To Live a Good Life, You Need Solid Cornerstones

We all have many areas of our lives that we would like to improve. In fact, there are so many of them that it can get overwhelming.

If you’ve ever tried setting goals for every major category like your career, finances, health, family, education, personal growth, and so on, you probably know what I mean.

It’s easy to spread yourself too thin and make very little progress in all of them. And that’s why I find this little piece of wisdom from Sigmund Freud so helpful:

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.

These two areas are really all you need to master. If you do, everything else will tend to take care of itself. So, let’s explore what it takes to put these cornerstones solidly in place.

Deep Focus

Human beings have a unique tendency to think about stuff that is not going on around them. Unlike other animals, we spend a lot of time contemplating what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.

In a 2010 study1, psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert investigated this tendency for mind wandering. They developed an iPhone app that contacted people at random intervals to ask them:

  1. How they were feeling.
  2. What they were doing.
  3. What they were thinking.

They collected an impressive database with more than 250.000 responses from about 5.000 people around the world. When they analyzed the data, they found something interesting.

Whatever the participants had been doing — whether it was having sex or doing the dishes — they were happier if they were intensely focused on the activity.

In terms of happiness, what they were doing was less important than how present they were while doing it. The researchers summarized their findings this way:

A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.

This is an important insight because it teaches us how we need to approach our lives. We need to bring a deep focus to our cornerstones of work and love.

Deep Work

According to computer science professor Cal Newport, you can do two types of work2:

  • Shallow work, which is non-demanding, logistical-style tasks that are usually performed while distracted. It’s work that creates little new value and is easy to replicate. For example, reactively answering emails.
  • Deep work, which is performed in a state of distraction-free focus and pushes your skills to their limits. It’s work that creates lots of new value, improves your abilities, and is hard to replicate. For example, writing a chapter of a book.

Newport makes the case that deep work is becoming increasingly more rare and more valuable. These days, most people fill their days with shallow work while very few do deep work. As a result, people who cultivate the ability to go deep will thrive in the modern economy.

You shouldn’t try to put in long hours. You should try to put in intensely focused hours. That’s how you get into the highly enjoyable flow state and produce truly meaningful work.

So, schedule recurring time blocks where you do nothing but deep work. At the beginning of these sessions, turn everything off. Put your phone in flight mode, close your email inbox, and shut the door.

When you approach your work this way, you’ll be amazed by how much you’ll accomplish - and how satisfying you’ll find the process.

Deep Love

In a study called The iPhone Effect3, researchers brought people into a lab and split them into two groups:

  • The participants in the first group got to sit down and talk to a stranger while a smartphone was visible on the table next to them.
  • The participants in the second group got the exact same assignment, but instead of a smartphone, a notebook was visible instead.

When the researchers interviewed the participants afterward, the group with the smartphone out reported a significantly lower quality of interaction than the other group.

Interestingly, the phone had been completely silent. The screen was dark. And none of the participants owned the phone. Still, the mere presence of the smartphone was enough to diminish the quality of the interactions.

Of course, it gets even worse if it’s your phone, and you continually pick it up to check the latest push notification. When you do that, you signal to the people around you that they’re not worthy of your full attention. And that’s a surefire way to kill your connection and damage your relationship.

Just like distractions ruin your flow at work, they ruin your presence in your relationships. So, just like you need to practice deep work at the office, you need to practice deep love at home.

Pick a time when you shut off all distractions each day to focus entirely on your family and friends. Give your loved ones your full attention, and your relationships will thrive.

Quick Summary

  • “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
  • “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”
  • Happiness requires that you focus deeply in the areas of love and work.
  • Practice deep work to get into the flow and produce meaningful work.
  • Practice deep love to be present and cultivate thriving relationships.

Footnotes

  1. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind
  2. Deep Work by Cal Newport
  3. The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices