Reading and Listening – October Edition

Here is just a sampling of what I’ve been reading and listening to this past month.

Reading

I love the idea of a bullet journal, and I do use the method for my book journal. However, I like having a planner with all of my goals built in, a journal for books and reading, a notebook for notes, and a journal for quotes, prayers, thoughts, processing, etc. It works better for me. So many people love the bullet journal method that I may try again one of these years. Here are two articles on Bullet Journaling that came up in my reading this month for those of you who want to give it a try. If you do, I’d love to hear how it goes.

Can Bullet Journaling Save You

Anne Bogel’s experience with her bullet journal

I enjoy reading Cal Newport’s work, and this is his take on how to carve out time for creative work:

Getting Creative Things Done: How to Fit Hard Thinking into a Busy Schedule

I love Agatha Christie’s novels and thought I had read them all until I found this list recently. If I had ever read The Mystery of the Blue Train, I didn’t remember it at all. Are there any titles on the list that you want to try?

Agatha Christie’s Top 20 Novels

This article reminded me of the discussions I used to have with my children about the importance of what they read and watched. The things we take in eventually come out in our living, our words, and our actions as well as in our writing and artistic pursuits. What are you taking into your mind and heart these days?

Shoveling Mulch onto the Leaf Mold of the Mind

Listening:

I love mysteries and some of my favorite titles are in the Inspector Gamanche series by Louise Penny. It was a joy to hear some of my favorite podcasters talk about how much they love them, too.

Episode 96 of Out of the Ordinary

Rarely does a week go by when I don’t listen to a podcast or lecture on theology or the Bible. One of my favorites apps is from Ligonier.org because of all of the great content. Recently, I’ve been listening to Dr. Derek Thomas’s series on Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s not my first time listening to it and it won’t be my last, but every time I listen, I learn something new about Scripture, about Bunyan, and about our God. It’s a bit pricy, but you can watch the first lecture for free on the site and then wait for the series to go on sale. I always get the audio download so I can listen on my app on the go, but there is also a CD and DVD.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Guided Tour

I appreciate Karen Swallow Prior’s books and after reading On Reading Well, I sometimes wished I could take a literature class with her. While that’s not a possibility, I found a way to listen to her wise insights when she was a guest host on a literature podcast I enjoy, Close Reads. She and two other literature lovers and teachers walked through Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. If you don’t like Jane Austen, try one of the other books they’ve read through together. I’ve discovered some new favorites, and I bet you will, too. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Please share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, if you found any of these links interesting or helpful.

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.

Interesting Articles and Podcasts

Each week, I send articles to a website that sends me a collection of articles to read in a single document for my kindle. This helps prevent me from falling down “rabbit holes” when I should be doing something productive but allows me to keep reading interesting things from around the web. Here are a few of the articles I’ve read this past month:

Jen Wilkin lists nine things to help in studying the Bible: https://www.crossway.org/articles/9-tips-for-making-the-most-of-your-bible-study/

Many of us are still working from home, which can make the work/home lines bleed together a bit too much at times. This article is a helpful look at the benefits of unplugging from work and other online pursuits: http://lauraearnest.com/unplugging/

While we are able to get out and about more these days, spending a couple of hours in a coffee shop may not be optimal or even possible. Here are ways to duplicate that experience of writing (or working) in a coffee shop: https://thewritelife.com/recreate-coffee-shop-experience-from-home/

Although I’ve been a Christian for many years, prayer is still difficult for me at times. Lectio Divina has been one way, through two prayer apps a friend suggested, to focus on the Lord each morning: https://www.24-7prayer.com/ancientprayerrhythms

My garden has never looked better since I’ve had more time at home to tend it. There’s something wonderfully healing about being outside in nature without a phone or other electronic device and dig: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/24/the-therapeutic-power-of-gardening

Reading has been a daily habit of mine for decades. However, I’m always reading articles and books on how to cram more reading time into my life. This article was great. https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-make-a-daily-habit-of-reading-more-books

I subscribe to several podcasts, some of which I listen to every single episode and some of which I dip into once in a while when the episode sounds applicable to my life or I want to know more. Here are some episodes I found particularly useful or interesting this past month:

Sarah from theshubox.com has started a new planner/planning podcast, which I love. Here’s her take on building a planning system: https://bestlaidplans.libsyn.com/rss

I just found the Redeeming Productivity podcast this summer and am slowly working my way through the back episodes. This recent episode was helpful in thinking about how contentment doesn’t have to interfere with ambition and productivity: https://www.redeemingproductivity.com/feed/podcast

I have loved all of the episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible with Nancy Guthrie, but I found this one especially fascinating as she talked to Andrew Sach about Elijah and Elisha and their foreshadowing of the New Testament: https://feeds.simplecast.com/TtKQNBCJ

Cal Newport, author of one of my favorite productivity books, Deep Work, started a new podcast this year. This is his kickoff episode. Don’t let the length scare you. He addresses multiple questions in each episode, which means you can listen for 10-20 minutes and then leave it until the next time without losing the thread of a discussion. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do focused knowledge work for their job or personal projects. His humor is a bit nerdy, which adds to the fun: https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/1121972.rss

When I’m trying to focus on work or writing, sometimes I need silence and sometimes background music helps. Eric Nordhoff is an artist I discovered recently, whose music is uplifting and great for focusing:

https://open.spotify.com/album/6co8Pt2GpcnqNa17Mbr77C?si=RagH7JKOTuibDTaX5kyeKQ

What are you reading and/or listening to this month?

Off the Clock

Now that I’m working outside my home every day, I’m having to be much more mindful of how I spend my time. I “discovered” Laura Vanderkam this past year and tracked my hours for a week while reading her book, 168 Hours. It was eye-opening to see how I really spent my time.

Yesterday, I received her new book, Off the Clock, which deals with how to use your time so that you can focus on what is important to you. That will lead to the feeling that you have more time to get your priorities accomplished. It should be good!

Deep Work – Final Thoughts

I finished Deep Work by Cal Newport over the weekend. His last chapter is entitled Drain the Shallows, in which he discusses ways to minimize shallow work and maximize deep work.

He suggests:

A good first step toward this respectful handling is the advice outlined here: Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday.

Now, he doesn’t mean to account for every minute, but rather, he says to block out your entire day and have a goal for each block. For instance, if I have planning time at work, for the first hour I would plan to write a new blog post, the second hour would be spent working on conference prep, and the third hour, I could start with my 15 minutes of daily learning and then use the rest of the time for shallow miscellaneous stuff. Perhaps you would have a block of time for internet research so that you aren’t using your other blocks for quick look ups which end up wasting your deep work time.  Remember, in a past chapter, he suggested scheduling your online time so that should be blocked out on your schedule as well.

His point here is to be intentional about your work and not be spontaneous. It’s too easy to squander your valuable deep work time if you don’t plan it up front. I know that much of my writing time is wasted, researching and editing.  I need to learn to separate those and spend dedicated time just writing and have separate blocks for research and editing.

He also advises to quantify the depth of each of your activities to determine what is truly deep work, ask your boss for a shallow work budget (how much time, percentage-wise, to spend each week on shallow work), finish your work day by 5:30 (don’t bring work home with you), and become hard to reach.

Final thoughts:  This was an extremely helpful book for showing me how I spend my time, how I waste my time, and how to go about redeeming my time. If you want to rethink how to carve out time for deep thinking and working, I highly recommend this book. It’s thoughtful and full of practical advice.

Past articles on this title:

Finding My Focus Again

Deep Work – Part II

Deep Work – Rule #2

Working toward focus and thought

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Working toward focus and thought

As you know, I’ve been slowly reading through Deep Work by Cal Newport.  It’s funny how many things pop out at you when you are thinking about a particular subject or person or place.  Over the last few weeks, I’ve read or heard several things to help with learning to think and focus more deeply.

My friend, Kelly, wrote a great post on mindfulness and meditation while walking here.

This past week, a local author spoke to the writers groups, which I facilitate.  He mentioned how Henry David Thoreau walked in order to write.  Emerson wrote, “The length of [Thoreau’s] walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all.”  In fact, walking was so important to Thoreau that he wrote an entire essay on it:  Walking

Another article I read talked about taking two hours a week to think without anything other than a pen and paper.   Now that would be helpful if I could be disciplined enough to get away from phones and tablets and computers long enough!

So, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to carve out deep thinking time, but I have yet to work it into a regular routine.  My goal is to create a schedule that allows for deeper thinking and writing over the next few months.  Now that the weather is cooler, walking is more likely to occur and slowly I am developing an early morning routine without distractions in order to think and write.  Progress is being made albeit at a snail’s pace.

Deep Work – Rule #2

When I was a child, I spent many hours up trees and gazing at the clouds.  On Sunday mornings, I would sit quietly listening to sermons I didn’t really understand.  Then there were the times when my parents would be visiting with other grown-ups, and my brother and I were expected to wait quietly until they were done.

All of those times tended to have moments, even hours,  of boredom.  There was no one and nothing to entertain me except my own thoughts.   I spent a lot of time, thinking up stories, making plans, solving problems, and dreaming of the future.

Cal Newport’s Rule #2 is Embrace Boredom.  These days, escape from boredom is only a click away.  We can check Facebook or read an article on the internet, binge watch a TV show or check out what our kids are doing on Snapchat.  We never allow ourselves to get bored, but instead distract ourselves constantly.  When was the last time you stood in a long line and just stared into space while you waited?  Yeah, it’s been a long time for me, too.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport makes the point that the ability to concentrate intensely is a skill that must be trained.  He suggests that you schedule breaks from focus rather than scheduling breaks from distraction.  In other words, make your internet breaks sparse enough that you practice resistance to the distraction those breaks bring.

The key here isn’t to avoid or even reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.

A second point he makes is to practice productive meditation.  While engaging in something physical (such as a walk or run or bike ride), you focus on a single, well-defined professional problem.  Every time your attention wanders from the problem, refocus your mind on it.  If you do this  two or three times a week, after several weeks, you will find yourself able to focus on the problem much more effectively than in the past.

In my experience, productive meditation builds on both of the key ideas introduced at the beginning of this rule. By forcing you to resist distraction and return your attention repeatedly to a well-defined problem, it helps strengthen your distraction-resisting muscles, and by forcing you to push your focus deeper and deeper on a single problem, it sharpens your concentration. 

When walking outside, I tend to plug myself in to music or an audio book instead of seeing that time as an escape from distractions and an opportunity to think about things in a more focused way.  The next time I go for a walk, I think I will leave my phone behind and embrace boredom.  Do you want to give productive meditation a try, too?  If so, I’d love to hear how it goes.

 

Deep Work – Part II

In the first part of Deep Work, Cal Newport defines what deep work is and makes a case for why the world needs it. I read this part but since I already had a fairly good idea about the definition and didn’t need convincing, I didn’t linger over Part I.

The second part of the book was where the meat was and I have spent a lot more time there. He has four rules of deep work. Rule #1 is… wait for it… Work Deeply.

Newport says:

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add 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.” P. 100

He then goes into some ideas on creating those types of routines and rituals. Some of his ideas were new to me and were helpful to think through. For instance, I get up early because I am a morning person and do my best work in the mornings. However, I have been squandering a lot of that good time in frivolous things. So I’m rethinking my morning routines, reading articles such as How to Set Yourself Up for a Productive Day, Bookend Your Days: The Power of Morning and Evening Routines (morning routines are for women, too!),  Establish a Consistent Morning Routine: Maximize Your Mornings, and 6 Elements of a Powerful Morning Routine

Another point Cal Newport makes in this section is that being “lazy” at times actually helps your deep work and creativity. By leaving work behind for a few hours a day, you give your brain a chance to work on things in the background and come up with new ideas for problems you are seeking to solve.

I think also that time spent reading and thinking about non-work things gives you a chance to refuel your mind so that you have a constant flow of new thoughts and ideas to chew on.

Do you have any morning routines that help you work more effectively and/or use your time more wisely? I’d love to hear about them.

Finding My Focus Again

Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed that I’m not reading as much, not thinking as much, and definitely not writing as much. I could blame it on all of my responsibilities at home, work, and, until last June, home school, but the reality is that I’ve lost my focus and find it all too easy to distract myself with frivolous things.

I know that I’m not alone. Everywhere I look, I see articles and TED Talks and books discussing this problem. While they have talked about the problem, the most common solutions (take an internet break, throw your phone away, go off to the woods to a cabin with no wifi) are out of my price range or impractical or not concrete enough to help.
However, a couple of months ago I picked up a book which is helpful–Deep Work by Cal Newport. I’m about two thirds through it and am taking copious notes (alas, it’s a library book so I can’t mark it up).
I know I’m not the only person out there to struggle with focus and the ability to read, write, and think as deeply as I used to so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as I work my way through the book. Stay tuned for future thoughts as I blog my way through the book. And, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library and check out this book. It’s one of the most helpful productivity books I’ve read.