More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset by Cal Newport

More on Cultivating a Deep Life: Mindset

April 21, 2020

In yesterday’s post, I discussed an approach for systematically increasing the depth in your life. It involved creating a monthly plan that identifies specific behaviors designed to amplify things that matter and reduce the things that distract you from these values.

Today, I want to add a caveat. In my many years experimenting (often publicly) with the elements of the deep life, I’ve come to accept that the right mindset is just as important as the right plan.

You can have a well-designed checklist of meaningful activities you’re trying to integrate into your routine, but if your background hum of activity is still oscillating wildly between frenetic stress and numbing distraction, your life is anything but deep. You need instead to see your entire day differently.

This mindset is well-summarized by the advice I’ve been giving off and on since the early days of this blog:

  • Do less.
  • Do better.
  • Know why.

Let’s elaborate the elements of this self-improvement catechism one by one:

To “do less” is to slow down. Focus on one activity at a time. Do less total activities. Be willing to pass through occasional interludes of full non-productivity. Who first comes to mind when you ponder meaningful living? If you’re like most people, it’s probably someone who, in the spirit of Thoreau, approaches life deliberately, doing a small number of things, but each with full focus (often somewhere scenic).

To “do better” is to direct your focused energy toward quality activities, when possible. Given the same scraps of weekend free time, you could either painfully coax a garden irrigation system into efficient operation (see above), or you could binge Netflix. In their book All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly note that the appreciation of quality — especially once refined — can provide a source if sacredness in an otherwise de-romanticized world.

Finally, to “know why” is to get at the very core of the deep life mindset. Working backwards from your values to determine your activities creates a lifestyle dramatically more meaningful than working forward from whatever seems appealing in the moment. It’s the difference between resilience and anxiety; satisfaction and distraction. As I argue in Digital Minimalism , the fight to “know why” has been made harder in recent years due to the engineered compulsion of the attention economy. But, in a way I never could have imagined when I was writing that book, we now find ourselves in a circumstance where the shallowness of these diversions is being made unmistakably clear as our hunger for something greater increasingly gnaws.

The deep life is not an ambitious one-shot goal, like completing a marathon, that you work hard at until you one day obtain it all at once. It’s a state of being with which you become increasingly comfortable. A process that starts with your mind.

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