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A Guide to Deep Work

I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World when I was having trouble tackling important-but-challenging work (2016 post here). The book illuminated my challenges and helped me understand how to rebuild concentration.

While the ideas in Deep Work are fairly straightforward, it took me years to successfully put them into practice. In this post I will share my notes so you can more easily implement deep work in your life.

What is deep work?

Deep work is basically just focusing on one cognitively demanding task intensely for hours at a time. While it may take more than an hour concentrating exclusively on a single task to achieve real depth, don’t let the ideal be the enemy of good: I’ve found even 20 minutes of single-tasked concentration makes a difference, especially when you’re just starting to build your capacity for focus.

There’s a neurological context for single-tasking: focusing exclusively on one thing for a long time allows for only the relevant neurons to fire together, which leads to improvement of your ability to do whatever it is you’re focusing on.

The more that you succumb to distraction (wait let me just check Slack, maybe I’m needed!), the more you fragment your attention and lose your full capacity for concentration. If you momentarily switch to check Slack (or even worse have those distracting pop-ups), you’ll be thinking about your Slack messages in addition to whatever you’re trying to focus on, which reduces your total available attention.

I know I’m not the only one who has lost my ability to focus on challenging projects. We’re in a distraction epidemic and the culprit is no surprise: constant interruption by a barrage of personal and work chats and emails, plus the ever-present siren’s song of cheap dopamine hits via social media. Unfortunately, all of this distraction is rewiring our brain to be unable to sustain concentration on less dopamine-laced matters, and thus we’re losing our ability to achieve our most important work.

When’s the last time you focused on one thing intently for hours on end? Many of us have lost even the ability to read books for more than a few minutes. Those who can achieve intense focus for hours on end are now few and far between.

This means that those who can focus are more valuable in today’s economy. I’m convinced that in addition to IQ and EQ, there’s FQ—our ability to focus—and that it may be a hiring criteria in the future.

Intense focus allows you to accomplish more in less time, which the economy will rightly reward.

How to cultivate the ability to do deep work

If you feel you would like to cultivate the ability to concentrate deeply, you need to strengthen your ability to block out distractions and sustain the spotlight of your attention on the particular problem at hand.

Train your ability to focus

It’s obvious how to build your biceps, but training focus is far more vague. Here’s some suggestions, but look for opportunities in your own life for playing games with sustaining attention!

  • Read books (in text—audiobooks are great but they’re not going to train your attention in the same way). Start with whatever is fun that you’ll stick with, and work your way up to challenging materials.
  • Practice memorization. Memorization is challenging for your attention. Developing the ability to e.g., memorize a deck of cards will be a great workout for your attention muscle.
  • Do concentration meditation. There’s a variety of concentration meditations, for example counting your breaths. Or you can do ‘productive meditation,’ which is taking a long walk and mulling over a particular problem. Every time your mind wanders, pull it back to the problem.

In addition to supplemental concentration training, use your work and study hours to train concentration. To begin, pick a task, set a timer, and work exclusively on that task. You may need to start with just 10 minutes and work up to longer.

It’s helpful to know that often right before you get into a state of focus, you may have a strong sensation of needing to get up and do anything else, or reach for any distraction. If you’re cognizant of this phenomenon, you can remind yourself that you’re on the path and the sensation is simply a troll yelling “do not go there!” to distract you, the hero, from your rightful quest. Breathe and stick through that sensation for just a bit longer—it will pass!

Just like with beginning to exercise, focusing will be difficult in the beginning. But don’t worry about that, just keep trying. I found that online co-working (e.g., Focusmate) was the most helpful tool when I was first building the ability to concentrate, as I found focusing with someone else to be way easier than focusing alone. We’re social creatures and we can use our proclivity for social cohesion to help overcome our brains’ resistance to focus.

Remove distractions from your life

But it’s not enough to train attention and single-task on our work and studies to the best of our abilities. Sadly, notifications and social media actually rewire our brain and dampen our ability to focus.

Newport makes a compelling argument that we should entirely give up social media unless it gives us true unique and deep value. We might argue that, for example, Instagram enables us to keep up with friends’ lives, but one in-person visit will probably vastly outweigh all the hours we spend hearting and commenting on friends’ photos.

“If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”

— Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson could argue that Twitter would improve his professional life by enabling him to broadcast his clever thoughts with fans and engage in intellectual debates with other futurists, he refrains from all shiny networks and makes himself nearly unreachable.

Beyond resisting social media, we must build our capacity to be bored. To be able to sit with difficult problems in our minds, our minds must be able to adjust to a state other than hyper-stimulation. Try taking walks without your phone (gasp!) as a way to greet this boredom.

Interestingly, I’ve found that as I’ve shut off notifications and slowly unwound from stimulation from news and social media, a sense of deep time has re-emerged. Life feels less busy and more sacred, and there’s room for me and my thoughts. I wonder how much our “I just feel so busy all the time” is a direct result of our attention constantly being interrupted by our own hands or by algorithms.

Get deep work in

Removing distraction and training concentration will help your mind reach a state of depth. But the other factor in doing deep work is just finding the time for it. Newport proposes different strategies:

  • Monastic, where you, like Stephenson, basically live in deep work mode all the time (swoon).
  • Bimodal, where you e.g., spend every Thursday-Sunday engaged in deep work and the rest of your week attending to meetings and emails, or taking every fall semester to go deep on a project.
  • Rhythmic, where you have a consistent daily schedule, e.g., do deep work from 9-11am. This is the one that probably fits most knowledge workers and may be the easiest strategy to maintain.
  • Journalistic, where you cram deep work in wherever possible. This may be the most challenging for deep work newbs, but could be the best fit for busy parents.

I’m increasingly curious about organizations that set up rules for deep work, such as deep work Wednesdays, or no meetings and responding to messages before noon. I imagine that, just like people, organizations that prioritize deep work will thrive.

You can tally your deep work hours for each week (you manage what you measure). Circling the tick every time you reach a milestone, such as completing an important project, allows you to see how many hours of deep work it takes to get something important done.

Deep work brings satisfaction, flow, and sense of meaning

So far we’ve talked a lot about the external rewards of deep work: you get more valuable work done work faster, and that brings rewards such as better compensation or grades, or achieving milestones in your business that lead to greater revenue.

But what’s equally important are the internal rewards. When I was unable to get my most important work done, I was living a nice life, but inside I was miserable. It felt like there was a potential I deeply wanted to live up to but couldn’t.

I was surprised to learn that there are studies that show that people who are engaged in a state of flow (which basically means a state of sustained concentration on a sufficiently challenging task—not dissimilar to deep work) are happier than those at leisure. I think this says something about the human condition: we want to be in a state of focus, and we feel satisfied pushing the edge of our intellectual capacities.

Beyond deep work

Beyond deep work, there’s the notion of the deep life.

To me, the deep life is about focusing with energetic intention on things that really matter — in work, at home, and in your soul — and not wasting too much attention on things that don’t.

Cal Newport

So in deep work you are using the spotlight of your attention to only focus on the most important task at that moment, in the philosophy of deep life you are using the energy of your life to shine with full strength on what is most important and meaningful to you. I think this is helpful context, as deep work is a technique to be more productive, but we should consider the context in which we’re employing it.

“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”

— Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

I’ve been working to integrate the ideas in Deep Work for seven years and the above notes are the insights I’ve received on my journey. I encourage you to read the book as I know you’ll find further insight there.

I wish you the best on your journey to focus and live a deep and fulfilling life. And if you found value in this post, please share it with someone you care about. 💗

books habits ideas

Reflections from Building a Second Brain

TL;DR: Building a Second Brain is about why and how to set up a personal knowledge management system. Tiago Forte, its author, asserts that maintaining such a system takes minimal time and effort and yields substantial creative insight and productivity.

Building a Second Brain to me is about insight hygiene: making sure you retain and keep discoverable all your insights. By collecting and carefully storing these insights, you give yourself a rich substrate to draw, remix, and build on.

The roots of a second brain is a commonplace book, something that people in the early 1900’s would carry with them, taking notes as they read, and keeping most anything there. We have abandoned this practice, thinking that we will always be able to find any information again, that we’ll remember everything that seems so dear and self-evident to us in the moment. But I have come to know that my insights will fade much like dreams upon waking, and that practicing good hygiene to retain these gems is a well-worthwhile endeavor.

My favorite story in the book is a description of how Taylor Swift writes her music. Every time she has an idea for a lyric, she religiously records it on her phone. Then when she’s writing a new song, she will go through her decades of song lyric notes. She remembers a line she wrote several years ago, finds it on her phone, and puts it in her song. As I love Taylor Swift’s clever lyrics (a recent favorite: “I have this thing where I get older but never wiser / midnights become my afternoons”), I loved discovering that her genius is composed of capturing and keenly weaving together the fleeting inspirations of so many days. This is also perhaps why Swift’s lyrics seem to so richly capture her changing inner life.

Another favorite takeaway from this book is how much Forte values remixing others’ ideas. I like this because I don’t think I’m a particularly original or insightful thinker, but I do, like everyone, have my unique experience of the world. Certainly Building a Second Brain isn’t unique, but Forte has built an empire from it, and added so much value to the world with his unique distillation of the ideas. He likens remixing to academic research where you build upon the ideas of others.

I was assuming Forte would prescribe a perfect system for organizing notes, and while he does prescribe an overall loose system, I found it surprising that he suggests you will always be evolving your structure (e.g., of folders, tags, etc). He argues there’s no system that will always be perfect for you, as your priorities will change and the way you think about things will change. Allowing for an organic, alive organization freed me to just make the best organization system that I can think of, and allow it to grow and change from there.

The framework Forte does prescribe is CODE:
Capture – Keep what resonates
Organize – Save for actionability
Distill – Find the essence
Express – Show your work

The latter two steps were a bit more unexpected to me.

In the distill step, Forte insists that less notes is more. He suggests that in the hour after absorbing content, you’ll remember whatever “sticks” with you, and you can trust that, as that is what is meaningful to you, and record that. He also prescribes progressive summarization, with a metaphor of oil, gold, and diamonds: Oil is the wellspring of valuable detailed information, gold is the core insights, and diamonds is the absolute distilled essence. So then you can, for example, review just your top-level insights and peruse additional layers of summarization as needed.

Forte considers the last step, express, a core component, and encourages you to share early drafts for feedback and overall share your work publicly. He argues against the idea that you need to have more and more research, and challenges you to create something from just your notes themselves without doing additional research. I look forward to practicing creating just from notes themselves, as I believe this is a valuable exercise in information sufficiency.

As I’ve adopted personal knowledge management in earnest, I’ve fallen in love with Obsidian and Todoist. I use Obsidian for journaling and insight storage; I use Todoist to record and manage tasks. I love that both apps are lightweight and beautiful, and that Obsidian is local-first and uses end-to-end encryption in its sync platform.

A friend says that he’s inspired to reorganize his Obsidian every three months or so, and I look forward to discovering what my cadence in evolving my system will be. This willingness (excitement, even) to spend time on notes reflects a major change in how I view note-taking. I am going from “dump it and forget it” to regarding notes as highly valuable: worth taking, pruning, organizing, and reviewing. There’s even a certain pride I’ve begun to take in my personal knowledge system, which has been aided by discussing personal knowledge management with friends who are likewise nerding out on their systems. It feels a bit like we’re visiting each others’ gardens, admiring the sunflowers or tomatoes, and comparing notes.

I look forward to discovering how my knowledge garden will yield new creativity, insights, and creations. While none of the ideas in Building a Second Brain are individually profoundly groundbreaking, the application of its ideas may very well be groundbreaking to you. And like a true nerd, I’m now looking forward to revisiting How to Take Smart Notes, which gives a different perspective on personal knowledge management.

books Buddhism contemplation

What Thich Nhat Hanh Taught Me

I used to know for certain there was a living buddha in the world. Then Thich Nhat Hanh passed away.

But in his writing, he was clear that he would not die. He told a story of how a student had prepared a place for his remains. He laughed and said he would not be in this place. He would be with us in our mindful breaths, in the peace of the cloud.

I used to think I had a peculiar relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh, that I was especially touched by him. When he passed away, I discovered that very many people love him just as I do. When they speak about him, I know their love is the same as mine. It’s very beautiful, finding the same love that’s in your heart in someone else’s.

In Buddhism there’s talk about taking refuge in the Buddha, but Thich Nhat Hanh the buddha pointed to this current-breath-right-now as the place of refuge.

He said something I’ll never forget. He said that if he found meditation to be arduous, he wouldn’t do it. He meditates because he finds it enjoyable. He likes to sit with his breath.

From that, I meditated in a new way. I gave up the self-bludgeoning trying. I breathed and listened for peace.

Ah, there it is.

Last night his words taught me something else. He said we can be free while living our lives, doing good in the world, and tending to what needs to be done. We can be free if we are breathing mindfully in the present moment. We don’t have to be captives of our circumstance, always waiting for some outer situation to change. If we are present with the breath, we are free. ☁️

If you’re interested in knowing Thich Nhat Hanh, I really loved his books The Art of Communicating and The Art of Living.


2021 Book Recommendations

I used to do annual books read lists (see 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016) but honestly that’s a lot of work and I figure it’s more useful to just give my top picks because no one wants to read meh books anyway.

This year I got really into biographies and memoirs. Biographies are like fiction but the stories are essentially written by life itself, and my hypothesis is if you read enough of them some larger understanding of life will emerge.

There’s emojis in this list, here’s what they mean:
🌟 Top recommendation
💡 Particularly insightful
🎈 Fun!
👂 Audio version recommended


💡🌟 Four Thousand Weeks – Oliver Burkeman

This was a ‘quake book’ for me in that it fundamentally changed the way I saw the world. By showing me how little time I had and how I certainly won’t accomplish everything I’d like or hope to, Burkeman freed me from a tortuous delusion. I now feel more satisfied with ‘wasting’ my time, as surely that is all we can do. I loved this book so much that I was a bit evangelical about it: I tweeted constantly about it, forced friends to suffer through voice messages where I read them highlights, and almost sent it to one friend’s birthday before realizing that sending someone a book about how little time they have left perhaps isn’t the best birthday gift (I sent her a puppet instead). If you’re still not sold on this book, you can listen to a chapter of it in this episode of Tim Ferriss’s podcast.

💡👂 Living From a Place of Surrender – Michael Singer

Ok so technically this is a lecture series, but it’s on Audible and was amazing so I’ll include it. In the lectures, Singer makes a logical argument that the world is a highly complex series of events over billions of years, so why are you upset when things aren’t the exact way you desire them to be? I got so much out of the lectures, I’ll need to re-listen to them soon. If you’d prefer an actual book, Singer’s The Untethered Soul is one of my favorites and is probably the book I’ve reread most.

🎈💡 This is Your Mind on Plants – Michael Pollan

I loved Pollan’s previous How to Change Your Mind so much that I found myself grieving when I finished it. So I was overjoyed when Pollan mercifully created this semi-sequel. This is Your Mind on Plants is composed of three long essays on poppies, coffee and tea, and mescaline cacti. Like anything Pollan writes, it’s worth reading just to savor Michael Pollan’s exquisite prose. If you haven’t read How to Change Your Mind, read that first.

🎈👂 Just Kids – Patti Smith

This engaging memoir won the American “National Book Award.” I hesitated reading it because I wasn’t familiar with Patti Smith, but I’m so glad I gave it a try. I loved living through some New York City history and the lives of famous artists. But more than anything, this is a memoir about a friendship, an account of two people falling into orbit with each other. I can’t recommend it enough, particularly the audiobook which is beautifully read by Smith.

💡Almost Everything: Notes on Hope – Anne Lamott

I discovered my love for Anne Lamott through a Tim Ferriss podcast. She’s the opposite of the hyper-confident alpha males Ferriss normally interviews, and I love her so much for it. She shares the wisdom of someone weathered by seasons of dark nights of the soul. She shares many of my own faults and fears, and for that she makes me feel less alone. This book is a collection of stories and wisdom. To help you get a sense for the type of wisdom in the book, I’ll share my favorite quote:

An old woman in twelve-step recovery once told me that while there is an elaborate prayer in one of the steps, of turning one’s life and all results over to the care of God, as each person understands God, she and some of the old-timers secretly pray upon waking, “Whatever,” and pray before falling asleep, “Oh, well.”

Luckily Lamott is quite prolific; I look forward to discovering the rest of her catalogue.

🎈 The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

In this work of heart-wrenching beauty, the author recounts her tale of a year spent denying her husband’s sudden passing. The story speaks to our tendency to cling onto a sense of control at any cost, and the preciousness of the everyday. I recommend giving it a read on a rainy weekend and reveling in life’s fragile bitter-sweetness.

💡 The Psychology of Money – Morgan Housel

A nice read for anyone interested in investing. My main takeaway was that we expect ourselves to make rational decisions about investing, but we don’t. For example, we panic and sell during market downturns. We need to set ourselves up for success, like having enough cash to be able to sit through market downturns, or whatever else that looks like for us.

🎈 Open – Andre Agassi

I absolutely adored this book. I had no idea that Agassi actually hated tennis, and was simply forced into it by his overbearing father. It is a wonderful gift to be able to glimpse the struggling inner journey of someone who from the outside appears like an untouchable success. It’s an epic drama, and one that takes place more inside Agassi’s mind than on tennis courts.

🎈👂 Greenlights – Matthew McConaughey

A super fun read with more depth than expected. I devoured it in a weekend. Because it’s such a joy to read, I recommend this book to people who aren’t “readers.” The audiobook is worth checking out if only for McConaughey’s Australian accent impersonation.

💡 Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art – James Nestor

An entire book about breathing? That’s interesting and helpful? Yes and yes. My main takeaway: breathe through your nose, not your mouth. There’s a whole bunch of health reasons to breathe through your nose, but this is difficult for many of us because we have underdeveloped nasal cavities and so our noses remain perpetually stuffed. Curiously, this is in part due to a new diet of soft foods—it takes lots of chewing to produce the nasal passages our ancestors enjoyed. Regular use of a salt water nasal spray helps me, but Nestor shares many other tips.

🎈💡The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

Fun read by a journalist exploring stoicism. I loved the beginning’s brutal takedown of the positive thinking movement. There’s many recent books on stoicism that are also excellent and worth reading, but I enjoyed Burkeman’s take as he comes from a more journalistic perspective instead of someone hell-bent on being a modern day Seneca. Notably this is the same journalist who wrote “Four Thousand Weeks,” which is my top nonfiction pick on this list.


🎈🌟 The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This book changed my life in that I discovered how amazing fiction can be. For the many weeks it took to read this giant book and its sequel, I lived more in Rothfuss’s authored world than in my own. It’s a bit like Harry Potter for grownups. Posting about the book on Twitter, I quickly learned it has a large fanbase. If you’re into audiobooks, I recommend the version narrated by Rupert Degas.

💡 The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View from the Future – Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes

This short book imagines how historians will tell the story of climate change, and how political will faltered to prevent and stop it. Normally I can’t stomach books on climate change—it’s just too unbearably tragic—but the fictionalized retrospective makes the topic more tolerable. I learned a lot about the huge missed opportunities for us to stop climate change. Just a few changes in legislation here and there could have done so much (and still could do so much…).

🎈👂 Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

A delightful, frictionless audiobook listen. My favorite part was gaining a better understanding of how the engineer types in my life view the world. The audiobook narration is exceptional. I fell in love with the secondary character (can’t say much more without spoiling it. 😉 ).

Photo credit: Vita Lian

books ideas

Books read in 2019

See also: books read in 2018 | 2017 | 2016

Book are categorized by nonfiction / fiction and then loosely organized from most to least recommended. Many of this year’s books were read to glean insights for my quest to get my life to a proper baseline of effectiveness; results from that initiative are in the two preceding posts.


The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming – David Wallace-Wells

For most people, “climate change” conjures up mental images of cities underwater and warmer winters. Not a big deal—just don’t live anywhere coastal or hot, right?

Wrong. Wallace-Wells explains how climate change means problems that gravely impact everyone: massive food and water shortages, plagues, unbreathable air, and perpetual war.

Wallace-Wells’ beautiful writing makes the tragedies he foretells all the more visceral. You can get a good sense of the book from the article that originated it.

Guide to the Good Life – William B. Irvine

Guide to the Good Life is an approachable introductory guide to Stoicism. This book is replete with obvious-yet-remarkable gems like:

“We can either spend this moment wishing it could be different, or we can embrace this moment. If we habitually do the former, we will spend much of our life in a state of dissatisfaction; if we habitually do the latter, we will enjoy our life.”

The Stoics valued tranquility of spirit, and by looking through their eyes, I examined my life and saw how I routinely disturbed my tranquility with foolish thoughts and behaviors. Here’s an example of how Seneca watches for such foolish thoughts and corrects them:

At a banquet, Seneca was not seated in the place of honor he thought he deserved. Consequently, he spent the banquet angry at those who planned the seating and envious of those who had better seats than he did. His assessment of his behavior: “You lunatic, what difference does it make what part of the couch you put your weight on?”

Irvine views the Stoics as master psychologists. They prescribed, for example, negative visualization as a way to prevent hedonic adaptation. For instance, to help guard against the desire for a new phone, imagine your current phone being smashed to pieces. Or imagine being in a world without smartphones at all. Or imagine not having use of your hands and thus smartphones simply existing as a source of frustration. With daily negative visualization, it’s easier to stay appreciative of how much you have.

One of my favorite techniques in the book is only pursuing things you can control. For example, if you are playing tennis, instead of playing to win, your goal would be to play the best you can. You can’t control winning but you can control playing the best you can. And paradoxically, focusing on playing the best you can instead of winning is a better strategy for winning.

While time will tell how lasting the changes are, I felt that in reading this book I had at last found a compass for my life and was able to delineate which goals and behaviors are worth pursuing. I look forward to practicing the prescribed methods and further studying Stoicism as well as what seems to be its Eastern cousin, Buddhism.

Principles: Life & Work – Ray Dalio

I can see why so many people recommend this book: it is the distillation of a lifetime of unconventional yet effective wisdom. I was particularly inspired by how Dalio ran a wildly successful firm using radical honesty. As there’s too much to unpack in one read, I look forward to rereading it soon. This video is a great introduction:

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World – Cal Newport

A great book that inspired me to take more time without media. Recommended for anyone with a smartphone. Full review here.

Ultralearning – Scott Young

Scott Young is an overachiever. After graduating with a degree he didn’t care for, he did an experiment to learn MIT’s 4-year computer science curriculum in two years without taking classes. After that, he attempted to learn four languages in a year. Ultralearning is his strategy for aggressive, self-directed learning. I had a few takeaways about how to learn more effectively, but my biggest takeaway was inspiration to embark on my own ultralearning challenge.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear – Elizabeth Gilbert

A beautiful book on creativity. I’m enamored by Gilbert’s enchanted view that ideas live in a realm of their own and come to Earth to find people to materialize them. Gilbert is an inspiring figure in that she has devoted her life to her writing without ever expecting it to pay her way. She worked various restaurant jobs to pay the bills while writing novel after novel, all of which came to no acclaim before her breakout Eat, Pray, Love. I believe most people with a creative calling will find something insightful in the book.

Better Than Before – Gretchen Rubin

This became one of my favorite books on habits, but I think more than any particular piece of advice in this, Rubin became a role model to me. Her personality is quite similar to mine, and so I came to think: “If Gretchen Rubin can do X, Y, and Z, why can’t I?” She became my inspiration to, e.g., wake up early and get more done.

Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

I wrote off this book because it was so mainstream and come on, there’s a movie version with Julia Roberts. But I got curious to read it because I loved Big Magic so much, and I’m glad I did. It’s a gorgeous story that I couldn’t put down. If you’re interested in spirituality, travel, and self-discovery, give it a try.

The Surrender Experiment – Michael A Singer

I became a Michael Singer fan when I read The Untethered Soul, one of the books I reread most often. This year I reread The Surrender Experiment after @bertstachios recommended it. While Singer wanted to live a quiet life of meditation, he decided to surrender to whatever was coming to him in life. This book recounts that tale and how that level of surrender transformed him.

The Obesity Code – Dr. Jason Fung

If you haven’t struggled with your weight, then congratulations! You have missed out on a world of suffering. Dr. Jason Fung dismantles the argument that “restrict calories and exercise more” is an effective weight loss strategy. Yes, calories play a factor, but humans are more complex than simple thermodynamic machines. If weight were as simple as “calories in, calories out,” then why do women gain fat during puberty and pregnancy when their caloric consumption doesn’t change? Hormones. In The Obesity Code, Fung discusses the hormonal factors that affect body composition. This was my second time reading this book and I got just as much out of it as the first time.

I Will Teach You to Be Rich – Ramit Sethi

This is still my favorite personal finance book. I read it again this year to get re-inspired about my savings goals, which worked. I made the change to put money into savings/investments and donations as soon as I receive it, which has been helpful. If you’re new to the world of personal finance, this is a great place to start.

What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast – Laura Vanderkam

Super short, fun read that profiles what different people do in their early mornings. I read it for inspiration about starting a habit to wake up at 6 am, and it did the trick.

Delay, Don’t Deny – Gin Stephens

This was the book that convinced me to give intermittent fasting a try. Stephens writes from a “here’s my story, here’s what worked for me” everyday person perspective. If you’re looking more for the science behind intermittent fasting, try another book.

The Fast Diet Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer

Apparently this was one of the first books to come out about intermittent fasting. The Fast Diet approach is to eat 500 calories or less two days per week. Apparently these days of calorie restriction mimic fasting. Seems reasonable, but I have yet to put it to the test.

Indistractable – Nir Eyal and Julie Li

In a very 2019 move, the author of Hooked, the bestselling book on how to get users hooked on products and apps, now writes a book on how to escape apps’ addictive distractions. I enjoyed reading it but not much stuck with me. If you haven’t read Deep Work yet, I would start with that.

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It – Chris Voss

Voss is a former international hostage negotiator for the FBI. He makes a compelling case for using his method to negotiate. His examples are dramatic and keep the book exciting, but I would have probably gotten more out of examples that were closer to my life.

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life – Bill Burnett and David Evans

This book would have been really helpful for me in high school when choosing a career path. I didn’t find it super helpful to my current life situation, but I still enjoyed reading the authors’ thoughtful approach. When it comes to life design, I found Stoicism to be more helpful.

Atomic Habits – James Clear

By the time I read Atomic Habits, I had read so many books on habit formation that I didn’t find Clear’s insights particularly helpful. I’d like to reread it down the road because I think it just wasn’t a match for where I was at the time.

The Happiness Equation – Neil Pasricha

Is “Want nothing + do anything = have everything” the formula for happiness? Not sure. This was fun to read but I didn’t find it had a lasting impact on me. This is why people wisely recommend reading classic books that have stood the test of time. I would have gotten more out of reading another volume on Stoicism.

Fiction / Poetry

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

This was a recommendation from a Twitter friend (thank you, @ModyVirag!) and is the first super-long book in a five-book series. I’m so glad I gave it a try; it’s the perfect fantasy escape with a tightly woven magical world, characters you fall in love with, and captivating storylines.

My favorite aspect of the book is the widely varying “spren,” elemental creatures that live in the Cognitive Realm and appear alongside phenomena like awe, creativity, honor, and rot.

I introduced this book to two people and they both loved it. I imagine Sanderson will someday be widely regarded as one of the masters of fantasy fiction.

Words of Radiance – Brandon Sanderson

This is the second book in the series and likewise recommended. I look forward to reading all of Sanderson’s work.

Bluets – Maggie Nelson

An inventive book of numbered short essays and poems about heartbreak centered around the author’s hypersensitive love for the color blue. I found the creative writing interesting but I stopped short with emotionally resonating with it, perhaps because I’ve never been exceedingly heartbroken (or felt much fondness for the color blue). Thank you to @joepetrowski for getting me out of my comfort zone with this recommendation.

A Discovery of Witches – Deborah Harkness

This book was bearable until the author had the characters act out her fantasies of drinking ridiculously expensive antique wines—then I gave up.

Looking for more book reviews? See also: 2018 | 2017 | 2016

An ask for you, dear reader

Do you have any books to recommend, especially nonfiction and fantasy? Please let me know. Message me on Twitter or email alex @ this domain.

books habits ideas

2019 personal development experiments

As noted in the previous post, I attribute better-than-usual success with personal development this year due to some key insights, including using experiments to trial different approaches to self-improvement. Here were the experiments that I found worthwhile:

Regular exercise (of the not-too-hard variety)

I find that whenever I make regular exercise a habit, I start making progress on all other aspects of my life. It’s like my brain isn’t fully able to adapt and change without it. Since most of my life I’ve struggled with getting in regular exercise, I find it interesting that I was able to successfully make it a strong habit this year. Part of the secret was moving a few blocks away from a nice gym which was easy and pleasant to visit. For a while, I religiously tracked my weekly gym visits, and this was the sole habit I pursued until I deemed that this habit had taken root.

I used my past failures to inform my new approach. In the past, I would stop exercising because it was either unpleasantly difficult and reluctance eventually overpowered my motivation, or because I would get injured and by the time I healed, I would have to build inspiration and motivation all over again.

So this time I was super cautious about listening to my body to avoid injury and avoided classes, as that’s where I often fell prey to injury.

I also committed to not making my workouts too hard. My hypothesis was that if I just kept showing up, my workouts would eventually get more intense, and by that time I would have developed a better kinesthetic sense and more musculature that would help protect against injury.

Intermittent fasting

Obligatory note: fasting and following random internet on the internet can be dangerous! Consult your doctor and be aware when you’re outsourcing your thinking.

September was the first time I tried regular intermittent fasting and, while not always fun or easy, it really worked for me. I was looking for a habit to pick up that would help me shed a few pounds without having to devote a bunch of time and attention to it. Several years ago I read this article chronicling the former Evernote CEO’s success with fasting. I became convinced of fasting’s merits and read tons of books on the subject and… I even tried fasting a few times! The trouble was that I tried to go from 0-60 in one go. After a 48-hour fast, fistfuls of hair fell out and I wrote fasting off as “not for me.”

This year I realized that instead of trying to go so extreme, I should just try intermittent fasting. I didn’t think a 16-18 hour fast would be significant enough to be effective, but I was wrong. Intermittent fasting seems to brilliantly regulate my hunger and satiety signals so that I naturally eat a more appropriate amount of food—no calorie counting or diet neurosis required! With intermittent fasting, I feel more energetic and healthier, not to mention I save time and money because breakfast or dinner is no longer a thing. Fasting seems to lower my inflammation, which I suspect may be because I am giving my system the time it needs to fully digest food instead of piling on more.

While I don’t find intermittent fasting particularly fun or easy, I do find it feels more natural the longer I do it. I’m glad I committed to doing a 30-day initial trial before saying “fuck this,” as it took me several weeks to adjust. I actually now crave fasting, especially after a time of feasting (I’m looking at you, holidays).

One interesting side note: When I was adapting to fasting, I felt the same feeling as after intense aerobic activity. After doing IF for some time, I found that I could run literally twice as long, whereas before it didn’t seem to matter how much I trained, I wasn’t able to do much to move the needle on my endurance.

Cold exposure

Several years ago I tried to get on the Wim Hof train. For those who missed the trend, Wim Hof is the “ice guru” who got everyone excited about ice baths. But even after reading a whole bunch about the benefits of cold exposure, I found it difficult to apply the knowledge. After all, cold showers initially feel pretty awful. And ice baths?? No thanks.

But this year I listened to this episode of “The Kevin Rose Show” where Kevin talks about how his mood improved as a result of cold exposure. Apparently there’s some physiological explanation, but all I needed to know was that I could improve my mood with only a few minutes of cold torture—what a deal! So I started doing a short amount of cold at the end of my shower and aimed to make it longer each time. And… it works! I do indeed experience greater happiness (sometimes a crazy amount, like the day I came to work and greeted my colleagues with, “Hello, beautiful people!”). But I find it does much more than that: it boosts my immunity, fosters a sense of aliveness, and bolsters my ability to handle mental stress. Seriously, all those benefits in like two minutes!

The Wim Hof method is to do a bunch of breathing techniques to gain greater control over the body. The Alexandra Heller method is to internally scream “I CAN DO IT!” over and over, which effectively drowns out all other thoughts. Cold exposure and affirmations for the day, done.

Habit tracking

This year I broke down my goals into daily activities and then every day checked “yes” or “no” as to whether or not I did the thing that makes progress on that goal. When I started doing this, the implications of wasting time became a lot clearer. I naturally stopped almost all TV or movie watching, as it became more obvious that e.g., either I watch TV or complete 20 minutes of learning German. I use the Loops – Habit Tracker app (Android / iOS), but there’s a bunch of similar apps.

Traction dashboard

To track non-daily activities and take a broader view, I created a traction dashboard that I update every week and month. It helps me understand if I’m on target to my goals with e.g., minimizing alcohol consumption, saving, donating, and learning. “What gets measured gets managed,” and all that. To capture qualitative data, I also journal reflections about what worked and what didn’t in a particular period of time.


This year I volunteered to write interviews with Giving What We Can members. My goal was to support the community by sharing different people’s perspectives on giving to high-impact charities. I’m not sure this was a particularly useful activity for others, but it was a lovely excuse to speak with interesting people whose values I align with. Selfishly, I was hoping that this activity would inspire me to make my 10% giving pledge. This worked, so I’ll call it a success, and it was nice to contribute my time to a cause I believe in.

Public speaking

I previously avoided public speaking because I get super nervous, but I got motivated to face my fears when Tim Ferriss mentioned that public speaking is a great tool for personal growth: what you are bad at in public speaking shows up in other areas of your life. I found his advice to be true—public speaking (often painfully) shows me my uneasiness with myself and my ideas, and working on public speaking has been a high-impact way to improve.

Gratitude journaling

For over a decade now I’ve wanted to jot down 3-5 things every day that I’m grateful for, and this year I finally made it happen. The secret was discovering the gorgeous “Presently” app (Android); ever since installing it I’ve had no trouble keeping this journal.

Gratitude journaling has helped me better understand what brings happiness into my life. Curiously, most of the things on my gratitude journal have little to do with what I think will make me happy. Having good conversations with people is nowhere on my goals list, but frequent on my gratitude list, so I probably need to reexamine my goals list so I don’t climb the wrong mountain.

I hoped gratitude journaling would help me train my mind to notice positive things instead of just problems. While it’s hard to objectively judge whether it’s working, I think it is (and I’ll happily take a placebo effect).

Consciously creating routines

Good routines are like a recipe for a good day. Eventually I’d love to have morning to evening planned out, but that’s a work in progress. So far these are the pieces that are working:

Weekday morning routine: wake up > run/gym > cold shower > meditate. I created this routine during a period when I felt like I was numbly following the motions of each day. While I don’t do it every day, I try to follow it at least 3x per week to feel on top of things, alive, and present.

Weekend routine: Fridays—take care of chores while listening to an audiobook and update my traction spreadsheet. This way I don’t feel like my whole weekend goes to maintenance. Saturdays—morning writing meetup. Sunday—visit favorite coffeeshop (more writing!) and then prep food for the week.

Moving money to savings/investment first

Early this year I tried (yet again!) to follow a budget, but it felt like too much effort to track everything, especially in cash-only Berlin where there’s no trail of credit card transactions. After rereading the ridiculously-titled personal finance book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, I followed Ramit Sethi’s advice to take money out of my bank account as soon as it came in and move it to savings and investments. Ideally this happens automatically but that’s not feasible for me, so I just set a calendar reminder. I was motivated to not just move money back into my checking account because I know that the amount I took out is the monthly amount for my savings goal for the year, and I won’t hit that target if I take the money out. What tends to happen is I freeze non-necessary purchases for a few weeks, which often results in buying less. So it’s more like a feast-famine approach with money, and feeling indulgent sometimes and thrifty other times is a better match for my personality than eternal moderation.


I really enjoyed writing personal blogs regularly this year. And apparently if you write enough blogs, your inner dialogue just becomes a sort of nonstop attempt at writing a blog post, which I guess is more productive than random thoughts and judgments. Last year one of my biggest resolutions was to create, and while I’d still love to express myself through animation, I feel pretty creatively satisfied. I now have Saturday and Sunday mornings penciled in for writing at a cafe, and they’re absolutely the highlights of my week.


This was the first year I regularly journaled, and I agree with those who say that journaling is free therapy. Journaling has been an excellent way to move circling thoughts to their conclusion.


It’s hard to make time to learn new things as an adult, but it seems entirely necessary to do so. The world is changing and you have to keep up. I feel equal parts frustrated and successful with the amount of learning I accomplished this year. I ascertained a small amount of knowledge in German and After Effects, and while it’s a drop in the bucket of what I’d like to have learned, I am happy that I was able to gain at least this amount of knowledge.

What seemed to work for German was spending some time every day studying, but After Effects was too involved for daily practice. In the end I was unable to pursue either consistently, so in 2020, I would like to figure out how to make learning a consistent part of my life, even in times of stress and busyness.

Letting go

Perhaps this is a weird addition to a list of controlling activities. It was sparked by rereading Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment, an autobiographical account of Singer’s 40-year experiment in surrendering to life’s unfolding. What I took from the book was a desire to attempt to surrender to whatever current situation I find myself in. I found this particularly helpful in periods of stress and overwhelm. For example, in situations of overwhelm, my impulse is to try to make the situation be different. But because making the situation different is often impossible, resisting just makes me anxious. So instead of resisting, I now do my best to surrender and just do my best to serve the situation as best as I can, letting go of the outcome. I also am working to surrender overthinking what I’m doing. I surrender and say: “This is what’s in front of me, I’m going to serve it the best I can.”

Similarly, I try to surrender to emotions. If I let myself release into a feeling without trying to change it, the emotion seems to alleviate more quickly.

Training attention and focus

Fostering the ability to focus deeply for an extended time period is something I’ve been pursuing since reading Cal Newport’s superb Deep Work. This year my ability to focus seemed to get far better, I believe mostly due to training single-tasking through writing sessions. I still have a fantasy of regularly completely immersing myself in a project for 4+ hours, but my work and schedule don’t particularly lend themselves to that. Maybe one day!


I had a frustrating time with meditation this year. For a while, I just sat through it to give myself a gold star for the day, but I didn’t feel like much was improving. I cycled through the popular meditation apps and some were helpful, but I always landed in the same uninspired place.

Finally, a friend suggested a book (Deep Meditation – Pathway to Personal Freedom by Yogani) and I tried its technique: repeating “I am” as a mantra. I didn’t like this mantra. I wanted an “om” or “mu” mantra that I could believe was magical. An English mantra affirming one’s existence was most certainly not magical.

But it worked. Pretty soon I found myself disappointed when I only had ten minutes for meditation. I found I could repeat the mantra and find space between the wave of emotions that was my self-concept, the egoic clinging onto being good and not being bad, and all the activities necessary to assert that claim. Then it became a habit. This silence became something I hungered for, something I felt incomplete without spending time in. It became a point of reference for my day, a place of refuge.

Curbing alcohol consumption

I love many things about alcohol, but each of alcohol’s positive attributes comes paired with an attribute that’s equally or more negative. In particular, good sleep is a requisite for progress on so many areas, yet alcohol is a strong disruptor of sleep (yes, even a “healthy” glass of red wine). It makes no sense to me to sacrifice sleep quality for alcohol: 1 hour of feeling elevated in exchange for a whole day where you don’t feel as well-rested and energetic as you could have? Hmm, no thanks.

The morning after a social situation where I choose not to drink, I reflect on how happy I am to have awoken so refreshed and energized, and how grateful I am for not drinking. This aligns with an adage I try to adhere to: make choices that make tomorrow better.

Curbing sugar consumption

Like a drunk is to alcohol, like a heroin addict is to heroin, I am to sugar. The times I’ve managed to wrestle myself free from sugar’s grips, I’ve contemplated getting a tattoo to remind myself that sugar is my kryptonite and I should leave it be. Like alcohol, sugar is physiologically addictive, which means your body craves it, so you have to wait through a period of craving when you give it up. After you get to the other side of this craving (really only three days), not consuming it is pretty easy.

I committed to giving up sugar several times this year, but I was only successful when I made a pact with a colleague. I find that without sugar my energy is more stable and I don’t feel as tired. I started viewing sugar items as simply “not for me,” which was a helpful mantra.

Cutting out sugar, I felt so many things improve. I felt more healthy and energetic, bloating melted away, and the ever-present sugar craving was replaced by contentment. Apples became a relished treat.

Community organizing

I stepped into the role of community organizer in several ways this year. I put on clothing swaps, organized a Meetup group, and started a public speaking club. I’m still not super excited about community organizing, but I now feel more empowered to create the community I want instead of waiting to find one to join.

Donating on a recurring basis

It’s difficult to look at a large sum of money and donate it at the end of the year, so this year I set up recurring monthly donations. This made donating 10% of my income easier than in previous years. I am so fortunate to be in a position to give, and there are so many desperate needs in our world. I’ve learned to regard this money as “not mine” and offer it up as thanks to all the fortunate experiences I have had that have brought me to this place of abundance.

This year I donated to Cool Earth, The Good Food Institute, GiveDirectly, Mayan Families, 5 Gyres, Mercy for Animals, and a friend’s orphanage. For those who are cynical about donating (“it just ends up in admin costs!”), please look into reputable charities whose impact is audited. GiveWell has some well-researched recommendations, and if you’re in Germany also check out Effektiv Spenden.

If we don’t help those who are dedicating their lives to address the problems in the world, who will? Check out Giving What We Can and Effective Altruism for more inspiration.

Keeping these endeavors going in 2020 will be a challenge; I see how quickly I abandon good habits when stressed or traveling. But I hope that, by discovering and noting the habits that work for me, I have formed a foundation of positive habits that I can return to again and again.