for Ordinary Folks,” which they published under the old URL but with inexplicable title Why Treasury Bills Are Always a Worthwhile Investment. (I say inexplicable because the whole reason it was worth a rewrite is that, after 10 years during which Treasury Bills were a terrible investment, they were were finally once again paying a competitive rate.)

I have one more post that they bought, but which hasn’t gone live yet. They say it’s currently scheduled for early January, so I guess I’ll be able to include a Wise Bread section in my 2019 end-of-year post as well!

One place I have been writing pretty actively is here on this blog. A quick count just now found 67 posts published in 2018, and I may post another one or two before this post goes live.

Some of that number are trivial status posts—for which I have the glimmerings of plan. I’d like to post everything which goes to social media here first, and then share it on social media. Working out the logistics has proven problematic, which gets me discouraged. (My glimmers of a plan involve my microblog at micro.blog, but I don’t quite have everything working yet.) When I get discouraged, I go ahead and post stuff on social media—but almost always I end up regretting it. That’s when there’s another small flurry of status posts here.

Besides those, there are plenty of more substantial posts here as well. Since you’re here reading this, I assume you don’t need me to link to those.

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!

Writing in 2017

I’m a little happier about my writing this year than I’ve been in the last several years. I finished two new short stories, both of which have been sent to markets. That feels a lot better. It also leaves me feel like I’m ready to write some more—I have several bits and pieces already in progress.

In non-fiction news, writing for Wise Bread ran along about as it has in recent years, with six articles published (and one more that I’ve submitted, but that hasn’t appeared yet). Posts that appeared in 2017 are:

I’m pretty pleased with all of these, especially the mediocre investment advice series. Once again, none of them is a listicle (although the editors did give one of them a listiclish title).

My plans for next year are more of the same. I hope to maintain some momentum in getting stories out to editors and working on new stories. I’d even like to get back to my nearly finished novel. (Or else definitely give up on it and start on a new one.) And I’ll carry on with Wise Bread stories.

Happy New Year!

Writing in 2016

I made very little progress on fiction this year, which is okay.

In years past I was kind of defensive about my lack of fictional productivity—I think because I’d bought into the idea that a fiction writer writes fiction, and if I’m not writing, maybe I’m not a fiction writer anymore. But my experience is that making myself write something that I don’t want to write is no fun, nor is it particularly productive.

So of late I’ve just gone with it. On days that I feel like writing fiction I take a stab at something—I’ve started two new stories and worked on several old ones over the course of the year, in addition to working a little on the novel. Essentially none of that work has borne fruit in the sense of producing a finished story, but none of it was wasted either, in the sense that I did it because I wanted to, and only kept at it as long as I was enjoying it.

I don’t know whether I wrote more or less because I gave myself permission to write only when I wanted to, but I definitely enjoyed it more.

I did a bit more writing for Wise Bread this year, all concentrated toward the end of the year. Posts that appeared in 2016 were:

I’m pretty pleased with all of those. The first one did quite well in terms of reads, getting a pretty good response to my tweet “It bugs me when people mock millennials for not following the game plan that worked for the boomers.”

As a bonus, none of them is a listicle.

I wrote a typical amount here on this blog, averaging perhaps a post a week.

A big reason I didn’t do more writing this year is the amount of time I spent doing other things. I spent a little more time this year than in recent years with the local Esperantists. Jackie lured me into joining her on some of the volunteer stewardship work days she’s doing as part of becoming a Master Naturalist. The biggest was movement—that will get its own “Movement in 2016” post.

As a side note here, because although it’s not writing it is a creative endeavor, I bought myself a drawing tablet for the computer. (I got a medium Wacom Intuos tablet.) I’ve produce my first painting with it, and a second is almost done. I’m thinking I’ll share paintings here on the blog from time to time, but I wanted to get these 2016 review posts done first.