What are the basic tools for living a calm, meaningful, and productive life? Consider Newport’s Four Keys

I listen to Cal Newport’s Deep Life Podcast. In Episode 272, Cal begins the show by identifying four foundational tools for productivity. Watch the first ten to fifteen minutes. What are these tools?

  • Calendar
  • Obligation/Status List (More than a to-do list, could be mangaged with a project board like Trello.)
  • Multi-scale Planning Documents (Daily, weekly, and quarterly outlooks, and a review framework like you find in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.)
  • Core Systems Document (A snapshot of how you work and the tools you use.)

These tools are applicable to your job but can be useful in other dimensions of life. They can help you manage your household, lead your family, pursue your hobbies, priortize your volunteer pursuits, or practice your craft. They can help you be a better student if you are in school. How? These tools help you organize your time (calendar), capture your tasks and ideas (obligation list), methodically complete projects (timelined planning documents that interact constructively with your obligations and calendar), and focus your approach to accomplishing your goals (core systems reflect your process–you know how you do it).

When students ask me for advice on ordering or stewarding their life as a follower of Christ, I talk to them about calling, vision, giftings, discerned commitments, and time. Reflection in those areas defines the framework for moving forward. Then, calendar, tasks, pace, and process become tools that can serve us in working out the call, living into the vision, faithfully sharing our gifts, keeping our commitments, and ordering our days as servants of God.

These tools are not only useful for doing more things more efficiently in our jobs, they are also useful for the keeping of time and space to contemplate great truths, rest in God, pursue leisure, find renewal through practices such as retreat and Sabbath, involving oneself in a community of faith, appreciating the riches of human culture expressed in music, art, theatre, and film, and building meaningful friendships and relationships through the intentional cultivation of and participation in community.

Proverbs 6:6-11 says:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.

How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
    When will you get up from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
11 and poverty will come on you like a thief
    and scarcity like an armed man.

And Proverbs 21:5 says:

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
    as surely as haste leads to poverty.

The diligent person approaches their life deliberately and with wisdom. They learn how life works, how the world works, and come to an understanding of matters human and divine. They develop a vision of human flourishing, which in the Christian worldview, includes reconciliation with God and ambassadorship in Christ’s kingdom, not only as bearers of a message, but as witnesses to a redeemed, restored, and renewed way of life.

The outworking of this life finds expression, then, in our families, workplaces, churches, and our broader community, whether city, county, state, nation, or across the globe. We have agency and responsibility. There is an element of life that must be worked out, and faith, in this respect, is not only something we have but something we exercise and learn. We order our lives, not so that we can produce more, though we may, but so that our lives might be used as God would intend, toward the end of blessing our neighbors and, ultimately, the glorification of God (Matthew 5:16).

Cal Newport: Time Management

I liked Digital Minimalism and Deep Work. I’ve been listening to Newport’s Deep Questions podcast. Sharp guy.

I have a lot going on, and I think often about stewardship, productivity, and flourishing. Newport talks here about how to capture ideas, how to configure that information, and how to be in control off the decisions you make in utilizing your time. That’s a three point outline, and it’s alliterative. Those are both things I like. Anyone who has ever heard me give a talk knows this is true.

Cal Newport is the grandson of Baptist theologian and apologist John Newport, and while Cal doesn’t identify with a particular religious tradition, he does spend time contemplating the “big questions.” Fun fact: John Newport was at Baylor from 1949-1951.

Maybe Cal’s love for alliteration is related. Check out his website here.

My Work Setup

Photo by Rafael Pol on Unsplash

Sitting at my desk I’m surrounded by gadgets and gizmos and a ridiculous assortment of notebooks, pens, cords, drawing instruments, post-its, tabs, binders, clips, a label maker, a couple of different cutting devices, pouches, backpacks, satchel bags, folders, plug adapters, storage containers, tablet stands, stamps, paperweights, erasers, letters, envelopes, dividers, portable keyboards, cameras, external USB drives, eReaders, iPods, markers, headphones, tape, and a few talismanic knick-knacks that have come to help me feel at home: a Chewbacca Pez dispenser, a rock I used as a visual in a youth ministry talk (it says “SERVE”), an Evangecube. Stuff.

I have tools that I love. I bought my iPad and iPad Mini refurbished and long after their initial release to save money and because I knew exactly how I’d use them: primarily as word processing machines, secondarily as web browsers, and thirdly as video and music players. I added a Bluetooth keyboard and an Anker tablet stand, and I was all set for work at home and on the road. A tablet weighs less than a laptop computer. I like being able to easily sync across Apple devices, and portability is a must.

The more I’ve used digital tools the more I’ve come to trust, love and adore pencil and paper. I don’t think I need to buy another notebook for several decades–I have that many in reserve. We have an overflow of pencils and pens, too. My Moleskine (large) serves as my journal, I have an 18 month Moleskine planner that is my primary calendar but also as a place to deposit to-dos, memories, and doodles, and I have an older Ecosystem notebook that I fully customized with tabs for goals, ideas, my reading record, quotes, lists, scraps, artwork, stuff my kids have made, fortune cookie sayings, cartoons, pictures, and movie ticket stubs. If you hung around with me at Institute or at FirstLight, there might be a picture of you in that notebook. Maybe.

I’m particular about pens and pencils. I switch often between a wooden #2 pencil and a Uni-ball Vision Elite ink pen; I also employ a black Sharpie for art work and letter writing. We have so many varieties of Post-It Notes, ranging in all sizes, cuts, and colors, that I keep one stack handy in my primary desk drawer and use them liberally until they are gone. Then I reload. I use Post-Its as bookmarks, reminders, additions to my day planner, and signs I can easily post around the house (or other random places).

I used to hate writing stuff out by hand. I thought my handwriting was difficult to read and unattractive. But now I see it for what it is: the unique scratch I can put on paper, irreplicable, and the most basic form of art I’ll leave behind. One of the things I’ve come to love about handwritten notes from friends and family is that even before I read the return address or the signature I know who it is from just by the marks they’ve made, the block letters or the looping cursive. If you want a letter from me just ask. I might even include a doodle.

I’ve also started to collect a lot of stuff for drawing and sketching, inking and painting. My new hobby has also given me reasons to use stuff I already had–mainly Sharpies. But surprisingly, I have a lot of other pens and markers I’ve accumulated through the years that I now make it a point to use.

My go-to applications are Google Drive and Evernote. I’m strongly considering a move away from Google Drive, and as many other Google hubs as possible, because I have privacy concerns. I keep track of my primary to-dos, especially tasks that I’ve routinized, using Wunderlist. I’ve thought about migrating to another to-do app, too, but for different reasons. Wunderlist operates slowly sometimes, and I’d like a smoother interface. I’ve yet to dedicate a few hours to making the switch. I have plenty of data to transfer. My to-do list keeps me on track daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annually.

Over the years I’ve cobbled together a really comfortable desktop computing setup. I have a Mac that I bought refurbished, I designated an older computer monitor as a secondary desktop, I bought a monitor stand to elevate that screen, I have a perfect charging station to keep my tablets upright that also preserves space to charge my phone, watch, and camera, and I have a nice little sound system for playing music at home. Everything hooks together easily, and stays compact in my work area. I still have room to lay out my books.

As for knick-knacks, I’ve named a few above. My desk area has small American flags, a Dallas Cowboys star logo patch, a small African sculpture of a thinking man that was given to me by the Conards, a #1 Dad Trophy my daughter gave me for Father’s Day, a pencil drawing of Jesus by Greg Cissell, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker ornaments my mom had placed on a birthday cake for me a few years ago, a Bob Feller autographed baseball, art created by Susan DeLong that features Numbers 6:24-26, a couple of challenge coins I’ve been given in the past year, plenty of my kids’ artwork, and a ton of LEGO builds. My diplomas are on the wall, as is a piece of art depicting the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost.

My desk has a WACO coaster that my mother-in-law gave to me, which is usually underneath a Klean Kanteen that Molly gave to me, and whatever coffee mug I happen to be drinking from that day (Einstein, Barclay College, Duke Divinity School, Philosophy News, UBC Students, one from our wedding set, a blue one from a set my mom gave me, Perkins School of Theology, a mug with D’s artwork on it, an  FUMC Waco mug, or one of two mugs Molly and I have exchanged on a holiday). My mouse pad says my name. My mom had it made for me a long time ago, and I still use it.

The other assortment surrounding me: books, books, books. There are standard reference works within reach, stuff I aspire to read soon a little further away, and an active stack I’m churning through on my windowsill. Also within reach: five Audobon Society Field Guides: Rocks and Minerals, Birds, Wildflowers, Trees, and Night Sky.

Lately, when I hit the road and go mobile, I throw a few books into my Heritage Leather Bonhoeffer briefcase (thanks to Molly, who gave it to me, and David A., who made it) along with a tablet, tablet stand, one mechanical pencil, one notebook, a keyboard, headphones, and a coffee mug and go to work. Starbucks is about four miles away. I buy a short coffee, drink it black, sometimes ask for water, and try to find a seat.

Right now I’m at my desk at home, which I scored at a rummage sale in Fort Worth. My friend Ryan Thornton helped me get it home, and a former employer allowed me to store it for about a year, since it was too big to fit in my house. There are books nearby that have been gifts and some I picked up from minister friends who were handing off books to another generation.

The things are nice. The memories and the people associated with most all of my things are much nicer.