4 Books That Made Me Think

Book with bookmark on a rug in front of plants

The month of January found me reading voraciously. A friend of mine joked that every time she saw me I had a different book. I was reading in almost all of my free time, in part due to my self-imposed ban/experiment of Netflix or YouTube only on Sundays (more on that later) that I started on a whim, and in part because I just love to read.

Over the past few months I’d gone through my to-read list of books and had cut it by more than 50%. I got it down to only the books that I wanted to read, as opposed to having some thrown in that I felt like I should read but in reality wasn’t interested in. It was a surprisingly liberating experience that I’ve replicated in other parts of my life and would recommend. I was surprised how I could feel a noticeable opening in my mental space after saying no to something as simple as a book or podcast that I felt like I should read or listen to and limit it to only my interests.

I think that’s also part of why I ended up finishing so many books in January. If I was in the middle of a book and wasn’t enjoying it, I would just stop wherever I was and start a new one.

Now, after finishing close to 20 books here are three that I really enjoyed and found myself thinking about long after I turned the final page.

  1. Deep Work by Cal Newport
  2. Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀
  3. The Circadian Code by Satchin Panda

Deep Work by Cal Newport

I found this to be a solid book about the importance of uninterrupted stretches of time with high concentration towards your work. The ideas weren’t groundbreaking, we all know focusing on what’s important and dedicating time to your work is the key to getting things done, but I liked what Newport had to say. Particularly about the depth of focus and arranging your time so you have periods of intense concentration and times to work on more admin tasks (shallow work) which he gives three different models of. I also found the Eudaimonia Machine an interesting idea of one way to make your working environment set up for different “levels of focus”. In an age with increasingly fragmented attention I think this is a skill that shouldn’t be left to the wayside. It made me want to re-direct some of my attention to adjusting my current habits to allow for more deep work in my life.

Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀

Stay With Me was one I couldn’t quite get out of my head for several days after finishing. The author creates a story that is entertaining throughout, but in the last third (the best part of the book in my opinion) she manages to weave details that seemed insignificant in the beginning into a deeper reveal that I did not see coming. The characters are both intriguing and flawed and the purple-pink and orange cover is striking. The fact that this was her debut novel impressed me even more.

The Circadian Code by Satchin Panda

This book went into your body’s circadian rhythms and their impact on your overall health. I found what it had to say about the several different “clocks” that your body has, in particular cells in different organs, fascinating and something I’d never heard before. The research on TRE (time restricted eating) was interesting as well and reminded me of intermittent fasting as they’re similar concepts, but I found to be better explained by Panda.

These are books I can see myself coming back to and reading again and are ones I’d recommend if you’re looking for something to read.

Boundaries & Burnout – their necessity for a healthy relationship with your work

I was a single class from finishing school. I’d already completed my degree earlier that summer but had also undertaken an additional certificate that would be completed after a final programming class.

I’d attempted it in an earlier semester but after realizing I wouldn’t be able to pass the class with the way it was currently run, I dropped it. Essentially it demanded perfection from students who were intermediates just to pass. To be frank, if you didn’t have prior knowledge and experience with the subjects covered you were screwed.

As a result, I’d purchased online courses in order to teach myself the subjects that were being covered. The plan was to teach myself over the next several months in the hopes that when I took the class again that fall I’d be able to complete it.

Acknowledging the burnout

I’m quite a driven person and find a lot of gratification in working and making progress on the things I want to accomplish. Working hard isn’t a problem for me. In fact, putting up a boundary and acknowledging when it’s time to give myself a break is where I struggle. As we got into the heart of summer I could feel myself reaching a breaking point.

I’d had quite a chaotic spring semester. In fact, looking back I’m not sure how I managed it all. I was navigating a full course load in school and was working just shy of full-time. I didn’t really have much time in the day where I wasn’t doing or working on something. Sometimes my only “break” would be my hour at the gym, which let’s be honest isn’t really a break. It was just work of a different kind – physical as opposed to mental.

I found myself perpetually tired and drained. I was run down. Teaching myself the programming class became a chore. I’d set myself the minimum of spending an hour every day on the material, hoping that consistent action would create a habit that over the course of the summer months would culminate in me being (and feeling) prepared for the class.

However, most times I sat down to work I was just counting down until when I’d be done. I felt like despite my efforts of consistently working daily, new material was harder to keep in my brain and it took more effort to understand something new than it had in the past. It took me a little while to realize I’d reached the point of burnout.

Giving myself permission to rest

Summer is usually a time of rest for people my age. They’re free from the constraints of the classroom and spend their days sleeping in, hanging out with friends, and working their summer job. I on the other hand could be found working pretty much every weekday morning and once I started college would take a summer class or two.

I don’t say that to complain, those were all things I did by choice (and for a specific reason). But the point is that I went straight from the busiest spring semester I’d had to date, to a schedule marginally less busy. My summer was full with working, school – a summer class and then teaching myself for my final class, and making time for friends or traveling. I’d had no real break in between. No wonder I was burnt out.

An avid traveler, I’d bought a flight to Belize and was heading there towards the end of summer. A few weeks before I was due to leave, I got the news that a different professor would be teaching my programming class that fall.

With much better reviews than the previous one, it gave me hope that he’d run the class differently and in a much more manageable way. The news spurred me to make the decision of giving myself a full break for the rest of summer of anything school related. Groundbreaking I know, summer being a break from school? What a concept.

I’d recognized my burnout and the need for time to slow down and rest. Besides, since this would be my last summer as a student before entering the workforce full time, I wanted to give myself the opportunity to savor it and feel that sense of freedom.

Time for recovery

Before I knew it, I was on the edge of the Caribbean Sea surrounded by the most beautiful water I’d seen in any of my travels to date. Belize has some of the best reefs right now as their government has thankfully made their preservation a high priority. I took full advantage, snorkeling, swimming and otherwise being in the water almost every day I was there.

While traveling solo, I met people and made friends quickly. In fact, I was only really alone twice on my trip and both of those instances were when I was in transit to different parts of the country. Even then, locals were incredibly friendly and assisted me the whole way without me asking for help.

I’d spontaneously decided to leave my laptop at home while heading to the airport and was mostly unplugged the entire time I was away. I’d “check in” to the online world in the early evenings to see what was going on and otherwise let my family know I was alive. But beyond that I wasn’t consuming much digital information. I was interacting with the friends I’d made, reading, or choosing instead to turn inwards and allow my thoughts to entertain me.

On bus rides I found myself not having the desire to listen to music, even when they approached 5 hours long. I didn’t find myself bored and was finding it incredibly cathartic just letting my thoughts unspool and my brain decompress.

We consume such an incredible amount of content every day in our tech-driven world and my head was desperate for a chance to just sift through what was already there. To let my thoughts wander where they wanted without being stifled by another article, podcast, song, or Instagram post.

By the end of my trip I felt rebalanced. On my last day there I found myself starting to reach the point of boredom after a quiet afternoon spent reading and dozing in a hammock on the beach. My thoughts began to turn back towards the work that awaited me at home with excitement. I noticed that my mood’s baseline seemed to have increased and was happier.

When I came back from Belize I made a conscious effort to have a better relationship with my work. To create a boundary and ensure I had a better balance between the time spent working and the time I leave open to other things.

Our culture is one where “the grind” is glorified and working really hard can be seen as something valuable that sets you apart (even when it’s reached unhealthy levels). As an ambitious individual this feels like an especially valuable lesson to learn early on – to acknowledge my limits and set boundaries to prevent myself from surpassing them. After all, I can accomplish much more if I’m consistently working at full capacity as opposed to full capacity in short bursts before spiraling to exhaustion.

The biggest threat to your digital privacy today

I recently read an article about what goes on behind the scenes when a search is made on Google. It alarmed me because the article revealed just how much companies like Google know about you – an even greater amount than I had anticipated – and are run in a way that most people are unaware of.

Not only are they able to influence our perception by choosing what we see, but they’re also putting us in a vulnerable position where our personal preferences are being exploited by marketers trying to put the best ad in front of us – the one most likely to convert to a purchase.

This leads me to believe that the greatest threat to the security of our personal information are behemoth companies or corporations that are “free” to use and therefore use ads to sustain their business model.

Nothing is free, it’s just a matter of what is the cost, and in this case, these companies make their money off you. Your income, gender, location, search history, previous purchases, and the ads you click are all information that has value for someone trying to sell something.

The battle for our attention and in turn, our eventual purchase, has driven advertisers to figure out how to use that information to target us in increasingly personal ways. They are becoming extraordinarily adept at it too, which is why we can have the eerie experience of talking about a product and then see ads for it a day or two later.

The passive stream of personal information being given away to different companies, often without people realizing it, is ever increasing. More and more devices are becoming Wi-Fi or Bluetooth compatible from cameras to refrigerators. We have smart home devices like Alexa or Google Home that can add items to shopping lists, play music, and set reminders. Some of these features require joining accounts – like linking your Spotify to the Amazon account associated with your Alexa – in order to perform these tasks.  This linking process means that data sharing has also begun.

Another factor to consider is the expansion of mobile devices and people turning to them to complete more tasks. This combined with greater numbers of home appliances being able to connect to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, means the possible locations to place ads are increasing every day.

I remember when I could scroll through my Instagram or watch a story on Snapchat without being interrupted. Now I can’t scroll through more than a few pictures or watch a story without being forced to see an ad of some kind.  Interruption is the new norm as more of these micro moments, often only five or ten seconds, become taken advantage of and monetized.

This increase of advertising and collecting of information by companies leads to the building of your own personal digital profile. Something that is very valuable to someone trying to figure out how to sell you something.

Depending on the company, this information will be utilized to better “personalize” features, (as in the case of YouTube and their suggested videos) in the hopes that you’ll spend more time on their platform. Or, the information will be shared with other companies, like how it was revealed that Facebook was giving companies like Netflix or Airbnb privileged access to personal data of Facebook users.  

It feels like we’re currently in a world where companies like Facebook (who’s had many privacy and data breaches in the past few years), are too big to be stopped, and are able to manipulate and collect our data however they’d like. Then sharing it with other companies without consent.

On a cultural level, constant interruption with advertisements as well as the increase in mobile devices, means we’re seeing a decrease in attention span and increasing disconnection in human relationships. When you go into a restaurant it’s highly unusual to see people make it through an entire meal without checking their phone. By taking advantage of the information they have on you, platforms can personalize what you see in an attempt to keep you watching or scrolling, further detracting the quality of human relationships as more time is spent on a screen.

At the heart of this issue is the fact that when services are free to use, and therefore another way of making a profit has to be found, you become the customer at the expense of your personal information. With any opportunity to advertise being taken advantage of and platforms being designed to keep you on as long as possible.

The amount of information an individual consumes every day is extraordinary. As life becomes more digitized, I hope that companies will start to give a higher priority to the individual – the privacy of their personal data and their overall wellbeing – by being more mindful of the impact of their platforms and how they use information.

I’d like to see a reduction in the tendency for companies to exploit every opportunity to advertise. I’d also like to see tech companies design their platforms so they enhance our quality of life, rather than mechanize and monopolize it. We all do better – individuals, communities, and I would argue companies – when we’re not so focused on spending as much time on-screen.