Input / Output

I read through “Deep Work” by Cal Newport this weekend. Admittedly, most of it was a skim as I didn’t need the hard sell that deep, focused work for extended periods of time is the best way to get real, valuable things accomplished. For anyone that has been stuck in shallow work for their career, that stuff is probably really eye-opening.

For me, the second half is where I found the most value. That’s where the practical application advice lives and I took a fair number of notes as I worked my way through it. I’ve included them all below, in case they might be of use to someone else.

For now, I’ve started with getting up significantly earlier and spending the first couple of hours of the day in what I’m terming “deep work”. For me, that means solid time focused, without distractions from family or the internet. The work itself may not be particularly deep, but it will definitely move things forward in the work I’m doing as well as clear the way ahead for deep work to come.

I’ve set down some clarified professional and personal goals, as well as what activities will help me work toward reaching them.

I’m now assessing my network tools to see if any culling can be done. It’s possible that the focus and increased discipline I’m developing will be enough for now.

I’m also working with the questions: What does “deep work” mean to me and what does “shallow work” mean as well?

 


Deep Work notes

Be patient. It will take time to develop this as a skill.

Deep work pushes you cognitively to your limits. Fatigue is inevitable if you don’t train it like a muscle.

Ritualize

  • Where you’ll work and for how long
    You don’t want an open-ended slog.
  • How you’ll work once you start
    Setting a metric (words written, feature complete, etc) can be helpful.
  • How you’ll support your work
    Be organized and ensure the environment and tools you need are readily available.

Experiment with the ritual if it’s not working. It’s a big deal to develop deep work.

Sometimes grand gestures (renting a hotel room) can help.

Focus on the wildly important goals. Use a weekly review to keep yourself accountable.

Do a formal shut down of work at the end of the day.

  • Downtime aids insights
  • Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply
  • The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important

Shutdown should include setting up a list of the next day’s tasks.

Embrace boredom

The ability to concentrate deeply is a skill that must be trained.

Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.

Schedule in advance when you’ll use the internet (social media, entertainment, etc).

1. This strategy works even if your job requires lots of internet use.
2. Regardless of how you schedule internet blocks, you must keep the time outside them internet-free.
3. Scheduling internet use at home as well as work can improve your concentration training.

You must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.

Working like Roosevelt

High intensity bursts of focus can help you accomplish a lot. Set a timer.

Start with once or twice a week and use a specific goal and deadline.

Meditate productively

Walking to focus on a single deep problem or task.

Act mindfully but instead of clearing your thoughts, keep them focused singularly.

Once or twice a week for this at first.

Be wary of distraction and looping thoughts.

Stretches your deep thinking.

Quit social media

The craftsman approach to tool selection:

Identify the core function that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Apply the law of the vital few to your internet habits.

  • Identify the main high-level goals in your professional and personal life. These goals should not be overly specific.
  • For each goal, list the top two or three most important activities that help you satisfy the goal. These can be more specific, but should not be one-time activities.
  • Consider the network tools you use. Ask if each has a substantially positive, substantially negative, or little impact on your activities.
  • Keep the tool only if it has positives that outweigh its negatives.

The Law of the Vital Few:

In many settings, 80% of a given effect is down to just 20% of the possible causes.

Stop using services for 30 days then ask:
1. Would the last month be better if I had used the service?
2. Did people care if I was using it?

If no to both, then quit using it.

Don’t use the internet to entertain yourself. Put thought into your leisure time.

Drain the shallows

Deep work should be built up. An hour or two, but likely no more than 4, with the remainder for more shallow tasks.

Schedule your day by blocks of time and adjust as needed. This isn’t about constraint, but thoughtfulness.

Quantify the depth of every activity.

Shallow work:

Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much value in teh world and are easy to replicate.

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart recent college grad with no special training in my field to complete this task?

Create a shallow work budget

How much time (by percentage) should be spent on shallow work?

30-50% in general.

Be conscious about accepting new obligations.

Become hard to reach after hours and during blocks of deep work.

Documentation, studying, and making things “easy”

I spent the last two days reading every inch of the React documentation.With that completed, it’s time to open up the Redux docs and start the process all over again.

This is not easy. Getting the focus together to read through these things is challenging, at least for me. They’re also complicated technical docs, even if well-written.

But I know from past experience that this is worth doing. No, I don’t expect to actually absorb all of what I’m reading. That level of studying would take a lot more that two days. I’m not being tested on this, so the purpose of the work is different than someone in school.

I just need to know where the information is so I can find it later. There’s a lot to be said for being exposed to information. What I can do is file the reference away in my brain somewhere. When an issue comes up while I’m working, it’s likely I’ll have some tendril of memory surface and remind me where I can find the information I need.

This kind of immersive exposure has a couple other benefits. I can come back and revisit the docs later and absorb a bit more each time. I can also use this experience as a stepping stone for deepening my knowledge as I seek out other resources that expand on the concepts. Better questions with more thorough vocabulary also becomes possible now that I’ve got a more solid foundation.

I’ve made things, if not actually easy and at hand, at least more within reach.

Insomnia and Getting Stuff DONE

Insomnia since 4am means I’ve gotten some stuff done and it’s not even 9 yet. I’m all prepped for my blog staff’s meeting later today, which means I got a bunch of small fixes done on the redesign and assessed the status of various projects for the next month or two.

Yesterday I finished my first little react project to the point where I’m calling it DONE as in Cult of Done and moving on to other things. I left a todo list on the readme so I can go back and clean stuff up later, but I’ve hit the law of diminishing returns for a learning project. Nothing I have left to work on there will help me learn anything new, or rather, anything I would learn I can do more efficiently as part of a different project.

You can fork that project, by the way, if you want to set up your own link directory. Check the readme for details.

Today I’m going to make a study day. I’m working through the documentation for React and Redux, which is going much smoother now that I have some experience under my belt. I might open Cuppa again and figure out next steps for that. It needs a real backend which will likely be in Node. MERN stack tutorials are in my future.

Last night I used Library Time to start poking at my next writing project. Notion seems like it will work for my needs, though I spent most of the time shuffling real pieces of paper around. I have a full binder of various attempts at wrapping my head around what this world looks like and who the characters are and what story I’m trying to tell. It’s been twelve years since I started the project and I’ve changed considerably (along with the rest of the world) in that time.

My first job is seeing what I have to work with, hence the paper shuffling. There’s a treasure trove of raw material. Somewhere in there is the heart of the story.

Pruning

I was thinking about my phone today. Eventually it will need replacing, but with what? Do I want to stay with the iOS ecosystem? Is there some better option out there?

I went through a little thought experiment where maybe I would purchase a basic, non-smart phone and get an iPod Touch for the stuff I use my current phone for. Getting away from iTunes (which I only use for organizing my music library) is a massive challenge and I’ve got quite a few games I’m pretty attached to.

In the end what I realized is that I needed to declutter my phone, make sure the notifications I get are minimal, and find a better option for a bedside clock.

I dumped most of the games I kept on there “just in case” I wanted to play them (I game a fair bit on my iPad, those games will be there instead). I moved my social media apps (Twitter and Mastodon, I don’t have a Facebook account) deep into a folder. I like the option of posting to them as needed, but burying them makes me less likely to read the feeds on there.

Everything on the homepage is daily use. Apps on the middle page are stuff I use pretty often but not daily, and utilities it would be a pain to have to download (the retail apps particularly) the few times a year I need them. The games I’ve left on their I use daily for brain breaks and I like variety in them.

All in all, I’m glad I went through this process. I feel like my phone is more of a tool again and will help me keep my daily practices more consistent and distract me just a bit less.

Career thoughts and being honest with myself

I seem to persistently waffle on my career. Yesterday it all felt so clear. A path from Individual Contributor to Tech Lead to Engineering Manager. Do it with Rails and JS. Be there in the next five years. I already have 8 years in the industry, this isn’t unreasonable.

Why does it feel so impossible and like the wrong track for me today? I had a lot of trouble focusing yesterday and that’s the likely culprit for my hesitation today. If I feel like I’m being productive, then I feel like I’m succeeding and getting somewhere. But by who’s definition of success and productivity?

For me, success in the day-to-day looks like flow. I’m feeling most productive and successful when I get a flow going. But that’s near impossible to come by with programming because of all the stopping and thinking and logic involved.

I need to recouch what success means here, without flow. Is it acquiring knowledge? Is it gaining understanding and facility with the language or framework? I think that may be a key. If that’s the key to getting good and being productive, by my personal standard, then how do I acquire that? How do I fit in that work along with everything else on my plate?

More importantly, how do I do so consistently and with joy?

Why is this site here?

Weblog. Remember that word? It’s a bit old, at least in internet terms. It used to refer to a place where one would write their thoughts, opinions, or share informative articles on their specialty. Eventually it shortened to “blog”, and then Twitter came along and many people forgot about it entirely. This site is here to bring it back, even if it’s just for myself.

I’m going to share a bit of my process (okay, I like to talk about process a fair bit, as a warning) and how I put the site together. These are the notes and lists I wrote when I sat down and thought through how this was all going to work.

WebLOG

A place for logging things in my life. I’ve been thinking about this idea for the last couple of weeks. As I pull back a bit from social media, I find myself wanting to write more and also wanting to consolidate that writing someplace where it’s not subject to the whims of advertisers. I started my first blog in 2002, so this concept feels a bit like coming home again.

Why?

For myself: So I can go back over the year and see what I read, watched, thought, learned, etc.

For others: So someone else may find some use for the things I’ve uncovered.

Consolidating myself to one place, leveraging IndieWeb technology for sending my writings elsewhere.

Places I already post my stuff

  • My commonplace books (Bear Writer, Boostnote)
  • Newsletters (commonplacebook, cool shit)
  • Twitter
  • Mastodon
  • Tumblr
  • Pinboard
  • 8tracks
  • My developer blog
  • Dev.to
  • Medium

This weblog idea transforms the point of origin for most of that stuff to a single place that’s under my control, disseminating it elsewhere as desired.

Logistics

Where to host? I have a few domain names, so which one makes the most sense? pixelpaperyarn.rocks works. I didn’t have anything else going on here of note.

CMS of choice: WordPress! With IndieWeb-oriented plugins plus a syntax formatter for my code-related posts. This is as low friction as I can get and it allows me to post from anywhere. I’m going with the nice, built-in TwentyFifteen theme.

DEFAULTS ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO GET STARTED!!!

What am I posting here?

Make this a website of me and my stuff

  • Newsletters get written here and then sent out through Tinyletter
  • Medium and dev blog posts start here and get copied over
  • Pinboard records my reading and goes over to Evernote so I can grab it weekly as a post here
  • Editor’s Ephemera and my editorials for LSQ will be ported here
  • Current comic book subscription list
  • Movies I watch
  • Video games I’m playing
  • Books I’m reading