This is the trick

Sanderson argues you should instead experiment to figure out what combination of motivation, and circumstances, and accountability work best for your particular personality. He responds well to tracking a daily word count in a spreadsheet. Others, he notes, thrive under the social pressures of a writing group, while others lean on deadlines to induce work. The key is recognizing that the urge to avoid hard things is human, and should be expected. It’s part of the process.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2022/02/25/brandon-sandersons-advice-for-doing-hard-things/

I’m filing this under “things I wish I had learned 30 years ago”. Some things I really track, and some things I just do whenever I feel like. One way or another though, it’s important that I be honest with myself. “Do I really want to do this?” …or do I just like the idea of being able to say “I did that”?

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Reflection

[…] if you applied this approach, there’s not a strengths-weaknesses binary. It’s, “is this particular skill where I need it to be or not?” […] That could be a skill—if I’m understanding this correctly—that you’re identifying, “I need to get this even farther to get where I want to get.” You might be at a skill level there that everyone would say that’s a strength of yours, you’re really good at that. And so it seems like the strength-weakness binary, is not that useful, at least in this framework. It’s just where you’re trying to get, and what skills are not where they need to be to get you there.

~ Cal Newport ~1h9m from, Deep Questions episode 39 with David Epstein, https://www.buzzsprout.com/1121972/6035176?t=4140

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David Epstein is, most recently, the author of Range. Newport and Epstein’s conversation ranges—sorry—widely, and nearer the end they get into talking about reflection as a mastery tool. Epstein mentions a particular reflection process as something he had included only in passing in his first book, The Sports Gene.

Newport’s point, quoted above, changed how I think about skill level. Epstein had been discussing how he’d learned of Marije T Elferink-Gemser‘s research. Based in the Netherlands, a team had been running these things called the Groningen talent studies for over a decade studying skills, proficiency and mastery in Soccer athletes.

These were questions that, the first time I asked, she sent and said, you answer these at least every month. What’s your goal has to be as clear as possible, but it doesn’t need to be realistic at this point. …dreaming is allowed at this point. Do you have any idea of what’s needed to perform at the level you aim for? How do I make sure how do I make sure that I get an even better idea of what’s needed to perform at that level? How am I going to arrange that? Who are the people I need to reach that goal? And how can I make sure that they’ll help me to reach that personal goal? Am I sure I want to reach the goal and why? Those were the original set of questions that I received.

~ David Epstein, ibid.

That’s a tremendous set of questions for self-reflection!

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Digital minimalism

To be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life, but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.

~ Cal Newport

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Parkinson’s Law

Ferriss popularized the personal version of Parkinson’s Law, which correctly notes that our work expands to fill the time we give it. The original Economist essay on the topic also embeds an organizational version of the law, which I read to say that if you leave a group, or a team, or a company to operate without sufficient structure, they may converge toward unexpected and unproductive behaviors.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/09/01/revisiting-parkinsons-law/

Pithy sayings are punchy. (For example: Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the allotted time.) But they’re also woefully inadequate; there’s no room for depth or surety. In this case though, it turns out that Parkinson’s Law is based on actual research… into the bureaucracy of the British Navy. Who knew that this pithy little phrase is actually a real model based on actual research. (…uhm, Parkinson, that’s who.)

There are plenty of ways to turn Parkinson’s law into actionable direction: Ship it. Iterate and course-correct. Show me your discard pile. (That is to say, do sub-par work until your work is up to par.) Minimum viable noun. (Which urges one to chop off everything not absolutely necessary in order to get that noun into the world sooner.) All of which, I’m semi-surprised to note, are about constraining the time allotted to do the work. It’s all about moving the goal posts closer.

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Not grinding away

Critically, as Gribbin’s explains, during this period Galileo was also occupied in part by his success in “leading a full and happy life,” in which “he studied literature and poetry, attended the theatre regularly, and continued to play the lute to a high standard.” He was not, in other words, locked up, grinding away in relentless pursuit of results. Yet results are what he did ultimately produce.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/07/21/on-pace-and-productivity/

Everything wears down, wears out, and wears away. The light that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long. There are cautionary tales about the hedonic treadmill. The tortoise and the hare. The ant versus the oxen; I’ve always liked that aphorism from Lao Tzu.

Let’s grant that the ant walks a great distance, removes debris from the colony, and collects food for 10 ants. Meanwhile, the ox accomplishes nothing. But when he awakes refreshed from his nap, he can plow a field in a few hours. For comparison, how long will it take the ant to plow the field?

I’ve always liked that aphorism from Lao Tzu: It reminds me to always be the dozing Ox.

I am frequently asking myself two questions:

What would world-class look like?

Is this thing I just did world-class?

I may fall short— honestly I think I always fall short of executing world-class. That does not mean I stop asking those questions. That does not mean I stop trying. The mantra is not, “do more!” It’s not, “hurry up!” I am not alone in this thinking:

The constructive evaluation of activities, asset allocations, communications, policies, and procedures against purposes and intended outcomes has become increasingly critical for every organization I know of. The challenges to our companies continue to mount, with pressures coming these days from globalization, competition, technology, shifting markets, erratic economic swings, and raised standards of performance and production, making outcome/action thinking a required twenty-first-century behavior.

“What do you want to have happen in this meeting?” “What is the purpose of this form?” “What would the ideal person for this job be able to do?” “What do we want to accomplish with this software?” These and a multitude of other, similar questions are still sorely lacking in many quarters. There’s plenty of talk in the big meetings that sounds good, but learning to ask, “Why are we doing this?” and “What will it look like when it’s done successfully?” and to apply the answers at the day-to-day, operational level—that will create profound results.

~ David Allen, p272, Getting Things Done circa 1989

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Eureka

But this moment cannot come without the days of frustration at the blackboard. “You can’t really blame the storytellers,” Rockmore writes, “It’s not so exciting to read ‘and then she studied some more.’ But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process.”

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/07/16/on-the-myth-of-big-ideas/

And Niels Bohr said something similar about Painful experience. And I bet your experience agrees. I know mine does.

Nobody sees how much time I spend working on podcasting. Every facet is complicated. I’m regularly noticing new things, picking up interesting skills and ideas from nearby areas of expertise. Structural wisdom from the field of authors. Empathic skills from the field of therapists. New kinds of questions from the field of hosts. New vocal skills from the field of speakers. And teachers and mechanics and on and on.

The eureka moments get the attention but they’re very few and very far between.

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Fan-boy mode, on

Neither our economy nor the demands of a life well-lived dictate that everyone should aspire to be sitting alone at a desk in rural Narashino, crafting literature to the light of the rising sun. My growing concern, however, is that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/06/16/haruki-murakami-and-the-scarcity-of-serious-thought/

I’ve read every post on Newport’s blog. I have both Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Digital Minimalism is in my “priority” subset of my wishlist of books. (Yes, I am aware that I have problems.) But I’ll out myself: I’ve not read either of the two Newport books that I already have, and see no point brining the third into the mix until I do. But whining about my privileged-problem of having too many books, isn’t my theme here. Rather, I want to think about why is it “that such real commitment to thought has become too rare.” Because I totally agree that such is so.

(That’s all. I’m thinking about it, and now so are you.)

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Selection

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2021/04/20/the-productivity-funnel/

A decade ago, I was swamped by the sheer number things I could possibly do each day. In one sense, that’s a good problem to have. But good or bad problem, “swamped” and “drowning” are adjacent. I’d committed myself to far too many things. Large swaths of those “possible things” every day came with emotional baggage, and often with the self-imposed weight of “should.” And so I worked on that and eliminated all the negative things.

Unfortunately, selecting what to tackle each day remains just as challenging. I’ve a habit of creating a “page for today” that I scribble on early in the morning. As the day progresses, I cross things off, jot down notes, scribble things which I need to add to my other systems, etc.. Over the years, I’ve used various bits of random paper; for a time, I was using the back-side of all the printer paper from the recycle bin. I’ve used spiral notebooks, tablets, and even a custom spreadsheet, (which I printed on 8.5×11 paper and cut in half to make my own table of half-sheet daily schedule/grid.)

Recently, I realized that the size of the paper I was using was getting progressively smaller. I’m currently using a 3×5-size of Rhodia notebook. (These, if you’re interested. Durable, great paper, and, critically, every page is micro-perforated so I can tear out each day to start fresh the next day.) The sublime recipe of page size, line space, handwriting style and hours in the day goes a long way to keep my selection of what to do tending towards the possible. Whether the sheet for today feels cramped or airy is a good indication of what I’m setting myself up for.

And to be clear, I don’t plan every day into this little book early each morning. On the days when I’ve something big planned—a day trip to the beach, a long weekend away—I throw all structure to the wind. But most days I do.

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Don’t ask for advice

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2017/01/16/are-you-working-in-your-career-or-on-your-career/

I’ve found this to be the case as well.

There are some people who give advice well. There are far more people who can give useful answers to good questions. Asking, “what do you think I should do,” isn’t going to get you useful guidance nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that.” You simply must do the hard work of figuring out whom to ask, and what to ask them.

In a recent conversation on the podcast, Thomas Droge brought up the idea of seeking younger persons to be your mentors; maybe not a formal mentorship relationship, but to be open to being a sort of stealth protege (my interpretation, not his words.) These two ideas dovetail: If you try to ask a younger person, literally, for advice, that’s not going to work well nearly as often as asking, “how did you do that?”

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Digital minimalism

To be a digital minimalist, in other words, means you accept the idea that new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life, but also recognize that realizing this potential is hard work.

~ Cal Newport

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That’s from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/12/18/on-digital-minimalism/ and is the most succinct description of digital minimalism I have ever seeing.

“Realizing this potential is hard work,” is a sublime understatement. Tracy asked me for a password to something and we ended up in a deep rabbit hole of having to also share the security questions, and it’s tied to my cell phone and actually I don’t know what the password is because I forgot to store it (in my little password management tool) even though my browser had it remembered so I’d been logging in for . . . Complicated.

Obviously in the case of the password, it was worth the effort. But then, next minute, we’re faced with the newest social service, and this software and that software and on and on. Choosing the default of engaging with each thing is an already-lost war.

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