Grounded & Steadfast

est. 2008

Signs seem to indicate that the ability to keep our heads in the sand when it comes to our environmental impact may soon disappear. Brooke Jarvis shares how things are already changing from one generation to another in some island cultures.

I decided to walk the islands perimeter, but found it difficult: Large sections of the trail around the island were missing, the land fallen into the waves.

For those who had been on these islands for more than 50 years:

Thomas, who was born here in 1952 and is the father of Kulenus’s current elected chairman, guesses that three-quarters of the island he remembers from childhood — including the land that people once used for gardens — is gone.

I fear stories like this are going to be commonplace in the years to come. What are we going to do about it? As someone living far inland between two mountain ranges, I have little to fear directly from rising sea levels. But that matters not! Just as the Megan describes how the villager explains “the seas are all connected”, so too are all the peoples of this planet.

We have to care. And we have to act. We can’t wait for politicians to come to agreement; each of us can make small decisions every day to make changes. In North America, our purchasing ability carries much power. Use it!

Here are a few resources to see how to make change:


Deep Work: A Book That Can Change You

I received my copy of Deep Work on Jan. 11 and I finished it on a flight to Philadelphia on Jan. 24. I don’t share this to brag about my ability to read books; quite the opposite, I’m fairly slow to finish books due to a lack of time.

The difference here was that Deep Work is a great read and a topic that is timely and of great interest to me. It was easy to pick up the book in the spare moments instead of my phone (a nice change and one of my areas of focus for 2016).

How was the book overall? Fantastic. As mentioned above, the topic is a great interest to me at this time. But an author could write on this topic and end with a much less enjoyable book. I find Cal’s writing to be almost as engaging as it is informative, a nice combination. He does an excellent job of integrating stories and personal anecdotes into each chapter and referring to them throughout the book. Last, Deep Work is well laid out so that you never lose yourself in the overall outline when digging into the depths of a particular sub-topic.

But what about that title? Can this book truly change you? That’s a strong statement, but in the case of Deep Work, it fits. There are only so many books you’ll read in your life that will have a large impact on how you think and live your life. For me, that is probably once every 3–4 years.

But when it happens, it’s such a good feeling. When an author’s thinking resonates, aligns with your own, when s/he says something that takes thoughts that have been half-formed and rolling around in your head and verbalizes them far better than you have, when you have that “eureka” moment, when the ideas in the book challenge and inspire you … this is what makes reading so fun. This is the power of the written word.

I was so glad that Deep Work was one of those books for me!

The Purpose

If taken in the right light, one could read this book and come away with a sense that the purpose is solely to advance your career. That taking Cal’s ideas and techniques and applying will benefit you … and that’s all that matters. And since the application is akin to craftsmanship, it’s not a horrible impression to walk away with.

However, I personally don’t get inspired by books of that sort. And since I did come away inspired, I’ll make the case that the book is pointing to more than just personal gain, even if you have to look for it. Although he focuses on career advancement when making the case for deep work in the early chapters, the latter half of the book makes several allusions to how a focus on deep work and the changes Cal’s advocating will benefit in one’s personal life. That a deep life is a life well lived.

Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.

This quote encapsulates for me what the books is all about. Training ourselves to put our attention that which is most important, will lead to our best work, in all areas of life.

And, as with any book, the reader must give their effort to both understand what the writer is saying, then decide how to apply it themselves. So whatever you purpose is in life, whether career advancement or something far more altruistic, Deep Work can help!

Application to the World of Tech

If there was one area of the book that was weak, it may have been to the world of design and technology. In opening the book, Newport uses David Heinemeier Hansson (or DHH) as an example of excelling through deep focus. For those of us more familiar with DHH and his strong opinions, how he’s portrayed in the book my seem ever so slightly off kilter.

And it was the same for most references to the world of design and tech, the startup culture. It becomes apparent that Cal Newport is aware of this world, but not overly familiar with it (perhaps due to his lack of use of social media). This does not detract from the book overall, but it did have me chuckling from time to time.

The Details

The book is broken into two primary sections. In the first, he makes the case for Deep Work itself; why it’s important and how it can benefit the modern knowledge worker. The second section is the meat, where he shares his ideas on how people can train themselves to consistently perform this kind of work. This is where I found the most enjoyment in reading the Deep Work.

Cal listed 4 rules that form the outline of his methods: Work Deeply, Embrace Boredom, Quit Social Media, and Drain the Shallows. But within each rule, there are several sub-topics (and some of those are further broken down). In the end, the book itself is both easy to read, but also easy to come back to.

Example of Deep Work's outline

This was a book that ended with me making outlines and re-reading many sections. That is exactly what I want from books; not reading, putting aside, then moving on, but truly digesting and meditating what I’ve read, then applying in my life if I concur with what the author had to say.

The content, the writing, and the format itself make Deep Work one of those books that can sit on your desk for months, fraying on the edges, close at hand to refer to at anytime. As you slowly adopt some of the practices in your own life, you can grab the book and open it to the desired topic quickly. Again, this was a non-fiction book I consumed in less than 3 weeks. I can’t make a recommendation stronger than that.

If topics like Drain the Shallows, Embrace Boredom, Meditate Productively, and Make Yourself Hard to Reach resonate with you and jiggle the pleasure centres of your grey matter, get yourself a copy of this book.


This post from Intercom is a little older (although you may not knDiana Kimball takes a lovely foray into examining the allure and the psychology behind apps that allow us to save stuff for later. It’s a slightly longer read, but a good one that can be summed up here:

Bookmarking tools nominally exist to help people return to where they left off — or, at least, to reassure themselves that they will.

Ha, well said! I feel the truth of this statement keenly. Something gets our attention, we use our clever little tools that give us a glowing notification that this items has been saved, we feel the rush of a chemical reaction and are free to move on with our day. Only later do we face the guilt of a stuffed save-it-for-later inbox and the good intentions of our earlier selves.

Kimball not only makes clever observations; she expresses them with flair. Whether describing the cause:

Because the urge to enrich the Database of Intentions is irresistible.

Or the flimsy future of any given bookmark:

To wish is to “feel or express a strong desire or hope for something that cannot or probably will not happen.” To bookmark is a tentative act, verging on fatalistic; there are no guarantees.

Make sure you actually read this one!


On Standing

It’s been almost 3 years since I started standing at least half of my workday. Like so many, I’d often felt the result of too much sitting. After my first 5–8 years in the IT industry, I’d developed a bad habit of putting my left elbow on my desk while my right hand did all the work. This resulted in years of back discomfort and ribs constantly out of alignment.

Standing was one way to improve those poor ergonomics, as well as get me on my feet. After 3 years, I can say there are some great benefits. One, you do tend to move more when standing. I guess it must be because you’re more free to do so, but I will pace when thinking through a problem. At times, I might even dance around and do a little kick and stretch thanks to the coffee and music combination. Standing has lead to more movement in general. I recommend a good standing desk to anyone who works on a computer all day (as well as a good chair for when you do sit).

But is it enough? Signs point to no … imagine that. After these past three years, I can attest to the fact that standing vs. sitting is not the discussion we should be having. It’s inactivity, period. If you’re standing in front of a computer for 8 hours a day, you’re not moving enough. Your heart rate is too slow. While your brain is working away, your body is wasting away.

If you're a knowledge worker, your focus needs to be on how you spend the other 8 hours of your day away from the screen. Feeling tired after a day of standing should not lead to plopping down in front of another screen. And despite all the advice how to counter all the sitting all day, the fact is that our lives of convenience are simply too sedentary overall.

It’s about choices. If you’ve made the choice to have a vocation that involves using a computer for more than 6 hours per day, you should make other choices that coincide with decision. There are plenty of options, but I’ll illustrate with my own life.

We live on an acreage. We slowly moved from small town lots to larger pieces of property partly because we love gardening and yard work. But I soon discovered that I love the physical activity that was required. Now that we’re on an acreage, I can spend a good chunk of my non-work hours working my body as I “work the land”. Gardening and yard work in the summer, shovelling in the winter.

On top of that, we have an outdoor wood boiler and wood is our only source of heat. We could hook natural gas and simply supplement with wood, but I found that being required to provide 100% of the heat for our home ensures I do what is needed. I spend 20 days or so each year getting the wood to our house. Then all fall & winter, I spend time chopping and hauling wood around. Because of this, I was in far better shape in my 30’s than my 20’s (and happier for functional exercise, rather than paying money to lift weights or run in one spot).

Last, I need some cardio type of work. While hauling wood and shovelling can improve your cardiovascular capabilities, they’re not consistent enough. So I play basketball at the local YMCA. They key here is when: there are several options available for evenings, but I choose to play in the drop in lunch hour sessions. This is vital for it breaks up my workday into two sessions of physical inactivity. I’ve found that 8 hours of work with only a break for a meal (or rather, one meal with several snacking sessions) is what leads to my worst days in terms of overall health.

Returning to the my point, I’ve made choices in my life to reflect the reality of my chosen vocation. Not everyone can live on acreage and chop wood for exercise. But there are plenty of options available that can help us to a) break up our times of physical inactivity and b) spend time away from the computer being active. Sports and working out at the gym are obvious ones, but activities such as volunteering, acting, or playing music can improve our health. Even getting from one place to another gives you the opportunity to make choose between being active or inactive (walking vs. driving or transit).

I love my standing desk. But I need more than that and have to proactively make choices to ensure I’m countering the nature of my work.


This post from Intercom is a little older (although you may not know it, seeing as they’ve removed dates from their posts), but highlights a lot of foundational concepts for someone focused on customer success.

One of the fundamental challenges of teaching is the fact that not every student learns in the same way or at the same pace.

There are not many things I enjoy more than coming up with a high level plan to educate customers and make them successful.

But it’s easy to read a post like this in 5 minutes and gloss over the amount of work. Creating screencasts takes a lot of time. Learning to nail a demo process requires repetition. And creating full blown, well written, detailed help material (help docs, guides etc) is a massive effort, involving writers, designers, and success/support staff.
All of this is worth the effort … but be realistic in your planning. A good success function can take months to put in place.


Finding Our Way

Ben Brooks recently voiced both his confusion about the popularity of email newsletters and his belief that anything you can do with a newsletter can be done on your blog instead. And he’s not alone in this opinion. As 2015 drew to a close, I’ve seen a number of statements from various people that suggests we’re still trying to find our way with online writing.

Ryan Van Der Merwe is believes we should double down on the self-hosted personal site:

2015 was the year of Medium and Newsletters, but I feel like we should use 2016 to Make The Personal Blog Great Again™.

Marcelo Somers agrees, but feels that Medium is a good secondary location for one’s content:

@RianVDM I’m rebuilding mine, but plan to cross post to Medium. The value there is insane, and I don’t know why.

Back to Ben, he is doubling down on the personal blog. But for him, the secondary location is email:

You told me newsletters are great, but all i see is a way to fragment my readership.

CJ Chivers responds that things are the exact opposite for him, but it’s dependent on the reader(s):

Interesting take on newsletters by @BenjaminBrooks. … The opposite of what’s true for me, but…different audiences.

His point is that audiences who are not as technically savvy benefit more from an email subscription. I agree completely; RSS can be a pain (for the reader, not the publisher) and has gotten worse as browsers have put it more in the background.

But what is the common thread with all the shared opinions above? Each of these individuals have an online presence and write regularly. And have been doing so for years. It would seem that we’re still trying to figure out how to do this “online writing” thing; we’re still finding our way.

In terms of Medium, or any other free hosted platform (Tumbler, Facebook et al), I’m with Marcelo. It’s a great place to duplicate the content you publish to your own self-hosted site where you're in full control. Medium comes with a built in audience that does indeed seem eager to both share and respond. And although some big names are making the wholesale move to Medium, I’d not recommend that direction to anyone.

But email is another matter.

The case for the newsletter

Back to Ben’s point that anything you do in an email newsletter can be done on your blog: he’s right. And, he’s wrong.

It’s the purpose that makes a difference. For Ben, he seems to not have a purpose for a newsletter:

And since setting it up, almost 400 people have subscribed. I have no clue if that is good or not, but that’s the number. I’ve toyed with how and what I use the newsletter for and the best I’ve found is to pass most of my link lists posts off to it.

That’s sounds like getting a new table saw, but with no project in mind. You can cut up some old wood laying around, but there won’t be much satisfaction involved. I’d argue that email newsletters are fantastic, but they’re best used for specific purposes.

First is the conversion. If you have something to sell, email is still king. Nothing converts like a dedicated readership and for whatever reason, email converts to sales from those readers better than any other channel. If you're like Justin Jackson, Shawn Blanc, or Nathan Barry, growing your email list and sharing your opinions and your projects is a critical part of your marketing plan.

But that’s not the case for Ben. What does he have to sell? His writing. The same goes for me. So why would someone choose to put some content in a newsletter when it can be put on your site instead? Or if you simply duplicate the content from your blog in email, why bother with the extra step?

Well, let’s get that last point out of the way straight off … that’s what we’ve all been doing for the past decade with RSS. Most blog writers don’t give it much thought because most blogging tools (aka CMSes) provide a feed by default. But if the purpose of RSS is to make life easier for readers and update them when we have something new to say instead of making them visit our site manually, email can do that job as well.

So why use the email newsletter format at all? To me … it just feels right. When I started The Weekly Review in 2014, the format was a shameless copy of Peter King. If you're a football fan, you may know the name. Peter is featured on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in America, but long before that, he’s been a writer for Sports Illustrated.

After years of writing for print only, King started a weekly column on titled Monday Morning Quarterback. After many years of growing an audience, SI finally spun the column into its own site. Why was the column so popular? I’d venture it’s the format.

Each MMQB weekly column included different categories of topics. A summary of the weekend’s games to kick things off, then various other blurbs on whatever topics caught King’s attention over the weekend. Along with that, each week has some regular categories: the fine fifteen (top 15 teams week by week), quotes of the week, an awards section, 10 things I think I think, coffeenerdness … on and on. All said and done, King pumped out this column week by week over the course of a year. During the season, that means Sunday night all-nighters and 5,000+ words published the next morning. And it’s something I’ve read without fail for over 5 years.

When I started my weekly newsletter, I knew this was a format that would work for me. Originally, it was intended as added content for a site membership. But even after stopping the membership, I knew if I ever wrote a newsletter again, it would keep on in the same style. The format allows me to share some content I wouldn’t publish on my site. Not because I have something to hide or because the content is offensive … it simply does not fit as a singular blog post.

Could I write one post every week titled The Weekly Review and include all the exact same content? Yes. But it doesn’t feel quite right.

The answer is … it depends.

There are positives and negatives to writing newsletters. Some of my writing is now on my site, some is in my Campaign Monitor account (and Ulysses). Some of my writing is searchable, but some is not. Ben starts his post on the topic stating that he’s not interested in fragmenting his readership. I don’t feel that is the case: each newsletter points back to my personal site. Anyone reading the email knows where to find me.

For those not subscribed to the newsletter, I post 2 items from each week previous to my site. And then to Medium. So I have little concern for breaking up my readership.

What does cause some concern is fragmented content. But for now, the advantage of a more intimate feel and the consistent rhythm of a weekly newsletter suit me well.

It was at this point, dear reader, when my mind was nearly changed. It’s a lovely feeling when writing hones and clarifies your thoughts. Except for those times when writing shows you the flaws in your thinking and you have to go through the pain of indecision. I had to let this one site for a few weeks.

Ben’s concerns on this topic are well founded. There are some negatives to putting your content in email:

  • content is unsearchable
  • content is not exportable
  • content is hosted by a 3rd party platform (even if it’s one I trust, it’s still not great)
  • getting content into Campaign Monitor is more of a pain than publishing to my site (it doesn’t support markdown)
  • email is a pain to style, so less media is included in TWR

On the flip side, there are some positives as well:

  • I can include content that may not feel like it fits on my site
  • proofing via a test email has been more enjoyable and (hopefully) effective
  • the cadence feels right

That last point is filled with whimsy. Why not just publish a weekly column titled The Weekly Review on your site? The cadence is the same, all the content is on your site. After all, Peter King does just that, with much success.

My answer is that is simply feels right. One of Ben’s main points is that nobody likes reading email.

What is the biggest complaint that most people have? They hate email. They have too much of it. They never check it, etc, etc.

On that point, I disagree. Much of our email is junk, but I greatly enjoy some of the newsletters I’m subscribed to. This is likely the point that makes all the difference for our opinions: if someone dislikes receiving email newsletters, they’re not likely to find value in creating one.

For now, I’ll continue using email to deliver this content. It allows me to share some things I would tend not to put on my site, while still publishing the bigger pieces in both places. Readers can choose to follow one or the other, or both. As well, the rhythm of a weekly publication pushes me to write in order to meet the deadline. I like that!

And if intimacy can be a word applied to digital artifacts, then email feels more right in this type of usage.

This article was first published on The Weekly Review newsletter … so meta! Interested? Sign up!