This Is How We Get Fiercely Productive and Fiercely Happy At the Same Time

When we have meaningful downtime, everything changes. Our brains focus better ... and we have a lot more fun!! | lucyflint.com

One of my favorite sections in Cal Newport's Deep Work was a section within the chapter "Work Deeply." I was reading along, getting all fired up about the untapped potential of my mighty brain and all it could do for my work, when I hit the subsection titled "Be Lazy."

Wait—what?? 

Is this still the same book?

As I kept reading, Newport convinced me. The lovely balancing truth is, in order to work deeply and to focus extremely well, we also need to know how to recharge, refuel, and regather our strength.

Which is, of course, right up my self-care alley!!

When I read that, I realized yet again: I want to be as good at refueling my mind as I am at spending it.

Those two skills go hand in hand: they depend on each other.

So today? We're going to talk about strengthening our ability to refuel, our ability to be lazy, our ability to play.

Ahhhhhh... This sounds fun.

How's that shutdown ritual coming along? 

As I've mentioned before, Newport makes the point that we need a clear, concrete end to our workday, in order to transfer all our unsolved problems and undone work over to the world of the unconcious.

... Which I still think is the coolest thing ever. (Cue a fun dream sequence.)

So, what do we do when all our focused work is done? Dive headlong into a night of Pinterest and Buzzfeed and Netflix and Facebook and all the media stimulation we can handle?

Um, no. 

That would be kinda like watching our diet and counting calories really strictly during the working hours ... and then binging on ice cream and brownies and cupcakes and peanut butter when we're done with work. (Aw, come on, peanut butter, you know I love you.) 

In other words, just because we're not actively working, it doesn't mean we can just jump back into the distraction festival.

That would undo all the brain training that we're striving for with deep work! 

So, um ... what can we do?

After our work is done for the day, we're free to pursue what Newport calls meaningful leisure.

Here's what he says:

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you'll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Whoa. Quite a concept, right?

Meaningful relaxation. Taking your downtime with a serious dose of intentionality.

So... I have to think about how I relax?

Well, yes. 

In Deep Work Newport references a few different ways to do that: spending time with hobbies, and going for nature walks, and simply indulging in recreational idleness. 

He says,

Decades of work from multiple different subfields within psychology all point toward the conclusion that regularly resting your brain improves the quality of your deep work. When you work, work hard. When you're done, be done. 

From reading the rest of the book, it doesn't sound like feeding the brain a steady stream of distractions and media is really the rest that it's looking for.

I'm convinced. Since reading that, I've started experimenting. I've brought back some old hobbies and started using my after-work hours to pursue them instead of pursuing news feeds and cat videos.

So I'm brushing off my piano skills a smidge, using my fingers for something other than typing words. I dug out an old pack of cards, and I've gotten back to my childhood love of solitaire games. 

I've even picked up something that I was never interested in before: jigsaw puzzles. No kidding! I didn't know if they would make me crazy or not, but so far, I've been shocked by how meditative and restful they've been.

There is something very humbling and very big-life-metaphor about assembling a big, complicated picture one piece at a time. I've found it utterly addictive.

And as I've reinvested in these three hobbies, I've found that the urge to jump back into the Internet has dwindled a lot. And I'm feeling more peace in my thinking.

Really. I'm not making it up. I feel different. Honestly... it's lovely. 

Let's overhaul our approach to downtime, shall we?

Here's the challenge, then. When we're not working, let's be actively rejuvenating. Not just doing low-grade Internetish activities that are somewhat fun but not at all memorable.

Those social media or infotainment sites that absorb a lot of time, give us a few laughs maybe, give us a few spurts of inspiration maybe, but then don't leave us with much when they're done.

Know what I mean? 

So, what old hobbies are calling to you? What did you love doing as a kid, but haven't picked up in a while? 

What kinds of things have seemed too nerdy, or a bit of a hassle, or a little old-school ... but secretly you always liked doing them? Maybe you could pick them up again?

Try that. Chase down three old hobbies, or even just one. Start spending time with them in your after-work hours, and just see what happens. 

Be patient if it seems slow at first. It might be challenging, but you're up for that, right? Go easy, and then start to feel yourself relax into it.

Yes, this takes more thought. Yes, it even takes (until you get used to it) more effort.

But it is INFINITELY more rewarding.

So worth it.

... If you're stumped for hobbies or pastimes, try asking yourself these questions.

(And yes, that sound is me cackling a little bit, because when I asked myself these questions they dramatically changed my life and how I see myself. I'm not kidding. So, buckle up, lionhearts.)

Here we go:  

  • When you're on Pinterest, what do you tend to pin the most? What boards do you compulsively fill out? What imagery do you get excited over? What pins give you that eager zing in your mind and heart?
  • When you're on Facebook, who do you most want to keep in touch with? Who do you want to know about? What do you love seeing? What do you always click on?
  • What Instagram accounts get you excited? What kinds of accounts fill up most of your feed? What photos make you happy, inspired? What do you love to see?
  • In your other social media accounts: Where do you enjoy spending your time? What are you drawn to? What kinds of posts and images do you respond to readily? What do you most like?

Here's my sincere challenge to you: Go back and really answer those questions, okay? Be as honest and thorough as possible. Try to put down at least one thing for each site that you go to, and if you're really brave, list four or seven or twelve. 

Okay. Wanna change your life? Here's the simple and radical thing to try: 

Instead of pinning it, try living it. 

Instead of liking a friend's post, write a postcard or a letter. Instead of filling a comment box with confetti emojis, send actual confetti!!

Instead of watching hours of funny cat videos, check out the classics of film comedy, and have a movie festival. (I was raised on the Marx Brothers, btw.) 

Instead of oohing and ahhing over a photostream, go after that skill, that environment, that style, that fill-in-the-blank in your real and actual and daily life.

Instead of filling out Pinterest boards, try collecting the objects you're pinning, visiting the kinds of places you adore, making the things you admire.

Resurrect an old hobby, or fall in love with a new one. Visit a place instead of dreaming about it.

Take your own photos. Make your own emojis. Do your own stunts.

I know. This can feel like a lot of effort, but my friends, it's been life-changing for me! 

Case in point: It took me along time to realize that I was pinning a lot of art. I mean, a lot.

I had a Pinterest board for patterns and a board for brilliant design and a board for photography that thrilled me and a board for amazing illustrations and a board of sketchbook spreads.

And only this past summer did it hit me: Ummmm, Lucy, how about taking an art class?

I debated for a while. For a long time, actually. 

I'm a WRITER, I told myself severely. I write. I do not take art classes.

And then Deep Work came along, and Cal Newport says my brain needs a rest, so now I have a year-long subscription to CreativeBug. And I am definitely taking art classes. 

Right after I enrolled, I watched preview after preview of class options. And at one point, I actually had tears in my eyes while listening to one woman describe the joy of keeping a sketchbook. 

Something in me has been wanting this, needing this, for a long time. And because I needed to be a "serious writer," I kept saying no to myself.

What I LOVE is that being a serious writer means I actually get to say yes.

Yes to a more meaningful downtime. Yes to those non-work pursuits. Because those yeses translate to a better, sharper focus when I'm at my desk.

HOW CRAZY AND WONDERFUL IS THAT?!

In total honesty, I have not been doing a lot of pinning lately. I haven't been on Instagram in a long while. (And you can tell because those dang photos of mine aren't changing, sorry!!) 

But I really loved my line drawing class, and that sketchbook spread I painted last night makes me smile every time I think of it.

... You see what I mean, right? 

It's worth it. Figure out what your social media habits are telling you, and then try pursuing the real thing. 

If you're feeling resistant to this, believe me, I've been there.

I've had plenty of weeks, plenty of months, when my brain felt like melted butter, and all I wanted after work was a nice media snack and then bed.

I get it. I really, really do. 

But diving into a hobby instead of merely media-ing it has been incredible.

I'm seeing myself differently. When my writing is done for the day, I start feeling like I'm also an artist. I'm a pianist again. And after a long jigsaw puzzle stint, I start to see the physical world around me differently, noticing how objects look side-by-side in a totally new way.

Because of my overhauled recreation time, I have a broader sense of what I can do and who I am.

Also, it is so incredibly energizing, in a way that all the Internet-inspiration-browsing has not been. Choosing to live your inspirations changes you from a spectator and a consumer to a maker. An artist. A creator.

... So THAT, my lionhearted friends, is my challenge to you. What would you make, who would you reach, where would you go, what would you try, if social media wasn't the answer? If the Internet wasn't waving its big, distracted arms at you?

What would you do, and who would you be, instead?

Mmmmm. Be very excited: your answers just might change your life.