Over the Christmas break week, I read two books by Cal Newport that are having a significant impact on the way I move into this new year. The two books are So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
Of the two books, I was originally most drawn to reading Deep Work because I loved the concept the title suggests. But I decided to start with So Good They Can't Ignore You instead (even though I'm much less of a fan of its title) because Cal wrote that one first.
I'm so glad I did.
So Good They Can't Ignore You got me thinking about my company, Bookwifery, in terms of skill. It's easy to look at Bookwifery as simply an outgrowth of who I am. I have a facility with words. I am someone who has an ability to see people and ideas and who asks questions and listens and discerns. These things have always been true of me.
They're also refined skills I've honed over many years.
When I began my first job as a staff editor back in the year 2000, I didn't know much about what I was doing. I had taken literature courses and written many papers in college. I had studied grammar. I had interned for a magazine and a newspaper. I had taken creative writing courses. I had always written.
But I'd never edited professionally. I'd never read The Chicago Manual of Style. I'd never studied the AP Stylebook. I'd never been asked to copyedit a direct-mail piece or significantly edit a book.
I learned all these things as I went. And I studied my craft — hard.
Today, going into my seventeenth year of being an editor, I can't tell you how many books I've edited in my career by now. The number is well over a hundred. I've worked for nonprofits and for-profits. I've edited for print and web. I've worked for additional magazines and have written copy, too. I've learned where I excel in this work and where I don't. I've learned what I love about this work and what I don't.
All of that has been learned by doing the trade, by applying myself to it, by learning from it.
I have the same kind of learning-as-I-go story about my work in spiritual direction and spiritual formation. Yes, I brought some experience and knowledge to these fields, too, based on my spiritual life and the books I'd read on my own, but those — just like all the word-related experiences I had before I was first hired as an editor — were a kind of starter's education. Once I enrolled in a master's program and a school for spiritual direction, then I set about learning and practicing in more formal and focused ways. I formally studied both those fields for three years each. I became an intern. I was supervised. Then I began to write on the topic and teach on the topic and meet with directees on a long-term basis.
And now, with the fusing together of the editorial and the spiritual that has become what Bookwifery is today, I can see it is the fruit of so much skill diligently applied over many years.
Cal Newport, in the subtitle to his book So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, in other words, was right. Skills really do trump passion. (He also says those skills are what create a passion for one's work, and I've found him to be right about that, too.)
Then there's my story of reading Deep Work.
In this second book, Cal talks about what makes for successful work in this time in which we live — a digitally connected time, a deeply distracted time, a highly fragmented time. If we're to make significant strides and impact with our work, he says, we have to push past all of that. We have to clear the decks of our lives. We have to go all in. We have to dive deep.
Deep work happens in sustained, distraction-free periods that encourage exploration, thought, creativity, and risk in our chosen fields. While most people who begin deep work don't last much longer than an hour per session at first, he says, practiced individuals eventually can sustain up to four-hour sessions at a time. It takes time and patience to get there, but its benefits are manifold.
One thing that helps, Cal says, is to get clear on your highest priorities, both personally and professionally, and to begin to rearrange your life to support them. He outlines an exercise where you name your top priority, or goal, in the personal and professional areas of your life and then name one or two key activities that can best support that goal.
For example, I named this as my personal priority this year:
Cultivate depth and alignment with God, self, and Kirk in our life together.
For key activities to support this goal, I named:
- Schedule meaningful times of connection in my regular routine
- Less screen time
Because I know myself well enough to know that I thrive on structure and flounder when I don't have a plan, I then created a daily schedule for myself (a sample of which is pictured above) that helps support this personal priority and its key activities. I also included room in the schedule for the top professional goal and its corresponding key activities that I named.
This daily schedule includes time for depth and alignment with God, self, and Kirk on a regular basis. It tells me when it's time to go deep into work and when it's time to come back to the surface. It tells me when it's time to connect and when it's time to do things like check and respond to email. (That last one alone — scheduling specific times to check and respond to email — has been so freeing and unexpectedly helpful! Now my time spent in my inbox is purely productive, as I'm seeking to read and respond to emails immediately within the period of time I've allowed.)
I'm feeling grateful and grounded by what these two books have given to the start of this new year for me. They helped me name the gift Bookwifery has become, and they helped me notice and claim how best to tend to it in this season of its life. They moved me toward creating a structure for my most important relationships and for the greater self-care and soul tending I need in this season of sabbatical I've begun.
I find it important to say that I haven't followed my new "deep-work schedule" faithfully so far this year, but I'm giving myself room to grow into it. Right now, I'm abiding the schedule about 25–30 percent of the time.
Even so, the time I have been giving to it is markedly different. I can feel life and enthusiasm and energy emerging again. I have more oxygen in my lungs and my soul. I'm grateful. And I'm looking forward to what lies ahead in this new year with its deep-work focus for me.