Deep Work: A welcome kick in the butt.

Based on this tweet by Enrico Bertini:

… after having been successfully primed by this one some weeks ago (because locals!):

…I bought and then devoured Deep Work by Cal Newport in two to three sessions.

As I munched through the book, I could almost physically sense the impact it was making on my thought patterns. I have since spent another Deep Work Pomodoro scanning through its pages again to make sure I did not miss anything.

Deep Work is at its heart Cal Newport’s passionate argument for Deep Work in this extremely fragmented and highly connected information age. He defines Deep Work as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Armed with a whole book full of stories and examples, he makes the case for eschewing network tools such as email, twitter, facebook, reddit, slack, whatsapp and so forth, instead dedicating as much of your time as possible to specific valuable outcomes. Yes, even after work, he makes the case for structuring your leisure activities in a similar fashion.

Although the book cites a number of studies, storytelling is its main persuasive tool. Whatever the case may be, I am utterly convinced.

I have resolved to put in a massive effort to get my Deep Work muscles back in top form.

I knew all of this stuff before. Heck, I’ve even written on this blog about deprioritising communication to make room for important thingsminimising interruptions and maximising concentration and more (use the search Luke).

Somehow, maybe because of my transition to business, I’ve slipped back into the illusion that you have to be connected all the time. On an average workday, I have email, two instances of slack, one instance of mattermost and whatsapp all open on my desktop, just in case I need to be reached. (To be clear, there’s a great deal of messages that go through them every day, so it’s not just me sitting there waiting in vain for someone, anyone, to please send me a message.)

Contrary to what I’ve convinced myself of, these tools all detract significantly from my value production, both in terms of quality and throughput.

Structure and summary of the book

In Part 1, Newport tries to convince you of the value and necessity of Deep Work. The take-home message is that in order to excel at learning and at doing especially in the current interruption and distraction filled information age, we need unfragmented periods of distraction-free concentration, during which we push our cognition to the limit.

When I say it like that, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Phrased differently, the great fallacy of current times is that one can perform at one’s best whilst being hyper-connected.

One can’t.

Even worse, if we continue doing it this way, we’ll start losing our ability to focus.

In Part 2, Newport gives high-level advice towards implementing Deep Work, packaged as the four rules of Deep Work:

  1. Work deeply: More about this further down.
  2. Embrace boredom: Avoid busywork. That is, when you have a few minutes waiting in line somewhere, use the time to think instead of reaching for your smartphone.
  3. Quit social media: EEEKE! Don’t worry, it’s slightly more complicated, but “manage social media” would not have had the same impact.)
  4. Drain the shallows: Squeeze out as much as possible shallow work from your schedule. Focus work should be the default, distractions (shallow work) the exception.

In terms of scheduling, rule #1 can be implemented in at least four different ways: monastic (isolate yourself almost permanently), bimodal (isolate yourself some of the time, but for significant periods, e.g. a month sabbatical), rhythmic (integrate into your schedule at set times during the day every day), journalistic (cultivate the ability to work deeply whenever you get a moment).

Of these, the rhythmic philosophy is probably the most practical for me and for most of the readers of this blog.

More practically, rule #1 (“Work Deeply”, remember?!) can be implemented using the following four disciplines:

  1. Focus on the wildly important: Make sure that you always know what the absolute most valuable thing is to work on.
  2. Act on lead measures: Track your deep work by metrics that can be calculated before the output realises and not after, for example track your daily number of hours during which you were able to work deeply.
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard: Create some modality with which you can see clearly your daily deep work performance.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability: Your daily or weekly routine should ensure that you review your work, and your deep work performance via the scoreboard for example.

How I’m planning to apply Deep Work

In the book Newport reiterates an important observation: We humans have limited stores of will power. These can and will get depleted through the day if we’re not careful.

If it takes too much conscious effort to avoid distractions and to stay focused on the mentally taxing task at hand, our will power is depleted at some point and then our defences crumble.

Before you know it, you’re stuck in that super satisfying (not) email, twitter, facebook, reddit, email, twitter, whatsapp, slack loop again.

An effective remedy for this is ritualization.

This does not mean that you have to get out the old Ouija board. Rather, it means that you should develop “routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration”.

Fortunately, because of a choice I made in 2013, my work already involves spending longer periods reading, thinking and programming. Now I only need to ensure that these periods are as deep as possible, which means eliminating distractions and practising as intensively as possible focusing on that One Really Important Thing.

I will eliminate distractions by:

  • Using the pomodoro method (as I’ve been doing all this time, just badly).
  • Extending the length of the 25 minute pomodoro. If I’m in the deep work flow, I’ll continue past the 25 minute alarm. A longer break can be taken later.
  • Activating my phone’s no distraction mode during pomodori. Only phone calls get through, nothing else.
  • Killing my email app and all browser tabs that have to do with real-time communication (slack, mattermost, whatsapp, and so on).
  • Just in case, pasting a list of time-wasting site hostnames into my uBlock Origin’s “My Filters” list.

Besides that, I am recording deep work by prepending one of D0, D1, … D5 to the mytomatoes.com pomodoro description, corresponding to the spectrum from shallow to most deep work.

Thanks to veronikach.com, I am using focus@will which helps tremendously with my concentration in the sometimes busy office.

Newport explains that most people can manage a maximum of four hours per day of truly deep work. Furthermore, for many people, it is most effective to schedule creative and deep work for the morning, and shallow work (email, admin, meetings etc.) for the afternoon. For a longer time I have been following the guideline of scheduling meetings for the afternoon, so now I’ll strengthen that by trying to get my deep work done in the morning, leaving shallow work for the afternoon as far as possible.

Finally, I think that probably the most important advice here is to practise, practise and then practise some more.

Conclusion

This could very well be due to my own bias, but if I had to describe Deep Work as compactly as possible, I would have to say that it comes down to “mindful action”.

It might sound like a contradiction in terms (mindfulness is the practice of being, amongst other things), but I am referring to the practice of being fully connected to and focused on the current moment.

With Deep Work, one practises connecting fully to and focusing on the current endeavour, thus greatly enriching that experience and the output that it generates.

Thank you, Cal Newport, for this very welcome kick in the butt.

The 2016 to 2017 transition post.

Following the rich tradition over here of year transition posts, having just rounded off a brilliant outdoorsy take-your-mind-off-of-everything vacation with friends, and also inspired by wogan.blog’s nicely personal 2016 review post, I decided that a farewell-2016 how-you-doin’-2017 post was in order.

By the way, by rich tradition I mean that I wrote the grand total of one (1) similarly titled post previously, as the year ticked from 2009 to 2010, and at least one other, disguised as a weekly head voices, as we entered 2012That last one is worth another read, early 2012 cpbotha had some really good tips. There might be more such posts, this blog has been around for more than 15 years and much of what I’ve written is not available from my short-term memory, which is nice.

Warning: This post is long (1800 words+), rambly and sometimes even a bit mushy. I hope you enjoy it!

2016: The Review

The bad, with a hopefully slightly positive outlook at the end

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way as soon as we can…

For me the biggest disappointments of 2016 were the double-whammy of the Brexit followed by the Trumpocalypse.

I really did not expect either of these events to go the way they did.

This is probably because I was, ever the optimist, over-estimating the level of human development of British and US voters.

The exclusionist, nationalist, xenophobic and in many cases even white supremacist thinking associated with Trump’s support in the US and the Leave vote in the UK are truly abhorrent.

I understand that there were many other factors at play. However, these voters were either throwing out the baby with the bath water, or, much much  worse, agreeing with the abhorrent sentiments mentioned above. Especially this second possibility depressed me greatly after the US election.

After such setbacks, one needs to look for solutions.

After Brexit, analysis showed that education level was the strongest indicator of a vote for leave or remain. Higher education was strongly associated with remain, whilst the opposite was the case for leave.

Leave / remain voter analysis by The Atlantic. Click to go to article + interactive version of this graphic.

For Trump voters, you probably guessed it, it was more or less the same idea. Less educated citizens voted for Trump, more educated citizens for Clinton.

This is yet another strong indication that we should really be pouring every resource we have into the education of our people. (yes, correlation and causation, I know. hence the terms “strong indication”. discuss in the comments if you like.)

Lawrence M. Krauss, superstar theoretical physicist and author of the book A Universe from Nothing, recently tweeted this 1920 quote by H.G. Wells:

Human history has become, more and more, a race between education and catastrophe.

The way things are going now, that thought, and movements like #feesmustfall, are more important than ever. There can be absolutely no excuse for neglecting the highest quality and accessible education (basic up to tertiary) of future generations of humans whom we expect to further our civilization.

The running and the mindful

In 2016, I ran 440km.

There are a great deal of people who have run much more than that, but those are my 440 kilometers and somehow they brought me a great deal of deep satisfaction.

During the year, my per-run distance and speed have gradually increased.

Besides fitness gradually increasing, I discovered experimentally that shorter, quicker steps get me further and a higher pace. It took a biomechanical friend to explain to me that this was about muscles operating within the more efficient middle of their full extension/contraction ranges. I could probably just have read this somewhere, but doing it the hard way and then having a friend explain it on top of Table Mountain definitely added something to the experience.

For the last 200 kilometres or so, I have listened to the exact same album: Skin by Flume. Every single run, I start that exact same album with the exact same sequence of tracks. As I learned from the SwimGeek’s blog, finding your soundtrack and putting it on repeat whilst exercising is apparently a thing.

With the surroundings over here being what they are, it does not take much to slip into a state of mindfulness.

No doing, no planning; just absorbing all of the surroundings, physical and mental, the music, and feeling how the meat-based machine that houses me propels us forward.

On the topic of mindfulness, for the last few months I added a repeat event to my todoist, helping me to spend five minutes every morning before work doing the breathing exercise. More recently I do this without any voice track, but previously Prof. Mark Williams at one point would say (original quote is due to Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD):

Each breath a new beginning; each out-breath a letting go.

There’s a whole lot in there. I have spent quite some time with it and I am far from done.

The blog

The first rule of blogging: You don’t blog about blogging.

However, I hope you don’t mind me breaking that rule to mention that in 2016, this blog was viewed 133 thousand times. I already get happy when one other person reads a post. You can imagine how happy it makes me to know that there are even slightly more people who have come here to consume some of the words I have written, and even some who have taken the time to leave behind comments!

The lion’s share of those views were due to focused posts that got picked up by some of the more popular nerd sites. I have to admit that I derived the most enjoyment from the more personal posts that were only read by friends.

Whatever the case may be, this has to be my most satisfying hobby. Thank you for the crucial role that you who read play in it!

The new life

In early(ish) 2016, our third daughter, affectionately known as Genetic Offspring Unit #3 (GOU#3 for short) around these parts, was born.

This wonderful little cellular mega-cluster is currently making noises that have the primary purpose of being immensely cute, but are also slowly starting to make sense. Her ambulation capabilities have increased immensely, and she is on the verge of standing up by herself and so we will probably have to re-arrange our interior. Again.

Long ago, I wrote here about my unexpected new role as someone else’s Tooth Fairy. In the meantime, working as a part-time tooth fairy and a full-time papa to three little humans has turned out to be a more fulfilling career than I ever could have imagined.

2017: Not much planned yet, you?

I prefer making resolutions in secret, then carrying them out or not, and only then reporting on them. However, that would mean that I would have to wrap up this post right now, and for that I’m not quite ready yet.

Experiment Alcohol Zero

One resolution that I am already executing on, is performing an interesting little experiment. After reading about the effects of alcohol on one’s (running) performance and general energy levels, I have decided to go for 30 days without a drop of alcohol to try and get a subjective idea of its potential impact.

Those of you who have spent more than 8 seconds in my or my blog’s vicinity know that I absolutely adore craft beer (this includes local, but also special beers of the Belgian type) and local wines, both of which are regularly consumed by me and “business partners” during “business lunches” in the not-unattractive local surroundings.

This decision was not taken lightly.

It is mid-morning of day 2 of Experiment Alcohol Zero (EAZ) as I write this. With the air full of smoke due to local vegetation fires, I have not been able to go running yet, but I am imagining that my energy lasted later last night, and I got up easier this morning. I have 29 more days to investigate.

Reminders for a hopefully better life

Every day, I remind myself to be the kindest I can possibly be to everyone I come into contact with. We have infinite amounts of kindness to spread.

I also remind myself to be grateful. It takes continuous practice to identify the many things one can be grateful for every day, but it is definitely worth it.

I often remind GOU#1 (#2 and #3 are not old enough yet for this lesson) that, besides the guidelines above, we have to keep on working on two more related characteristics: being useful, and being likable.

Being useful means continuously developing and refining skills that enable one to contribute value to one’s surroundings. Being likable means understanding and appreciating how we humans stick together. Kindness, see above, is an important component of this.

In 2017, I would like to write more (on this blog probably), and read more.

Rapidly morphing goalposts jumping randomly through even more randomly pulsating hyperspace, with a slightly positive outlook at the end

Yes folks, this is going to be my parting thought.

When I was much younger, I used to believe that one’s life could be “cracked”. That is, if you searched, and you worked really hard at understanding yourself, your people and your surroundings, you could come up with some kind of answer with which you would be able to attain contentment.

In the meantime I’ve come to the realisation that that Much Younger Me, although quite dashing, was of course utterly wrong.

Life is utterly dynamic. You Now are a different person from You Last Year. The same goes for people around you, and the same goes for everything around you.

The goal posts are not just moving all the time, they are an illusion flashing in and out of an hallucinogenic and especially dynamic perception.

One trick to help one deal with this, is to stop thinking about goals in the first place, and instead consider the directions of your movement.

Also keep in mind that there are no answers, only choices. You work to make the best ones you can with the means at your disposal at that moment.

Importantly, in this restless environment, some peace can be found by realising that a large part of the restlessness originates from within you. Fortunately, you have slightly more say in you than you have in your surroundings.

What one can do then, is nicely summarised by Prof. Mark Williams in the audio accompanying his mindfulness book:

The deep stillness we seek does not arise because the world is still or the mind is quiet. Stillness is nourished when we allow things to be just as they are for now, in this moment, moment by moment and breath by breath.

The End (for now)

Alright friends, that was it from me, for now. I hope that you have the best 2017 possible. I hope especially that your kindness and that of those around you flows deeply and freely.

As a parting gift, here is the high-resolution panoroma I made from the top of Table Mountain, after hiking up Platteklip Gorge with friends:

The view from the top of Table Mountain, photo by cpbotha.net. Click for high-res.

Weekly Head Voices #84: On being grateful.

Hey, it only took three weeks this time! I’ve been working quite hard, mostly programming (oh hi there C++, I never really stopped loving you. I really like what you’ve done with the autos and the lambdas), taking care of some admin (freeagent is approximately an infinite times better for running your business in South Africa than Sage One Accounting / Pastel My Business Online, which is a textbook example of how to torture your users with an almost hilariously terrible user interface which would have been funny were it not for the fact that it is so excruciatingly painful), gearing up for open source activism (if you’re in SA and you’re into open source, please join!) and spending as much as possible free time in the beautiful surroundings.

I made you this photo sphere of the waterfall at the top of the Leopard’s Kloof trail in the Harold Porter botanical gardens, one of our favourite outdoor hangouts:

This past weekend we had the privilege of going to a weekend-long double birthday party in a place called Boggomsbaai. The subjects of said party (I didn’t want to objectify them) are two of the most interesting people I know. In spite of this foreknowledge, I was still greatly (but extremely pleasantly) surprised by the number of exceptionally interesting friends that aforementioned party subjects had managed to surround themselves with, resulting in an ever-so-slightly mind-bending gathering.

Of the many things I learnt this weekend, I would like to share these two with you:

Lesson 1 – Weekend parties are the best parties.

… we should do even more of those! It seems like the Friday warm-up-party and the Saturday morning and afternoon socialising and more warm-up, combined with a willing group of party athletes, are good ingredients for a Saturday night awesomeness crescendo! (live band and copious amounts of beer not bad ideas either)

Lesson 2 – On being grateful.

At one point I was chatting with one of the guests, a person who has done quite a bit of travelling, and who seems to have settled nicely into the role of eternal foreigner here in this strange country. Their better living tip, based on much hard-won experience, was simply this: Be grateful.

Their advice immediately made a great impression on me.

Remembering to be explicitly grateful every day (go on, identify and articulate all of the things! if you are able to read this, chances are that you have much to be grateful for) is such an elegant yet practical path to mindfulness. To boot, it fits in very nicely with being kind.

(During looking up the etymology of “to boot” on this worldwide network that interactively gives us access to just about the sum total of human knowledge whenever we want it, I just discovered that “botha” is a Gothic word meaning “advantage”. Sweet!)

Weekly Head Voices #77: A South African state of Mindful.

I deliberately skipped a week, because it was one of those extremely taxing pre-vacation weeks during which I had several near-foetal-position-thumb-in-mouth-moments. Instead I’ll be writing about my vacation, with pictures, and a little bit of backyard philosophy.

This post is being written in a speeding Toyota Quantum 10-seater minibus (yes, it looks exactly like a taxi, we are currently the king of the road). Don’t worry, my co-driver has taken over. I’m not yet ready to attempt blogging whilst driving. (I do aspire.)

In any case, the week started with us flying from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and then making our way in this same speeding minibus to the Skukuza gate of the Kruger National Park, henceforth KNP. (This park is about 19500 square kilometres, almost half the size of The Netherlands!)

Due to a wrong turn-off (we blame the GPS), we spent an hour or two navigating pothole-riddled roads in pitch dark conditions in perhaps not the safest regions of my beloved country. It was one of those stressful but life-affirming experiences for which one is thankful but would prefer never having to repeat.

We spent the rest of the week more or less in the wild, mostly at a game lodge directly adjacent to the KNP. It’s quite amazing what being surrounded by the bush and all kinds of wild animals does to one’s state of mind. One by one, all of the incoming streams of information and internal lines of busy-thought are put firmly in their place, in some cases switched off with resounding clicks, eventually turning really-really-busy-you into mindful you.

Mindful you has time to think, and to focus. Related to this phenomenon, and partly due to it, there are two thoughts I would like to mention.

However, first those promised pictures! I tried to make a representative selection from the few hundred photos that I took.

I guess there’s a reason they call it the Crocodile River:

After days of searching for them, we finally ran into five young male lions during an early morning drive. Much excitement between the rangers and in our car, with the lions just outside of touching distance. The ranger told us that they see the car as a non-threatening animal, and that somehow us pink and soft humans sitting inside are not interesting, in spite of the large (about lion-sized) open windows:

Finally, I was very lucky to catch this dramatic hippopotamus face-off. You knew they were huge, but did you know they could move this fast? Watch them chase each other and then face off, concurrently marking territory by, uhm, spraying faeces around with their little wagging tails. Fascinating!

Still with me?! Here are those two backyard philosophy(ish) thoughts I promised:

You are turning into a cyborg.

We are all slowly turning into cyborgs.

We have our always-connected smartphones, our tablets, our laptops, and soon we will have heads-up displays always in front of our eyes (I called it in 2009, I think Google read my blog post). Probably due to our foraging nature and the accompanying neuro-chemistry, we find it incredibly hard to resist the call of email, of facebook, of twitter. What if something new and interesting appears? There’s a lovely dopamine shot waiting right there.

On top of this empire of connected technology, we build intricate systems to keep track of our time, our responsibilities and all of the odd bits of information that we come across. Heaven forbid that we forget anything! We open up as many pathways to capture as much as possible of our environment.

What happens when we are able to switch all of this off temporarily? Well, initially nothing much. Internally, business continues as usual. There’s no more incoming information, but our brains keep on going.

However, after a while things start calming down. All of the little thoughts fall away, leaving the big and important ones. Life starts coalescing, becoming more integrated again. Because all of the little stones are temporarily out of the way, it seems that one is able to move the really big rocks. It’s a strange and exhilarating experience.

So, busy-you makes way for mindful-you. Loads of small thoughts and some big ones make way for a few big ones.

With this, I’m not saying that we should fight the cyborgs that we are becoming. I think we should embrace our future. We need to be more knowledgeable and more connected to our fellow humans. We need to integrate with our technology. I do wonder how we can unite all this with being more mindful.

Is it possible to learn how to switch digital you on and off on demand?

South Africa, you are the most interesting place in the world.

(to me)

Before I left for Europe 14 years ago, I used to want South Africa to play more to its European influences, to be more European.

In the years since then, I’ve had the pleasure to live in one of the prettiest little cities in The Netherlands, and to spend vacation time in Italy, in the south of Spain, in the south of France, in Greece and in Sardinia (technically Italy, but I mention it separately because it was that awesome). I’ve also had the pleasure to spend work time in Germany, Norway and Sweden. Altogether, this is a not too shabby sampling of Western Europe.

What I’ve seen is beautiful, and it has been a superb growing experience making the connections between my European heritage and its various sources.

Exploring these connections has also helped me to better understand the African influences that have partially formed me, and are the foundations of South Africa. Added to this, I’ve had the distinct privilege of being a tourist in my own country together with Dutch friends. This was perhaps the most acute eye opener. I’ve come to appreciate that Africanness of which I once thought that it should be moved slightly more to the background.

So here I am now. SA is a fantastically interesting place. It’s a beautiful country, but, more relevantly, it’s currently in a huge state of flux. I’m happy to be able to play a small role in trying to redefine the strange little subculture that I belong to. I’m doing my best to connect more with fellow South Africans.

I am optimistic that the country will be able to define its own voice; that it will integrate everyone, even its seemingly out of place European children, in a uniquely South African cocktail.

Creative Process Stage 5. [WHV #67]

Dear two people reading this blog on a good day: Spread the word, the Weekly Head Voices is making a comeback!

In the process of dealing with recent(ish) life-changing decisions, but probably more due to the preceding time of introspection, I was unable to enter the right state of mind for producing the weekly WHV episodes. However, because exciting new events have been scheduled for the coming months and I really look forward to writing about them, and because I’ve decided that, yes, I shouldn’t worry too much about the actual literary impact of this here blog (I wrote “bog” first, I hope that it wasn’t a Freudian slip; what I was actually intending to say between these parentheses is that I will continue to do my best to entertain and/or edify!), the time has come to get the WHV back on the road!

For the past weeks, I have been burning all kinds of midnight oil on different projects. For one of them, I’ve had to design a reusable JS architecture for customizable visualizations (of course using the awesome d3.js). During one of these weeks, I saw a rip-off of the following tweet, the original 140 character guide to the creative process:

The Creative Process by @boltcity
The Creative Process by @boltcity

The stages of the creative process are: 1) This is going to be awesome 2) This is hard 3) This is terrible 4) I’m terrible 5) Hey, not bad 6) That was awesome.

At that time, I found myself squarely in stage 4: I AM TERRIBLE.

However, just reading this and then realising that that’s just how it has to work made me feel much better. Fast-forward to a week or so later, and I seem to find myself in stage 5. Stage 5 is not the best, but man does it feel infinitely better than stage 4. (If you run into me at any of the numerous bars, parties and other social events I frequent, ask me about the design.) Remember this process the next time you’re in the middle of something complicated.

(I was not able to come up with any kind of bridge between the creative process and my next point. I’m open to suggestions in the comments! For now, just imagine some pithy or really clever literary topic-jumping device here, ok?)

As the more astute readers should know (I guess that’s both of you), I was naturally into mindfulness before it got all hip. See my 2011 post on drowning in the now, and my 2010 post on focus if you don’t believe me. However, I wanted to get into it more formally, so I acquired and started practising with one of the better books on the topic: Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world. There are at least two things I really like about mindfulness:

  1. There’s quite a bit of solid research on mindfulness and its effects on your brain. See for example the publications on the website of Prof. Mark Williams, first author of the book above.
  2. The idea that practising different ways of applying one’s intellect (conventional doing vs. the mindful being) leads to the ability to enter these modes at will, thus getting more control over one’s emotions, especially appeals to me. (Click here to meet one of my most important role models. For real.)

The mindfulness book also discusses research on the interaction between one’s body and one’s emotional state. If you’re feeling down, your body starts acting up. Conversely, your physical state has a significant influence your emotional state. The upshot of this is that if you put a smile on your face, even if you’re not feeling particularly upbeat, Science says that you’ll really start to feel happier. If you’re already happy, it’s just going to consolidate those good vibes.

With that in mind, here’s my simple suggestion for today (and the rest of the year, and maybe next year): Let’s all smile as often as we can!