Reading Books Trains Your Focus

I’m historically not a big book reader, but I love walking into a bookstore (eg. Barnes & Noble in NYC) and reading whatever random book catches my attention.

For me the biggest struggle with getting myself to read has been this feeling of opportunity cost, as if I’m taking time away from doing something more productive. I have a day job, but I’m also working on a side project. Today I put in an intense full workday in my day job (after not getting enough sleep last night), and felt completely drained after work.

I walked into that Barnes & Noble in the evening and picked up “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and “You, Happier” by Daniel Amen.

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I’m still haven’t even read half of “Deep Work” but I can already see this is probably a must read for our generation. The basic premise is that we live in an increasingly distracted and competitive world where deep work is getting more and more difficult to do, just as the need for and reward of deep work is getting larger and larger. As the world becomes more competitive and unequal, those able to deep work will reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits while the rest will be rendered obsolete and suffer.

Some more takeaways:

  • Maximize deep work, minimize shallow work (quality > quantity)
  • Being disconnected and undistracted is necessary for deep work. Carl Jung lived in a cabin in the woods, Bill Gates spends 2 weeks/year in a cabin in the woods reading, which is where back in the day he realized the power of the internet and thought to buy Netscape Navigator (this is off my memory so don’t quote me on anything here but it’s at least directionally correct). Cal Newport (author of book, MIT CS PhD, Georgetown professor) didn’t have a smartphone until his pregnant wife forced him
  • Shut work off after a certain time with a “shutdown ritual”. I am terrible at this, and I think it is harming me. Work in the evening tends to be of the shallow low output type.
  • Focus itself is a muscle/skill. I’ve realized that reading books is good if only for the fact that it trains your ability to focus. Cal Newport brings up the example of world memory champions and that what separates them is actually their ability to focus more than anything else. One of these memory champions suffered with ADD (if I recall) and had no natural talent, yet they trained their focus in order to be able to win the world championship.
  • Get off social media. A notable example is J.K Rowling being off social media while she was writing the Harry Potter books.
  • Be comfortable with a “boring” life. Despite having lived a pretty stimulating life having spent the last 5 years traveling the world and the 5 years prior living in NYC, one of my happiest times was also the simplest and most boring – the summer in Blacksburg, VA as a freshman 14 years ago when I worked my first programming job. Every day I woke up at 7am, went to work, returned home, maybe went to the gym or to play basketball, did my own thing (I think I was interested in machine learning at the time so Andrew Ng lectures / lecture notes), then slept. So boring, but I was very happy and at peace.
  • Walking meditation. While you’re walking or commuting, think deeply about a problem.

I’ll have much more to say after I finish the book, but in any case the impact is already profound. Yes a lot of this is probably already obvious, but reading the book and its stories further cements it in one’s mind.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I think short form content like TikTok and Instagram stories are junk food for the mind – breeding ADHD, and is responsible for declining mental health and increasing depression. I’m in NYC now and there’s always some idiot on the subway mindlessly watching this crap on their phone with the volume on, forcing others to participate in their mind lobotomy like secondhand smoke. I would guess that the most intelligent and successful people in the world (the Nobel Prize laureates, most successful entrepreneurs, etc.) aren’t doing this just like they’re also probably not doing heroin and crystal meth (though there might be a few exceptions).

You, Happier by Daniel Amen

The next book I picked up was “You, Happier” by Daniel Amen. My preconceived notion before picking it up was “oh another cheesy book on happiness. I bet it will be lame, but let me take a look to confirm it.” I opened the book up to the different brain types, and was immediately hooked.

I read the descriptions of the brain types, and the “persistent” brain type 3 stood out to me as the one I would probably classify as (sure enough after I got home I took the test and that’s the result I got).

Here’s the summary of Brain Type 3:

Individuals with Brain Type 3 are often take-charge people who won’t take no for an answer. They tend to be strong-willed, tenacious, persistent, and sometimes stubborn. (Sound like you?) They also tend to struggle with worry, have trouble sleeping, and like things to be done a certain way.

Brain Type 3 often has increased activity in the front part of the brain, in an area called the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). We think of the ACG as the brain’s gear shifter. It helps people go from thought to thought or move from action to action. The ACG is involved with being mentally flexible and influences your ability to “go with the flow.” When the ACG is overactive, usually due to low levels of serotonin, people can have problems shifting attention, which can make them persist, even when it may not be a good idea for them to do so. People with Brain Type 3 don’t need more stimulation. In fact, caffeine and diet pills tend to make this type worse.

The best strategy to balance Brain Type 3 is to find natural ways to boost serotonin to calm the brain and body.

I ended up skimming probably the whole book. Here were some takeaways:

  • People have different brain types such as spontaneous (lower activity in prefrontal cortex), persistent brain type (quoted above), sensitive (increased activity in limbic system), cautious (heightened activity in anxiety centers), and balanced. Different brain types benefit from different activities and foods.
  • Get rid of ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). There are many types of recurring negative thoughts – fixation on negative things from the past, anxiety about the future, etc. Ask yourself if a thought is useful and adds value to your life, otherwise throw it out.
  • Frame things positively. Glass have full. Ask yourself what went well today and what you’re grateful of. Yea it might sound cheesy as hell, but being positive and optimistic will actually make you happier.
  • Persistent negative thoughts associated with declining cognitive function
  • Different cultures have different words closely related to specific kinds of happiness. I will not even attempt to spell those words from memory, but those countries included Denmark (hygge – enjoying being indoors on a freezing day by a fireplace with family/friends playing a board game), Netherlands, Germany, Sweden (enjoying outdoors even when it’s freezing cold), Norway, Hawaii, Nigeria (ubuntu, or community), Indonesia, Japan (walking through forest), Bhutan. As I walked back to my hotel in the freezing cold, I tried to remember that Scandinavian mentality of appreciated cold weather. If those countries can rank the highest in the world on happiness, then I can appreciate my walk in the cold.

In the end I didn’t work on my “side project” tonight, but I have absolutely no regrets and really enjoyed getting lost in these random books, expanding my mind, and training my focus. This was basically a practice of me shutting work off in the evening, which given my fatigue was the right move (I actually worked on my side project till 5am last night – hence the fatigue). I’ve got goals for the week and schedule, so as long as I follow that, I’ll be on track. My plan will be to wake up earlier and tackle the side project work first thing in the morning while my brain is sharpest and energy highest before shifting to day job work.

Personally I get a huge jolt of happiness out of expanding my mind, learning something new, and/or having something new/interesting to think about.

I also notice that practicing focusing, which is what reading a book or even exercising / going to the gym does, makes my brain more centered, sharper, and relaxed. It’ll take a lazy perpetually unsatisfied and restless ADHD-esque brain craving some stupid social media refresh / endless scroll dopamine hit and turn it into a controlled, confident, powerful laser.

Summary:

  • Reading books trains your focus
  • Learning and expanding your mind is fun (and a hell of a lot more fun that repetitive recurring thoughts)
  • Don’t need to be “productive” all the time. Our brains can only handle so much intense deep work, maybe 4 hours/day. If you’re working from morning until late in the evening, chances are that work in the evening is shallow work, and may just be making you feel better more than it is actually resulting in serious output, particularly over the long run. Try to shut off work at a certain point in the evening (Cal Newport’s ”shutdown ritual”), and in the evening give yourself permission to read a book unrelated to your work, or to do some writing.

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