418 | Deep Work: Learning Focus in a World of Distraction (Janice Campbell)

418 | Deep Work: Learning Focus in a World of Distraction (Janice Campbell)

Show Notes:

Life can be so busy that it's hard to focus on the things that really matter. Although Cal Newport's book, Deep Work, isn't written specifically for homeschooling families, his ideas are surprisingly compatible with Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education, and can help you discover ways to create focused, peaceful, and productive habits in every area of life.

About Janice

Janice Campbell, a lifelong reader and writer, loves to introduce students to great books and beautiful writing. She holds an English degree from Mary Baldwin College, and is the graduated homeschool mom of four sons. You’ll find more about reading, writing, planning, and education from a Charlotte Mason/Classical perspective at her websites, EverydayEducation.com, Excellence-in-Literature.com, and DoingWhatMatters.com.


Deep Work by Cal Newport

Cal Newport's blog

Blog post with visual notes

A simple schedule from Benjamin Franklin (who didn’t have nearly as many distractions as most moderns, but shared some of Newport's ideas on time)


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Show Transcript:

Janice Campbell Hello and welcome to The Homeschool Solutions Show. My name is Janice Campbell and I'm one of the many hosts here on the podcast. Each week we bring you an encouraging conversation from this busy and blessed journey of educating our children at home. While the title of the show is Homeschool Solutions, we don't pretend to have all the answers to all the homeschooling questions. It is our hope that this podcast will point you to Jesus Christ that you may seek his counsel as you train your children in the way they should go. Parents, here's a riddle for you: Homeschoolers love them, enemies of freedom hate them. What are they? It's the Tuttle Twin books. With millions of copies sold, the Tuttle Twins series helps you teach your children about entrepreneurship, personal responsibility, the Golden Rule, and so much more. Get a discounted set of books with free workbooks today at TuttleTwins.com/homeschool. And now on today's show.

Hi. Thanks for joining me once again. In the last episode of this podcast, I talked about distractions and offered a few tips for avoiding them so that you could focus and do the things you really need and want to do. It's always been important to me to do the things that really matter, the things that last. That's why my blog is DoingWhatMatters.com, right? So I've always liked reading books about purpose, life balance, and time management. I've read so many books on those subjects that it's really rare that one stands out. However, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport definitely stood out. Newport moves past elementary time management and goal setting techniques. Instead, he focuses on creating and protecting the kind of concentrated time needed to create valuable, lasting work. Interestingly, his ideas on the use of time, the building of good habits or rituals, and learning in brief, deeply focused short lessons reminds me so much of concepts that were taught by Charlotte Mason, so that's one of the things that makes the thoughtful analysis and his recommendations in Deep Work so helpful for homeschool families, but also for entrepreneurs and families who just want to help their children develop good thinking and working habits. I find Deep Work surprisingly insightful every time I pick it up. When I first read the book in 2017, I didn't write a traditional book review. Instead, I shared a blog post with some of the takeaways that I captured in my visual notes (which obviously you can't see in this podcast) but I'm going to summarize some of those concepts for you with a little bit of embellishment; and if you'd like to see the notes after we're done here, I'll leave a link to the, blog post in the show notes.

So Newport's writing this book mostly for adults who are working in professional or creative fields, it seems, maybe the academic world as well, because he is a college professor. But as a homeschool mom who was also working from home and caregiving when I first read it... There's stages in life when we're juggling so much, it's really hard to concentrate on anything and feel like you're making progress. And one of the things that rereading this book reminded me of is that when you have a really important project like homeschooling, it's almost always necessary to say no to other good and important things, at least for a season, in order to not become too scattered and frazzled to help your children learn the things they need to know. There were so many years when I needed to say no to many volunteer projects or work projects that didn't feed into our primary goals of creating a warm and nurturing home and doing the best job we could with homeschooling. This book provided sound guidance for navigating those years, and I wish I'd have had it at the very, very beginning. It also provided the encouragement that when something is truly good, like volunteering at church, for example, there would come a season when it would be time to focus on that. And that is something that I've now experienced to be true, and I've had time to do the different things, and my focus, you know, has been able to shift. But the practices that he recommends have helped me to accomplish many things, like working with my excellence and literature curriculum; I was able to finish updates and all of those things using some of these principles that he mentioned.

So I find it packed with excellent advice. You should see my book: it's annotated with pencil, of course. I underline stuff, there's marginal notes, sticky notes, notes in the back cover... For this talk, for this podcast, I'm going to summarize his four roles, which are the core of the book. So I hope you enjoy the four rules. The first rule is, no surprise: work deeply. And what does he mean by working deeply? I think the first point he makes, he spends time on talking about how to create spaces and habits that make it easier for you to focus on whatever you're doing. And it reminds me, too, of Charlotte Mason's advice to create routines and habits that make it easy for children to do the right thing. This is how to make it easy for yourself to do the right thing, as well. So one example of creating spaces and habits might be setting up a study area that has a squishy sofa and a dining room table for learning that you do together, as well as quiet individual corners or spaces where concentrated individual work can happen. In our family, it was super helpful to have designated quiet time spaces that were out of view of the others. We had four boys and I found little spaces where they couldn't see one another like behind us so far in a hallway, whatever. Because being out of sight of one another meant being out of throwing range and giggle range and all of those things. It was helpful on days when distraction was a real struggle. Newport didn't point that out, but his principles cover that same idea from an adult perspective. So if you're working, you know, create the habits that work for you, that make it easier to do the work you need to do.

So back to working deeply: After discussing different philosophies of scheduling (process of creating rituals), he finishes this particular rule with an outline of his adaptation of a strategy known as the four disciplines of execution, which is designed for getting the right things done. And one of my take away notes on that was to remember not to be mediocre in 20 subjects, but to focus on the most important things. His four disciplines were first, focus on the wildly important; second, act on the most critical thing that will help you accomplish your goals; third, keep a visible scorecard or a habit tracker to record and track progress; and fourth, do a weekly review. And these are things I've talked about in homeschool talks at conferences many, many times. Choosing your vision, your mission and goals. You have to identify the things that are wildly important. Each year you pick out the things that you're most trying to accomplish, such as teaching your first grader to read or helping your high school student begin the process of college applications. Whatever your wildly important focus is, you have to identify it and then work on the most important things that will help you do that. And I loved the visible scorecard idea when I first encountered that because I hadn't yet seen the habit trackers that are now included in so many planners. And I sort of suspect that they may have come from Newport's work because his books — he has, I think, written like seven. They're very, very popular — and fourth, doing a weekly review, looking back at the week and saying, "This is what worked, this is how far we got, what do we need to do next week?" And then making your week plan before the weekend. It helps you start a new week freely, comfortably and not trying to invent something on Monday morning. Super helpful.

Newport's next piece of advice for deep work might sound counterintuitive, but I can testify that it's essential to really good work. He bluntly advises that there must be regular and substantial freedom from work thoughts built into your day for homeschool mom and kids. This aligns with Charlotte Mason's wise recommendations for short lessons, getting out in nature (she suggests spending 2.5 hours a day outside for children) and masterly in activity. She also advocates that adults go out too, because it is a healthy thing, and it's amazing how much time people used to spend taking walks, being outdoors, and I think it's a very healthy, soul nourishing thing. So Newport explains that downtime aids in insights and it recharges the energy that is needed for the important work we do. Having what it calls a shut down routine and making a firm break with work and school at the end of the day makes it possible to have an evening routine that is calm and restorative, which leads to better sleep and better functioning the next day. He reports that decades of psychological studies have shown that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your work, and I've experienced that this is true. For years and years, I've created an evening routine that has... I write briefly in a little daily journal, do a bit of crocheting sometimes, not always, but then read something soul nourishing and finish with a bit of fiction before bed. And that helps me go to bed without the endless hamster wheel of the work that I just turned off the computer and quit doing like five minutes before I went to bed; I learned that I can't sleep if I do that, so the evening routine has been a real godsend for me. So maybe think about what you might include in your ideal evening routine. I have a morning routine too, but we'll talk about that another time.

So Newport's first rule, with its habits and disciplines, paves the way for the second, which is embrace boredom. I loved encountering this rule because one of the things I rarely heard from my boys was, "I'm bored." That was probably because I was always able to immediately and cheerfully reply, "Oh good. I have a few chores that need to be done, and I was thinking maybe we could do a few math wrap ups. That is, unless you've thought of something you were planning to do outside." Unsurprisingly, they were usually out the door before I finished, which was the desired result. I wanted them to go out and have a happy, dirty, memorable play time running, climbing, digging, swinging, whatever, because the kind of bored they were was usually the kind rooted in either a desire to avoid the effort of thinking of something to do, or an endeavor to wangle some screentime. However, the kind of bored that Newport advocates is a completely different thing.

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He sets up this second rule, embrace boredom, by explaining the ability to concentrate "...must be developed through steady, focused practice." After describing how constant task switching, gazing at a screen in every spare moment and other distraction practices damage the ability to focus, he explains how to train yourself to concentrate. Using simple methods that are effective for both work and homeschooling. The research he cites on task switching offers a compelling reason to avoid multitasking, as it's been shown to have a lasting negative effect on your brain. I absolutely believe that. People who constantly multitask lose the ability to filter out what is irrelevant; they become chronically distracted with an inability to manage their working memory. And this has been a hazard I'm aware of as I've been working on a computer since I was in my teens, and that was a really long time ago. I really constantly battle spending too much time working at the screens, being distracted, allowing myself to respond to notifications, jumping over to check email every time I get stuck or whatever. I know that my years of working online have decreased my ability to focus deeply despite my best efforts. But having been kind of aware of the danger and observing that, and just working as hard as I can with all the methods and tools and timers and whatever that help focusing become possible, it's helped to minimize the damage. At least I hope it has.

So rule number three was quit social media. This is no surprise. But he doesn't just mindlessly suggest, you know, "get off social media," because that's the thing everybody suggests, but his purpose is to enable deep work, which is pretty much the opposite of whatever happens on social media. He makes it clear that a social media presence might be necessary for some types of businesses, but you have to think out the use of the outlet (each social media site, LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram and all those good things) and create a time budget for how long you plan to spend. He has four points that I found really helpful... that will help you guard your time purposefully for things that matter. So the first point within this rule three is to set goals for specific high level lifetime goals, like the things you want to be remembered for, the things that you want your children to remember about homeschooling, and think of the 2 or 3 key activities that move you closer to those goals. If you want your children to remember that they got a good education and had a peaceful, happy home life with a nurturing atmosphere, lots of fun, all of that stuff, what can you do to create that? And so that would be a goal. And then the second thing is law of the vital few. The 80/20 rule is a common way of looking at results. The rule specifies that 80% of your results usually come from 20% of your efforts, and so you redirect your time to the 20% of the things that really move you closer to accomplishing your goals. He suggests dropping out for 30 days and asking yourself, are these social media tools the right tool for the right job? And a couple other questions, which I'll get to in a bit, and then you add back only those that really add specific purpose and value that is measurable. It gives you freedom for good. And then he suggests, "Don't use the internet for entertainment. Plan ahead for the things that you actually want to spend your time on." Whether it's home projects or fun, creative artistic projects, if that's what you like, little trips, whatever, or quality reading and rewarding hobbies and then use that — your entertainment time, your fun time — for those things. Because if you've planned them ahead, you have what you need and you can just pick up and go, and you're not so tempted to turn to the screen and scroll.

So, in the interest of human flourishing, he just gives you solid advice on how to avoid using it for entertainment. And he considers both personal and professional ends. So if there's a group, a homeschooling group on the internet — Reshelving Alexandria or AmblesideOnline, something like that — that helps you learn things you need to know in order to be a better homeschooling person and meet your homeschooling goals, that can be a benefit. So for me, the question of whether a particular use of social media contributed positively to my deepest core values — which were growing in faith and knowledge and serving my family — those were the litmus tests for me. And I was doing most of my homeschooling, and a lot of my work, before social media was as huge as it is now. But even then, that concept helped me to be mindful of my use... Back then, I was also being careful of those mailing lists, you know, where you could reply and it would go to everybody, kind of things. So I've tried to limit my interactions to people I know or business interactions, but, you know, the occasional cat video too, because it happens because I really do enjoy those. So if you feel that social media is a special challenge, he suggests going cold turkey for 30 days. At the end of those days, he suggests asking, "Would the last 30 days have been noticeably better had I been able to use this service?" and number two, "Did anyone notice or care that I wasn't using the service?" Which is interesting. I've seen online people taking social media fasts from Facebook or wherever, and they come back and they realize no one noticed they were gone. Which I think would be the case with me because I don't post very much. I tend to, you know, just "like" or comment something that, you know, my niece's baby or somebody's anniversary or whatever, those are the things I respond to. But anyway, there's so much I marked in that chapter, but those points will take us to the last rule, which is rule four: drain the shallows.

So remember, we've been talking about deep work. Again, we're trying to purposefully guard time for things that matter. This rule focuses on how much time is wasted in any ordinary workday and possibly a homeschool day, though not always. And it describes how to gain more time for deep work while you maintain a happy personal life. And during the years that I was getting my business going from home and doing the bulk of my writing for the Excellence in Literature curriculum and other things, this was a super good reminder for me because it was really easy to let work overflow and displace evening time with my husband or displace time that I should be spending with the kids and I even lost time of doing things that I really, really enjoyed doing and that's just not ideal. So Newport makes it clear that it's not about doing less, it's about doing the right things and just setting aside, at least for a season, things that are not optimal for that time. And whenever I do this, it works. It's not easy to be a homeschool parent or a solo entrepreneur. There always is more to do than one person can manage, but with thoughtful time management and habit formation, it is possible to survive and even thrive. So Deep Work contains a lot of wise advice and I recommend it. Again, my book is just loaded with notes and sticky notes and all kinds of things. So there will be links in the show notes for Deep Work, as well as for Cal Newport's website where you'll find more on this subject and others. I found his ideas tremendously helpful and as I mentioned, surprisingly compatible with Charlotte Mason's philosophy of education. I hope you enjoyed this episode, and as always, I wish you joy in the journey.

Thank you for joining us this week on The Homeschool Solutions Show. You can find show notes and links to all the resources mentioned at Homeschooling.mom. Don't forget to check out my friends at Medi-Share because you deserve health care you can trust. To learn more about Medi-Share and why over 400,000 Christians have made the switch, go to GreatHomeschoolConventions.com/MediShare. If you haven't already, please subscribe to the podcast and while you're there, leave us a review. Tell us what you love about the show. This will help other homeschooling parents like you get connected to our community. And finally, tag us on Instagram @HomeschoolingDotMom to let us know what you thought of today's episode. Have you joined us at one of The Great Homeschool Conventions? The Great Homeschool Conventions are the homeschooling events of the year, offering outstanding speakers, hundreds of workshops covering today's top parenting and homeschooling topics, and the largest homeschool curriculum exhibit halls in the US. Find out more at GreatHomeschoolConventions.com. I hope to see you there. Finally you can connect with me, Janice Campbell, at EverydayEducation.com where you'll find my Excellence in Literature curriculum, transcripts made easy and more, as well as at my blog DoingWhatMatters.com and my literature resource site Excellence-In-Literature.com. I wish you peace and joy in your homeschooling.

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