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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And then it gets harder

I don’t think we emphasize enough the importance of evidenced-based metrics. Deep work is important. Making lots of bets is important. But if these efforts are not grounded in the reality of your field — including the hard truths about what you really do need to potentially succeed, not just what you know how to do — they are wasted.

Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2013/02/05/you-need-to-master-the-rules-before-you-can-reinvent-them/

Deep work; yes. Making lots of bets (or, fail faster, pick yourself, iterate quickly, etc.); yes. Grounded in reality; yes. Are those all necessary? yes—actually, hell yes, amen and once more, louder, for those in the back!

But are they sufficient? If you have those three, will you be successful? Setting aside the timing and random luck parts of success, nope I think you also need tenacity.

I’m not sure if it’s learned, innate or both of those. But there’s a necessary tenacity. Ever play tug-o-war with a dog and a rope-toy? That dog has the tenacity, in Spades. (Without Googleing, can you tell me where the phrase, “in Spades” comes from?) holy shit no you dont thats my rope toy i am never gonna let go as long as you want to play this is my favorite game oh my gawd best day ever!!

But, a good dog also knows it’s a game. Tenacious? Absolutely. Drop that toy like a hot potato when something better comes up? What rope toy?

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Honing your craft

We’ve created this fantasy world where everyone is just 30 days of courage boosting exercises and life hacks away from living an amazing life.

But when you study people like Martin, who really do live remarkable lives, you almost always encounter stretches of years and years dedicated to honing craft.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/01/29/closing-your-interests-opens-more-interesting-opportunities-the-power-of-diligence-in-creating-a-remarkable-life/

This is the eternal challenge of seeing the forest through the trees; of maintaining perspective.

I’m constantly reminded of the scenes in the Hobbit where they are trying to walk through 250 miles of a forest named, Mirkwood. “Do not leave the path,” is the only guidance they are given. After what seems like endless daily struggles, they eventually dispatch a party member to climb a singularly large tree to the uppermost branches. Unfortunately, even from that lofty perch all that could be seen was more forest forever and ever in every direction. In fact, they were in a low lying area, reasonably close to the forest edge. Crushed by the misleading perspective, their journey takes a turn for the worse.

I have so many projects where I start into the forest with the best intentions. I steel myself with, “I know this is going to turn into a slog at some point, and I’m going to remember why I went into the forest to give me the strength to carry on!” Yeah, that never works out. If the project is actually worth doing, then the forest is necessarily crushingly vast and the journey through must eventually become hopeless. Of course it’s hard; that’s what makes it worth it.

The secret? You have to love living in the forest, just for the sake of living in the forest. Then every morning is an adventure. Sure, some days are going to suck, but every morning will begin a new day of opportunity.

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Diligence alone

Remarkable accomplishment requires a remarkable amount of focus; this much is clear. But focus without grounded direction is unlikely to hit the sweet spot.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/02/05/learn-the-landscape-before-putting-on-blinders-how-to-direct-diligence-toward-remarkable-results/

I’ve come across this point/idea many times in my journey. It took me a long time to learn how to focus, but it’s proving more challenging to figure out what to focus on.

Diligence? Focus? Single-mindedness? …whatever you want to call it. I am able to get a lot done. But I find I’m always second-guessing myself after I’ve gotten a significant portion of the way through some project…

Today, more questions than answers I suppose.

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Creating value

Creating value is unrelated to busyness. When you find yourself — as I sometimes do — working long hours, day after day, reacting and e-mailing and hatching schemes, it’s useful to remember that you’re working more than some of the world’s most respected and impactful thinkers.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/03/09/youre-working-too-hard-to-make-an-impact/

I often write about focus because it’s something I’m trying to improve. When I’ve lost focus, it’s a challenge to call myself back to the important things. But a better plan for improvement would be to not lose focus in the first place, or at least to not lose focus as often.

Recently I’ve been keeping in mind Viktor Frankl’s thought about there being a space between stimulus and response. I find that when I’m able to remember that space, I’m able to consciously decide when, and if, I should shift my focus.

For example, I sat down to write and a myriad of other thoughts arose. Instead of trying to ignore them or make them go away—don’t think of a pink elephant—I zoom in on each idea: I consider the sense of urgency; no, actually there’s nothing urgent about the action this thought is suggesting. I consider the sense of entitlement; no, actually there’s no reason that I should be congratulated or rewarded for this thought or what it’s suggesting I attempt to do. I consider the benefit to myself or others; no, actually this thought isn’t vastly better than the other ideas and projects I’m already working. Soon enough the thought moves along like a petulant child. I think, “let’s see, where was I? I had sat down to write.”

Externally, that whole process—even if I repeat it for multiple thoughts—looks very unlike busyness. It looks much like I’m sitting still. It looks like I’m gazing out the window. It even looks a bit like I’m focused on writing. In fact, I am still focused on writing.

It’s my choice: Is this the moment when I want to change where I’ve placed my focus? If not, then terrific, I’m still focused where I had chosen.

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Wherein I continue my perennial rant against social networks

His friends, however, were aghast at his decision to leave the social network and argued strongly against the action. Their airtight case? Certain activities, such as finding out about parties, would become less convenient. The convenience principle is so ingrained in our culture that Daniel’s friends believed that their argument that something would become less convenient was unimpeachable. Daniel, for his part, ignored them. He missed a few invitations, but not many.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2012/01/21/distraction-is-a-symptom-of-a-deeper-problem-the-convenience-principle-and-the-destruction-of-american-productivity/

I spent time writing about social networks for this post—but deleted it all because I’ve nothing nice to say. Instead I’ll smirk, and point at what someone else has written.

Great article though from Newport. As usual for his 2012 epoch, it’s specific to college students but contains deep wisdom for all.

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Creating space in the morning for reflection

“The pleasure in thinking and doing things well is…deep-wired.” I think this is absolutely true. Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond, in part, to do nothing — to just observe and live deliberately — but he also wrote a first draft of a book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, while in his cabin. He then left the pond to move in with Emerson, where he wrote another book, this one about his experience at the pond, then another soon after, Civil Disobedience. Thoreau found peace observing nature; but his real pleasure was in producing enduring work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/04/01/on-productivity-and-the-deep-life/

I’ve long ago lost any real sense of which life changes have had the most benefit. But if I were to pick one, it would be making time to reflect. I’m often making adjustments here and there to my life, and those changes are always based on a period of reflection. What have I been doing that has been making me feel well? What have I been doing that has been making me feel unwell? …and so on.

For a while—three years to be specific—I’ve been trying to begin each day with some basic movement/stretching and then some sort of physical activity. I’m talking about first thing each morning. Get out of bed, deal with necessities (eg, coffee :) and then begin with movement and activity. 3 and 2 years ago, that activity was running. For the past year, the physical activity has been a sort-of-like-Olympic-weight-lifting program called Happy Body.

This is not working for me. Sure, when I manage to start with activity then I’m awake and moving and it’s good for my health and I get lots of what I want done each day. But it’s a struggle every. damn. day. blech! What I really want, first thing in the morning, is to NOT be physically active, but rather to be mentally active.

Starting today, I’m overhauling my first-thing-each-day routine to be:

  1. Reflect on the day’s self-assessment reminder
  2. Reflect on the day’s entry from Holiday’s, The Daily Stoic
  3. Read my previous journal entries and write in my current journal
  4. Spend some time in philosophical reading

I encourage you to build a reflection habit. It can be first-thing each morning or whenever works for you. (Many people allocate time for reflection as the last thing each day before going to sleep.) You should intentionally choose what to do as your reflection practice. I’ll go so far as to suggest you perform a few weeks experimentation with each idea you come up with, until you find a reflection practice that works for you. The more you reflect the more you’ll want to iterate and improve creating a virtuous feedback loop.

That’s the plan anyway. It’s certainly the best plan I’ve come up with for me, so far.

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It’s really good to be really bad

This is an idea I’ve come across repeatedly during the research I’ve conducted for my various books. There’s something incredibly valuable in the deeply frustrating yet rewarding pursuit of mastering something hard.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/03/29/the-deep-benefits-of-learning-hard-things/

This idea comes up all over the place, and for good reason. Nearly 3,000 years ago, people like Marcus Aurelius where writing things about the absolute necessity of continual self-study and self-improvement. Books such as G Leonard’s, Mastery and countless bits on the Internet about self-improvement. My personal, direct efforts applied to myself—find some idea, reflect on it, then figure out how (if! of course) to apply it to myself… My efforts remain ongoing.

( I need a special character, or something, that I can put before these questions, to make it clear that I mean this entirely in a non-judgemental way– I only intend to spur your thinking… )

What are you up to?

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Instead, have a compass

These three interviews, along with many others in the Roadtrip Nation archive, all undermine the notion that you should simply follow your passion, and you’ll immediately be happy. For Glass, Steele, and Merrick, the path was more circuitous. This doesn’t mean, however, that their success is entirely serendipitous.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2010/11/12/the-pre-med-and-ira-glass-complicated-career-advice-from-compelling-people/

Newport has written a lot geared toward helping college students navigate, (college, life, time management, everything.) This piece is of use to everyone, whether or not you feel you are currently following your passion.

I think, (and I’m not saying this is in contradiction to what Newport wrote—I’m just wandering off here,) it’s far more useful to follow your own compass—whatever it points toward. It’s not even critical that you always make progress in the direction is points. Having a compass simply keeps you oriented. Which is, obviously the opposite of disoriented. And who wants to be disoriented. Having some orientation, gives you at least some confidence, and confidence enables you to move.

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