My name is Devi, and 2019 is My Year of Deep Work.

I’m typing this on a laptop with a piece of chocolate in my mouth, in bed and my iPhone within reach. Surely I’m not the only one here who feels chronically distracted? I started reading Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work a few weeks ago, and it is slowly shifting my thinking, and I hope, my way of living. This is a long blog post, chatty in parts, ranty in others, and I end it with a 21 Day Deep Work Challenge starting March 11 for all of us. I hope you’ll get to the end because that is the good part.

Newport defines deep work as:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.

Cal Newport, Deep Work, page 3

But there was one thing that nagged me as I read inspiring example after inspiring example of people who worked deeply.

Newport’s examples of people who “do” Deep Work are almost all men. (I give you my scientific post it note annotation method – the red ones are anecdotes about women, the white ones are male examples. It’s worth mentioning that two out of the five anecdotes featuring women are negative.)

The book opens with famed psychiatrist Carl Jung going off to his retreat place for weekends of uninterrupted work. There’s an MIT genius who stares at a whiteboard covered with math problems for hours just to think about the problems (YES! Hours! Math problems!). And Cal Newport himself, who is tenured at Georgetown University, has published multiple books but finishes work at 5:30pm, plays with his kids and even gets to read real books in the evening. But I have questions, namely:

GUYS, WHO DOES YOUR DAMN LAUNDRY?!?!

My guesses — a wife, a mom or a housekeeper (and if it’s a girlfriend, girl, time to find a new boyfriend). Newport’s book is excellent, but it is saturated with the privilege of wealth, education and gender, a kind of “I just do what I want to do when I want to do it” attitude.

I don’t know many women – or men– who live in this universe. Most women I know, regardless of their status are expected to do multiple things at once. At work they juggle calendars, reports and emails. At home they juggle teething babies, diaper changes and school drop offs.

Newport doesn’t say it is easy to focus on deep work. He makes the case time and time again that it is a cultural majority that are distracted, male and female, wealthy and not wealthy, educated and not educated. But he never gives space for the non-digital reasons why people may be distracted. He is glaringly ignorant of groceries and laundry and pets and income and KIDS who GET SICK and HAVE BEDTIMES.

I had to flag this while reading because right now for me I have only one stretch of time where uninterrupted work is possible, 9am-2pm. And that’s without ever doing groceries, laundry, and cooking. In the first six years with kids, I didn’t have a stretch of more than an hour or two. If you’re a woman with children to care for, however equal your arrangement is with your partner, productivity has always looked different for us.

I read Cal Newport’s book with two thoughts in my mind. Where are the women? And how different would my work be if I worked in the way these men in his book worked? How different would my life be?

I’m a writer, I want to create longer form pieces of work, and I want to publish those essays and books. I know that many of you long to have stretches of time for your work – research and writing, painting, building a business, preparing material for the subjects you teach, design projects, and so many other fields of work. Because here is the important part:

I’m convinced now that deep work is the secret to lasting, meaningful work.

Newport talks about Deep Work as it relates to the professional world and as it relates to pushing yourself mentally in what and how you think about it. To bring your brain to the point of mental strain and push past it. I realize that for many of us, this world of mental work is simply not our world, and that is fine. But I wondered what would happen if we set aside the time daily to build a Deep Work Habit regardless. This time would be as distraction free as possible, and we work on the one thing.

I wonder what your ability to focus is like. Maybe you work full time, one tab of your browser is a report you need to write, and on another is your email. Your report takes you five hours to work on, interrupted many times during a morning by emails. Maybe you’re in management, and you have to figure out ways to get your work done in between meetings and phone calls. Maybe you’re a writer who needs longer chunks of time to write complicated articles but have to maintain a presence on social media as well.

Or you’re a woman with small kids, at home or not, and you just want a sliver of time to breathe without a snotty nose to wipe. You just want a second to think about what you might want to do that doesn’t involve meeting someone else’s needs.

I have a hypothesis – women are expected to multitask at work and are rewarded for doing so. But maybe we are the ones who aren’t benefiting from what we’ve developed as a “skill.” Whether or you’re a finance manager replying emails while working on a presentation or a stay-at-home-mother trying to finish family laundry, maybe all of us would benefit from learning to deepen our ability to focus on something.

So here’s the 21-Day Deep Work Challenge. I wanted to do it for myself, and then I thought – maybe you want to join, too?

Pick your deep work, mine is writing fiction

21 Days starting March 11

Set aside 30 minutes minimum to do the thing, push yourself to 60 minutes if you can

No phone. No people. (Mums, we are going to talk about what to do with the kids, I promise.) If you’re working on a computer, close everything but the thing you are working on. GOODBYE FACEBOOK AND EMAIL.

Set a timer.

Do your work.

Use the time for whatever deep work you need to do – only you will know what this will be for you. Daily report writing, reading, writing, painting, sewing, gardening, analyzing statistics, reading your Bible, wrestling with theology. What doesn’t matter, but the depth and single-mindedness of your attention does matter.

I’ll be writing the following posts here in the coming days and weeks:

Mums of small kids, undistracted work is for you, too

Deep Work Tips & Tricks

Routines to help create a deep work habit (Girl, I washed my face)

Social Media in a Deep World Universe

Make Your Own Village

A new way of seeing shallow work

Why Deep Work isn’t everything

I’ll also be posting on Instagram and Facebook daily during the 21 days – feel free to join in there or ignore all together if it doesn’t help you work deeply.  It’s not my desire to make this some big social media thing because our goal here is focus, and social media can be a distraction.

But sometimes it feels good to be part of a community, cheering each other on, and if you would like to do that, please use the hashtag #mydeepwork.

Now tell me: What do you think? Are you joining the Deep Work Challenge? I so hope you will – let me know in the comments or via email what you’ll be doing.  

beach day in Australia

Happy New Year, friends.  I hope 2019 started well for you wherever you are. I can hear the whirring of our ceiling fan as I write this. We are in the middle of what promises to be a warm Melbourne summer. It feels good.

I love thinking about the past year before I start thinking about the new one. For me there is a necessary amount of reflection needed to move forward. It’s like I can’t begin until I’ve looked back. The Internet has a gazillion tools related to thinking about the past year and planning for the next one. But for me I love answering this question: What did I learn? Here are eight important lessons from 2018.

Small changes are everything

Ruth Chou Simmons of Gracelaced sums it up for me in an Instagram post, “We make progress when we make minor adjustments, repeatedly. Not seeing impressive fruit or immediate change isn’t failure; it’s formation.” I am clinging to this walking into 2019. Small shifts in the right direction. Fun fact: Since October I’ve been going live on Instagram Monday to Friday midday to chat about this topic, and you can follow along here.

There is a long chain of people and events that help guide our direction

The short story is that 2018 was the year I started thinking about teaching writing workshops. I explored possibilities (teaching women in prison how to write their story), and no one called me back. I tried other avenues and had a meeting or two that seemed promising, but then again, no one called me back. Then in a most unexpected way, a door opened in a place I did not seek out to teach a writing workshop. The first one is February 7. This is after 10 months of thinking (well, maybe a lifetime of thinking), some exploration, a few closed doors and a random email. But it began when I read the newsletter of a poet who wrote about teaching poetry in a women’s prison. It grew during another friend’s month-long stay with us and our many conversations about injustice. Dear friends and my husband validated the idea and encouraged me to keep going. Like all good things in my life, there was a chain of people who encouraged and loved and worked to bring this thing (slowly) to life.

Follow your instincts

One of the enduring lessons of adulthood is learning which instincts to follow and which ones to ignore, but learning to listen to the instincts that I know, that I know, that I know I need to follow have led to immeasurable joy. In the middle of the year, I had this feeling that I had to learn how to garden, and I had to ride a bike. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know that I could (I still don’t know if I can grow anything), but I knew I needed to try. I have. Both activities have been two of the best parts of the end of 2018. I look forward to much more of both in 2019.

I need my friends

Friendship in my 30s has been one of the sweetest gifts of my life. Yes, it unfolds at a different pace now, we all have less time for each other, but the slow work of building trust yields rewards. We all need those women who are going to stand with us, speak truth into our lives, ask us good questions, yank out weeds from our garden and laugh and laugh and laugh (and maybe watch the Royal Wedding together as well).

Go back to the doctor

I’ve always been a person who went to the doctor because of a problem and never went back. The first appointment is a general inquiry, there were usually tests done, but now I know it’s in the follow up appointments where two things happen: the doctor has to work harder to understand you, and you have to keep telling the truth about how you really are, about the treatment and whether or not it is working. This goes for mystery physical things and for emotional and psychological matters. Before this year I never went back. I thought I was too complicated. I thought things would get better on its own. In 2018 I saw my GP six times, and it led to a new kind of health and freedom in my life. I sprained my ankle and had to see a physiotherapist at least five times. It meant sitting with a medical professional who often took my health more seriously than I took it, and something about that forced me to take myself more seriously as well.

There’s no experience like losing someone you love

Two women I loved dearly died in 2018. Their lives are irreplaceable, and there is a grief in losing them that will never go away. It was a reminder that we are made by love, the love of God, the love of others. I feel so grateful to have known them and been loved by them.

Write it down

It doesn’t matter if it is an idea that came to me while I was driving or a longing I could voice to no one. If I wrote it down, I felt better. If I wrote it down, I was less resentful of people or circumstances. Somehow letting the ideas out, letting the words out helped me to live and helped me to realize I have more to do. If you want to know more about my journal and writing tools, I did a series of videos about that here.

Endings are hard, some endings are necessary

We are conditioned as a people to think that endings are all bad, which is why we delay our endings. We stay longer than we need to in organizations and relationships that cause death to our souls. This year we decided to end our commitment to something. It was a hard decision, one we put off for a long, long time, but I have a feeling it will lead to a beautiful beginning.

Well friends, that’s it for me today. I have a feeling I could write a blog post about each of these eight lessons. Would you like me to do that? Could you let me know in a comment or email? As always, please join the conversation over on Instagram. I’m on there almost daily.

Now tell me: What did you learn in 2018? 

sunrise melbourne australia setting goals

February is almost finished, and I’m still thinking about goals.  Here are a few things I’ve learned after eight weeks of 2018.

The domino effect: intentionality in one area leads to change in other areas.

Some of the small steps I take in other goals have led to other changes in my life, changes I wasn’t even thinking about. Here was my one, real parenting goal for the year: Smile at my kids. It’s simple and actionable, and only I am responsible for it. But making myself smile more at my kids helped me spend more real, playing time with them. It meant we got outside more. I felt more naturally inclined toward encouraging them. I helped my attitude. I think I feel happier and more content. One tiny goal is doing so much more in my life and relationships than I could have imagined.

The easiest goals to accomplish are the ones most clearly broken down.

My big project in January was finishing the kids’ playroom. I wrote down a detailed task list, and systematically assigned those tasks to weeks and days and powered through them. It was concrete. It was clear. It was relatively easy to accomplish. Some goals (see the next point) are less concrete, which makes it harder to work through in the same way. I still think the key is turning those bigger goals into tiny, bite-sized pieces, actionable in a day.

Resistance is real.

It’s what comes after you’ve chipped away at parts of your goal, but you still aren’t “there” yet. I’ve felt resistance most acutely with some of the bigger picture goals for 2018. I broke them down into smaller chunks, I attacked the chunks, and then I heard the questions. Who do you think you are? Why do you think this is going to work? Why should anyone listen to you about this? Dealing with these resistance voices has been the hardest part of working toward my goals this year. For any of your goals that require months or years of work, learn to expect resistance. And develop your plan for how to deal with it. I’m still struggling with this one, but my simplest plan is this: Keep doing the work.

The 80-20 principle.

I’m not trying to “not do this” or “do this” every day, for the whole year. I’m aiming for 80% of the time, and the grace to not do anything all the time has made it easier for me to push for the things I want.

I can only do one thing at a time.

January was my playroom month. As much as I tried to work toward writing goals, most of my capacity went to the playroom. I still did a few writing things on the side, but I can see now that I am just a one-thing person. Not everyone is like this, but for me to get through my days in a good way, I need to remember this and not make myself focus on more than one thing. You get to decide what works for you in what way it works for you.

Now it’s your turn: How are your goals working in 2018? Are you finding it easy to follow through? What’s working for you? 

Last year I misplaced a book in our house, at least that’s what I hoped. It is a copy of Thumbprint in the Clay by Luci Shaw, one that she signed and gave to me when I was at a writing retreat in 2016. It was my companion during Lent last year. I read through it slowly, savouring the words and ideas. I read it at home, I kept it in my bag, I read it in the car at school, and somewhere between getting in and out of cars and bags and bookshelves, I lost it.

This was June last year. I searched. I looked on our bookshelf, in drawers, in our bedroom and in the car. I couldn’t find it. I started praying about it and told God repeatedly how much this book meant to me, how devastating it was to not find it. I asked God to lead me to the book. Please, I begged.

Six months went by, and nothing happened. Every time I thought about it, I could feel a swell of anxiety and sadness welling up inside of me. I felt so silly for not taking better care of it. During one of the last few evenings of 2017, I went to bed with the book on my mind, asking God again for a miracle. Please, help me find this book.

/

I woke up on January 1 with a long list of things to do because for the first time in years I made many, clear goals for 2018. The list is a combination of matters I want to work toward, habits I want to change, writing goals and home developments. But I will tell you that there is a fear in me when I look at this beautiful spread of plans. Dreaming is not difficult for me, but almost every year in the past few years, we had something big come along toward the beginning of the year that hijacked my intentions. Some years it was the fragility of my own mind, other years it had to do with our source of income, sometimes it was particularly difficult seasons of parenting. In March 2017, we dealt with the possibility of a family health issue that jeopardized my husband’s Australian visa application.

I had to look at the possibility of moving back to Europe, and it terrified me. When I think about 2017, my memories are lost to fear. It undid, upended, shook. Yes, there was a recovery, a solid, strong recovery, but a wound that doesn’t bleed still needs time to heal.

When I started dreaming about 2018 a few weeks ago, I will tell you that for every delicious endorphin the dreams elicited, there was another question: But what horrible thing is going to happen?

Will it be a car accident? Maybe it will be an illness for the kids? What if school is a disaster for my oldest? Is it going to be the house?

One of the gifts of these trying seasons is the way they make you stronger. One of its curses is the way it keeps you walking, furtively glancing behind.

But I made my plans, and they are that. Human plans. I made them in big picture and small with tiny pieces listed for January. Last Monday was the beginning. I was itching to start, and it felt good. I pulled Christmas chaos off our surfaces and into boxes, picked up the floors in our living room and moved things back into order.

Our bookshelves are too full, there are rows behind rows, books stacked on top of books and in front of books, but several stray books needed a spot on the shelves. When I straightened some spines that fell over to make room for a giant volume of Tolstoy, I noticed a few books tucked behind the row.

I moved the others aside, and there was my copy of Thumbprint in the Clay, its green cover catching light; God, winking at me. It was January 1, 2018.

I pulled it out, held it to my chest and cried. I couldn’t have asked for a better blessing for the start of a new year. It doesn’t take the fear away, but it anchors me in something bigger. God listens. He answers.

Ask for more.

There is no thing too small. There is no fear too trivial. There is no want too great. There is no miracle too big.

Before everything else in 2018, in all things that will come at us in 2018, when we face the world and all its pain, when we face our lives and the things we fear, in all these things, at all times: Ask for more. Ask Him for more.

Most of you may be thinking (or trying not to think) about a certain international event of importance. Me? I can’t help myself, I’m still looking back. History has always fascinated me, it was my favourite subject in school, I majored in it at university, and it continues to be something that keeps me grounded both in my daily life and also in the way I perceive the future.

2016. What was it like for you? As the world seemed to descend into chaos around me, our little world in Melbourne, Australia pieced itself together. I dropped one child off at kindergarten, played with the other one, cooked, started the slow work of getting to know people, reconnected with some of my dearest friends and family, traveled to Alaska, became my niece’s “Wevi.” A million ordinary moments and a few extraordinary ones, the making of a life in one place.

So here’s what I learned this year in no particular order.

Rest is the start
I began the year by reading “Soulkeeping” by John Ortberg, and this quotation from the book served as a foundation for the year, undoubtedly for the rest of my life:

“The soul was not made for an easy life; the soul was made for an easy yoke.”

I think that year after year, maintaining a sabbath practice, both daily and weekly, is key to the rest of my life, the root system out of which everything else grows. 

Grocery shopping stresses me out
I go to the grocery store usually two times a week, sometimes more, but this year was the first time when I realized: This is causing unnatural stress. My kids are wonderful shoppers, which is why I didn’t allow myself to see it (I kept telling myself how blessed I am to shop with kids). We experimented with online shopping and Husband taking care of the groceries, and it has made a difference.

Hold the gifts inside
There are two beautiful things that happened to me this year, and my instinct was to share it. Write about it on the blog, tell someone about it, put a photo on Instagram, but something about the the glory of these two gifts stopped me. Sometimes there is space to share about the beautiful things but not the way in which it most deeply touched my soul. I learned to enjoy the gift on the inside, to turn it over in my hand and watch the way it changed in the light, to enjoy watching its different facets and what the process of time did to it, and to let the gifts become part of a system of internal resources, something to rely on during the harder weeks and seasons of life. 

My children know when my love for them comes with requirements
I used to write a lot about parenting here, and I haven’t in a long time. There’s a reason for that. The past two years have just about done my head in as a mother, not just because of my children, but because of myself. Perhaps the most humbling thing about parenting is the way it will pull out every evil thing in your heart on display for the most easily influenced, innocent members of your family. Someone asked us in August if we weren’t perhaps expecting too much of our children, it was a turning point for us in so many ways. You cannot give your children something you cannot give yourself, and it has been six months of relearning or maybe learning for the first time, the nature of grace and love.

Trust takes time
I’ve spent a lifetime rushing into deep relationships, and this was the year when I learned to slow it all down, to pay attention to my soul and to my circumstances, to honour the needs of my husband and kids and the way it impacts my ability to relate to others and connect with others. There are longer, deeper thoughts here, but for now here it is: It takes time to build relationships that are based on trust and connection, and that time has to be taken to sustain healthy, truly deep relationships that are characterized by freedom and love. 2016 was the year I decided that I will take the slow path to healthy relationships; it has been a painful but very worthwhile lession.

A hopeful vision for the future
I read The Atlantic Monthly’s essay about Donald Trump in the middle of the year, and it was the source of one of my major “aha’ moments this year. The article helped me to see the powerful way with which fear can drive me, and in contrast I saw the way God leads, through hope. In the middle of my fears (and I have many of them), I sensed God saying to me, I have a hopeful vision for your life. It has served as an anchor and a reminder when I am afraid that God has a different narrative for my life.

Our brains can change
I went to Dr. Caroline Leaf’s seminar in Melbourne about renewing the mind, based on her book “Switch On Your Brain,” and even though there are things I disagreed with, this basic truth was profound to me: God made our brains in a way that they can change. The connections in our brains can be rewired, and our thoughts directly impact the way our brain is formed. Something about this seemed like the truth that I know is found in God – he makes all things new, his mercies are new every morning, there are second chances for us when we fail again and again. Change is possible. He has literally wired it into our brains.

There is time
Alaska. I spent a week there on a writing retreat in September, and it was probably one of the best weeks of my life. I went into it saddled with many writing fears: Can I sustain a writing life? Will I miss out if I don’t do anything now? Each one was answered not by any person but by the love of God in many tiny, intentional moments. I see you, I know you, and you have time. 2016 was the year when I decided to take the timetable stress off my life, my marriage, children, writing, passions and calling and to embrace instead a trust that God has all of these things in his hands, I can trust the process, and I can enjoy learning along the way. I don’t think I have ever received such an extraordinary gift as the week I spent in Alaska, I will probably spend the rest of my life unpacking the beauty of it all. 

Thanks for journeying with me on the blog last year. It was a joy to get to know you and share in your highs and lows as well. I look forward to another year of walking and growing together. Now tell me, what did you learn in 2016?