Book Review: Deep Work

508024134_140I recently read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

It was a good read and made me look differently at what I want to do and how I go about it, but mostly, how I allocate my attention. I recommend it to anyone who feels that they don’t have enough time, which is high praise, because that’s most everyone I’ve ever met.

The main premise of the book is that it’s really important to carve out uninterrupted time in our days to focus on tough problems, ignore distractions, and do the hard work. He calls this “deep work,” and contrasts it to the shallow work of reacting to email, refocusing after interruptions, attending meetings, engaging on social media, and so on. He argues convincingly about why deep work is valuable, and writes extensively about how to go about it (e.g. scheduling, how to limit shallow tasks), as well as how to boost your concentration skills to make the most of your deep work time (e.g. meditation, memorization work).

I have to admit that it was a bit hard for me to get into it: as a stay-at-home-mom who can’t use the bathroom without getting interrupted, the multiple stories of single men retreating from the world for months at a time to incubate their genius in silence felt kind of like Newport was flipping me off. I’m glad I kept reading anyway, and I encourage you to do so as well. I think he’s just trying to be engaging by talking about so many extreme examples at first. In Part II of the book, he really delves into the how of deep work, and includes many suggestions and examples of people working deeply to great effect without abandoning their other responsibilities.

ESOL-Related Thoughts

Are we employing deep work strategies to perform our best as faculty? How could our departments support deep work of both full-timers and adjuncts? How can we as individuals harness it?

Are we fostering or impeding deep work in class? With our assignments? With our LMS expectations?

Is this a topic worthy of mention and coaching in our classes, like information literacy and plagiarism and critical thinking?

Excerpts from this book be a worthwhile text to use in an advanced class. The writing is pretty direct, has a strong voice, and makes really valuable points as well.

 

In case you’re interested but aren’t going to be reading the book any time soon, Newport has some talks up on YouTube, and he’s a great speaker.

 

You’re reading Book Review: Deep Work, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

 

 

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Focus

I keep thinking to myself, “Ok, I’m going to be really focused today.”

And then I think about what I’m going to focus on:

  • curriculum
  • volunteers
  • student attendance
  • outreach
  • preparing for this week’s appointments
  • preparing for break

And I realize that this is not focus.  It is, however, a starting point.

Looking Back at College

Lifehacker and The Simple Dollar have been posting more content than usual geared toward college students, and it got me thinking about my own college experience.  It was a great one.  I worked hard, but I didn’t work smart at all, and because of that I’m not sure I lived up to my potential.

This isn’t intended to be a list of regrets.  I’m reflecting on a path I set out on when I was 17, and my perspective on it from my mid-twenties is understandably a little different.

What I Wish I’d Done In College

Basically, I wish I’d scheduled my time as though college were my 40 hour per week job.  Mind you that when I was in college I’d never had such a thing as a full-time job.  Still, I don’t think it would have been beyond me to:

  • set a regular (reasonably flexible) work schedule, planning to spend about 8 hours a day either in class or involved in studies;
  • spend time at the beginning of each semester marking not just mandatory class times on my calendar, but also project due-dates and my own draft due-dates;
  • make it my business to go to each prof’s office hours at least once;
  • treat class time more seriously (like it was a meeting or a conference) by taking notes and behaving in a more openly friendly way to my classmates.

I also wish I’d done a few less serious “school is your job” -type things, such as:

  • joining a club that would take me off campus on a regular basis;
  • sleeping more consistently;
  • spending more than one semester taking a karate class.

And honestly, I can’t help but wonder if taking a year or two between high school and college and doing AmeriCorps or some such work would have made the above wishes realities instead.

Again, no regrets.  I took interesting classes, did respectably well in them (except chemistry), made incredible friends, enjoyed participating in music programming, and reached out to some profs and acquaintences I hope I’ll still be acquainted with years from now.  I was also introduced to life in the Twin Cities and have continued living here since graduation.  I think of it all as a success.  And I’d have a different kind of success if I started it in September 2009 instead.

RSS Adjustment

I finally went through my Google Reader and unsubscribed from a bunch of feeds I either don’t read or don’t care about when I do read.

My intention was to limit the amount of content that went to my reader.

That lasted about 2 days, and then I started subscribing to other blogs, including Kalingo English and Dangerously Irrelevant. They’re blogs that I’m more likely to want to read and to comment on though, and are very shareable with colleagues, so I’m confident in my decisions to add them.

Reading my RSS feed is much more informative and enjoyable since I made the changes. I shouldn’t have waited so long to shake things up.  I set up a quarterly reminder on my calendar, encouraging me to rethink and delete.  I don’t think I’ll need much encouragement to add.

Maybe I should set up “clear off your desk” reminders also – the cat just jumped up and fell off.

Is it cheating to make things easier?

Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr
Juggle Strobe by Sam UL on Flickr

Wednesdays are new student registration day at my learning center.  I’d never get anything done if I took new students whenever they walked in or called, so I have everyone come to fill out their application and take their placement test on one evening out of the week.

Yesterday I had 8 students signed up for registration, and I usually get additional people who haven’t contacted me.  That would have been pretty chaotic, even for me.  So I did the unthinkable.  I asked for help.

It was great.  My volunteer told people about the schedule and helped with the application.  Then I could focus on finding the right test for each student and monitoring their progress. We ended up only having five new students (it was about 3 degrees outside, so I wasn’t surprised) but it was still a much calmer, more controlled process than other nights with five or so intakes.

So I want to know why it took me so long to ask for help, and why it still feels a little like cheating to change the system so that I’m not needing to juggle five (or eight) people at once.

Official Hiatus

I’d like to announce an official hiatus, effective immediately, to end when I return from vacation in mid-January.

This is my effort to truly take a break.  A teeny part of me feels guilty, I’ll admit it.  However, I really believe that it’s not only ok to stop working sometimes, but that having that break improves work quality and productivity in the long run.  So off I go!

Have a wonderful month!

Librarian Tip for Nonprofits: 90-Second YouTube

I was reading the May 2008 issue of American Libraries and the Internet Librarian column by Joseph Janes jumped out at me with the potential to be immediately useful to me at work (which is not in a library).

I help run a program at a literacy nonprofit, and a lot of people contact me and my colleagues all the time with a large volume of questions.  Now don’t get me wrong – I’m one of those people who actually gets a kick out of answering questions.  It’s just that as I mentioned in my last post, when we’re bombarded with questions, especially redundant ones, it’s extremely difficult to do the rest of of our jobs done.

This article, “Spring Awakening,” describes how the Cornell University Library ended up making 90-second YouTube clips for their incoming first-years about basic research concepts.

As Janes points out, this isn’t earth-shattering, but as he also points out, it doesn’t need to be earth-shattering in order to be dead useful; it just needs to 1) address the need and 2) actually happen.

It brings to mind a huge site I used a few times in college called Atomic Learning.  Schools can subscribe to it to give their students access to tons of tiny (“atomic”) learning modules.  My college subscribed to it, but I don’t have access to it now that I’m out of school, and I think the focus was watching, not creating your own.  The brilliance of using YouTube instead is that it’s free, allows participation on both sides, is easy to embed, and simple to access.

How powerful would it be to have even a couple of 90-second videos addressing super-common questions!  I’m so excited to bring this to the team and see what we can make of it.  I’m thinking that even if we can’t do video, a cute (and very brief) Slideshare really should be doable.  Or hey, even a Voki if we’re feeling cartoony.

Have you done something like this?  How has it gone?  Can you use this kind of resource in your organization?  What can help bring this from the “idea” stage to the “actually happening” stage?