Monday, May 15, 2017

Here and There

A few months ago, I started Marshall Goldsmith's What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (2007). I finally had a chance to finish it this weekend.

Goldsmith makes a living as a "leadership coach," which means that Fortune 500 companies hire him to work with executives who are generally successful, but who either have the potential to become more so or who may have a behavioral habit that runs the risk of derailing their otherwise strong performance--in Goldsmith's words, "People who do one annoying thing repeatedly on the job--and don't realize that this small flaw may sabotage their otherwise golden career" (9).

His book is designed to explain his coaching process: "It's aimed at anyone who wants to get better--at work, at home, or any other venue" (14), and it operates on the assumption that "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great" (120).

Goldsmith argues that the "four key beliefs" that "help us become successful" (16) may make it difficult for us to ... well, level-up, so to speak. To get from "here" to "there" in our careers. According to Goldsmith, the beliefs that help us succeed and then, paradoxically, hold us back are: "I have succeeded," "I can succeed," "I will succeed," and "I choose to succeed."

If you're wondering how these beliefs could possibly impede our path to success, Goldsmith's claim is that these beliefs-- that "we have the skills, the confidence, the motivation, and the free choice to succeed"--cause us to become "superstitious" (25). More specifically, they lead us to confuse "correlation" with "causality."

According to Goldsmith, sometimes we're successful "because of" our behavior, and sometimes we're successful "in spite of" our behavior--and being able to distinguish between the two is what can move us from "here" to "there" (26). But if we always think we're successful "because of" our behavior, we'll never take stock of the ways in which we may be successful "in spite of" the things we do.

Goldsmith outlines 20 specific habits that influence our interpersonal behavior in ways that hinder our success. (No, I'm not going to list them all--you'll need to read the book.) He also includes a "twenty-first habit"--"goal obsession"--a trait that is generally an asset for anyone seeking success, but that becomes a liability when "we get so wrapped up in achieving our goal that we do it at the expense of a larger mission" (99).

In particular, we fail to understand "what we want in our lives" (99)--we think, "I'd be happy if only [fill in the blank with your goal]," without taking stock of the fact that we may be misunderstanding and misperceiving both our goal and its ultimate consequences.

The quintessential example, of course, is anyone who works hard to earn as much money as possible with the goal of providing a better life for their children, only to create a situation in which they no longer have any time to spend with said children.

Goldsmith offers a 7-step process for change that involves soliciting feedback, apologizing for past behavior, advertising one's desire to change, listening to others, thanking them, following up with them (to find out whether the changes we seek to implement in ourselves are really taking root), and "practicing feedforward" (asking people to suggest ways in which we might improve in the future).

As you can probably tell from this list of behaviors, implementing the change that will move you from "here" to "there" involves reining in a whole lot of ego and getting used to accepting criticism without comment.

In fact, one of the most interesting points that Goldsmith makes is that, when we receive negative criticism, we should simply say, "Thank you. I'll try to do better in the future." (Our tone should be neither snide nor snarky when we do so.)

We should resist the urge to become defensive because, as Goldsmith points out, no one can actually force us to heed their criticism and change our behavior in accordance with their particular desires or perspective. It's always ultimately our own decision whether to take the suggestion or not.

However, when we become defensive, we risk creating interpersonal friction, a phenomenon that will obviously make it more difficult for us to get from "here" to "there." (To repeat: "Interpersonal behavior is the difference-maker between being great and near-great.")

If you're reading all of this and thinking, "Yeah, well, anyone who tells me I need to behave in a way that I think is just plain stupid should be told to go stick it where the sun don't shine," or "It'll be a cold day in hell when I let some smug bastard I work with tell me how I need to improve--talk about a train wreck!"  then you can see very clearly why change is so difficult.

(And perhaps, having realized that, you may also begin to realize why you are "here" rather than "there." Just a thought.)

Goldsmith's suggestion for changing our behavior is that we "Pick one issue that matters and 'attack' it until it doesn't matter anymore. If you're a bad listener, choose to become a better listener--not the best listener in the world" (192).

His argument is, we need to accept that there is no ideal human behavior, be honest with ourselves about whether we have a trait (or two) that needs changing, stop hiding from the truth about ourselves, and focus on changing the "one issue that matters."

And then, get started. Obviously, Goldsmith offers a range of concrete suggestions for how we can do that.

More importantly, though, Goldsmith acknowledges that we all have our own personal idea of what "there" looks like and if we truly want to identify what that is, we should simply imagine that we're 95 years old and have the opportunity to give our younger selves the advice--both personal and professional--that we think they will need to be successful.

Goldsmith suggests that, if we take the time to briefly write down both personal and professional advice for our younger self from our older self, we will find that ultimately, we have defined what constitutes our "there" (221).

And then, we can begin to get "there."

Friday, May 12, 2017


We've been having a rainy and chilly(ish) start to May, weather-wise, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot (so to speak) and try to get the yard and gardens under control.

The yard went okay until I hit a thick patch of grass and the mower crapped out. Never to start again.

I ordered a new starter, on the off chance that the whole not-starting thing was because, well, you get my drift, but no it wasn't the starter. But still, in the very fiber of my being, I did not want to send my little mower to the landfill.

So I found a place that repairs all kinds of tools and machines. At first, they were skeptical: it's not a pricey mower, so there was a good chance that repairing it would cost as much as a new mower. Maybe it was the motor that had "blown." Maybe it would be un-fixable.

It was "up to me."

I insisted they give it a look-see. When we got it inside and I showed them what was wrong, the guy said, "You know what? I take it all back. That just sounds like the starter isn't engaging--it may just need a new switch. This may actually be fixable after all."

They're going to call and let me know. Meanwhile, the grass is growing. Luckily I got the front yard mowed before disaster struck, so I'm at least presenting a semi-neat appearance to the world at large.

In terms of the garden, I've been able to leave the low tunnels up for a bit longer, since it's going down into the 40's at night. When I opened them up for the first time since January, imagine my surprise at finding a whole lotta leeks growing, as well as some carrots, brussels sprouts, beets and broccoli.

Not a LOT of these, you understand--just about one of each. Except for the leeks. Lots and lots of leeks coming my way this year, it would seem.

I also have garlic that survived the winter--or, more to the point, it survived the squirrels that like to dig everything I plant and fling it hither and thither.

I put in a bunch of strawberry plants in the new raised beds I installed last year. If I could create a situation in which I have strawberries in my own backyard every spring, I'd be a (relatively) happy woman.

As far as the rest of the garden goes, the plan this year is to attempt "square foot gardening."  I've put in a bunch of seeds (and some potatoes), but because it's been so chilly (and because it's only been 6 days), it's hard to see much progress just yet.

This is what the world inside the low tunnels currently looks like -->

(You can see all the leeks on the left. Unlike the current resident of the White House, I don't mind mine.)

The winter all but killed my huge rosemary bush, so I'm starting over on that front. The problem I always run into is, it inevitably gets so big it's nearly impossible to move indoors, and when I do, I don't have an convenient, sunny location to put it in.

So I try tucking it alongside the house. Some years, that goes okay. This year it did not.

Ditto for my lavender plant which was HUGE when I first moved into my house, so I finally gave it a home in the garden. The last couple of years have decimated it. If we get a winter where it rains, then turns to sleet over the course of a day, it wreaks havoc on lavender--that's been my experience.

To remedy this situation--and because I'm a little bit sentimental about my lavender plant, since it accompanied on many journeys through rental properties over the years--I've re-potted it.

I've decided that in its place I'm going to plant horehound. I need an herb that makes life easy for me, and this is an old-fashioned one that might actually give the pokeweed that likes to take over that particular corner a serious run for its money.

I need to get cracking on starting some tomatoes--I usually get them started in March, but this year, it was snowing and I just couldn't fathom a world in which I would come inside from shoveling snow and bust out the potting soil and containers and get to work.

So I may be a bit behind in that respect this year, except that in previous years, I start them super-early and then don't necessarily have all that much to show for it by May anyway, because it isn't really warm enough to put them outside and inside... let's just say, they reach a point at which they need to be outside.

And no, I don't use grow-lights. People think I'm insane, growing things from seed with no help from indoor lighting, but I kind of like just doing what I can with what I have on hand, and seeing what happens.

Yes, it means my garden looks a bit spare at times, but given that I can grow things from seed, without lights, I see no reason to stop doing that.

On a final note, I'm happy to report that the decorative pear tree I planted last spring is alive and well, and the lilac bush I put in alongside it looks... cute--all loaded with huge purple blossoms and all.

In short, I think it's safe to say that spring has sprung here on the "homestead."

The next big project has nothing to do with the garden: when I get a minute, I'm going to update the look of the blog. After nearly 7 years, it's time...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Still Crafty

As you can see, I haven't given up on the glorious Persian Blanket.

At this point, giving up really isn't an option, I don't think. Even though I have miles to go before I sleep (with it).

This is Square #6. There are 24.

So you might say that I'm a quarter of the way through, except that isn't really true.

Because in addition to the squares, there's a whole lotta edging that has to happen. Shortly after I stitch all 24 squares together.

So I guess we could probably say I'm about an 1/8th of the way through. But who's keeping track?

I do enjoy working on it, so that's good. And I started it with no illusions that it would proceed quickly. Because I knew it wouldn't.

Meanwhile, though, the writing is going quite well. I finished Joli Jensen's Write No Matter What and thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped me reconnect with some writing strategies I used back in grad. school and it offered additional insights that I've combined with Cal Newport's insights in Deep Work--and the result has been quite good.

In particular, it's helped me feel less "stuck" on a couple of projects that, for whatever reason, seem to be taking far, far longer than I ever planned. And at least some of that is because Jensen's advice helped me to rethink and reframe the way in which I was spending my writing time.

Instead of beating myself up for not spending ALL of my time writing, I've figured out how to better use my energy because, as Jensen points out, "we should treat our energy as a reliable renewable resource. We can learn how to use writing to energize us for other aspects of our life" (32).

This used to be my attitude towards writing years ago, but for whatever reason, I fell off of that particular wagon, probably when the stress level in my life ratcheted up because of illnesses in my family and stress at work.

So my commitment has been to return to this mindset--to not continue to immerse myself in a situation in which, in Jensen's words, "urgency--as indicated by my anxiety levels--determined my priorities" (35).

Perhaps more importantly, Jensen has reminded me that "Productive writing involves an ability to focus on our project rather than ourselves" (53).

I had drifted away from this mindset, in large part because I had a few projects in recent years that have taken just shy of FOREVER to shape up in a way that I'm happy with.

And without realizing it, I had been getting pretty down on myself about that, instead of thinking about what it was about the nature of the project that was causing me to lose focus and addressing that (much more manageable) problem.

As Jensen points out, "If we focus on just doing the project, and on mastering the skills we need to do it well, the more write-sized the project becomes" (54).

So this has been my focus over the past week or so: to implement the skills I have, nurture the ones that need a bit of help, and keep working in short, cheerful bursts on the project that's on the "front burner" of my writing activities right now, while also fueling the ideas that are on the "back burner," awaiting my attention in a few weeks.

Perhaps the most helpful advice in Write No Matter What has been this: "stay committed to short daily writing bouts that have a distinct beginning and end" (126).

Because when writing sessions are infused with that level of clarity and sense of purpose, the work not only goes more smoothly, but also shapes up more rapidly.

And that is a wonderful feeling.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Craft

I did not expect to awaken last Saturday morning with a cold.

So that threw things off a bit, because the new priorities became blowing my nose, drinking chicken broth, and sleeping (in that order).

But I’ve remained committed to becoming a more… committed… writer and a regular practitioner of “deep work”--activities that require focused attention in order to achieve significant intellectual insights.

So I’ve been reading a few books about the practice of writing, and specifically ones that examine how academics can be more productive and prolific.

For me, the benefit of these books is twofold: on the one hand, they can either remind me or make me aware of writing strategies that work, and on the other, they give me a chance to think about the practice of writing as exactly that—a practice and a set of skills that must be implemented (and honed) on a daily basis.

If we don’t write on a daily basis, our “writing muscles” slowly weaken and wither and atrophy, making it that much harder to be a “strong” writer—that is, someone who possesses the intellectual and psychological “fitness” to go the distance on a significant or substantial writing project.

I’m adopting the exercise analogy quite deliberately because, as is the case with physical fitness, studies show that writing for a mere 15 minutes a day can make a huge difference in one’s overall writing health and stamina.

No joke: that’s all you need to do. Write for 15 minutes a day, and over time, you will find the practice of writing easier and, if you’re an academic whose career advancement hinges on churning out books and articles, you’ll succeed in being a more committed and productive writer of academic prose.

Sounds easy, right? Would that it were.

For some people, it certainly seems easy, and in academia, this can make the writing difficulties faced by all of the rest of us that much more difficult to confront, endure, and/or overcome.

This is an issue that is directly confronted in Joli Jensen’s new book, Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (2017).

Jensen prefaces her advice with a simple insight offered by recent research on writing productivity: “In order to be productive we need frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

I’ll pause for a minute here while all the academics out there reading this post laugh—whether maniacally, hysterically, bitterly, or amusedly—at this description of what it takes to get things done when it comes to scholarly writing.

Because this statement essentially describes the exact opposite of the academic’s day-to-day experience with scholarly writing.

We regularly experience high-stress encounters with writing projects that we all-too-often come to wish we had Never. Ever. Gotten. Involved. With. 

We have all-too-many writing projects that we are now committed to ignoring and avoiding with every last bit of strength that we have, lest we put on an additional 30 lbs from emotional eating or simply collapse to the floor in a fetal position, never to return to upright.

Jensen argues that it IS in fact possible for academics to live the dream—to write productively and experience “frequent, low-stress contact with a writing project we enjoy.”

She offers several tips for achieving this, many of which echo insights offered by others: establish a comfortable space that is just for writing, pay attention to your schedule and set aside time—remember, it only has to be 15 minutes!—to write, and be aware of the extent to which your energy and enthusiasm for a project will ebb and flow based on your current mindset and the inevitable problems that you confront as you work through your ideas.

Of all of Jensen’s insights, however, I find myself most inspired by this one: “Craftsmanship is the concept that can stabilize us when we feel buffeted by academic anxieties” (10).

I suspect my immediate inclination for this point of view stems from my own experience as a knitter, gardener, cook, DIY-er, and general Jill-of-All-Trades.

As Jensen points out, it’s a mindset not typically fostered--or even respected--in academia, where the emphasis is on “looking and sounding smart,” and as a result, “we may see our writing as a test of our ability to impress, rather than express” (10).

By contrast, approaching one’s scholarly writing with the mindset of a craftsman means “an honest commitment to learning how to do better and better work” because, as Jensen argues, “[t]he ethic of craftsmanship involves a willingness to focus, directly and methodically, on what we don’t yet know so that we can learn how to work with ever-increasing skill” (10).

“What we don’t yet know.” This is a hard pill for many academics to swallow—the idea that there’s stuff out that they don’t yet know and that those things might actually be just as important or interesting as the stuff they actually DO know.

As Jensen points out, much of academia revolves around, well, posturing. Professors are supposed to know it all (or they think they’re supposed to know it all) but because no one can ever possibly know everything there is to know, they end up either pretending that they do or insisting that what they don’t know isn’t really worth knowing.

For my part, I try to use the phrase, “I don’t know,” or “I’m sorry but I don’t know enough about that to answer that question,” at least once a semester in every class that I teach. While this sounds counter-intuitive and counterproductive (I’m relatively sure that academics out there are gasping in horror), it has taught me two things.

1) Students don’t expect their professors to know everything. (This realization was accompanied by significant corollary: “students generally think professors who act like know-it-alls are annoying assholes”).

2) Saying “I don’t know” in an intellectual context opens the door to finding out all kinds of things. Because if you admit that you don’t know, you can ask students about what THEY know—and sometimes often, they know things that I don’t know, and this gives me a chance to find out about that.

If you’re still appalled at the idea that I, a tenured, full professor, has no qualm about standing in front of a room and saying, “I don’t know” and can’t ever imagine doing such a thing yourself, think of it this way: I'm not up there saying, “DUH… I dunno… umm… wow.”

I'm saying, “I don’t know about that yet—what can you tell me about it? I know about X, but I'd never heard about Y—that’s really interesting!”

This is modeling the process of intellectual engagement and exchange, which is, at the end of the day, just as much a part of my job (in my opinion) as the act of transmitting concrete information.

As Jensen points out, when it comes to academic writing, “thinking of ourselves as craftspersons will help free us from becoming poseurs and thereby help us to do better intellectual work” (12).

“Better intellectual work”—and hence better writing and increased intellectual productivity—is precisely what will make us more successful at our chosen professions. As Jensen argues, “A craftsman attitude puts the focus on performing the work, rather than performing a self” (14).

It can be hard to let go of the academic mindset that insists on the need to constantly perform a (smart, intellectual) self.

But I think of it this way: if I (somehow) pretend to be a better knitter than I actually am—and as you read this sentence you will quickly realize how absolutely absurd and impossible it would be to even attempt such a thing—I will never become a better knitter.

Instead, I will eventually avoid knitting altogether because I will know one thing for absolute certain: that doing it makes me feel like a total fraud.

Every encounter will become an anxiety-riddled, high-stakes confrontation with an uncomfortable truth that I’m desperate to hide from the world at large.

The same holds true for the craft of writing. To write well, we need to make our peace with the fact that we always have the potential to write badly, and accept that writing badly really is better than not writing at all, if your standard of measurement is academic success and achievement.

The work that we undertake when we write may not shape up in the way that we initially envisioned it. It may be far better, but it may be slightly worse (an unfortunate truth). We may even have to ask for help along the way, if it starts becoming clear that we’ve botched it a bit. And the final product may not represent an intellectual crystallization of all that we had hoped for when we first began.

But it will be done.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Gone, But Not Forgotten

No, I have not forgotten that I have a blog. Really, I haven’t.

I honestly don’t know where the last month went. I remember being on break. That, I remember.

Everything since then, however, has been a bit of a blur.

There’s been a lot of writing. Not on the blog (obviously), but in articles and course proposals.

There’s been a fair amount of reading. I’ve created a new course on the representation of gender and disability in literature, so I’ve been doing a lot of research related to that. I’ve also been doing a bit of reading involving postcolonial literature—specifically, works by writers from India and Africa.

I haven’t stuck to the “deep work” rituals quite as diligently as I would have liked, but I will say, I have stuck to them, and I think that’s enabled me to stay on task with the projects that are important to me, and to remain mindful of the drawbacks of “shallow work.”

That said, I also have to acknowledge that sometimes, “shallow work” is necessary. There are always meetings to attend and conversations that need to be had if academic projects are going to move forward. While I often wish that they didn’t take up as much time as they did, there is a way in which these kinds of meetings and conversations make me feel productive and useful. So to that extent, I think they differ from the straight-up shallow work of things like pointless email exchanges that are obviously going nowhere.

And I’m proud of myself because, in contrast to years past, I’ve really (really!) scaled back on those. Email and social media are wonderful things—at times. But they are also enormous drains on time and energy and attention and, in the wrong hands, they become serious (and occasionally stressful) distractions.

So instead of resorting to technology, I’ve focused on hooking. Crocheting, that is. (Whatever did you think I meant?) I’ve been able to make several blankets for one of my favorite charities, Project Linus, and I had the really gratifying experience of seeing one of them in the hands of a deserving child. It made my day, my week, and my month.

Maybe even my year.

It was actually a really fun pattern: a Rainbow Ripple Baby Blanket by Celeste Young. It forms a 12-pointed star and really looks quite cheerful and wonderful. It’s crocheted from the center outward, so it shapes up really quickly at first, and then slows down significantly, as the rounds get bigger and bigger. But the nice thing is, you can see it take shape, and that’s often a key factor in staying motivated. Especially when it looks like so:

See what I’m saying? I’m currently working on yet another one, that has less of “rainbow” feel to it (it’s blue, green, yellow, purple). It’s really just quite wonderful to make.

I also took a little break and made a little getaway for the weekend of Easter, which meant that I had a busy week last week.

But then again, I’m not going anywhere this weekend, and I’m still looking at a busy week next week so… this too was worth it. Because it resulted in food, fun, friends, and… this.

Long story short, it’s been a good month. And I’m hoping that, from now on, I’ll have a bit more time to drop by the blog and make a note of it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017


That is what has happened to this break.  It has simply flown.

There's been a whole lot of writing and a decent amount of grading.  There's been a bit less reading that I had hoped, but that's because I was busy with the writing and the grading.

And yes, there has been knitting. Of course there has been knitting.

The break was a good opportunity to pick back up on the Persian blanket.  This is hexagon #5. I'm about midway through hexagon #6.

There are 24 hexagons in the pattern.  Plus a whole lot of stitching and edging. So I can't really say that I'm a quarter of the way through it, but I can say that it's... moving along.

And of course I began at least one other project and worked at a couple of others.

Disaster also struck in the form of HOLES in not one, but TWO of my pairs of socks. I couldn't believe it. Luckily for me, they were in the cuff and the upper leg, not the foot or--heaven forbid--the heel.

Because you may not realize this but darning a sock is not easy, and it is somewhat difficult to get the thing mended without leaving a bump that would be quite uncomfortable if it's anywhere on the part of the foot that's going into a shoe and getting walked on.  But for me, such was not the case, so...

You can probably see the mended spot in the sock on the left. That's because it that case, although I searched high and low, I simply did not have any leftover yarn from that skein that I could use for the mending.

For the pair on the right, I had far better luck: I had spare yarn to use, so I could match it and fix it so it's far less noticeable.

All in all, this felt like a triumph, needless to say. Very few things are worse than spending a lot of time knitting something, seeing a hole develop, and realizing that it might very well unravel right before your eyes.

There was also a bit of cooking. In particular, I got a hankering for something I haven't had for years and years (and years--we're talking, like, when I was a child): Boston Brown Bread.

If you've never had it, you don't know what your missing.  It's a whole grain bread (cornmeal, whole wheat and rye flours) with molasses, raisins, egg  baking soda, and buttermilk. You pour the batter into a (greased! in the name of all that's holy, it must be greased!!) can, cover it with foil, put it in a water bath and steam it for an hour.

You'd hardly believe it's bread, if you saw it in its preparation stage.This is what it looks like when it first comes out of the oven. Kinda funky, I know.

But this is what it looks like when it's been removed from the can, sliced and decorated with a little butter.

It's really quite tasty.

And my childhood craving was quickly satisfied, needless to say.

Since yesterday was St. Patrick's Day--also, shout out to St. Gertrude, Patron Saint of Cats, since it was also her day as well--I decided to make a nice little dinner.

I didn't make green food. I don't do that.

Instead, I made a traditional Irish beef stew with stout, which turned out really well, thanks to a couple of hours of slow cooking.  It really makes quite a difference. I also made Colcannon, which is basically mashed potatoes with leeks and cabbage. I liked it.

I was stymied for a dessert, though. Most of the desserts I found involved chocolate and Baileys, which is fine, but I didn't need to be eating a platter of brownies all by myself.

Then my friend, who joined me in the feast, happened to mention St. Joseph's Day and zeppoles. So I got googling and found a recipe for zeppoles san giuseppe, and...

They're actually not terribly difficult to make. For me, personally, using the pastry bag was the challenge. There's a little knack to that thing, and I don't make pastry enough to practice. (The zeppoles went far better than the time I tried to pipe icing. We won't talk about that.)

My friend was... astounded! So all in all, the break has been a success, and at this point, my only wish is that it could be a bit longer.

But with breaks, all things must end and we're at the end of this one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Into the Deep

Recently, a colleague mentioned Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016), so I decided to read it and give its suggestions a try.

Briefly, Newport argues—and studies have shown—that people in general and writers and intellectuals in particular are increasingly trying to function in a state of more or less constant distraction. As Newport points out, “A 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone” (6).

What’s gone missing from our work experience is what Newport labels “Deep Work,” defined as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit” (3). Instead, we’re increasingly devoting the bulk of our work day to “Shallow Work,” defined as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted” (6).

We’re tackling the emails in our inbox after surfing the web for a recipe for twice-baked potatoes after checking Facebook, where our newsfeed provided us with an endless scroll of infotainment. We’re now aware that it’s Natalie Portman’s birthday, that no animals were harmed during the filming of the upcoming sequel to “Godzilla,” that there is a way to prevent toenail fungus from decreasing your quality of life, and that if you aren’t outraged by your politicians, you aren’t fully alive.

This is what is now passing for “knowledge.” Oh, and by the way, it’s now 4 p.m. and you’ve officially wasted 2 full hours that you can never get back, but on the upside, you’ve responded to no fewer than 15 emails asking you more or less pointless questions and/or reminding you of upcoming meetings that may or may not be devoted to “revisiting” and/or “addressing” some of these pointless questions, which have been generously reframed as “issues for discussion.”

The problem with spending so much time on this kind of distracted mental busy-work is that, over time, it’s a tendency that will actually—and significantly—reduce your ability to activate the level of attention and concentration necessary to engage in the kind of deep work that leads to intellectual growth (and professional development or career advancement).

Newport’s initial remedy is to simply recognize that the mental concentration necessary for deep work is a skill that must be practiced and honed, on a more or less daily basis. And to do this, we need to make a conscious effort to relegate shallow (but unavoidable) activities to the periphery of our lives.

Or, better yet, to eliminate them entirely.

Deep Work offers a series of helpful suggestions for how to spend less time in “the Shallows” (i.e., doing “shallow work” like responding to emails and writing up documents and reports for upcoming meetings). Newport recognizes that, in the “knowledge industry,” “[i]f you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems … within seconds … all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner” (64).

More importantly, Newport suggests that “[i]f you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well” (64).

But really, you’re not. And in my experience, an even larger problem is the extent to which this kind of behavior can become the norm. Eventually, if you aren’t doing busy-work, you will be perceived by your colleagues as not really “doing your job.”

Those who constantly wade in the shallows instinctively realize that misery loves company. Busyness breeds more busyness (and less business), and those who seek to pursue deep work are perceived as “selfish” or “isolationist” or characterized as “not pulling their weight.”

On this particular point, Newport quotes the late Richard Feynman who, early on in his career, realized that if he wanted to pursue ground-breaking work in physics, he would have to distance himself from the busywork of academia by cultivating a “myth of irresponsibility.”

When asked to serve on committees, Feynman simply said “no” and embraced the notion that this marked him as “irresponsible.” Because ironically, over time, the “irresponsible” are weighted down with far fewer shallow-work-related responsibilities and commitments.

If you want to replace busyness with actual productivity but have become mired in shallow work, Newport has a few suggestions for ways to help return you to the mindset of deep work. In order to “move beyond good intentions” you need to “add routines and rituals” to your work day—and work life—in order to help “transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration” (100).

As we all know, this is easier said than done. The lure of social media is strong, and the cumulative weight of the distractions that it offers are great.

To cultivate a life that devotes maximum time (and effort) to the kind of deep work that will produce satisfying intellectual achievements (and hence career advancement), Newport offers several behavioral options, all the while noting that it is important to “choose a philosophy that fits your specific circumstances, as a mismatch … can derail your deep work habit before it has a chance to solidify” (102).

On the one hand, you can withdraw completely from the distractions of shallow work, adopting what Newport calls the “bimodal philosophy” in which you give yourself “at least one full day” for a bout of deep work (108). Sometimes this approach is accompanied by an “internet sabbath” (a day of the week devoted to remaining disconnected from Facebooking and all things Googley) or, more radically, an “internet sabbatical”—that is, an extended period of time in which you unplug from social media completely.

Again, Newport cites a prominent writer who cheerfully notes how happy his life has been since 1990, when he deleted his email account, never to open another. While this sounds rather wonderful, I'm quite certain I'd lose my job if I did that. I’m not only contractually required to have an email account, I’m required by college policy to check it regularly. If I don’t, and a student ends up having a serious academic issue because of my carefree technological disconnection, I’m the one who will be held accountable.

More to the point, though, I’m not sure I could survive such complete disconnection these days. And the sad thing is, I know full well that I used to. I went to college and graduate school back in the days when there was no Internet or social media to offer constant distractions, at a time when email was just beginning to become “a thing.” (I actually didn’t have an email account until I started my first job in 1995.)

At the same time, however, I’m aware that my own intellectual biorhythms typically prevent me from working for long stretches at a time on a mental task. I can, if I put my mind to it, achieve several hours—usually about 4—of mental focus and “flow,” but beyond that, my mental wheels begin to spin and I'm really not accomplishing much for my efforts.

So for me, what Newport refers to as “the rhythmic philosophy” of deep work is the way to go. Under the rhythmic philosophy, you simply try to discover a rhythm for incorporating deep work into your daily life and then consciously set aside time to practice the skill often enough to make it a habit.

To do this, you have to create a routine and a ritual. Newport recommends strictly scheduling your time over the course of the day, from one hour to the next, making specific times for deep work and not allowing the distractions or "commitments" of shallow work to creep into those times.

I’ll admit, when I first read this, I was resistant: I like my freedom.

But I also had to recognize that my freedom was leaving me largely distracted and not nearly as productive as I’d like to be. I’d find myself having a good work day, followed by a string of “distracted days." And when I tried to fire up the energy to have another productive day, it would feel like it took forever to get going.

As it turns out, it felt that way because switching in and out of states of attention and distraction creates “attention residue”—you’ve moved from one task to another, but a portion of your attention is still a bit “stuck” on the first thing you were working on.  This “attention residue” gums up the works, making it that much harder to achieve a state of focused concentration.

So if you switch back and forth over the course of a day between attention and distraction, multitasking your way through your intellectual life, you will end up with very “sticky” mental processes and an exhausted mental musculature. It will require that much more work to achieve a state of concentration necessary to engage in deep work.

Constant distraction will leave you mired in the mental muck of the Shallows.

Overall, what I like about Newport’s approach is that it is realistic and flexible. He offers general “rules” for pursuing deep work and then suggests various ways in which those rules can be implemented, always noting that the key is to find the system that works best for you.

As I said, I was initially skeptical about having to map my day out so stringently. I tend to keep a “to-do list,” but Newport insists that we need to be even more precise than that. We need to identify what we plan to do from hour to hour (acknowledging that, on some days, the best laid plans, etc. etc.) and then we need to 1) stick to it—the only exception being, if you find yourself in a productive state of deep work, it’s okay to stay in that state and bump the next item on the agenda—and 2) keep a record of the fact that we’re sticking to it, so that we can track our progress.

In my own case, when I actually sat down and made a plan for the next day—all the while thinking, “Okay, this probably isn’t going to work at all and I’m probably going to hate this like poison”—I found that, lo and behold, when I finished, I felt far more optimistic about my ability to be productive the next day.

And when I awoke with that sad-sighing-and-heel-dragging feeling of, “Oh, do I have to??” I had a schedule that I had arranged in manageable pieces, so I found myself thinking, “Okay, well, this isn’t so bad, just get started on this task…” and I was able to get to work more quickly.

And when I did, two hours flew by, and I got a lot of writing done. And when it was done, not only did I not feel exhausted, I actually felt a bit… invigorated. It felt possible to do even a bit more writing, and if I opted not to, it was only because I cheerfully decided that my time would be better spent reading instead—the task that I had outlined for myself the day before.

At this point, it’s too soon to say whether I’ll be able to implement all—or any—of Newport’s suggestions and rules over the long haul, but I’ve decided I’m going to give them a wholehearted try and see what happens. This upcoming week is my last week of classes before break—the following week is Spring break.

So this will be a good time to test these strategies out, first under work-week conditions and then in a “vacation” setting. Honestly, I’m kind of excited and interested to see how much I can actually accomplish—and needless to say, this is a far better state of mind that the constant feeling of, “Well, gosh, I really didn’t get much done today, now did I?”

I think this feeling testifies to the fact that, as Newport points out, deep work is a state of mind that taps into what is most satisfying about human activity. As Newport suggests, “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance” (79).

So here’s to more productive days rich with meaning and intellectual significance.