The Benefits of Discovering ‘Deep Work’

Woman doing yoga on the beach
Want to find time to do more of this?

Do you want more time with your family or to fit in that yoga class you keep promising yourself that you’ll join, but you’re always too tired by the end of the day?

How does your average day go? Maybe you’re looking at your emails on your phone as soon as you wake – reaching out to grab your phone whilst it’s still dark or you log on to your computer before the kids wake up just to get in an hour before the day gets hectic. Then there’s the long commute to work, a busy day answering emails and attending meetings, no break for lunch and then the drive back home. Maybe you work evenings and weekends just to keep afloat.  

A different job might be the answer, but finding a new one isn’t always that easy. You’ll probably have to work just as many hours as you do now, unless you’re prepared to do something less responsible and for a lower salary. If you’re trying to save as much as you can on your journey towards financial independence then that isn’t an option that you’ll want to consider.

clock
A way to help you manage your time

So what is an option?

My suggestion is to try to find a way of managing your workload better, so that work stays where it was originally meant to be and only happens between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday.

I expect at this point you’re say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard all this before. I know, I just need to be more organised and learn how to plan’. You’re right, those things will help, but I’ve got another idea for you, courtesy of Cal Newport. In his book, ‘Deep Work’ he describes what is a valuable technique in how to really focus to get tasks done. In essence, how to do the same amount of work in a shorter period of time and do it better.  

If you’re a nurse or serve burgers at McDonalds this isn’t going to be for you, as it’s a practice which helps the creative process in the world of what he calls ‘knowledge work’ i.e. for those of us who spend a lot of our workday sitting at a computer.

Neon sign saying do something great
Learn to push yourself and do your work better and quicker

So, what is ‘Deep Work’?

Cal Newport describes it as ‘professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit’. He claims that those individuals who have been influential in society often practise deep work.

In contrast to these people, most of us in the modern world have forgotten the value of deep work. Unfortunately, in our ultra-connected world, the focus has moved away from this valuable work to tasks such as responding to and sending emails, what he would define as shallow work. This is ‘non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted’. He believes that this work doesn’t create much new value in the world.

Cal states that there are two core abilities for thriving in the new economy:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

These two core abilities depend on your ability to perform deep work, which involves :

  1. Focusing your attention tightly on a specific skill you’re trying to improve or an idea you’re trying to master. This requires uninterrupted concentration.
  2. Receiving feedback so you can correct your approach to keep your attention exactly where it’s most productive.
Be Happy sign
Focus on what you like doing, reduce stress and fall in love with your work

The benefits of deep work

As well as enabling you to increase the quantity and quality of your work, Cal believes that if you spend your day focusing deeply on a task you don’t have the capacity to think about irrelevant things or worry about problems.

In contrast, if you spend your day checking your inbox the problems the emails present will remain at the forefront of your mind. By concentrating fully on those things that are important you will experience your working life as more important and positive. In summary, ‘to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction’.

Next time I will look at Cal’s four rules of how to develop and build the skill of ‘deep work’. If you can’t wait until then listen to him being interviewed by Paula Pant on the Afford Anything podcast.

If you’d like to receive more ideas for simple living and saving money then enter your email address below.

The Bullet Journal

Diary pages
A simple life is an organised one

Get your life organised

Do you want life to be easier next year? Want to feel on top of your task list? How about learning to meal plan? Want to keep track of the cash that keeps disappearing from your purse? Would you like to have one place for all of this? A place which you can tailor exactly to your specific needs? The answer to all those questions is a bullet journal.

The problem with other planners

The bullet journal is a planning system that I have been using over the past two years. When I was first looking at planners I bought a Passion Planner. The trouble was it was too big and had a lot of space for listing your appointments during the day. I wanted something to organise my personal life i.e. my evenings and weekends, so didn’t need all the space for weekday appointments. I then discovered the bullet journal.

What is a bullet journal?

It’s basically a notebook where the pages are covered in dots. The pages are numbered and there is space to create an index at the beginning. It was created by Ryder Carroll who has recently written a book about his system. Although he gives ideas for various page set-ups and symbols that you can use within the journal, basically there are no rules and you can use it however you want.

writing at a desk
Bullet journalling can be a lot of work if you don’t keep it simple

Possible downsides

Some people are turned off because it can be a lot of work setting up the different pages each month, whereas something such as the Passion Planner does all that for you. The answer is to keep it simple. There are loads of YouTube videos out there about how to create beautiful bullet journal pages, but if you’re gonna use it to save time, then you don’t want to make work for yourself.

Then there is the cost. Although you can buy the trademarked Bullet Journal notebook, they are expensive. There are other dotted notebooks out there which you could buy instead or just use an ordinary notebook at first and see if you like this system.

Ideas for how to use a bullet journal

To give you an idea of how I use my bullet journal, these are the pages that I set up every month…

Diary

This is simply the date and day of the week in a list and I can write events and appointments next to it. For example…

1M 2pm Haircut
2T  
3W  
4T  
5F Drink with Sally
6S Lunch at Mum’s

Spending

As I am doing my best to keep track of where every penny goes, the next page in my bullet journal keeps track of my cash spending. I withdraw money once a month, having worked out how much I should need and every time I spend some I write it down. It looks very similar to the diary page, but instead of appointments it shows what I’ve bought and how much it cost. It has also helped me to keep track of how much Mr Simple owes me. Before starting this system I would pay for things in cash and forget that he owed me for half. This may be a step too far for you, but if you really want to dig deep into your spending habits then this is a good way of doing that. Here’s what it looks like…

  Me Him
1M Eggs £5.20 £2.60 £2.60
2T Pilates £8.00 £8.00  
3W Groceries £3.90 £1.95 £1.95
4T    
5F Tea and cake   £4.50  

Task List

This is just half a page or a page with the heading ‘Tasks’. I write a very simple bullet-point list, adding to-do’s as the month progresses and when the task is done I put a cross through the bullet point. At the end of the month you look to see what you haven’t done, decide if it is still a task that needs doing and if so, carry it over to next month.

recipe book with kale leaf
Find recipes to cook throughout the month

Meal Plan

For the last two months I have created a meal plan table. This is the beauty of the bullet journal. The dots allow you to draw, using them as a guide. I create a table with 30/31 boxes, with the day and date in each box. I then write in a meal for that day…

1F Vegetable lasagne and salad. 2S Pizza 3S Chilli and rice 4M Paneer curry, dahl and flatbreads
5T Chickpea and squash stew and couscous   6W Vegetarian shepherd’s pie with green beans and peas

I don’t always stick rigidly to the plan, but it at least gives me ideas as opposed to scrabbling around after a long day at work trying to think what to make.

Daily Logs

Ryder Carroll calls daily logs ‘the workhorse’ of your bullet journal. Just write down today’s date and all your notes for the day go here. You can write the day’s tasks and appointments or use it for journaling, whatever you want. Here’s what mine looked like the day after we came back from our short break in Somerset:

28.10.19 Monday

Had a sunny walk up Dunkery Beacon yesterday and then came home and went out for a curry. Nice to be back home, but have to think about work now. Planning to make time each morning to work on the blog.

  • Transfer money to AM for Xmas meal
  • Advertise bed on Facebook Hub
  • Ironing
  • Order Tesco monthly shop

As you can see I often write tasks on the daily log rather than on the ‘Tasks’ page. It just depends how I feel. Like I said, there are no hard and fast rules.

I hope that this has given you a little taster of how versatile a bullet journal can be. Ryder Carroll’s book gives other ideas e.g. custom collections and trackers, but I think I’ll leave those for next time.

Do you plan? What planners have you tried? Have you ever tried bullet journaling? Is there anything you’d like to know about setting up a good planning system? Just drop me a comment below.  

Want more ideas for simple living, saving money and being well? Then don’t forget to subscribe. You’ll also get my ‘Frugal Tips’ sheet as a thank you for signing up.

The Pleasures of Autumn

We can enjoy the beautiful colours of autumn now

It’s the 1st of November. I always used to tell myself that I didn’t like autumn and winter, but I have realised that there are many aspects of this time of year that I do enjoy.

Beautiful scenery

At the end of last week we went to Somerset for a few days in order to see the autumn colours. Unfortunately as the weather has been fairly mild the trees hadn’t changed colour as much as we would have liked. It was a little disappointing, but then today I realised we have beautiful places on our doorstep, one of which I pass through on the way to work several times a week. It is a small wooded area and this morning the colours were absolutely beautiful.

Opening your eyes to the beauty around you is a simple and free pleasure. Even if you live in an urban environment I expect there are some trees about. As a child I used to walk to school in the London suburb where we lived and the journey in autumn was often taken up kicking the piles of leaves that had fallen off of the plane tress.

Let podcasts keep you company on the dark drives home

New ideas

As well as the looking at the beautiful scenery I was also enjoying listening to Ryan Holiday talking about stoicism. It’s something new I’ve discovered whilst listening to the Afford Anything podcast. His work, which is a modern interpretation of ancient philosophers, is really interesting. At the moment I have only just scratched the surface, but am looking forward to learning more.

You can listen to him here being interviewed by Paula Pant.

On these dark nights there can be little to look at, so keep yourself company with one of the many podcasts there are. Only today a colleague was complaining about long journeys that she has had to make recently and I suggested several podcasts that she could listen to. Make your commute something to look forward to as you lose yourself in the infinite world of podcasts.

chestnut in spiky casing
Sweet chestnuts can be roasted in the oven

Simple Pleasures

Whilst we were away last week Mr Simple collected sweet chestnuts. He was amazed that there were so many on the ground. Maybe due to the mild weather they hadn’t all been eaten by the squirrels. He has been roasting them this evening. We probably don’t do enough of this. Autumn is the time when the hedgerows are laden with blackberries. We didn’t go picking them as we still have a couple of boxes in the freezer from last year. The season is now over, but it’s something to look forward to for next year.

Although the weather is pretty miserable, one of the joys of this time of year is snuggling up on the sofa in front of the wood burner. Like most people we have central heating, but there is something lovely about a naked flame. I look forward to weekend evenings with Mr Simple watching a bit of TV whilst sitting cosily in front of the fire. All of the wood comes from trees that we have had cut down in the garden so it feels like we’re getting it for free.

Be grateful

So, as we go into the weekend I hope that you’re finding something to enjoy. Even if it’s just being grateful that you’re inside warm and dry as the rain lashes against the windows outside.

How to be More Organised

desk with computer which is very tidy
Learn how to be more organised at work
introduction

For me ‘a simple life’ extends to keeping work simple, to limiting it to between Monday and Friday and between approximately 9am and 5pm. Unfortunately I know that this is easier said than done, but in this article I want to give you some ideas about how you can achieve this. I believe that the key to managing your time is to be more organised.

It seems that we are all expected to be busy nowadays. If you’re like me, when you bump into someone you haven’t seen in a while, the first thing they ask you is, ‘Are you busy?’ In this situation I feel scared to say that I’m not. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I haven’t got enough to keep me occupied, but most of the time I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I’m not up until 2am writing reports the day before the deadline, unlike some of my fellow workers.

So how do I manage this then? I haven’t got less work than other people, it’s just that I am very organised. I have systems in place to manage my workload and I spend a lot of time planning. Some people would say that I spend too much time planning. The thing is when I’ve got a plan I feel calm. How does this compare to your average working day? Feeling stressed and overstretched? Want to be more organised? Here’s how…

cup of tea and note book
Try to start your day with a plan
Daily planning

How do you plan your days? Do you even plan them at all or do they just happen? My work days are very varied. Sometimes I am at home all day, other times I am out at the door at 8am, going to various appointments and don’t get to sit down at my computer until the afternoon, if at all. When I do get some time to myself though I have a checklist that I go through and I have that checklist written down. It includes tasks such as:

  • complete timesheet
  • reflect on previous day and note tasks arising
  • check voicemails
  • check emails
  • allocate tasks a slot on my calendar

On most days I get at least an hour to do this at some point. What this means is that I don’t end up for example having to fill in my timesheet days or weeks late when I can’t actually remember what hours I worked on that day. It doesn’t become a chore. It takes a few seconds at the beginning and end of the day and it’s done. I don’t forget about a message someone left on my phone. If I went to a meeting the day before then a task I add to my list is to write up my notes.

What are the tasks that you need to do every day? Do you sometimes forget them and find yourself trying to catch up later on? Take a few minutes to make a checklist of those daily tasks that you can refer to every day. It really will help you to be more organised.

Make all your phone calls at once
How to keep track of your tasks

So, how do you remember all your tasks? Thanks to the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen I’ve developed a task sheet. It has sections for phone calls, emails, notes to write up, documents to read. The idea behind this is that instead of flitting from one type of task to the other it is easier to make all of your phone calls in one go or send your emails one after the other. On many days I am out and about between meetings and sitting in my car. I can look at my task list to see what calls I need to make and do those whilst I have time to kill. Other, lengthier tasks, I’ll save for when I am sitting at a desk.

What tasks do you have to do on a regular basis? Do you make your lists on scrappy bits of paper that you can’t find when you need them. If you want to be more organised develop a task list with sections for each type of task. You can either print your lists out and throw them away once you’re done with them or keep it electronically and keep updating it.

Open diary on a desk with a yellow pencil
Forward planning is priceless if you want to be more organised
Weekly and monthly planning

Years ago, I went on a training course about planning. It was a two-day course, with day one and day two being several months apart so that we could try to implement the recommendations and then return later in the year to review how we were getting on. What I learnt from that course is that it’s not just enough to have a to do list, you have to put time aside in your diary to undertake those tasks. In fact, I came across an episode of The Life Coach School recently entitled ‘Throw away your to do list’. Brooke Castillo talked about this exact thing. Take your to-do list, diarise each task and then throw away your list.

We all have deadlines. My job involves writing reports, one at the beginning and one at the end of the project. For the initial ones I don’t always have a lot of notice, but for the final ones I know six months in advance when they will be due. I can also pretty much guess what other tasks I’ll have to do to gather information for the report.

Each week I review where I am on different projects and put aside time in my diary several months in advance for any meetings that I need to arrange and to write the report. Now, I don’t always stick exactly to the time and day, but I know roughly what I’ll have to do over that week. It also means that I won’t miss anything nearer the time. I won’t sit down to write my report and think, ‘I should have met with so and so’, because I’d have diarised it and done it before the slot for report writing was in my diary. It also allows me to see how much work I’ll have in a certain month and if the manager is trying to give me something new to work on I can show how many other commitments I have at that time.

Every week I try to look at the following week, which should already have appointments pencilled in, and book those meetings. When the week arrives then I add the other day-to-day things such as making calls and typing up notes.

Want to put this into practice and be more organised? Are there tasks that you know will be coming up over the next few months, even though you don’t know exactly when? Allocate time in your diary for them. Even if you have to move them around it will give you an idea of how much work you’ll have on over that period of time. Attend regular meetings for which you need to prepare? Put an hour aside several days before each meeting to do so. Make a monthly mileage claim? Again, schedule this into your diary so that you don’t end up waiting months for that money you’re owed.

The word email on white tiles with a grey background
Do you ever turn these off?
Being Effective

There is also the question of focus. When you have to prepare a report how well are you able to concentrate on it? For some ideas I would suggest having a read of my two posts on Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep Work’:

You could also listen to him being interviewed by Paula Pant on the ‘Afford Anything Podcast:

The basics that I gleaned from the interviews were that in this world of instant responses and the temptation of social media, in order to be able to be productive you need to disconnect yourself from all of that. He recommends turning off your email alerts, putting your phone in another room and basically reducing distractions as much as possible.

All of this may be very difficult if you work in an open plan office, of which Cal is not a fan. If you can reduce distractions, he then recommends practising ‘deep work’ by setting a timer for say 30 minutes and trying to immerse yourself in the work you need to do for that period of time. After 30 minutes you can check your emails or your phone. It might be a good idea to get up from your computer. You could make a cup of tea, or if like me you are at home, hang out the washing.

Now, I don’t want to sound as though I am perfect as there are times when I think that I could be more organised, when I have worked on the weekend, but they are few and far between. Usually they are before or after annual leave. Unfortunately, in my job, there is no one else to pick up your tasks whilst you are off, therefore if you have a deadline for a report in the middle of your holiday that report needs to get written before you go away. Apart from that, as I said, life is simple. Work happens on weekdays and rarely extends past 6pm. That way I can enjoy my early mornings, my evenings and my weekends. Work feels just a part of my life and I have time for plenty of other activities.

So, if you want to be more organised, have a think about how to plan your working life better. What do you struggle with at work? What tips do you have for others who have a busy schedule? Let me know if you want more information about anything that I have written. I’d be happy to help.

How to Eat Well

Dr Chatterjee recommends eating a rainbow of different coloured vegetables

This post contains affiliate links. That means that if you click on one of the links and purchase the item I will get some money. Please see here for more information about my use of affiliate links.

This week we’re back to Dr Chatterjee’s Four Pillar Plan and the pillar I’m looking at is ‘Eat’. It seems quite relevant to be writing about food at this point as Mr Simple and I have started the 5:2 diet today. Actually, he is starting it, bullied into it by me and I am keeping him company. He keeps saying that he will cut out beer and crisps or just eat a calorie-controlled diet every day, but it never happens. I think that the 5:2 diet, although it is difficult on the fast days (I know I have tried it before) the good thing is that on the other days you can eat normally, including the occasional bowl of crisps, and it is still effective.

So what does Dr Chatterjee saying about eating…

Dr Chatterjee does not believe that there’s one true diet that’s optimal for everyone. According to him we are capable of thriving on a whole range of diets. Have you heard of blue zones? These are magical areas where the proportion of people who live past 100 is up to ten times higher than the average rate. If you go back to my previous posts by Dr John Day you will see that he studied one in China.

The broad and basic principles that are consistent among all the blue-zone diets are:

  • None has a processed-food culture. By and large they eat fresh, unprocessed, local produce.
  • They all sit down and eat meals together.
  • They eat what’s in season.
  • They have treats, but only at very special festival times such as Christmas and Easter, not every day after school or every Friday and Saturday.
Many of our foods contain a lot of sugar

Dr Chatterjee recommends the following:

De-normalise sugar

Retrain your taste buds by removing all sugars from your cupboards and get into the habit of always reading the label on your food to check the sugar content. It is really surprising where manufacturers hide sugar e.g. mango chutney, which I love with curry, is full of sugar – it is the main ingredient.

A new definition of ‘five a day’

Aim to eat at least five portions of vegetables every day – ideally of five different colours. Dr Chatterjee says that one of the reasons for this is that variety is good for the bugs that live in our gut and their associated genes collectively known as our microbiome.

How to increase your colours:

  • Print out the rainbow chart from drchatterjee.com (link) and put it on your fridge. Tick off all the colours you have consumed in one day.
  • Get into the habit of snacking on veg – carrots with hummus, cucumber with tahini, celery sticks with almond butter.
  • Leave colourful appealing vegetables on the kitchen worktop or your desk so that you see them regularly: bright orange carrots, red and yellow peppers, green olives.
  • Add two vegetables to every meal, including breakfast. If you’re having eggs in the morning try adding spinach and avocado. This is one of my favourite ways of increasing the amount of vegetables that you eat. So many people eat cereals and toast for breakfast, missing out on the opportunity to get in one or two of their five a day.
  • Roast a whole baking tray of colourful vegetables drizzled with olive oil; eat some with your evening meal and save the left-overs in the fridge. They can form the basis of lunch the next day.

Introduce daily micro-fasts

Get into the habit of eating all of your food within a twelve-hour time window. Our bodies are designed for going without food for certain periods of time. As soon as you start to give your body a break from all the gorging, incredible things start to happen. Eating all your food in a restricted time window allows your body to repair cells and the immune system. I heard a great analogy on one of Dr Chatterjee’s podcasts – your body trying to repair cells with food still passing through your gut is like workmen trying to resurface the motorway with cars still driving up and down it.

Six tips to help you micro-fast:

  1. Choose a twelve-hour period that suits your lifestyle. Note that your twelve-hour eating window is from the beginning of your first meal to the end of your last meal.
  2. Your body likes rhythm so try and keep to the same times every day, even at weekends. Occasionally you may need to change your eating window – this is absolutely fine.
  3. Outside your eating window stick to water, herbal tea or black tea and coffee. Be careful with caffeine so you don’t adversely affect your sleep.
  4. Try to involve other members of your household or even work colleagues. This will help to keep you motivated and increase your chances of success.
  5. Don’t be disheartened if you miss a day or even two. It really doesn’t matter. When you feel ready, try again and see how you get on.
  6. When you are feeling comfortable with twelve hours, you may choose to experiment with short eating windows on different days. If you do this pay attention to how the change makes you feed and adjust accordingly.
Try to drink more water – adding calorie-free flavour

Drink more water – aim to drink eight small glasses of water per day (approx. 1.2 litres)

Tips to help you increase your water intake:

  • Have two glasses of water when you wake up each morning
  • If you’re hungry mid-morning or mid-afternoon, try having a glass of water instead of a snack
  • Once every hour get up from your desk and go to the water cooler
  • Drink a glass of water thirty minutes before each meal
  • Set an alarm three times per day to remind you to have a drink
  • Try adding lemon or orange slices for flavour – I add fresh mint leaves

Unprocess your diet

There’s no need to count calories, fat, carbs, weight watchers’ points, slimmer’s world sins. Simply focus on avoiding highly processed foods. It’s a pretty safe bet that any food product that contains more than five ingredients is highly processed. Dr Chatterjee believes that the major problem is not that we’re simply eating too much food; it’s actually that we’re eating the wrong type of food. We are now eating large quantities of low-quality food.

Tips to unprocess your diet and eat more real food

  1. Start your day with a meal containing some protein as well as some healthy, natural fat. This will help you stay full for longer, stabilise your blood sugar and help you avoid the mid-morning crash e.g. those eggs and vegetables, not cereals and toast.
  2. Keep an emergency snack pack with you at all times. It can live in your back-pack, your car and even your office. Dr Chatterjee’s includes a tin of wild salmon, almonds and nut butter.
  3. Write a meal planner – many people find it useful to plan out their meals for the whole week so that they can plan their weekly shop.
  4. Remove all highly-processed food from your house – if it’s not there you are much less likely to eat it.
  5. Healthy food is available to buy in every supermarket. Find out where it lives and only shop those aisles.
  6. Come up with five simple meals that you can whip up in fifteen minutes or less. These will become your go to staples.
  7. Keep frozen vegetables in the house at all times. Easy to steam, they can be a quick, healthy snack or form part of a meal. I think that there is a snootiness around frozen veg i.e. they are seen as only eaten by the lower classes, except maybe frozen peas. In fact they have more nutrients than fresh veg that have taken days or weeks to get from the field to your plate. They are also cheaper than fresh. In particular I like frozen spinach to put in curries and have recently bought broccoli and cauliflower for this purpose as well.
  8. Keep pre-chopped garlic and onions in the fridge at all times.
  9. Make sure you always have a healthy protein source such as fish or eggs in the house. Protein is the macronutrient that keeps you most full. It takes little time to boil an egg or pan-fry a salmon fillet.
  10. Herbs and spices are your friends – use them freely as they are a great way to add new and exciting flavours to a meal. Many, such as turmeric, ginger and black pepper, have powerful health benefits. Mr Simple and I eat curry several times a week. I think that you can curry almost any vegetable.
  11. Make your kitchen area desirable. You want to love being in your kitchen.

So that’s it. Do you want to change your eating habits? I think that it’s so easy to overeat and our society makes it easier to be fat than it is to be thin, which takes real effort and a great deal of willpower. As Dr Chatterjee’s suggestions show, you have to make it easier to make healthy choices. What are your tricks for doing this? I would love to know. Or are you struggling with food? Need some help? I would love to give you some more tips to try. Let me know in the comments below and don’t forget to check out ‘The Four Pillar Plan’.