Learning how to think (really)

There are many ways to define a great book, but this is one of my favorite: one mark of greatness is when I find myself thinking about the book, or its ideas, weeks, months, and even years later.

I read one of those books on summer vacation this year. It was Deep Work, by Cal Newport, and it’s a full-force call to arms to stop breaking our lives into tiny slivers of attention and learn how to go deep.

As you can image, there’s a lot of tough talk about social media and email, about focus and attention. Newport makes a strong case for rearranging your priorities to create time to focus, because that’s the only way you can accomplish anything significant.

I think he’s probably right. I still haven’t given up twitter.

But the thought I keep coming back to—the one that prompted me to instantly form a new habit—was a little aside he made on p 171, where he suggests taking occasional walking breaks for the sole purpose of thinking. If you’re working on a project, or thinking through an issue, and you reach the point where you’re not sure what to do next, lace up your shoes and take time to think.

It’s clear from Newport’s work that the man does little that’s not on purpose, and in contrast, I was struck by how rarely I set how for a walk, or maybe a drive, with the express purpose of thinking about a specific problem.

And so I started doing it. I haven’t acted on all Newport’s suggestions, but I’m doing this small thing. When I leave the house, for a walk or a drive, I’m pausing to decide what I’m going to think about. Maybe I’m going to think about the podcast or audiobook I’m listening to, and that’s fine, as long as I’m doing it on purpose. But sometimes I’ll be thinking through a problem or a plot twist (metaphorically speaking), a blog post or a book I’ve read, how to help my kids with homework or friendships or chores. Lately, I’ve been thinking through next year’s reading challenge—how it can help you most, what categories we’ll have, how we can encourage you in your reading journey.

Whatever I decide to think about, it’s the decide part that really matters. It’s a small thing, but it’s made a not-small difference in my days. I’m training myself to think, on purpose. It’s not easy, but it’s helping me enough to persevere.

Maybe one day I’ll make Newport proud and shut down my facebook account. But for now, I’m happy with my thoughtful walks.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on deep work and thinking on purpose in comments.

P.S. The #1 ritual to do every day7 books that changed the way I live, love, and parent, and another book that changed the way I see the world.

Thinking on Purpose


Leave A Comment
  1. Kerri says:

    I find that if I have been trying to solve something or figure out a next step, it’s actually helpful to go for a walk or do a physical activity with the sole purpose of not thinking about that problem/step. I have to let my mind wander around to loads of things, and I find that very often my “subconscious mind” (?) has organized itself in the meantime so that when I sit down with the problem again, the solution suddenly seems clear. But scrolling fb isn’t the same as that kind of purposeful allowance of mental wandering, that’s for sure.
    (Maybe this only works if you’ve been thinking about it very proactively for a while, though?)

  2. Tresta says:

    This is probably a book I need to read. I feel like I have a bulk of mental work to do each day and it takes me three times as long as necessary because I’m fragmented in my thoughts; but the one thing I repeat most often to my students is our need to think! Think about what we read, what we hear, what we see…a walk sounds nice.
    Incidentally, before I walk I spend several minutes deciding what podcast to listen to. I like your idea better!

  3. Jill K. says:

    I tried to read this book and couldn’t concentrate 🙁
    Maybe over Christmas break.
    I agree about walking though. I have solved so many of the world’s problems that way.

  4. Emerald says:

    I’ve recently started thinking in the shower rather than having fake interviews or arguments, lol. All the washing and rinsing is done without thought so I’ve been trying to put that time to good use. Lately I’ve been thinking about how to make memories with my kiddos as we come into the holiday season and close out another year. This book has been loitering in my queue for a while, I guess it’s time to actually read it.

    Also, I turned my fb off a couple months before the election (the strife was too awful) and after the first week or so I quit missing it. The bonus is that my close friends and family actually call or reach me on Google Hangouts when they want to know what I’ve been up to. I even got an old fashioned “hey what’s up” email the other day!

  5. Thank you so much for recommending this book to me! It’s really compelled me to separate the deep work from the shallow, to have a close-down ritual to shut off from my work at the end of the day, and to stay off email after dinner (trying).

    I finally got to meet my agent in person at a writing conference last month. Over dinner with other conference faculty, we were discussing recent reads. Tracey said she’s just started DEEP WORK, that so many of her authors had found it life changing. I have to agree!

    I just started something kind of along similar lines that I think you’d like called THE PRACTICING MIND. It’s about switching goals from the end result to finding joy /satisfaction in the process. Not a new concept but profound for me in this phase of life. If I am practicing my work I am reaching my goal. There are no wrong turns, only learning. Liberating!

  6. Steph J says:

    I do think that this important and that I need to be more deliberate about this.
    Here is an interesting anecdote that seems to apply here–I’m an academic. I remember talking to my doctoral dissertation advisor about not being sure about taking a full-time position because I didn’t think with my kids I could really be in the office 8-5 every day. She said, “Here’s the thing. You are going to be working while you’re in the shower and while you’re driving in the car. Your brain is not going to shut off while you’re thinking through whatever you’re doing at work. I’m not too worried if I don’t see someone 40+ hours a week if the work is there.”
    That conversation helped me to give myself credit for those times, especially because so much of time while in the office is fragmented by e-mails, various meetings, socializing with colleagues (important for serendipity, of course), etc. The deep work is often done elsewhere. My wish for all of us is that more bosses would give credit for it, too 🙂

    • Traci says:

      That is so true – I sometimes feel as if I’m “working” 24/7 because I’m constantly thinking about how to solve some work issue, answering student emails at night, grading assignments at night, etc. My college is not very progressive though, and we are required to be physically on campus for a minimum of 36 hours per week. In actuality I get a lot more done when I’m not in the office since much of it is spent on idle chit-chat (which I’m not fond of as an introvert – haha) and multiple other distractions.

  7. Cassie says:

    I have significantly reduced my social media presence and replaced it with audiobooks. But on my walks with the little, I aim for silence, reflection and presence! It’s not always easy but I’m finding such warm comfort and peace by eliminating a lot of the nonsense noise.

  8. Susan in TX says:

    You didn’t ask for input on the Reading Challenge, but the one category I’d drop would be “book you started, but didn’t finish” just because when I DNF a book, it’s usually a final decision because of content, etc. That said, for the first time that I EVER remember doing it, I put down a book earlier this year with the intent to come back to it when I had more focused time for it. The book? Yup, Deep Work! I got nearly halfway before I returned it to the library. What I read was resonating with me – I hate the way that social media has “fractured” our minds and lessened our attention spans, and I loved his emphasis on making time to focus. I think it would be a great thing to instill in our kids, who probably won’t be able to escape the social media as easily as those of us who didn’t grow up with it. And, it’s Biblical…”Be *still* and know that I am God…”
    So, yes, adding in more time for quiet reflexion, creativity, and problem solving is HIGH on my list of things to incorporate into 2017, and more importantly, during the holiday season when all the “noise” can be so great. (And, yes, I do hope to go back and finish Deep Work as well. 🙂 )

  9. Lauren says:

    Thom Hartman wrote a book that sort flew under the radar called “Walking Your Blues Away.” It’s premise is that the simple fact of walking and casting the eyes from side to side while doing so forces our brains to better integrate and process emotions. It seems to me that the two ideas could be linked; maybe we are more capable of deep thought while walking because of a physiological predisposition to it. Our ancestors lived outdoors the majority of the time, it makes sense to me that our brains are better adapted to perform well when removed from distractions and restored to a more natural state.

  10. I haven’t read this book, but I really like the principle you talked about here. I don’t generally get out for a walk or a run to think about a specific problem, but I do usually come up with my best blog post ideas while I’m running, which I do a few times a week.

  11. Maryalene says:

    I used to listen to podcasts while I walked and then decided I needed some quiet for my mind. I think I got the idea from the book Daily Rituals (hope that’s the right name). It struck me that all the creative geniuses either walked daily or drank daily. I don’t want to drink so I try to walk instead!

    However, I’ve never been deliberate about what I think about. Sometimes I stew over things that upset me, but since I’m a freelance writer, I find I most often start writing my next article in my mind. That seems to be a good use of my quiet time, but I’m interested in trying a more deliberate approach and see how that works going forward. Thanks for the suggestion!

  12. Lisa Presnell says:

    Newport’s article is spot on. As he said, any sixteen year old with a smartphone… It makes perfect sense, although in our culture it does seem like we are supposed to brand across the medias to make something known. I left Facebook and Twitter a few years ago and truly it’s been wonderful. I can’t say I did it for the reasons that Newport states, however I am so glad to have left. I do keep Instagram, but who knows maybe that should go too. Thank you for posting the link to his article, it has really made me think!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.