Be more creative, make more stuff, and still have time for trash TV
This writing residency has been great so far. I'm all caught up on Jersey Shore: Family Vacation and I have some DEFINITE opinions about Ronnie's maturity level. (That guy needs to get his damn act together.)
And THESE two need to get married already. Look at them! They are so in love.
Get a room!
(Yes, I know. This is not exactly the kind of stuff you take in during a residency. But look: I can't be reading Jane Austen *all* the time. Once in a while you just have to turn your brain off and see what's going on with the guidos.)
Jersey Shore aside, I AM taking this residency seriously. It will be over in a few short weeks, and I want to make the most of it.
That desire to get things done - which is always competing with my urge to binge-watch trash TV - has forced me to realize that if I want to make a go of this, I'm going to have to learn to get better at one thing, and one thing only: FOCUS.
Both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates agree that the reason they've been so incredibly successful is that they are able to focus for long periods of time. But does that mean "focus" as in "hunched over a desk, working on a math problem"? Or does it mean focus as in "staring out the window, following a train of thought" because that's where the breakthroughs happen?
Both types of focus matter. A lot.
Warren Buffett doesn't have a computer on his office desk. He doesn't have a million people interrupting him throughout the day. He doesn't wrestle with email or meetings. He reads the news and then he thinks about what he's read, and what it could signify for the future of the markets. He moved back to Omaha from New York specifically to get away from distractions, so that he could think deeply about the things that mattered most.
(Side note: Becoming Warren Buffett is one of the best documentaries I've ever seen. Highly recommended.)
It's not just business titans that work hard to hone their ability to be alone with their thoughts. Have you seen the trailer for Dave Chappelle's special? Check it out.
There he is, hard at work. That's how Chappelle pays his bills: he thinks about things.
(Chris Rock used a similar conceit in the opening for his special, too.)
But here's the rub: anybody with an Internet connection knows that we are living in an age of distraction, and it can be a challenge to stay focused on anything for a long period of time.
And here's the good news: focus is a muscle, it can be trained.
I've been reading an excellent book on the subject - Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World by Cal Newport. Early in the book, he pitches this hypothesis:
The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.
The book is split into two parts: Part 1 advocates for WHY deep work matters, and Part 2 explains HOW to retrain your mind in order to make deep work the focus of your career.
The Why is important, because the How is hard.
(If it were easy, everybody would do it.)
Here are the reasons why Newton believes deep work matters:
Deep work is valuable.
Deep work leads to breakthroughs and "the ability to produce at elite levels." Consider Nate Silver, and his Five Thirty Eight blog. His site blew up during the 2012 presidential race, and Silver became a household name because his system accurately predicted the entire. damn. election. Every race!
Silver used to be a baseball stats geek before he became an election forecaster. The thing is, there are LOTS of baseball stats geeks and election forecasters out in the world. But Silver was able to go deep and stay deep with his databases and statistical analysis systems and figure out how to get the right information at the right time. It wasn't easy. But he stuck with it, and it changed his life (and spared more than a few people heart attacks in the fall of 2012, I'm sure.)
I suspect there are plenty of election forecasters who had the skills to develop that system. But here's the point: they didn't. He did.
If you can do deep work, you'll be the one coming up with the breakthroughs.
Deep work is rare.
Deep work matters; but most work environments encourage things like back-to-back meetings, and rapid responses to email threads, and a robust social media presence -- in other words, shallow work.
Why does shallow work seem worthwhile? Maybe because it's visible. It LOOKS like work. Sort of.
Deep work happens in the mind; shallow work happens in the inbox or the meeting room, where everybody can see it.
Newport explains why it's hard to get metrics and hard data around how MUCH of a waste of time shallow work can be. (We all secretly know it's a waste of time and energy, we just can't prove it.) And so, as Newport writes, "Without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment." (Like watching Jersey Shore, instead of writing this post.)
If you can do deep work, you'll build a BODY of work.
Deep work is meaningful.
As human beings, we construct our reality. We decide what matters, and then we focus intently on those very things. Here's an example: twenty people on a bus are having twenty different experiences. The little boy is captivated by the light coming through the window; the older man is thinking about his taxes. We can choose what we focus on, and therefore choose our reality. Hooray!
Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love - is the sum of what you focus on.
Newport writes, "Your world is the outcome of what you pay attention to, so consider for a moment the type of mental world constructed when you dedicate significant time to deep endeavors. There's a gravity ... whether you're smithing a sword or optimizing an algorithm ... if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance."
If you can do deep work, then you'll find yourself doing work that matters. To you.
So there are a few reasons Why to cultivate this skill. Next week, I'll dig into Newport's advice about How to develop the skills necessary to do deep work. It's easier said than done - and it's not glamorous - but it could be a game changer.
Just ask Warren Buffett. Or Dave Chappelle.
The best part is that deep work is productive work - which means you can get a lot done and STILL have plenty of time to keep up with Pauly D and the guidos.
And I guess I'm not the only fool watching that show: Seth Rogen is a fan too. And he gets stuff done, right?
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