Your Reading Is Also Your Working

I graduated from college 16 years ago.  I enrolled in law school the next fall.  I have been practicing law as a large part of my career since that time.  When I graduated from law school, I took upon myself the label of a “lawyer,” without any real effort to evaluate the boundaries of that definition, or whether there were alternative definitions. Whether it is law, or business, or medicine, or any other profession, it amazes me that I encounter professional after professional who has subjected himself or herself unnecessarily to the idea that there are only two parts of life: (1) work, and (2) not work.

I can identify.  I wrongly accepted this dichotomy for the first twelve years of my professional career.  I sweated away for three years at law school and then five years at a corporate law firm struggling to finish my legal “work” so that I could turn to my other interests – my wife, my family, reading, running, fishing, cooking, and so on.  As a lawyer at a corporate law firm, I routinely spent entire days and many weekends focused on demands from the office.  I then left “BigLaw” and joined a small boutique practice, where the intellectual and emotional opportunities were more fulfilling, but which often required even greater demands on my time.  When I was able to turn away from those demands, I viewed that as “free time.”  “Free time” meant time was time that I believed I could spend with my family or on myself.  In other words, my entire worldview stood upon the belief that I was either “working” on office work, or “not working,” by focusing on personal matters.

I dare say that the majority of people in today’s world view their existence in the same way.  Does anyone realize how ridiculous this is?   This artificial dichotomy rests upon one very problematic presumption.  It assumes that the endeavors in which you engage while away from the office are not part of your “work.”

The meaning of “work” is admittedly the subject of a much deeper and more easily debated questions.  That question implicates our economic system and the values that it advances.  But there is a fundamental issue of worldview and perception in play here — specifically, the reading and writing you do away from your day profession is still your “work.”

If you practice law, or are an executive, or manage a nonprofit, or are a freelance creative, or any other type of a thousand different professions, then exceptional performance in your work requires strategic thought.  Reading books related to strategic thinking and planning are, therefore and naturally, work-related.  If you read General W. T. Sherman’s Memoirs, you will gain perspective and observations on critical thinking, mission planning, and strategic execution that will impact varied daily tasks and projects.  If you read Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power, you will read of hundreds of historical incidences and characters that may be applicable to negotiations, deals, and encounters in your professional life.  If you read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, you will learn of one great creative mind’s process and ideas about process.  These are mere examples.  Any book you pick up will likely provide some insight, anecdote, or lesson applicable to your professional life.  And from that, your professional life will benefit.

It is too rare these days to find a professional injecting periods of reading into their daily creative or business life, but that is a tragedy.  I will often break from case work during my day, to sit and read some text that I am working through.  It is ALL work.  It is all effort expended towards excellence and developing as complete a perspective and sharp an insight as possible.

Read.  Read at home.  Read at the office.  Read at lunch.  Keep your books near you.  Carry a book with you.  Do not fall into the false belief that reading is only leisure.  It is all work.

Creating a To-Do List that Actually Does Something for You

My father told me years ago, “to be conscientious about one thing only means that you are ignoring many other things.”

I am sharing in this post the tool that I recently discovered that has made more difference in writing a daily to-do list that is effective in both (1) knocking items off my list of action items, and (2) ensuring that the action items completed are balanced across multiple long-term goals.  That tool is Peter Bregman’s six-box to-do list.

Over the course of my career, I have tried many, many different systems for to-do lists.  I have tried notebooks, index cards, Getting Things Done (“GTD”), a dozen different task list apps on my phone and computer.  After about 15 years of practicing law, I settled in large part on GTD in a paper notebook, because the “capture it all” and “context for every item” aspects were invaluable to me.  For those who are not familiar with the details of David Allen’s GTD system, the system depends upon a few pillars.  First, all information in your life needs to be collected.  This represents to-dos, calendar appointments, projects, and items you have delegated or are waiting on.

Once items are collected in the GTD system, they are categorized and organized into contexts.  First, what is the item?  Is it a project, an appointment, a task, or an item for which you are awaiting a response?  Second, for whom is the item to be completed, or with whom are you working?  Is it for your business partner, your associate, your assistant, your wife, your child?  Third, when do you need to complete it?  Now, soon, later, or someday, or are you waiting on it?  From these data points, you can construct a list each for projects, action items, and waiting on items.  For action items, you will have separate lists for each area of responsibility in your life: office, computer, errands, home, wife, etc.  These categories are completely subject to your discretion.  Once up and running, you will have a calendar for appointments, and a series of lists in GTD.

I have run a GTD system for a number of years.  But I still kept running in to the same key problem. First, with a project list in the dozens, and action item list in the hundreds, I struggled with prioritization.  I usually can complete approximately 4-6 important items per day.  If I have 40 items of high priority, which items win out?  What criteria can I use to make that choice?  How do I ensure that the work I focus on advances the goals that are important to me?

I made two changes during this past quarter that have drastically helped with this problem.  The first, is that I abandoned my paper notebook GTD system and moved it to Evernote.  Evernote provides a very large advantage over paper: it is searchable and sortable.  Each day, I can search and sort my action items in Evernote by priority and context.

This brings us to Bregman’s simple and ingenious six-box to-do list.  Given the overwhelming amount and complexity of the information in my Evernote GTD system, I needed a tool that would allow me to review my high-priority action items, and then decide what to do every day.  Bregman’s blueprint solved this problem for me.  Bregman advocates that each of us needs to spend time periodically determining what our top five long term goals are.  His suggestion is then that we should spend 95% of our time focusing on work that advances those goals.  The goals are up to you – a particular project, business development, writing a novel, finishing an advanced degree, learning Finnish – you are the master of your goal list.  The point is that if you have an important goal, you need to ensure that you are doing work each day towards those goals.

Bregman’s template requires you to divide an index card into six boxes.  The first five boxes are for each of your five long-term goals.  The last box is for “the other 5%.”  When I adopted this system, the five goals I had were: (1) work for existing legal cases; (2) obtaining and developing new legal cases; (3) researching and promoting my ideas; (4) presence for my family; and (5) taking care of myself.

Each morning, I open up Evernote, and I search for all tagged notes with high priority.  From those, I search across my context tags (@work, @calls, @wife, @home, @errands), to make sure that I understand my potential priorities across all spheres of my life.  I then select two or three items from my action item list for each of my five goals.   A sample list looks something like this:


This allows me to make sure that as I accomplish my key 4-6 items per day, that I am working across multiple goals.  It forces me to do work on existing cases, while also developing new business, and while also protecting my time to work on research and writing.

The most important thing that this six-box list has done for me, though, is to create a visual cue to remember that the very most important things in life are things that can easily be squeezed out if you do not protect the time to do them.  Time with family, being present for your spouse and children, exercise, meditation, and new learning are all spheres of life that too often are ignored in favor of traditional “work.”  By identifying my specific goals across various areas of life, I have found that this system allows me to be both productive, but also fulfilled in all aspects of life that I have determined matter to me the most.

My father was right.  In being conscientious about one thing, you do ignore many other things.  The trick is to ensure that you do not ignore any part of your life that matters to you, and conversely, that you do not spend time on things that do not advance your goals, to the detriment of your goals.

You Need a Morning Routine

How does your typical morning proceed?  Is it a chaotic, random, angst-inducing race to get yourself and the kids out the door without being too late?  Can you envision it differently –  orderly, structured, regular, predictable, and reliable?  If your mornings are a source of anxiety and stress, it may be hard to imagine creating order during this chaotic time.  The key is spending a bit of time to create a dependable and repeatable morning routine.

Business literature is littered with articles describing ideas for things that successful individuals do in the mornings and at the beginning of each week.  These are great to peruse, and to see if you might be missing out on a practice that would benefit your morning (or any time of your day, for that matter).  It really should come as no surprise that morning exercise is a good practice to begin your day.  For one, it will start your day with increased energy and motivation.  Second, it ensures that you actually do it, and that exercise will not fall victim to an otherwise busy day.  Developing research is beginning to suggest that time spent meditating or visualizing in some form will drastically improve your ability to focus and carry through your day emotionally balanced.

The important point, though, is to figure out what adds benefit to your day, and begin making a routine of it.  Your mornings should be reliable and predictable, not a daily impromptu dance through disorganization.  Routine will eliminate the improvisation of the morning.  It is uncertainty that is a large part of the stress that you feel during morning hours if you are not organized.

My morning routine is this:

1.  Wake between 5:30 and 5:45.

2.  Dress for exercise.

3.  Meditate for 15-20 minutes.

4.  Run.

5.  Eat breakfast.  During breakfast, transfer the important items from my to-do list onto a daily index card that will guide my day.  (This will be the subject of a future post).

6.  Dress and head out the door on time.

Your routine should not look like mine.  It should be a reflection of the important practices that generate energy and focus for your day.  Spend some time thinking about it.  When you determine the proper routine.  Write it down.  Put it into your to-do list.  My routine is actually written and placed in Evernote as a daily to-do item.  It makes it material and concrete, and it ensures that I focus on it.  You may end up trying a few things and adjusting, which is OK.  The effort to establish routine will pay substantial dividends, and I encourage you to introduce it to your life.


Commonplacing – Do You Remember What You Read?

Do you read books?  Do you read a lot of books?  Do you remember all of the great information, lessons, and points you might take from the writing you ingest?

I read a lot of books.  I also do a poor job of retaining the information I read with memory alone.  As a result, I began to look for a system to capture in an efficient manner the parts of texts that I read.

During my school days, I took copious marginalia notes in books, which I still do and highly recommend.  Marginalia, however, are only retrievable if you pick up the book again and find the page on which you took the note.  In other words, in recording your note, your observation will forever be captured and stored on a page in another writer’s book.  It is not portable, searchable, or usable in that form.

Enter the commonplace book.  A commonplace book is, in its simplest terms, a centralized collection of the notes and excerpts a reader takes from books that he or she has read.  The practice is one that was particularly popular centuries ago.  Robert Darnton described the idea in a 2000 article in the New York Review of Books:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A commonplace book can take any number of forms, from a journal, to an electronic database, to loose scraps of paper.  (Thomas Jefferson apparently collected loose scraps for his commonplace collection, and then had them bound later in his life).  I use a system that is heavily promoted by Robert Greene (author of books including The 48 Laws of Power) and Ryan Holiday (author of books including The Obstacle is the Way).  When reading a book, I mark pages and passages I find worthwhile or particularly insightful.  I also take margin notes and otherwise mark up my books.  When I finish a book, I set it aside for a period of days.

After some days have passed, I return to the book, and I review my marked passages and notes.  With the passage of time, some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those.  I write down those that remain onto paper notecards.  I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card.  In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme.  I have no predetermined themes or any limit to the number of themes that I may use, although themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas.  Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.”  Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.

As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts.  This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker.  How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways?  What similarities do you find?  What differences?  Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought.  When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”

Books I Have Read

Since March 2008, I have kept a list of the books I have read.  I was inspired to do this after reading that Art Garfunkel has kept a list of every book he has read since June 1968.  My list is not perfect; some items have slipped through the cracks.  It is close to accurate, nonetheless.  Books marked with an asterisk (*) are favorites.

I encourage all readers to engage in this exercise.  It allows you to maintain a record, of course. In addition, however, it allows you to review periods of your life, to see how interests have risen, developed, ebbed, and flowed.  It allows you to remember particularly busy and productive times, as well as unproductive and slow periods.  It also allows you to review the list for books that should be reread or revisited as appropriate.  I only wish I had started sooner, instead of at age 32.

My Reading List

2014 Chautauqua Symphony Opening

2014 Chautauqua Symphony Opening

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra begins its 2014 season this week. My family strongly supports the CSO, along with all of the speakers, artists, musicians, and dancers at Chautauqua Institution. A wonderful season is ahead of us. If you have the opportunity, make the trip to Western New York, where you’ll find for the next nine weeks a place of respite, civic discourse, and celebration of humanity through the arts.

Changing Perspective – Books Worth Reading

Between preparatory school, college, and post-graduate schooling, I have experienced a lot of classes and lectures.  There are two that were superlative.  (I recognize the contradiction in terms, but I consider them to both be superlative).

The first was my prep school American History class, which our teacher, Doc Thomas, used no textbook, and taught American History simply with primary sources.  Some of these were written, like John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac.  Others were visual, such as the paintings of Thomas Church and his colleagues of the Hudson River School, and even the film Rebel Without a Cause.  The immediacy of experience, without the intervention of a textbook as moderator, was learning in a new way for me, and I never forgot  the lessons learned.

The second was Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, the so-called “Great Books” class that ran us through the canon of Western Civilization at two books per week for the full year.  The material was the expected material and not the reason for my feelings on the class.  The blessing of the class was Scott Sandage, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was at Columbia on a fellowship for the year, and gave insight into reading, world view, and life perspective that I had never considered.  I could write at length about the lessons of that class, but most meaningful was Professor Sandage’s point that through every moment of education – be it a book, a lecture, pursuit of a degree – we implicitly are looking to change ourselves.  We go to school and ask the school to change us.  We read the book and hope that the book will change us.  We view the painting believing that it will open some new insight or thought in us that we had not before seen or experienced.

I have been ruminating on this recently, particularly after reading a number of “Favorite Books” posts on other sites I enjoy (Farnam Street’s and Ryan Holiday’s lists are examples).  I like collecting lists of books, or records, or other experiences that I’ve had that I believe others will enjoy.  I do not claim that these are the “best” books, but merely that each impacted me in a memorable and positive way.  I hope that you find a new perspective in these.

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels is Kerouac at his best, full of rhythmically exciting prose and a conflicted vision of America.  The work actually contains two books – the first, Desolation Angels, chronicles Kerouac’s solitary  summer stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the the Cascade Mountain range.  Purportedly drawn up from his journals, the book reveals Kerouac’s alternating ecstasy and sorrow during his period of solitude.  Book II is titled Passing Through, and contains reflections of Kerouac’s travels through America, Mexico, Tangiers, France, and England. It is difficult to reduce any Kerouac to analytical review, but the book is important to me for a few key reasons.

First, the prose itself is rhythmically exciting, nearly poetic, in Kerouac’s grand vision of the “poetry of pure prose.”  It is a beautiful celebration of life’s highs and lows, its enthusiasms and sorrows.  Second, it contains the exuberance of On the Road, but stands from a place of introspection and greater perspective than the more well-known, but momentary and rapid-fire work.  As a result, the book provides wonderful insight into a mind overwhelmed with the beauty and immediacy of life, while simultaneously struggling with the pains of loneliness, attachment, and suffering that come along with those things.  The quality of Kerouac’s philosophical, psychological, and symbolic insights in the book is unparalleled elsewhere in his canon.

Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

After reading No Country for Old Men about five or six years ago, I did something I have done with no other writer.  I read nothing but Cormac McCarthy until I had finished his catalogue.  Blood Meridian is his finest work, on par with the finest moments of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe.  I believe it is the finest piece of American contemporary literature that I have read. The novel is the story of a band of depraved and violent scalp-hunters on the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s.  McCarthy paints a world of immense space, stoic beauty, and ever-present dread.  McCarthy fills this world with characters capable of unspeakable evil and cruelty.  This is an unusual perspective on our American West, with no heroes, no salvation, only relentless violence and vengeance.  It is a mythic book, recreating Biblical stories in inverse ways.  At the end, you may have trouble beginning another novel, because the poetry of McCarthy’s exquisitely crafted language is just too perfect to leave behind.  This is truly an unforgettable work.

A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was a historian, playwright, social activist, and professor at Brown University).  This book is his master work.  People’s History attempts to tell a different story of American History, told from the perspective of the victims, the oppressed, the forgotten.  A controversial book, it is often adored and reviled by Americans depending on their particular view of the world, or perhaps, the view of the world that they want others to uphold.

The book has suffered some criticism of myopia or lack of citation in sections.  This is beside the point.  American history of too often taught from a sterile, reverent, and unchallenging perspective, focusing only on presidents and industrial heroes.  This book raises important questions about the collective assumptions and shared predispositions America holds with respect to its history, and challenges readers to evaluate otherwise familiar events in ways that they otherwise might never do. One should always be in the practice and habit of checking assumptions, and looking for alternative perspectives.  You may find new material or information that matures your own perspective, or you may find that the alternative is unconvincing and hold tight to your original views.  Either way, the exercise and practice of checking assumptions is invaluable, and Zinn provides a healthy dose of that.

Blue Highways/River Horse – William Least Heat-Moon

William Least Heat-Moon left Missouri in his van with no specific plan other than to drive the backroads of America, and discover the people and stories of the small towns of this country.  This trip led to Blue Highways, a remarkable and deeply human account of Americans, their hopes, dreams, and struggles.  Heat-Moon reveals a kaleidoscopic America in many ways, which increases in complexity and diversity with each new town into which he rolls.  At the same time, he finds common threads in American life, and an almost universal friendliness that propels him across the country as he tries to deal with the struggles he faces back home.

Years later, Heat-Moon and a friend make a second journey across America, this time by boat.  Starting in the Hudson River, they travel through the Great Lakes, across Lake Chautauqua, into the Allegheny River and down into the Mississippi River.  From there, it is upstream across the Missouri, and eventually across the Rockies before arriving in the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean.  Reminiscent of Blue Highways, River Horse adds a focus on the geology and geography of the country not present in the first book.  It is filled with the same cast of unforgettable Americans, whom Heat-Moon portrays honestly and kindly. Put together, these two books provide a wonderful “ground level” view of America.  Any of us who are too stuck in our local or regional worlds would do well to remind ourselves of the intricacies of life in all the far flung corners of our country.

A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway makes his account in this book of his post-WWI life in Paris, and his interactions with other American ex-patriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The narrative is quaint, if not a bit bland.  The value of this book lies in its direct and clear expression of Hemingway’s writing process.  Thousands of books with millions of pages are now circulating Amazon and bookstores, all wishing to provide direction on the creative process.  Start with Hemingway.

The Way of Zen – Alan Watts

My true feelings of this book are too complicated and immense to describe in this post, and I anticipate writing a longer post on the book.  That said, I have studied Eastern Philosophy for 15 years now, and practiced Zen Buddhism for five.  The original source material is often difficult and impenetrable.  Interpretative texts are often misinformed and squishy books designed to sell at new-age stores, and miss the deep and challenging questions presented by Zen philosophy.  I have found no better voice on Zen, or Buddhism in general, than Watts, who was both surgically precise with his explanations, and demonstrably able to assist Westerners with comprehension through his anticipation of typical stumbling blocks.