Craving for Deep Work

Craving for Deep Work

There’s a satisfaction that comes from crossing off many items from a to-do list that each only requires 15 minutes or less. But there’s also a type of satisfaction that will never come from just crossing off 15-minute items.

 

The latter type of satisfaction is the one that you get after doing deep work, a work that takes long incubation and construction time, that squeezes your brain until it is fried, that produces something big, whose process seems like childbirth.

 

Often, the adult life is filled with scattered type activities. Chores, bills, errands. They are short-term activities that never end. It takes a different kind of endurance to do these activities.

 

But even in artistic endeavors, with the pressure to be visible and noticed throughout social media these days, tend to be quick work at the expense of depth.

 

Yet, it’s still so satisfying when you read a lengthy investigative journalistic piece, or listen to a story that you know have been crafted for a very long time, with much thought and intention, research and revisions. These are examples of deep work, a type of work that chisels a piece of your soul and you’ll never be the same again as a result of producing it.

 

Quantity Produces Quality

I tend to believe in a proportionality rule. Things that develop over time don’t disappear over time. Things that get done quickly tend to get forgotten quickly too. And it’s not just the total amount of time required to complete the work, it’s also the amount of time put in for any given work session. There are thoughts you will never get to unless you spend two, three, four contiguous hours thinking about the work.

 

Which is a problem in today’s distracted world. There are a plethora of things that demand our micro-attention constantly, and it takes immense discipline to switch off and focus about one thing for a long time. The trade is this: what is the opportunity cost of being distracted? It’s that valuable work that would otherwise be produced if we were not distracted.

 

I remember the first time I transitioned into an 8-hour work day schedule. At first, it was so boring to sit in one place for 8 hours, waiting for that 5 o’clock to come. To pass the time, I checked Facebook, browsed the world wide web, switching between work and distractions to help pass the time, or so I thought.

 

But then I tried another experiment, which was to block off all distractions for that 8-hour time period and just work. Incredibly, by doing this, I was able to get into another level of focus that made work even more interesting. I got into the zone. More questions emerged. The brain was working, plugged into another gear, and time ceased to be felt. The 8-hour passed by so much quicker, and none of it was boring.

 

Getting Over the Dip

To get to a state of flow in deep work takes some initiation effort. There’s a dip that we all have to get over–where most people abandon their efforts–to get to the other side. It’s not easy, and sometimes laziness prevails. But past this threshold, there’s something valuable, a combination of our own creativity and individuality, a contribution that only we can make.

 

The labor of producing something good will be painful in some degree. But it’s always worth it.

 

 

A book that I want to read on the subject of deep work is Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

Home-Longing: Thoughts on Home and What It Means. A Prequel.

“Home is where my best shoes are,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tongue-in-cheek, once in an interview.

 

Where is home? Not so simple a question to answer anymore, for many. It throws another shade of complication for those who have left the country of their birth, for one reason or another, and stayed out for a while.

 

I’ve been thinking about home a lot lately, not only in terms of locality, but also in terms of identity. For home is tied to identity, to personal anchors, to our origin and who we are. It’s precipitated by several things. One, I’m nearing that point in my life where half of it is spent in a country that’s not my origin. All this time, I’ve always called Indonesia home, and America is the place I live in.

 

I left home when I was 17. But now, I’m almost here for equally the same amount of years, and certainly I’ve spent all of my adult life here. And so it’s come to a point where I’m not exactly Indonesian–in contemporary terms–anymore, since the Indonesia I experience and I imagine is more than a decade old. Yet I’m definitely not American, culturally, although a lot of my neural DNA is probably American by now.

 

Two, I am now bearing a child who will be culturally different, of a different citizenship, of a radically different time, from me. I suppose this is true for practically every parent–there’s always a cultural gap between different generations. In my case I mean culturally different literally, geographically.

 

It’s a kind of double identity crisis. Now I have to think about who I am and who this child is going to be. How will this new identity evolve? So far I’ve gotten away with calling Indonesia home even though I’ve married and even owned a house. Yet the saying starts to feel out of place now that I’m becoming a parent, tasked with the responsibility of creating a home, being a home, for another human being.

 

The truth: I don’t have an answer to Where is home? I say, “I guess, Colorado,” to get people off my back.

 

Home-longing, is this non-descript feeling, a craving for belonging and kinship. It’s a bit of a nebulous question, and in the search of hopefully-less-nebulous answers, I’ve been drawn to authors who write eloquently about being outsiders, about experiences of being displaced and removed from your people, and about reconciling the experiences that you belong, yet not, to two worlds.

 

This is sort of a prequel to what I suspect will be a series of articles about identity, home, and belonging. Along the vein of last year’s articles, A Child of East and West. There is no answer yet–one of those “I write to find out the answer” type-thing. But my search and discovery have led me to hang out with these books so far.

 

 

Have you ever felt a longing for home and belonging? Have you lived in a different country from your birthplace? What are your experiences finding out what home means to you? 

Take Care of Your Roots

Take Care of Your Roots

When you move a tree, as long as you take care of the roots, the tree will be ok. I heard this from a guide at the San Diego Zoo. He was describing the construction of a new expansive exhibit, the 8-acre Africa Rocks, that was slated to open in 2017. There was a precious nugget of truth there.

 

To build the exhibit and create a new ecology that mimics Africa’s natural habitats, they had to bring in grown and established trees from. Since zoos don’t have years to wait for the trees to grow, the trees there are all migrants, of sorts.

 

How do you move a grown tree? Apparently, it’s all in the roots. As long as the roots’ immediate environment is stable and unperturbed, the tree will survive and thrive just OK, even across overseas transport. They are not so fragile as to wither and die upon removal, even when this moving process is unnatural to their existence. They can continue on living, blossoming, and bearing fruits.

 

It’s inevitable that I see the metaphor here, since I’ve been going through some uprooting process myself. Last fall, I moved to a new state, changed my whole work setup, and planted myself in a completely new environment. It felt like my entire life dynamic changed and a new equilibrium is yet to be found.

 

Moving can be disorienting. One has to figure out life’s simplest things again, like grocery stores, food sources, and happy places to escape to (re: bookstores). Like the trees, if certain roots are not taken care of, there are consequences. Maybe some branches wither and die, maybe a fruitful season is skipped.

 

To be honest, I haven’t been doing that well taking care of my roots this time around. And the effects are real. A tree without roots is easily tossed by the wind.

 

At the very least, though, I know a little about my root system. Reading books and writing are always my rescue in times of great changes. They’re part of my constants, part of my equilibrium. At least I know there are a few things I can hold on to.

 

Do you know your root system? Maybe you’re going through some changes this year, or you’re about to face major life changes soon.

 

Take care of your roots, so that the change will not cause some of your fruits to wither. There will be adjustments that you’ll definitely experience, but you can minimize any negative effects by keeping your roots taken care of. And then one day, know that you too will recover, blossom, and flourish in your new environment.

 

Atul Gawande on Why You Should Write

Atul Gawande on Why You Should Write

In Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, Atul Gawande, surgeon, 2006 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, writer for The New Yorker, reflects on what it means to excel and be successful in medicine. The MacArthur Foundation website states that the Genius awards go “to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” It’s a very suitable description of Gawande, who in his writings is greatly concerned in making medicine better.

 

Gawande is also an eloquent speaker and speaks on many occasions to students. At the end of this book, he includes five suggestions that he likes to give on how to be a positive deviant, an outlier that outperforms and stands out from the majority. One of these suggestions is to write. Here is Gawande on why you should write (emphasis mine).

 

Write something. I do not mean this to be an intimidating suggestion. It makes no difference whether you write five paragraphs for a blog, a paper for a professional journal, or a poem for a reading group. Just write. What you write need not achieve perfection. It need only add some small observation about your world.

 

You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest. As Lewis Thomas once pointed out, quoting the physicist John Ziman, “The invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of ‘fragments’ of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science.” By soliciting modest contributions from the many, we have produced a store of collective know-how with far greater power than any individual could have achieved. And this is as true outside science as inside.

 

You should also not underestimate the power of the act of writing itself. I did not write until I became a doctor. But once I became a doctor, I found I needed to write. For all its complexity, medicine is more physically than intellectually taxing. Because medicine is a retail enterprise, because doctors provide their services to one person after another, it can be a grind. You can lose your larger sense of purpose. But writing lets you step back and think through a problem. Even the angriest rant forces the writer to achieve a degree of thoughtfulness.

 

Most of all, by offering your reflections to an audience, even a small one, you make yourself part of a larger world. Put a few thoughts on a topic in just a newsletter, and you find yourself wondering nervously: Will people notice it? What will they think? Did I say something dumb? An audience is a community. The published word is a declaration of membership in that community and also of a willingness to contribute something meaningful to it.

 

So choose your audience. Write something.

 
 

Lessons Learned One Year After Blog Relaunch

Lessons Learned One Year After Blog Relaunch

In June 2015, I relaunched my blog after a 2-year hiatus. It was a soft launch, because one, the domain name had existed for years un-utilized, and two, I didn’t know which direction to go with the blog, hence no big reveal.

 

Since then, my approach to blogging has evolved drastically, a compound effect of the decisions I had made. As someone who advocates oft reflections, I intend to share some, maybe unsolicited, but hopefully useful lessons learned during this past year. If you’re a blogger and writer, I’d love to hear if you agreed, commiserated, or disagreed with any of these points.

 

 

  1. Finding a Focus Starts with Asking Questions

 

The backstory: I spent the first 6 months after the launch finding a focus. Previously, my blogging approach covered eclectic topics on the things I experienced–travel, food, silly experiences, personal reflections, and essays. But, personally, there was something unsatisfying about this format. There was nothing inherently wrong with it, and I even enjoyed other blogs of this nature, but when I looked at my own posts, I knew there was a category that, when read, gave me most satisfaction. More on this below.

 

The blog relaunch was then an opportunity to do something different and ask different questions. For me, the question was this: What is the single umbrella theme that I want my blog to have? Just one. 

 

This question set me off on a journey. I simply started blogging, because only action would bring answers to said question, and if you saw the posts between June and December 2015, you would still see the sporadic nature in themes and topics. I was experimenting.

 

What did I experiment on? Initially, it was to test people’s responses–which posts would have more readership, wider audience engagement, page views, etc. It seemed like the most natural metric to use. But as I observed responses over those posts, one thing troubled me: the ones that were more popular were not the ones I would want to be the most popular.

 

I realized then that the real experiment was on myself. How did I feel about my posts? And I surely had different reactions to them. Faced with contradicting results, I had to make a choice: Which types of posts should I do and which should I abandon?

 

In the mean time, I also explored the blogosphere, reading websites and blogs of writers that I admired and respected. I discovered that my favorite kinds of blogs had dense and thoughtful entries, well-written pieces by people who devoured books. They were the self-learners, perpetual students, and wisdom seekers. It was almost like finding a tribe, as I resonated with this way of life.

 

Lesson Learned: Ask questions. Blogging, or intentional creative efforts of any kind, is a craft. It’s a design exercise–not just graphically, but internally, a design of content. It takes effort and prodding and questionings. What do I want my creation to look like? How do I iterate to find out what I want? If the question doesn’t get asked, a journey doesn’t get discovered. And if things don’t get measured, they don’t get improved.

 

  1. Doing Work I’m Most Proud Of

 

I found out that I was most satisfied when people read my thoughts rather than life updates, or rants on paper towels. These were usually long essays with messages that I’d like to send to the world, sharing what I had learned from books, people, and experiences.

 

So, should I write things that I knew had attracted readers in the past, or should I write things that I was truly proud of?

 

I decided on the latter one: to only produce things I was proud of. 

 

What did this decision mean? It meant dropping travel updates from the blog, since I never intended this site to be a travel blog, nor a food blog. I used to blog about scrapbooking or random meet ups with friends. Dropped those too. I supposed this was what it meant to focus. What stayed on the blog was one of the constants in my life: books.

 

Now, a larger percentage of this blog, if not entirely, revolves around books, packaged mostly in an essay format. Naturally, this genre overlaps with blogs that I admire. I frankly want to emulate what they have done, but also remain distinct, which is easy to do since I have different sets of interests and reading selections.

 

I can confidently say that I’m proud of the posts published since the beginning of this year. I say proud in the sense that there’s immense pleasure when thoughts germinated in the head find their expressions in the published words. It’s incredibly satisfying.

 

Lesson Learned: You can choose what you want to work on and how you want to create. Don’t underestimate the power of choices.

 

  1. Audience: Lose Some, Gain Some

 

As a result of this pivot, I lost readers. I mentioned that in the past these types of posts didn’t get as much attention, so I probably lost quite a number of readers. It was natural, but still not fun to go through. But I made a decision and this came with it, so I made peace. Some, though, remained.

 

I focused on writing and thinking better, learning more systematically, and reading more intentionally. It was probably the harder way to blog, hours and days spent on a single post, but I enjoyed it, so much so that it was probably abnormal. As ideas and thoughts mounted, they created a compounding effect that produced more thoughts and ideas, more than what I could keep up in writing. New questions emerged and new searches began. I started writing essay series, since one post was not enough to express the whole thought. The series on worldview—Between Jerusalem and Athens—and on excellence and learning were my personal highlights of the year. They were dense, but they were a labor of love.

 

As it turned out, this type of content could find its audience too, in fact, in wider scope than friends and family. More importantly, the ones who visited the blog stayed longer. This was incredible to find, because truthfully, this was the audience I wanted. The ones that would stay reading long essays, these were my kind of people! I’ve come to respect this audience, goading me to do even better work to honor the time they spend on this blog.

 

Lesson Learned: The saying goes, if you try to reach everyone, you’ll reach no one. Dare to reach just a few, and maybe the few will turn out to be not so few after all.

 

Books

  1. No More Hiatus

 

I’ve maintained a personal blog since 2008. For some reason, I thought I could take a break some time in 2013, and I went on a 2-year unintentional hiatus. I said unintentional because blogging became one of those things that drifted away as I let other things took priorities. The result: nothing good.

 

I heard Brené Brown once said that the suppression of the creative energy inside us was a dangerous thing. I used to think, Dangerous, really? That’s a strong word, isn’t it? But then I thought about my life happiness vis-à-vis blogging (blogging = proxy for reading and writing), it couldn’t be truer. Imagine all of those focused hours on crafting and creating essays, channeled out as negative energy toward those around me (ask my husband). It was ugly. Something felt missing. I needed a purpose, something to expand my world.

 

When I finally decided to read and write again, all of these suppressed energy found their outlet.

 

It was weird how that worked, and this was all new personal discovery. Now, I know that reading and writing are so essential to my being that I can’t afford to do without them. Thus, I’m purposed to not take any extended hiatus from blogging, for my own sake.

 

Lesson Learned: Got to find a positive outlet to your creative energy.

 

  1. From Hobby to Priority

 

It’s hard to find time in an adult’s life for a hobby, but you always find time for a priority. Knowing how important blogging is for my happiness, I now carve out hours to work on the blog on a consistent basis. It occupies my thoughts and it’s part of my schedule, even when I don’t feel particularly inspired. The discipline of sitting down and writing is necessary and rewarding, because I always end up finding something to write on, even if it’s just crappy stuff in my notebook.

 

The time to blog is a matter of decision. I always find time to do what I want to do, and if I don’t get to do something, there’s a good chance I don’t really, really, want to do it in the first place. On another note, to be consistent, I have also started changing my words in saying no to things. I try to prevent myself from saying “I don’t have time” and replace it with, “I can’t make that a priority right now.” It feels more honest.

 

If blogging were my hobby, I probably would never have time for it. But now, it’s a priority, hence the time is found.

 

Lesson Learned: Decide whether what you want to do is worth making into a priority. Then commit.

 

  1. More Lessons to Learn

 

The blog has evolved to a certain shape right now, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the end. After all, it’s only one-year old. Part of it being a priority means putting the time and money into it (yes, gotta have some skin in the game). I’m learning from people who have created substantive content in the world and there are areas that I need to improve. I’m taking Jeff Goins’ Intentional Blog course and I’ve invested in software to help me gain skills to evaluate my own work.

 

It’s a continual learning approach, always tweaking, tinkering, and measuring. It’s about perfecting a craft and loving the process more than the results. I guess I am an engineer after all.

 

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” – Hope Jahren

 

 

Such is the tale of my first year after relaunching my blog. Do you resonate? What have been your experiences thus far? Let me know!