Wednesday, July 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Deep Work by Cal Newport


(from Amazon):

One of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill, you'll achieve extraordinary results.

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there's a better way.

In DEEP WORK, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four "rules," for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, DEEP WORK takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories -- from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air -- and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. DEEP WORK is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.


Cal Newport makes a convincing argument that "deep work" is the key to eudaimonia.

In our present time of smartphones, social media and constant distraction connection, deep work has become rare.  Those who can focus deeply for periods of time (1-4 hours per day) can be more productive, more valuable and experience deeper satisfaction.

In Deep Work, Newport draws attention to some of our seemingly productive habits that are truly just busyness. For example, forwarding an email with an open-ended question, such as: "Thoughts?" may take the sender just seconds to write/send, but may take the recipient an hour to sort through and respond if they want to do so thoughtfully.  This is what Newport calls "busyness as proxy for productivity." In the absence of clear metrics, people will fall back on what is easiest, and instead focus on being visible.

Newport makes some really great arguments for making time in our schedules for deep, focused work.  Do you want to live a life of constant distraction and shallowness or a life of deep focus where you have clarity on what really matters and can accomplish more?  Although I will take the "Quit Social Media" chapter with a grain of salt 😉, I do have to agree that deep work is necessary if you want to have a life that is truly rich and meaningful.

"I'll live the focused life, because it's the best kind there is." 
~ Winifred Gallagher

Friday, July 7, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

A behind-the-scenes look at the firm behind and the unique work culture that contributes to its phenomenal success

50 million websites, or twenty percent of the entire web, use WordPress software. The force behind is a convention-defying company called Automattic, Inc., whose 120 employees work from anywhere in the world they wish, barely use email, and launch improvements to their products dozens of times a day. With a fraction of the resources of Google, Amazon, or Facebook, they have a similar impact on the future of the Internet. How is this possible? What's different about how they work, and what can other companies learn from their methods?

To find out, former Microsoft veteran Scott Berkun worked as a manager at, leading a team of young programmers developing new ideas. The Year Without Pants shares the secrets of's phenomenal success from the inside. Berkun's story reveals insights on creativity, productivity, and leadership from the kind of workplace that might be in everyone's future.
  • Offers a fast-paced and entertaining insider's account of how an amazing, powerful organization achieves impressive results 
  • Includes vital lessons about work culture and managing creativity 
  • Written by author and popular blogger Scott Berkun ( 
The Year Without Pants shares what every organization can learn from the world-changing ideas for the future of work at the heart of Automattic's success.


In May 2017 I celebrated my 10 year anniversary of working remotely!  When I first started working from home, people typically called that type of work arrangement "virtual" or "work at home" (WAH).  In 2013 Jason Fried published the book Remote, which really popularized that term ("remote") and brought it to the forefront of communication among companies where people work from home (or are "distributed").  As a remote worker, I am often very interested in other distributed companies and how they do things, so when I heard about The Year Without Pants, a book about how Automattic runs an entire company with 120 employees completely distributed all over the world, it piqued my interest.

My book club selected this book for the month of June and I thought it might be fun to share some of the discussion we had (as a group of remote workers) about the book.  We met recently and I asked some questions to get the conversation going.  We had a great discussion!

Below are a few of the questions I asked and our responses:
  1. What do you think was the purpose of this book? 
    • Sharing insight into a world that's different from the norm
    • Comparing remote work to traditional work
    • Sharing unorthodox management
    • Discussing team (and project) management in a remote environment
  2. Was there a specific passage or quote that left an impression on you? 
    • "This is one big problem with working remotely: no one believes you have a job at all." (pg. 11)
    • "No technique, no matter how good, can turn stupid coworkers into smart ones. And no method can magically make employees trust each other or their boss if they have good reason not to.  The best approach, perhaps the only approach, is an honest examination of culture." (pg. 29)
  3. After reading this book, what did it make you want to learn more about? 
    • Job postings at Automattic! 😊
  4. What did the book leave unanswered for you? 
    • How Automattic handles things like finance and paperwork.
We also got into a side-discussion about what makes someone good at working remotely and here were some of the thoughts folks shared about the type of person who would be a good fit:
  • doesn't need face-to-face interaction
  • open to technology
  • willing to learn from others
  • good communication skills
  • used to doing work (and not just being somewhere during specific hours)
  • has clear goals
  • takes ownership/responsibility
Everyone seemed to have really enjoyed the book.  One person specifically said she liked the "storytelling" aspect of it.  The author, Scott Berkun, provides insight into remote work (good and bad) through his own personal experiences working at Automattic for about a year.  We all did joke, though, that Berkun sure did seem to travel to a lot of work retreats in that time period!  

Personally, I thought The Year Without Pants was cute.  If you're interested in, or curious about, remote work and/or want to learn more about Automattic (or Wordpress), I recommend it! 

Monday, June 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: First, Break All The Rules by Gallup Press (Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman)


(from Amazon):

Gallup presents the remarkable findings of its revolutionary study of more than 80,000 managers in First, Break All the Rules, revealing what the world’s greatest managers do differently. With vital performance and career lessons and ideas for how to apply them, it is a must-read for managers at every level.

Included with this re-release of First, Break All the Rules: updated meta-analytic research and access to the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment, which reveals people’s top themes of talent, and to Gallup’s Q12 employee engagement survey, the most effective measure of employee engagement and its impact on business outcomes.

What separates the greatest managers from all the rest?

They actually have vastly different styles and backgrounds. Yet despite their differences, great managers share one common trait: They don’t hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom. They don’t believe that, with enough training, a person can achieve anything he sets his mind to. They don’t try to help people overcome their weaknesses. And, yes, they even play favorites.

In this longtime management bestseller, Gallup presents the remarkable findings of its massive in-depth study of great managers. Some were in leadership positions. Others were front-line supervisors. Some were in Fortune 500 companies; others were key players in small, entrepreneurial firms. Whatever their circumstances, the managers who ultimately became the focus of Gallup’s research were those who excelled at turning each individual employee’s talent into high performance.

Gallup has found that the front-line manager is the key to attracting and retaining talented employees. This book explains how the best managers select an employee for talent rather than for skills or experience, set expectations, build on each person’s unique strengths rather than trying to fix his or her weaknesses, and get the best performance out of their teams.

And perhaps most important, Gallup’s research produced the 12 simple statements that distinguish the strongest departments of a company from all the rest. First, Break All the Rules is the first book to present this essential measuring stick and to prove the link between employee opinions and productivity, profit, customer satisfaction and the rate of turnover.

First, Break All the Rules presents vital performance and career lessons for managers at every level — and best of all, shows you how to apply them to your own situation.


First, Break All the Rules is an extremely valuable resource for managers.

The Gallup Organization interviewed 80,000 managers from 400 different companies.  The results of their study are compiled into this quick read for managers which includes:

12 questions that management can use to measure the strength of the workplace:
  1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person? 
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? 
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count? 
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important? 
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? 
  10. Do I have a best friend at work? 
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress? 
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow? well as the Four Keys of Management (each of which is covered in-depth in its own chapter):
  1. select for talent
  2. define the right outcomes
  3. focus on strengths
  4. find the right fit
This book was eye-opening for me when it comes to the word "talent," which seems to be a buzz word these days. More and more companies are saying they don't care about education or experience because they hire for talent.  But what does that really mean?

Gallup breaks down the different types of talent: striving, thinking and relating, and includes an Appendix with lists and descriptions of the most common talents under each of these areas.  The writers help managers understand the importance of identifying which talents are necessary for their roles and how selecting for those specific talents leads to the success of the employee as well as the company.

First, Break All the Rules is a must-read for managers.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Essentialism by Greg McKeown


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):


Have you ever found yourself stretched too thin?

Do you simultaneously feel overworked and underutilized?

Are you often busy but not productive?

Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?

If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the Way of the Essentialist.

The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done. It is not a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.

By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.

Essentialism is not one more thing – it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to learn who to do less, but better, in every area of their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.


Last year I read and reviewed First Things First by Steven R. Covey. Although I felt Covey's concepts were great, I struggled to get through the book.  Essentialism is similar in theory, but presented in a way that is so much more delightful to read and easy to absorb.

For me, reading Essentialism was life-changing. McKeown's concept is simple: Less but better.

For those of us who are high achievers, we tend to take on more and more.  It's what makes us stand out.  It's what results in us getting promoted.  But it's also what leads us to get buried.  We take on so much that we can't get anything done.  We're pulled in a million different directions so any progress we do make seems minuscule in the grand scheme of things.

McKeown explains how this affects us psychologically.  He encourages us to identify our own priorities -- "our biggest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize."  And he helps us think through the obstacles that come up and how to start saying no to the things that don't help us accomplish our own goals.

"If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no."  

Above all, McKeown helps us understand that the practice of essentialism is a constant effort. It takes discipline every day to set priorities and focus on the things that are most important without getting sidetracked by other people's agendas.

"The best asset we have for making a contribution to the world is ourselves."

I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg


ABOUT THE BOOK (from Amazon):

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of The Power of Habit comes a fascinating book that explores the science of productivity, and why managing how you think is more important than what you think—with an appendix of real-world lessons to apply to your life.

At the core of Smarter Faster Better are eight key productivity concepts—from motivation and goal setting to focus and decision making—that explain why some people and companies get so much done. Drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics—as well as the experiences of CEOs, educational reformers, four-star generals, FBI agents, airplane pilots, and Broadway songwriters—this painstakingly researched book explains that the most productive people, companies, and organizations don’t merely act differently.

They view the world, and their choices, in profoundly different ways.

A young woman drops out of a PhD program and starts playing poker. By training herself to envision contradictory futures, she learns to anticipate her opponents’ missteps—and becomes one of the most successful players in the world.

A group of data scientists at Google embark on a four-year study of how the best teams function, and find that how a group interacts is more important than who is in the group—a principle, it turns out, that also helps explain why Saturday Night Live became a hit.

A Marine Corps general, faced with low morale among recruits, reimagines boot camp—and discovers that instilling a “bias toward action” can turn even the most directionless teenagers into self-motivating achievers.

The filmmakers behind Disney’s Frozen are nearly out of time and on the brink of catastrophe—until they shake up their team in just the right way, spurring a creative breakthrough that leads to one of the highest-grossing movies of all time.

What do these people have in common?

They know that productivity relies on making certain choices. The way we frame our daily decisions; the big ambitions we embrace and the easy goals we ignore; the cultures we establish as leaders to drive innovation; the way we interact with data: These are the things that separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.

In The Power of Habit, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg explained why we do what we do. In Smarter Faster Better, he applies the same relentless curiosity, deep reporting, and rich storytelling to explain how we can improve at the things we do. It’s a groundbreaking exploration of the science of productivity, one that can help anyone learn to succeed with less stress and struggle, and to get more done without sacrificing what we care about most—to become smarter, faster, and better at everything we do.

Praise for Smarter Faster Better

“A pleasure to read . . . Duhigg’s skill as a storyteller makes his book so engaging to read.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Not only will Smarter Faster Better make you more efficient if you heed its tips, it will also save you the effort of reading many productivity books dedicated to the ideas inside.”—Bloomberg Businessweek

“Duhigg pairs relatable anecdotes with the research behind why some people and businesses are not as efficient as others.”—Chicago Tribune

“The book covers a lot of ground through meticulous reporting and deft analysis, presenting a wide range of case studies . . . with insights that apply to the rest of us.”—The Wall Street Journal


I read and reviewed The Power of Habit last year.  I thoroughly enjoyed that book.  It made me want to read anything and everything by Charles Duhigg.

Smarter Faster Better is similar to The Power of Habit in that it is also jam-packed with fascinating stories and information. Both are books you could probably read over and over again and get something out of them every time.  Smarter Faster Better, though, is different in that it's not centered around one thing (i.e. "habits"). Instead it's about a LOT of different things -- the names of the eight chapter give you an idea of the overview: Motivation, Teams, Focus, Goal Setting, Managing Others, Decision Making, Innovation and Absorbing Data.  All of these topics are related to being "smarter, faster and better" in the workplace.

Some of the more powerful messages for me were:
  • The importance of psychological safety discussed in chapter 2: "Teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels."
  • The five different types of corporate culture described in the chapter 5: "Hands down, a commitment culture outperformed every other type of management style in almost every meaningful way."
  • The paralyzing effect of information blindness which is "our mind's tendency to stop absorbing data when there's too much to take in." Our brains get overloaded when faced with too much data (or too many choices) and it functions best when we break things down to two or three options.
I highly recommend this book to anyone in a position of management or leadership.