This is the start of my apology tour. Like how successful artists go from continent to continent to spread their music and influence, I’m slowly picking up on unfinished business and reaching out to the people whom I have long ignored due to a long bout of depression… and actively seeking to reclaim the golden days of productivity – or maybe even making it platinum. 🙂
My starting point – and one of my favorite books – Deep Work by Cal Newport.
I came from a place of discouragement, feeling bad time and time again about lacking follow-through in the things that I started, or not being able to keep a habit streak for long. I was well aware that my focus muscle had atrophied for several months. Acting like a firefighter putting out the urgent to-dos of every day living, not making much progress on the things I really wanted to do (or needed but aren’t due in the near future).
Deep Work’s main idea, that the ability to focus is becoming increasingly rare yet increasingly valuable in our economy, is something that appealed to my previously distracted, discouraged self.
With examples from his own life and many others who pushed themselves beyond their limits, I have thought a lot about how to break my own. He cited over many stories that the more focus and depth is pursued, the better the object of attention, the faster we get to our goals and even exceed them. My favorite quote was from Winifred Gallagher, who eloquently pointed out,
Skillful management of attention is the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience. Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.
So I needed to pinpoint, what are the things that matter most to me? What do I want to do before I die? I did an exercise to determine what the order of priority among all the things competing for my attention should be. Knowing what to focus on, and committing to it, is the first half.
The other half was to pinpoint the negative habits, or those that didn’t yield much fruit. Taking my rediscovered goals as a compass, I knew which of the little harmless things I did are misaligned from where I wanted to go. I don’t want to be very strict with myself (I do allow myself to do enjoyable/mindless stuff in my rest time), but another way to increase the depth of living is to cut out as much shallow as possible from our life. So I made the decision to let go of some things that take attention from me unnecessarily.
In the process of re-reading Deep Work, I’ve made several changes to the way I lived my every day.
For the first time (in forever~), I was able to establish a solid routine that allows my day to be fully consumed (7 AM to 1AM the next day) for things that actually matter to me. I was able to keep many healthy habits going at once (thanks to tools like Habitbull, Calm, Anki, and Plant Nanny!). More astoundingly, I was able to bounce back from a broken streak many times, in spite of accumulating friction, and I am kinder to myself for it.
Being kind to myself is more important to my success than I previously thought. Daily meditation helped a lot with centering myself. No matter how slow I am with progress, knowing that I am moving in the right direction assures me that when it comes to my goals, it’s not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN. (so be more confident!)
I’m now able to constantly push myself harder at work and make sure I meet a reasonable progress before my self-imposed closing time. Before, I used to intentionally tip the scales to whatever is urgent, over and over, and afterwards rebuild myself from the ruins (or catch up from a sleep debt of 13 hours a week) – a process that is shaky and takes a long time to stabilize. And after a long time of not making any progress on the habits I want to build, there is naturally going to be more friction against taking action. To prevent that, no matter how non-urgent a habit is, even if there are tight deadlines around, I prefer to keep the momentum going.
The most important realization I had while reading the book is that the key to my life balance is the strength of my boundaries. I don’t have to feel bad putting some stuff on hold until the time I’ve assigned to deal with them. No matter how tight a work deadline is, I refuse to open the laptop until I have to (sorry boss, the email can wait til the start/end of my shift), and there is a sense of relief and happiness in that. It allows me to have fully rejuvenating mornings and weekends, even if I had many tasks to do or all I did was stay at home. I want to protect this way of life as long as I can, as much as I can.
It’s also cool that through this book, I got a better idea of the life of professors (Cal Newport and Adam Grant being prolific ones), and content producers, and how much effort and focus the big undertakings like peer-reviewed papers or writing a book requires. That gives me inspiration to pursue not just my career/academic goals, but my accumulating bucketlist as well (like a child, there are a lot of things I want to create!)
Will I be able to produce a great thesis (and many more)? Can I really survive a PhD program? Can I be promoted and transfer to Japan? Can I still be ASA/FSA? There is a lot of self-doubt and uncertainty surrounding how to get there. But now, I am armed with the confidence that I can go a lot farther than I even thought possible, now that I’ve proven that all it takes is focus, consistency, and strong boundaries. I’ll figure out the steps along the way, taking each day as it comes, hoping for the best future.
Here’s to the great restructuring – Keeping life in balance, forever.
I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is. – Winifred Gallagher