Embrace Boredom – the route to ‘Deep Work’

Beagle dog looking bored
You need to learn to just be bored sometimes

In this third post looking at the book ‘Deep Work’, by Cal Newport, I’m going to take you through his second rule, entitled ‘Embrace Boredom‘. In a nutshell, this is about learning to live without distractions. It also includes tips and ideas for learning to concentrate better and focus your mind on challenging problems.

embracing boredom

I was recently reminded of the rarity of just sitting alone by this recent post from Hustle Escape. With smartphones as our constant companions we very rarely just sit and do nothing. Waiting in the queue at the supermarket checkout we spend the time looking at our phones. On the train home from work no one talks to each other, they’re all just looking at their phones. According to Cal you need to wean your mind from this type of behaviour. If you don’t you’ll struggle to achieve the level of concentration required for deep work.

phone showing social media icons
Make time slots to lose yourself in social media
Take Breaks from Focus, not from Distraction

Instead of constantly checking your email and what the authors of ‘Make Time’, John Zeratsky and Jake Knapp, call ‘infinity pools’, e.g. Twitter and Facebook, schedule times to do this. Outside of those times you need to avoid social media and other internet distractions altogether. Cal Newport suggests writing down on a piece of paper the next time you’re allowed to use the internet. He says that it’s not the service itself which reduces your brain’s ability to focus. It’s the constant switching from low stimuli/high value activities to high stimuli/low value activities at the slightest hint of boredom or when you’re trying to do an intellectually taxing task, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

the word email on tiles
Keep email to their own time slots
Three points to consider

If you have to spend a lot of time answering emails in your job, just schedule lots of blocks of time to do this, rather than switching back and fore between deep work tasks and email activity.

You must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from internet use. Basically, close your emails down so they don’t pop up as you’re doing deep work and distract you. Put your phone on silent when you’re having focused time. I do this with my personal mobile. I need to learn to do the same with my work one, as nothing is ever that urgent that it can’t wait, but I’ve resisted this.

Scheduling internet use at home as well as at work can further improve your concentration training. It might be that what you do in the evenings and on weekends is undoing all that great training that you’re doing for your brain when you’re at work. Try the same techniques in your personal life. When you’re spending time with your family put your phone in another room and agree just to look at it when the kids have gone to bed.

Set a deadline

One tactic for getting yourself to focus on a task is to set yourself a tight deadline. It will mean that you have to concentrate intensely on finishing the project. You won’t have time for distractions. I must admit I have never been one to work this way as tight deadlines stress me, although I know many people who seem to leave tasks until the eleventh hour and are able to work all night to get them done.

feet in trainers walking on boardwalk
Take a walk and think about a problem you’re trying to solve
Moving meditation

We’ve all heard about sitting in a chair, or even cross-legged, quietly for a few minutes and the benefits that this can bring. I’ve even written a post about it, but Cal suggests a different type of meditation. This is where you are doing something physically e.g. walking or showering and during that time you focus your attention on a specific problem. When you are distracted you need to bring your mind back to the challenge that you’ve set yourself. I’ve not tried this in such an intentional way, although I do find that my mind will mull over problems when I’m driving (if I’m not listening to a podcast that is) or over the summer, gardening is a task that allows my mind to wander. According to Cal, as a rule you should try to do this two to three times a week.

conclusion

So there we are, some really practical ideas for how to achieve the goal of deep work. For me it is something that I am still working on, but I do feel that I have improved my ability to concentrate, particularly in the afternoon, which I used to find really difficult during that ‘post lunch dip’ period. Have you tried any of Cal’s advice from my previous posts? I would love to know how you got on?

The First Rule of ‘Deep Work’

the words work harder in a neon sign on a blue wall
Learn not just how to work harder, but also how to work smarter

I have finally finished making notes from ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. It has taken me much longer than I expected, probably because it contains so much useful information. I had planned to write just one more post looking at his four rules, but the first rule alone is going to take up all of this post.

If you missed my first post on ‘The Benefits of Discovering Deep Work’, then take at look at it here, otherwise let’s get started…

The philosophies of deep work

The first rule is – Work Deeply i.e. implement his recommended way of working. Cal suggests four different ways in which you can go about trying to do this, which he calls ‘philosophies’.

Monastic

Basically lock yourself away like a monk, ignore the modern world and do deep work. This is how some of the great minds of our time have written the texts that made them famous. Unfortunately this is not practical for most of us. I don’t think that my employer would be happy for me to take a couple of months off to go and live in the woods.

Bimodal

In this philosophy you spend whole days at a time, with a minimum of at least one whole day, doing deep work. Again, this may not be practical unless you have complete control over your time.

Rhythmic

Have a set time each day during which you do deep work. This may be achievable if your days follow a set format. Unfortunately for me, no two days are the same, so having to do this would make it difficult for me.

Journalistic

Fit deep work wherever you can into your schedule. At the beginning of the week or the end of the previous week, have a look at your calendar and see where there are gaps that you can allocate to doing deep work. This is the method that I have been trying to use and which Cal himself employs.

desk with laptop, lamp and vase of roses
If you want to do ‘Dee Work’ you will need to remove distractions from your desk
The Method

Once you have decided on when you are going to do your deep work, Cal then gives you tips on how to actually achieve it.

Where

Decide on a specific location in which to do deep work. Open plan offices are not a good place to focus. I have never understood why employers think that they are such a good idea. If you work in an open plan office and want to do deep work, I would suggest that you ask to work at home on some days. Alternatively you could try to block out noise distractions with ear plugs, but you can’t shut your eyes to cut out visual ones.

I am lucky in that I can work at home a lot. My office is at the front of the house and although I try to minimise distractions I still lose focus when someone walks past the house. I don’t want to close the curtains and sit in the dark, but I have considered buying a roller blind which would let in light, but block out the world.

Ritualise

Include various rituals as part of your routine e.g. start with a good cup of coffee, have a break part way through to take a walk and clear your mind. I suppose it’s a way of signalling to your body and mind that you are about to do some deep work. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth and putting your pyjamas on before bed. Your body knows that it’s time to wind down and think about going to sleep.

Prioritise

Decide what’s most important to you and focus on that during your deep work hours. You can’t do deep work all day every day, as it’s hard and your concentration is limited. Therefore you have to select the most important parts of your work to undertake during this time. For me this is writing reports, which is the culmination of all of my smaller tasks and what other people see.

Collaborate

This may be not be relevant to your role, but if it is you could work alongside someone else to push you both deeper in your work. You will also need to make time for your own individual deep work. An example would be if you are working in product development and want to bounce ideas off of someone else. You may be a scientist and deep discussions with a colleague may help you to make that breakthrough you so desperately want.

Be lazy

Have a set shutdown time at the end of the day and forget about work. This helps recharge the energy that you need to work deeply. It allows the conscious brain to switch off and the unconscious mind takes a turn in sorting through your most complex professional challenges.

According to Cal Newport, any work undertaken in the evening will not be ‘deep work’ and so will be less valuable. Without a break you may not be able to achieve quality deep work the following day. When later reflecting on this I realised that for those with caring responsibilities this may not be realistic. I know many women who finish work early in order to collect their children from school and be with them until they go to bed. After that they turn on the computer again and finish their working day.

Evaluate

Deep work is a new skill and from my recent experience, not easy. You need to practise regularly and hone your skills. You should routinely review what went well and what didn’t. Then change your practice accordingly. Over time you will hopefully get better at deep work.

Conclusion

In our working day there are so many interesting distractions, such as checking email or looking at our phones. It’s tempting to busy ourselves with these easier tasks, but they often bring less value to our work. It’s the more complex tasks, which take focus and commitment, that you need to master if you are going to progress. Whether it’s career advancement that you’re looking for or an ability to focus on your side hustles, both of which may help you on your road to financial independence, deep work may be the answer.

Fancy trying out ‘deep work’? I’d love to know how you get on. I’ll tell you about the three other rules next time. Until then, thanks for reading and take care.

The Easier Way to Set Goals

A new decade of opportunities ahead

If you’re like me you’ve probably been reading lots of posts about setting goals. It’s that time of year when everyone in the personal development world seems to sit down and make long lists of all the great things they are going to do over the next year. So, have you made your list or are you finding it hard to decide what you need to work on? Too many ideas rattling around in your head? Join the club.

I am late to the goal-setting party with this post as I have spent quite some time mulling over my non-financial goals for the coming year. In order to help I re-visited a podcast by Natalie Bacon in which she suggests eight areas of your life to work on. They are:

  1. Heath
  2. Relationships
  3. Money
  4. Career/business
  5. Personal/spiritual
  6. Environment/space/home
  7. Recreation/fun
  8. Service/contribution

With such a vast array of areas it felt very overwhelming. It’s not that I don’t think that all of these are important, it’s just that trying to make and achieve goals in all these areas at once seems impossible.

Whilst doing my physio exercises the other morning I listened to one of Laura Vanderkam’s Before Breakfast podcasts. She shared an idea, which she admits she stole from someone else, about splitting your goals into quarters i.e. spreading them throughout the year. I realised that this was the answer. I don’t have to do everything at once. I’ve now finally managed to come up with a plan for the first three months of the year. So here goes…

Health

A battle for most people, but for us the 5:2 diet is working
Improve our diet and lose weight

We plan to continue the 5:2 diet. I don’t have an aim for me, but I would like Mr Simple to lose half a stone. Secondly, I am going to try to add some more variety into our meals. In my bid to reduce our spending on food the menu has become rather restricted, so I’m hoping to add in some new recipes. The good thing about Veganuary is that the library has been displaying lots of vegetarian and vegan books. Now I just need to go through the ones I’ve borrowed and pick some new recipes to try over the next couple of months.

Walk 5000 steps a day

Now, I know what you’re gonna say, it’s meant to be 10,000, but I really struggle to achieve that when work involves so much sitting. Therefore I’ve decided to aim for something that’s doable. As I sit here, on a Sunday afternoon, I’ve only done just over 3,000. Therefore, walking 5,000 is still an improvement on my usual day. I’ve reset my Fitbit to vibrate and congratulate me at the 5,000 mark instead of the usual 10,000.

I can’t keep paying for this instead of addressing the problem myself
Reduce tightness in neck and shoulders

This is an ongoing issue, which I’ve failed to address for a very long time, except by going to massage or physiotherapy sessions. As I’ve said before, I am trying to save money on physiotherapy sessions and the way to do this is to practise the exercises that the physio has given me. Sadly, my willpower in this area is lacking or at least it is by the end of the day. I’m fine first thing and usually spend about ten minutes going through the routine, but by the end of the day, the honest answer is, I can’t be bothered. I was trying to think of a reward to give myself if I do my exercises every day for a whole month, but I haven’t yet. Any ideas?

Jog three times per week

I currently jog on my treadmill about twice a week. It is a very short jog, but it gets my heart rate up and I feel better for it. The trouble is that even though it doesn’t take a lot of time, with the other activities that I like to do in the morning I can’t always fit it in if I have to leave home before 9am. I need to adapt my routine, maybe jogging at lunch time if I’ve been out first thing, but am home by then, or when I come back in the evening. I’ve got a plan for developing my jogging in the next quarter (which I’ll let you know in April)  so I need to keep my fitness level up.

The last of our upstairs room to be decorated – our bedroom

Environment

As I’ve talked about before, we are gradually renovating our home. Mr Simple has almost finished painting the dining room. Next on the list is the main bedroom. We are probably going to have fitted wardrobes, but we’ve got to work out how they are going to fit around the chimney that passes through the room. We can’t knock this out as it contains the flue for the wood burner in the lounge. We’ve then got to decide on a colour scheme.

Relationships

Although this can be real life relationships, I’ve decided to focus on virtual ones. I get so much out of interacting with like-minded individuals on line and want to do more of this. My hope for the first quarter of the year is to increase my Twitter activity and have more followers. Over the past month I’ve gained about one follower a day and the current grand total stands at 194, which isn’t many at all compared to most. I am therefore going to aim for a total of 300 by the end of March. That may be pushing it slightly, but we’ll see.

And that’s it. They’re mainly health goals, which can’t be bad. Obviously I haven’t covered all of the areas that Natalie Bacon suggests, but that’s the idea. There’ll be nine more months when I can work on new goals in the career, personal, recreation and service categories. I’ve already made my financial goals for the year, which you can read here. I will let you know how I’m getting on at the end of March and then set some more goals for the next quarter.

So how’s your goal setting for 2020 goal? Feeling overwhelmed by all of the areas you need to work on? Why not just choose a couple and set goals for just the first quarter of the year? I’d love to hear how you get on.

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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.

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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.  

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