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Joe Hoover, S.J.April 18, 2023
An umbrella positioned below an array of images representing technical distractions iStock

I was swaddled in blue flannel, brown cutoff shorts and a bundle of ideals and exiled to an office one floor above a plagiaristic Boston pastry shop (“Dippin’ Donuts”). It was 1994, I was 22 and a community organizer who was meant to be out on the streets of Dorchester. But each morning I was stuck in the ACORN office for three hours, preparing for the day. A day which was quickly dwindling away.

What I did in that stretch of time before going out into the neighborhoods I don’t exactly recall: filing, sharpening pencils, loading ink cartridges into the copy machine? The strangest part is that this exile was of my own volition. I stayed in the office that long each morning because I wanted to. Prepping probably could have been done in 30 minutes, and then I could have grabbed a clipboard, hustled down the stairs and been out in the neighborhood. There I would knock on doors, survey concerns, join up members, corral people into a meeting. All in the service of helping the good citizens of Dorchester fight for safer streets, fair housing, good jobs. This was the heart and struggle and joy of the work.

Instead I lingered on the second floor above Dorchester Ave. each day. It was like I was avoiding that which deep down I really wanted to do. As soon as I left the office, roamed the twisty backstreets and entered people’s homes, I always remembered that. Remembered that engaging people and their causes was the exhilarating part of my job. In fact, it was my job.

The best “time maximizing” methods can lead us to a space where God can maximize our souls and inhabit everything we do.

Cut to 20 years later, 2016, and Cal Newport releases Deep Work, a book about negotiating your career in an age sodden with distractions, from endless appointments and meetings (and scheduling appointments and meetings) to temptations from the screens that surround us on every side. His book is sharply drawn, engaging and wise. Planted firmly in the age of instant messaging and social media, it could easily have gone in the direction of one of many social commentary books scolding us about our infotainment culture.

But Newport sticks with traditional, even mundane business-book type goals. He wants you to maximize your time. To hone your efficiency. To ante up your labor power. Cal Newport wants you to drop the toner ink and get out on the streets. I could have used Deep Work in 1994.

The book, whose full title is Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, is a classic of the human efficiency, time management, life-actualization industrial-complex. Other titles include Atomic Habits, by James Clear; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey; andGetting Things Done, by David Allen; as well as time-use strategies like “The Pomodoro Technique,” the “Bullet Journal” and numerous others.

All of these, in one way or another, are tools to get us to maximize, well, everything. In and of itself this can seem bloodless. The world of time-management uses inhuman jargon like “maximization” and “productivity” and “efficiency.” It encourages sometimes the taking of rather rote and mechanical actions around those concepts.

These methods are not dissimilar to the techniques Christians have always used, to be present to the life of God.

Nevertheless, and ironically enough, these seemingly distressing techno-behaviors are all in the service of getting down to non-distressing things like, basically, doing that which we really want to do. Researching your master’s thesis; re-organizing your office space; making a sculpture, putting together an elegant business presentation; planning a rally for housing reform. Even going sledding with your kids.

These tools are about putting in a lot of work upfront—time planning and goal strategizing and vision boarding—so you don’t have to do a lot as the day unfolds. Scheduling and knowing where your day is going (and where your life is going), so you can be present to the moments that are actually happening.

In fact, these methods are not dissimilar to the techniques Christians have always used, to be present to the life of God.

Newport, who is a computer science professor at Georgetown University, a regular contributor to The New Yorker and host of his own podcastdescribes deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”

His target audience is knowledge workers, but could include any number of crafts and trades. Doing deep work could be three unbroken hours of coding. Two and a half hours of walking and thinking through a difficult math problem without checking your phone. It could be four straight hours lost in the labor of carving and sanding a block of wood into a statue of St. Dominic. Five hours of taking apart, retooling and putting back together a car engine.

Cal Newport wants his readers “to cultivate an ability to produce real value in an increasingly distracted world.”

Working hard for long concentrated stretches of time, Newport says, you get projects done, expand your brand and become more marketable. Especially more marketable over those who are caught up in all the shallow work, which Newport defines as “logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted”: emails and DM’s; checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Buzzfeed. They provide instant rewards—I sent the text, replied to the Slack message, laughed at the meme—but incur long-term drawbacks. Increasing amounts of time spent on these patterns siphons away energy and concentration from the work that we actually crave doing.

Newport wants his readers “to cultivate an ability to produce real value in an increasingly distracted world; and to recognize a truth embraced by the most productive and important personalities of generations past: A deep life is a good life.”

Newport peppers his book with examples of highly successful figures who have been able to concentrate fully on the assignments in front of them: J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, Bill Gates, Montaigne, Carl Jung. He goes into detail about the life of young Teddy Roosevelt, who engaged in a variety of activities at Harvard College. They included “boxing, wrestling, body-building, dance lessons, poetry readings, and the continuation of a lifelong obsession with naturalism.” But Roosevelt still managed to make honors in most of his classes. Why? Because he scheduled his actual school work for fragments of time “by working only on school work during these periods, and doing so with a blistering intensity.”

In today’s world, a workday can be distracted in a thousand different ways. I love a good “Ten Lionel Messi Goals that Shocked the World” video as much as the next guy. But should I really spend 45 minutes in the middle of the afternoon watching one after another after another? “Deep work” and other methods steer us to make space for labor that can push us to our full potential, that can bring us deeper joy.

Seven Habits

There have been many cracks at the “effective use of time” quandary over the years. One of the classics is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

The practical heart of Covey’s book comes in observing that most of our activities fall into one of four “quadrants.” Quadrant 1 is for tasks that are “Urgent and Important.” 2: “Important but not Urgent.” 3: “Not important but urgent.” And 4: “Not important and not urgent.”

A first quadrant activity might be something like frantically finishing the chapter deadline for your novel due in two days. Scrambling to get to your kid’s grade-school play. Rushing off to pick up a vital prescription at the pharmacy. These are all important things, but far too often can be done in a spirit of cramming and improvising. Deadlines can be exhilarating and help us get important things done. I swear by them. But how they are engaged is critical. A life lived always at the last minute is not necessarily a good life.

In the end, the rules of St. Ignatius—and the rules of all efficiency systems—are simply a way to lead us toward freedom.

Quadrant 3 is filled with activities that we tend to spend more time on, and with greater urgency, than we really should. Dropping everything and trying to handle other people’s problems is a classic example. Quadrant 4,”not important and not urgent,” includes things like answering unimportant emails, the incessant checking of Facebook or TikTok—in other words, many of the things that we do to avoid the ultimately fulfilling Quadrant 2 activities.

This is because Quadrant 2 is the sweet spot. It is where we want to live as much as possible. These are the “important but not urgent” tasks, such as taking notes for your next musical composition. Creating a vision board. Finishing up the second draft of a chapter of a novel due in two weeks. Writing a letter to an old college friend. These are things that matter to us; they are part of our dream for our own lives. These are the activities that help us flourish, but we don’t feel the harsh rush of a deadline to get them done.

As with other methods, this system can feel technocratic and utilitarian. “Have a warm attentive conversation with my 6-year-old daughter tonight”: 2–IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT. But these awkward number systems, these “metric-based” allocations of time, free us up to actually live where life matters.

Atomic Habits

When Jerry Seinfeld was asked about his strategy for becoming a good comedian, he said you have to start by writing better jokes. And one way to get better jokes is to write a new joke every day. And for every day you write a joke, you put an X on a calendar. Eventually, you want to get an unbroken chain of X’s. Your job is to not break the chain.

James Clear tells this story in his book Atomic Habits, which is focused on creating small, molecular changes and habits in your life that can add up to wholesale transformations. Clear encourages you to, for instance, do something for five minutes, but do it every day. That’s all. Five minutes. You want to write your novel? Write for five minutes every morning. It is better than doing nothing at all.

Doing a small, repeatable action like writing for five minutes a day—creating an “atomic habit”—takes away the pressure to “be a writer.” Instead, you simply “do writer,” i.e, you write. (And eventually that five minutes of a day may build up to where you can actually start to do longer stretches of deep work.)

Among Clear’s many strategies for creating atomic habits are to “bundle actions.” If you have to do something you don’t like to do, such as folding laundry, do it while watching Netflix. If you already meditate each day but also want to write poetry, put a notebook next to your zen bench and flow from centering prayer into poetry.

You want to write your novel? Write for five minutes every morning. It is better than doing nothing at all.

In the same spirit of other efficiency and actualization books, Clear trafficks in the world of science and metrics. He has tables. He describes hairy concepts such as “Positive Compounding” and “Negative Compounding.” He discusses something called the “Plateau of Latent Potentiality.” Again, while these terms can be off-putting, they are simply a means to an end, a way to take us to places we didn’t think we could go before.

In fact, the terms used in these various books embody the same tone as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. Ignatius’ spiritual guidebook is freighted with its own dry, technical, workmanlike voice. But it does so to mystical ends. He came up with a rational blueprint for discerning the mysterious spirit of God.

Consider Ignatius’ example of a person considering how and when to distribute alms: “The First Rule: If I make the distribution to my relatives or friends or persons for whom I feel affection, there are four things which I ought to observe. First of all, that love which moves me and brings me to give the alms should descend from above, from the love God our Lord, in such a way that I perceive beforehand that the love, whether greater or less, which I have for the persons if for God, and that God may shine forth in the reason for which I have greater love for these persons.”

All the rules go on like this, plodding, teutonic, many commas. If you were to read them at a child’s birthday party, everyone would start to cry.

But their point is to help us so embody and inhabit these rules that we eventually take them up instinctually. We shed the hyper-rationality of such exercises and simply live them. As with “maximizing” our time for living our dreams and life-visions, following such a rule can help us galvanize our lives to the service of God. We follow a metric to get to the mysterious. Obey an instruction to enter a free relationship. Clear away the thistles and weeds of our own selfish motives to take on the love and generosity of God.

In the end, the rules of St. Ignatius—and the rules of all efficiency systems—are simply a way to lead us toward freedom. For a believer, planning tools and habit strategies are meant to help us become fully alive and in the present moment, where God lives. The best “time maximizing” methods ultimately lead us to a space where God can maximize our souls and inhabit everything we do.

A close friend and I talk about Deep Work all the time. It is for us like a secular piece of scripture that needs to be read over and over, to remind ourselves that there are techniques we can use to live our lives better. That we can stop trimming around the edges of who we want to be and simply go there. Deep work, and all these other methods, remind us that it is in our hands to make our lives better. God is not going to stop time for us. It is our job to use well the time he gives us: to center our lives deeply and profoundly on doing the things that, ultimately, glorify him.

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