In this week’s episode I’m sharing some thought-provoking ideas from books I’m reading that are inspiring and motivating me to think differently about life and productivity.
Pondering thought-provoking ideas from good books can help us make a life that matters
All my life I’ve been a bookworm and a productivity nerd, which means I’ve read a lot of books and articles about productivity. Many thinkers have, through their written materials, contributed to the formation of my philosophy of productivity as being more than simply maintaining a comprehensive to-do list and then checking off as many things as possible each day from that list.
This week I wanted to share with you some thought-provoking quotes and ideas I’ve been pondering from three books I’ve read lately. These are three books I highly recommend.
1. Stillness is the Key, by Ryan Holiday
The concept of stillness – what it is and why it matters
He describes it as something we all want: “To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude–exterior and interior–on command.”
He acknowledges the difficulty, noting that it has always been so:
“While the magnitude and urgency of our struggle is modern, it is rooted in a timeless problem. Indeed, history shows that the ability to cultivate quiet and quell the turmoil inside us, to slow the mind down, to understand our emotions, and to conquer our bodies has always been extremely difficult.”
He notes that all ancient philosophical schools of thought around the world have wrestled with this dilemma and reached similar conclusions regarding the need for: “The stillness required to become master of one’s own life. To survive and thrive in any and every environment, no matter how loud or busy.”
He says it’s something crucial for all of us:
“[T]his idea of stillness is not some soft New Age nonsense or the domain of monks and sages, but in fact desperately necessary to all of us. . . . It is an attainable path to enlightenment and excellence, greatness and happiness, performance as well as presence, for every kind of person. Stillness is what aims the archer’s arrow. It inspires new ideas. It sharpens perspective and illuminates connections. It slows the ball down so that we might hit it. It generates a vision, helps us resist the passions of the mob, makes space for gratitude and wonder. Stillness allows us to persevere. To succeed. It is the key that unlocks the insights of genius, and allows us regular folks to understand them.”
The reason so many of us struggle to find this kind of stillness and the peace and insights that come from it:
“We do not live in this moment. We, in fact, try desperately to get out of it–by thinking, doing, talking, worrying, remembering, hoping, whatever. We pay thousands of dollars to have a device in our pocket to ensure that we are never bored. We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.
Tolstoy observed that love can’t exist off in the future. Love is only real if it’s happening right now. If you think about it, that’s true for basically everything we think, feel, or do. Remember, there’s no greatness in the future. Or clarity. Or insight. Or happiness. Or peace. There is only this moment.”
He also talks about why this being present in the moment is so important:
“Who is so talented that they can affort to bring only a part of themselves to bear on a problem or an opportunity? Whose relationships are so strong that they can get away with not showing up? Who is so certain that they’ll get another moment that they can confidently skip over this one? The less energy we waste regretting the past or worrying about the future, the more energy we will have for what’s in front of us.?
The importance of routine — another concept from the book that I thought was well expressed and worth thinking about
“It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline. Because without it, chaos and complacency move in. Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom. It is also how we get in the right headspace to do our work.”
“Done enough times, done with sincerity and feeling, routine becomes ritual. The regularity of it–the daily cadence–creates deep and meaningful experience. . . . When the body is busy with the familiar, the mind can relax. The monotony becomes muscle memory.”
He talks about how routines and rituals have been used throughout history in religious and military contexts and even today by elite athletes, for example. But he notes,
“The purpose of ritual isn’t to win the gods over to our side…It’s to settle our bodies (and our minds) down when Fortune is our opponent on the other side of the net. Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out that fire? Needless to say, this is exhausting. It is a whirlwind of conflicting impulses, incentives, inclinations, and external interruptions. It is no path to stillness and hardly a way to get the best out of yourself. The psychologist William James spoke about making habits our ally instead of our enemy. That we can build around us a day and a life that is moral and ordered and still–and in so doing, create a kind of bulwark against the chaos of the world and free up the best of ourselves for the work we do. When we not only automate and routinize the trivial parts of life, but also make automatic good and virtuous decisions, we free up resources to do important and meaningful exploration. We buy room for peace and stillness, and thus make good work and good thoughts accessible and inevitable. To make that possible, you must go now and get your house in order. Get your day scheduled. Limit the interruptions. Limit the number of choices you need to make. If you can do this, passion and disturbance will give you less trouble. Because it will find itself boxed out.”
2. Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World, Brooke McAlary
The concept of slow living – what it is and why it matters
She says different people define it differently. She cites another author, Erin Loechner, who says, “slow living is a duality of caring more and caring less–that is, working out what’s worth caring more about and letting go of the things that aren’t.”
For herself, she says,
“Slow living is a curious mix of being prepared and being prepared to let go. Caring more and caring less. Saying yes and saying no. Being present and walking away. Doing the important things and forgetting those that aren’t. Grounded and free. Heavy and light. Organized and flexible. . . . It’s about living in accordance with the important things in life. And more specifically, living in accordance with the important things in your life.”
This goes to the issue of not basing your life on what other people do. We can get ideas and inspiration from others, but to make a life that matters to us, we each have to decide for ourselves what’s important and build our life around that.
She goes on to describe what slow living is about: “It’s about cultivating self-awareness, letting go of the excess stuff in our homes, learning how to live mindfully, getting in touch with our personal values, and choosing which advice applies to our circumstances, happily releasing the ideas that don’t fit our homes, families, jobs, or values.”
I love this!
She shared about a time when she was inspired to do a bit of self-evaluation. And she realized:
“Too much of my time and energy was spent bogged down in comparisons, frustrations, and stresses of no importance. Not enough of my time and energy was spent in play, presence, bravery, compassion, adventure, acceptance, or love. . . . It was clear to me that the important people, pursuits, and qualities were already present in my life, but they simply weren’t getting the attention they deserved. So then and there, I decided to start living life with those important things at the center. Making room every day for who and what matters most. Because, as that wise fellow Will Durant has already told us, we are what we repeatedly do.”
She offers a reminder that while it’s important to seek out inspiration and idea sources, that alone won’t get us the results we want. At some point we have to do the work:
“What reading a book or listening to a podcast didn’t do for me, however, was the work. It was very easy to convince myself that hours spent reading Zen Habits or immersed in whatever self-help book I’d bought as The Only Solution to My Problems I Will Ever Need was productive time. Don’t get me wrong–inspiration is a wonderful tool to light a fire under us. But if all we do is sit there and let it burn our pants, then it’s not all that helpful, is it? You’ve yet to make any changes, and now you need new pants.
She summarizes it with this encouragement to us all: “Do the work of uncovering your Why. Do the work of establishing your own personal philosophy and set of values. Do the work of naming the highest, most eulogy-worthy priorities of your life. Then do the work of putting them at the center of your life, every day.”
None of this is easy. But this is the secret–if there is one–of making a life that matters.
3. Hyperfocus: How to Manage Your Attention in a World of Distraction, Chris Bailey
The concept of hyperfocus – what it is
“The concept of hyperfocus can be summed up in a single tranquil sentence: keep one important, complex object of attention in your awareness as you work.”
How to enter hyperfocus mode
To hyperfocus, you must:
“Choose a productive or meaningful object of attention, eliminate as many external and internal distractions as you can, focus on that chosen object of attention; and continually draw your focus back to that one object of attention. Setting an intention for what we plan to focus on is the most important step. The more productive and meaningful the task, the more productive and meaningful your actions become.
He gives examples of the kinds of tasks, at work or at home, we can set our intention to focus on, and discusses why it’s important. In the home context, he notes:
“We experience the benefits of hyperfocus mode by setting such simple intentions as being present in a conversation with our partner or fully enjoying a meal with our family. We learn more, remember more, and process our actions more deeply–and our lives become more meaningful as a result. This first step to reaching hyperfocus mode is essential: intention absolutely has to precede attention.”
He then talks about dealing with distractions: “There’s a simple reason we fall victim to distraction: in the moment, distractions are more attractive objects of attention than what we really ought to be doing.” This is simple and obvious; yet important to consciously think about.
He reminds us that if we want to be able to focus deeply on the task (or person) at hand, we need to think ahead, identify potential internal and external distractions, and have a plan for dealing with them.
“Distractions are infinitely easier to deal with in advance–by the time they appear, it’s often already too late to defend our intention against them.”
His fourth element: continually “drawing our attention back to the original object of attention when our mind wanders.” He notes “research shows that our mind wanders for 47 percent of the day. In other words, if we’re awake for eighteen hours, we’re engaged in what we’re doing for just eight of them. It’s normal for our mind to wander, but the key is to center it so we can spend time and attention of what’s actually in front of us.”
From the research he did to write the book he tells us that studies show “it takes an average of twenty-two minutes to resume working on a task after we’re distracted or interrupted. We fare even worse when we interrupt or distract ourselves–in these cases, it takes twenty-nine minutes to return to working on the original task.”
Some final thoughts from him on the subject of intention and attention:
“Attention without intention is wasted energy. Intention should always precede attention–in fact, the two ideas pair perfectly. Intention setting allows us to decide how we should spend our time; focusing our attention on that task gets it done efficiently. The best way to become more productive is to choose what you want to accomplish before you begin working.”
“the Rule of 3: at the start of each day, chose the three things you want to have accomplished by day’s end. While a to-do list is useful to capture the minutiae of the day, these three intention slots should be reserved for your most important daily tasks. . . . By forcing yourself to pick just three main intentions at the start of each day, you accomplish several things. You choose what’s important but also what’s not important–the constraints of this rule push you to figure out what actually matters.”
A life that matters is made up of days, hours, minutes that matter. When we intentionally identify what matters for a given day, hour, moment, we are setting ourselves up to make a life that matters.
Maybe it’s because as I’m getting older I’m realizing that I have fewer years ahead of me than I have behind me, but time–big picture and small moments–is becoming more and more precious to me. More than ever I feel that to live a life that matters today, one that won’t leave me with regrets at the end, requires the sorts of things these writers have been talking about:
- Purposeful presence in each moment
- Cherishing people more than things, and clearing out everything (external and internal) that crowds out the people who matter most to me
- Living with intention
- Paying attention
- Establishing meaningful routines that will help me calm my mind and body amidst the chaos of daily life so I can bring my best to my work and my relationships.
I’m not good at these things. They don’t come naturally to me. But by reading books like these, thinking deeply about the ideas they share, I’m working on educating myself on the why and how of establishing habits and creating routines that help me improve a little bit each day.
What do you think?
What are you reading these days that’s inspiring you to think in new ways about productivity? Post your suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links
- Stillness Is the Key, by Ryan Holiday
- Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World, by Brooke McAlary
- Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey
- TPW383-Making the Most of Time Off
- TPW375-Favorite Productive Gifts for Yourself and Others
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