Now the work begins

This is the lesser told story about the quest for elite accomplishment. It’s common to hear about the exciting initial phase where you’re terrible but motivated and therefore see quick returns. But so many people, like C. K., soon hit a plateau. They’re no longer bad. But they’re also not improving; stuck in a circle that doesn’t take them anywhere.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/07/how-louis-c-k-became-funny-and-why-it-matters/

But I’m still left with the question: How do I distinguish, putting in the effort, from, bashing myself on the rocks? Because I’ve got the work-ethic, put-in-the-effort, do-the-hard-work, thing down pat. What I don’t seem to have—in my opinion—is success. I’m certainly not enjoying life generally. It’s just long stretches of hating myself in the form of insanely hard work, with brief windows of relaxation.

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Sabbaticals are not the solution

What is it about digital addictions that make us think the occasional break will suffice?

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/03/digital-sabbaticals-dont-make-sense/

Weekly sabbaticals make now sense, sure. But less frequent sabbaticals are powerful. Take a week off from—whatever, email, social networks, etc.—and your addictions are made obvious. Nothing surprising there. The question is: Do you then consciously bring the addicting drug back into your life?

That’s not hyperbolic soapboxing; That’s a real question for you to consider.

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Mindful communication

With few exceptions, e-mail use arose organically within organizations, with little thought applied to how digital communication might best serve the relevant objectives.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/06/18/the-e-mail-productivity-curve/

As usual, this is an interesting article from Newport. He proposes a productivity curve for email—how productive we are without, with-some, with-more, with-too-much—which explains perfectly why some people love email and some people hate it.

The key point about email is to use it intentionally. Not simply one’s own use; not simply, “I only check my email twice a day,” or, “I’m always at ‘inbox zero.'” The key is to deploy email wisely, in a way which increases productivity of a team, (family, community, whatever.) If adding email into the mix is going to increase productivity, then do so. Then zoom out and look at all your other communication tools, and perform the same calculus. Email is simply one example of a tool which initially [hopefully] increases productivity, but too-soon becomes a detriment.

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Baseball

If I stick with it, however, my mind eventually downshifts — quieting the noisy neuronal clamoring for easy entertainment, and leaving instead an unencumbered attention of a type that I often seek in my work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/04/11/deep-habits-listen-to-baseball-on-the-radio/

Once or thrice I’ve heard a baseball game on the radio. This would have been back in the 80’s when with some neighborhood friends—brothers, whose father was a plumber—we’d occasionally ride to a baseball game. The kind of game where we were playing as kids; semi-organized little league games at random churches’ baseball fields scattered around the Pennsylvania rolling hills. A homerun into left-field was in the graveyard and into right-field was in the corn field. I can’t convey in writing what it sounded like riding in the truck with the radio on; some combination of a monotonous announcer with a touch of crowd noise, a big ‘ol truck engine—this was the plumbing truck full of plumbing supplies in the back—a 5-speed manual floor shift and 3 rowdy kids with the windows rolled down and the smell of fields and manure and baseball gloves.

I think I had something else to say about baseball and focus when I started typing. But I forget what it was.

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All of humanity’s accrued knowledge

As I elaborated in last week’s episode of my podcast, Neil Postman argues that it was the introduction of mass-produced longform writing that really unleashed human potential — ushering in the modes of critical, analytical understanding that birthed both the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, the foundations of modernity. It allowed us to efficiently capture complex thought in all its nuance, then build on it, layer after layer, nudging forward human intellectual endeavor.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/06/27/on-the-exceptionalism-of-books-in-an-age-of-tweets/

I’ve often ranted against lack of attention-span, and wasted time. But Newport, and in particular some things he’s quoting and talking about from another article, make the point that all of human history is encoded in written form. Why is that so? Because it works, and it works really well.

There is a place for visual and auditory information, of course. Those tools of communication are power tools compared to writing—well, almost all writing. As I’ve said many times here though: One can have the power tools after demonstrating mastery with the manual hand-tools.

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I am the elephant

Ever since I first read these words, they stuck with me as useful for understanding the working world in particular. The whole edifice that we now call “productivity advice” distills, I realized, to instructions for cajoling the elephant. If you’re not firm, it’ll do what it wants to do.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/12/07/deep-habits-never-plan-to-get-some-work-done/

Plan? Do? Chaos? I get so swept up in systems that sometimes I just bridle and rebel. I think the problem comes up when I have too many systems that don’t have an end goal. My systems are supposed to make the space for me to get real things done. But if all I have is ongoing systems of the busy-work that’s supposed to make space, then I rebel. Because I also need real projects. I want to spend as much of my time as possible getting real things done. Real things for which I have real reasons for wanting to do them. And those real things require real planning.

Generally, I don’t have a problem with over-planning; I can do a tremendous amount of planning, but experience shows that I always do better if I resist the urge to begin… start now! Take action! It’s always better if I resist action, instead doing a brain-dump session and then setting the whole thing aside. When I return later, more ideas flow and more planning ensues. Maybe a third session. Maybe even a fourth.

Meanwhile, the elephant dozes as I plan surreptitiously.

Ever notice that the “doze” in bulldozer is the exact opposite of the elephant’s? Eventually, the planning reveals a beautiful domino setup, and it’s time to awaken the elephant who easily bulldozes them one by one.

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I try to forget my ideas

Keeping track of project ideas, in my experience, is usually a waste of time. I used to fear that if I didn’t capture and review my sparks of brilliance I’d forget them and an opportunity for impact would be lost.

The reality, however, is that most people (myself included) have waymore ideas for things to work on than they have time to work. Forgetting ideas is not your problem. Having too many ideas competing for your attention to execute any one well is a more pressing concern.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/11/07/deep-habits-forget-your-project-ideas-until-you-cant-forget-them/

In the beginning I didn’t try to do anything with my ideas. Even though—my mom may disagree—I had mastered bathing and dressing, I was still under the false-impression that my mind was for holding ideas. It’s not good at that. Actually it’s terrible at that.

It took me a few decades to figure out— …honestly, I never did figure it out. Rather, I started reading a bunch of stuff about how to get my arse organized, and started to write things down. College helped. 43 Folders helped, a lot. Reading Getting Things Done made the final pieces click into place.

Whereupon I entered the Second Epoch of Craig. At this time I dutifully studied, and earned my title, Wizard of Process and Organization, with a specialization in Internet Dark Arts. Do not meddle in the ways of Process and Organization Wizards; we are quick to anger and you are tasty with ketchup. As you can tell, I completely lost my marbles in the process. Near the end of this Second Epoch I reach the epitome of my list-building, (and project management setups, and universe-domination plans.) I was completely drowning in over-planned, over-committed, over-stressed, over-organization.

Cue, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the dawning of the Third Epoch of Craig. Wherein I straight-up deleted most of my lists of ideas and plans. The really important stuff continues to live in my level-37 wizard process-management systems. I know they’re working when I forget they’re working and yet things magically appear when I need them to.

Ideas are worthless. It’s execution, (plus luck, and timing,) that makes them valuable. I’ve a few ideas that I cannot get out of my head. Those are the ones I’m working on in an attempt to make them go away. But it’s a good day any time I can manage to just forget about some idea having blissfully done nothing with it.

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Interrupt driven

Think about this question for a moment. The Apollo program was massive in size and complexity. It was executed at an incredible pace (only eight years spanned Kennedy’s pledge to Armstrong’s steps) and it yielded innovations at a staggering rate.

And it was all done without e-mail.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/10/04/how-we-sent-a-man-to-the-moon-without-e-mail-and-why-it-matters-today/

Not just without email, but without computers or networks or cell phones or even hand calculators. They did it with paper, drafting tools and slide rules. Meetings, planning, and most importantly:

Communication.

All these tools that I have are only useful if I understand how they work. When you first start working in some field, you get the most basic tools—two manual, screwdrivers; one straight-blade and one Philips head. When you can tell me why the Philips head was invented, you can have a hand driver with interchangeable driver heads (“bits.”) When you can use them all… When you see a screw-head and pick the right bit… When you’ve exhausted your forearm from driving screws, then you can have a power driver. When you use the friction clutch correctly, you can have a larger power driver. And so on. (You can tell the quality of the craftsman by the way they maintain their tools. Yes, skilled persons can do great work with shitty tools. But at mastery level, the art is expressed in the tools themselves. Yes, all arts.)

So yes, you really do need to understand the different between wifi, cellular and Ethernet; between Apple’s IM, carrier SMS, and WhatsApp; between email, Google Docs, and Word.

As Carl Sagan wrote, “We live in a society…

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Presuming, of course, you actually know of something better to do

“If you don’t dedicate your time and attention to working with this roto-mill,” the clerk warns, “you might miss out on some benefit that we’re not thinking of now. I don’t see how you could afford such a risk in today’s age of modern yard tools.”

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2014/03/17/would-you-buy-a-yard-tool-if-you-had-no-idea-what-to-use-it-for-so-why-would-you-sign-up-for-snapchat/

Maybe I’m going about this all wrong? We—me, Newport, everyone that I’m following and reading—keep saying things like this. (Read the article, it’s super short.) I keep talking about how engaging in certain things is a waste of one’s precious time. But it occurs to me that maybe for some people it is not a waste of time. Maybe for some people, playing Nimecraft, scrolling through Bacefook or Twettir is actually the best thing they’ve yet found to do with their time. (Data point: I do remember when that was the case for myself!)

Today, I have a list of things that I want to do—that I enjoy doing, that yield benefits, and which make me and the world a better place. I also have a list of things which I find pointless which I do not want to do. Maybe it would be far more useful for me to be asking, rhetorically, of the world at large:

What do you want to be doing with your limited time here?

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Quitting at quitting time

The best thing you and I can do at the end of the writing day is to stash our work gloves in our locker, hang our leather apron on a hook, and head for the workshop door. If we’ve truly put in our hours today, we know it. We have done enough. It won’t help to keep at it like a dog worrying a bone.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2014/08/the-office-is-closed/

…and similarly: https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/07/24/perfectionism-is-a-losers-strategy/

I’ve recently learned that “inertia” as a word, was first applied to the cosmos during a fairly recent philosophical shift in thinking. People like Copernicus were looking at the cosmos and used “inertia” to point out the universe’s inherent, not-alive property; as in, the cosmos possesses inertia, the property of being inert. Newton’s idea of inertia, in the sense that slow moving dump trucks have a lot of inertia, aligns with the idea that the inert cosmos resists. It resists starting and it resists stopping. Newton’s equation, “F=ma” is a result of inertia; If (F)orce is zero on the left, then (a)cceleration is zero on the right. If acceleration is zero, then velocity remains constant.

Aside: “velocity” is speed, “how fast?” and direction, together as one property. Turning a corner in a car, at the same speed, is a change in velocity. To do so requires force from the steering tires of the car. The steering wheel is simply a well designed control for applying lateral force to the front of your car to control your velocity without changing your speed.

Where was I? …oh, right! Inertia. The cosmos. Back to it…

The inert cosmos resists starting and stopping. But I am not inert! I long ago recognized that when I was not moving—figuratively speaking, moving by being engaged making progress toward some goal… When I was not moving, then I needed to do something to get moving. I needed to start, and realizing that I was bad at starting, I needed to practice starting. Okay, did that.

Unfortunately, I have created a new problem: I don’t know how to stop. It turns out one really needs to also be able to start and to stop. Now that I’ve mastered starting, I can finally begin to learn to stop.

<sarcasm>And surprise!</sarcasm> F=ma. Starting and stopping are equally difficult.

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