How to Improve Your Productivity as a Writer with Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep Work, by Cal Newport

I picked up Deep Work: Rules for Focused Work in a Distracted World because I love self-help books, especially about productivity and the human brain.

So what is deep work?

From the book review:

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.

Newport’s essential premise is that the ability to work deeply is becoming increasingly rare in our current world while at the same time becoming increasingly valuable in our competitive, increasingly knowledge-based economy.

Writers are knowledge-workers. To rise to the top as a writer requires the ability to focus and work deeply, without distraction, for long periods of time–effort required to get that thing done.

So naturally, I gobbled this book up. Anything to help me get better as a writer.

My First Reaction, as a Reader

I loved this book. I highlighted the bejeezus out of it, which is saying a lot because the highlight feature on my Kindle is unwieldy and annoying. And since it’s a library book, I’ll never see those highlights again.

But it feels worth it, because there is so much pure gold in there.

Because after explaining the science behind how deep work is valuable and makes me happier (and why I should maybe buy noise-cancelling headphones), the book then walked me through concrete strategies for how to integrate deep work into my own life.

After Some Percolating, as a Writer

I’m not a nonfiction writer, so I didn’t read this book with an eye for how to improve my writing. Instead, I read this book to see how I can improve my writing process.

And it delivered.

Newport’s 4 Rules for How to Do More Deep Work

  1. Work Deeply – Make deep work part of your routine (whatever that looks like), so you don’t skip out on it for more shiny, distracting things.
  2. Embrace Boredom – That time waiting in line is a good recharge for your brain. Avoid the temptation to reach for your phone.
  3. Quit Social Media – Self-explanatory. He doesn’t advocate for “become a hermit” status, but almost.
  4. Drain the Shallows – Get rid of the shallow, non-essential activities in your life and be ruthless about it.

So how will this make me a better writer?

Integrating Rule 1: Deep Work Into My Writing Practice

1. Track Hours of Deep Work

I’m taking a trick straight out of Newport’s book and am going to start tracking how many hours each day I work in complete concentration. He suggests using tick marks–and then when I complete a project, circle the hour during which I finished it. This will give me a better sense of exactly how many hours it takes me to complete a project (like this blog, for instance).

I’m excited to see how many hours of deep work it will take for me to completely revise my novel. . . Any guesses?

2. Make It Routine

“The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life. This is designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.”

I already have a routine, kinda. I journal every morning with a hot cup of coffee. But sometimes it’s before working out, sometimes it’s after working out. Sometimes (a lot of times) I skip the workout altogether, and I journal for a really long time and that bleeds into the time I should be working on writing projects.

But a rigid “every day I do e.x.a.c.t.l.y the same thing” seems a little daunting too. But maybe that’s how to do it? So right now I am compromising. I commit to doing basically the same thing every morning five days a week. That feels like a good reasonable start. Weekends are freebies.

3. Stop Pretending I Can Multitask

Did you know that multitasking isn’t really a thing? I thought that was because your brain technically can only work on one thing at a time. And maybe it is.

But it’s really because there is something called attention residue. Every time you switch tasks, your brain leaves a little residue, a little bit of attention, behind on the previous task. There’s some lag time until you completely switch over to your next activity, while your brain works to catch up, meaning you aren’t mentally operating at 100% for a hot second.

So if I’m switching between writing this blog and Facebook and getting in an early check on my work email (guilty), then each time I come back to the most important task–this blog–I’m not operating at my best. My brain is still distracted.

SO.

One thing at a time.

4. Create a Shutdown Ritual

Similar to the attention residue mentioned above, your brain has a hard time letting go of things at the end of the day. But in order to truly refresh and replenish your brain’s reserves at the end of each day, you need to fully, completely detach from the day’s work. Daily downtime, he says, is essential to daily deep work.

But I can’t fully detach from my day’s work if my brain is still adding to my To Do lists or thinking about the pile of things I have to do at work–or even on this blog or my writing projects.

Newport suggests creating a shutdown ritual, something you do at the end of every single work day, to signal to your brain that it’s time to close up shop and move on to the relaxing stuff. His process involves going over his To Do lists and making a rough plan for the next day. And then he literally says “shutdown complete.”

I’m definitely stealing that. And adding in a robot dance move.

Integrating Rule 2: Embrace Boredom Into My Life

I already like doing things in silence, something that my husband thinks is a little strange. I drive without the radio, jog without music, and generally have abysmal music/podcast playlists as a result. And now I feel vindicated in my habits. Apparently it’s good for my creativity! See, John? See?

Anywho…

That was actually only a tiny fraction of what the chapter was about. The rest includes a lot of other things, like recommending you learn to memorize the order of a randomized deck of cards.

The whole premise of this section is that concentration is important.

“Deep work requires levels of concentration well beyond where most knowledge workers are comfortable.”

But, unfortunately, concentration isn’t just something we can turn on whenever we want. He actually explains that that’s a really seductive way for people to think of concentration–as something we already know how to do but just don’t have the discipline for. “Oh, I just need to summon the willpower to do it, and then I’ll be able to concentrate for hours. I could transform my working habits overnight, if I wanted to.”

But it’s not like that. Concentration is a muscle that must be worked out and strengthened. So if I’m not practicing regularly, I wont be able to concentrate as deeply as I must to finish that novel.

So here are the ways that I am going to strengthen my Concentration Muscles.

1. Schedule My Leisure Time, Not My Work Time

The argument here is that in order to concentrate–to work deeply–we need to wean our brains from our dependence on distraction. Otherwise as soon as something gets hard, we’ll just, oh, pop over to Facebook for a hot second. I know that I do that aaaaaaaallllll the time when I’m writing. This is hard–Facebook. I don’t know which word I want to use here–Facebook. I don’t–Facebook. Sometimes my fingers hit Ctrl+T and start typing out F-A-C-E before I even register that I’m trying to distract myself. Creepy.

So he proposes scheduling out blocks of time to get on the Internet. And if even I need to look something up in order to keep going on the productive thing I’m doing, but can’t because it isn’t time yet to get online, too bad, so sad. Gotta wait.

The idea is that I can schedule these Internet blocks as frequently as I want, but that I respect the blocks when I make them. It prevents the constant, instant switching that has (already) trained my brain to shout “SWITCH!” when things get boring or challenging. Instead, I need to push through that discomfort.

Delaying the time between my brain’s impulsive “give me the Internet!” and the gratification of getting what I want (again with the brain science!) will increase my ability to dig into hard things and stay focused until I get it done. Which is what this is all about.

2. Do Brain Calisthenics

Newport suggests doing things like:

  • Once a week or so, set artificially short deadlines for projects. This will force me to fully concentrate (and stress out a little) to get the project done, giving my brain practice on working intensely–being wholly engrossed in a project with absolutely no time to get distracted.
  • Whenever I’m out walking or jogging (or doing some similar repetitive, mindless task), choose one small problem and focus my attention on solving it before I get home/finish the task. While this will help me solve that problem (leading to increased productivity), the idea is that I’m really sharpening my brain’s ability to think deeply.
  • Memorize a deck of cards. The book taught me how. And aside from a super cool party trick that will make me very popular (cuz who doesn’t want to sip beer and watch me call out the order of 52 random cards?!), it forces me to concentrate my attention on a clear target over and over again.

As Newport says, “your ability to concentrate is only as strong as your commitment to train it.”

I’m on board with all of them. Even the memorizing cards bit. Watch me build myself a super brain! *cue evil laugh*

(Also, after I wrote the section above, I immediately got on Facebook. Didn’t even REALIZE I WAS ON IT for a solid few scrolls there. Yikes. I need to start this brain training regime immediately.)

Integrating Rule 3: Quit Social Media While Still Maintaining a Network

This section was particularly hard for me to read, not because I’m addicted to social media (I’d like to think I’m not) but because I was constantly interrogating what Newport was saying it with a small, whimpering, “But what about for my career as a writer?” Everyone and their dog says that writers need to be on Twitter, they need to create a following, they need to be online.

So don’t I?

According to Newport, yes and no. Mostly no.

His essential argument here is that craftsmen carefully select the tools they use to do their work based not on if it’ll provide some value, but if the value it provides significantly outweighs the disadvantages of adopting that particular tool.

So while the “tools” of social media do each provide some value, that marginal value added has to be weighed against the more significant disadvantages (in Newport’s mind) of being so distracted by the dang things that you’re not working deeply and creating anything. And then at that point, is that social media tool really worth it?

How I Utilize Social Media as a Writer

  1. One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2018 was to get on Twitter and tweet once per week. I was an early adopter on the platform, so I have my own name as my Twitter handle (cool), but I basically am never on it and don’t know how to use the thing (not cool). Everyone says that writers need to be on Twitter, and  there are all types of articles out there to help writers better navigate the waters. But how important is it really? I mean, if I’m too busy learning to be snarky in 140 characters, then I may never write a good book. And you can’t sell something that doesn’t exist. Unless you’re a scam artist.
  2. I’m on Facebook too often. I kinda hate it at this point, but I’m still on it. I am connected to more people here than any other network, and this feels like the best place to create an Author page and gain some following, when the times comes. Could I dip out until then?
  3. I genuinely like Instagram. I like taking pictures and seeing the visual updates of people’s lives. I’m probably best at this platform, and follow a few writers who use it really really really well. I feel like I could be the most successful–and happy–here.

So social media platforms each have good things about them. But that’s not the question. The question I need to be asking myself is, does the value they bring outweigh the disadvantages?

And I’m beginning to think more and more that maybe it doesn’t.

One of his arguments does make me feel better–even if that wasn’t his intention. He tells people to take a 20 or 30 day hiatus from social media and see if anyone notices you’re gone. He contends that no one will. You’re basically insignificant to other people, he says.

It’s supposed to make you feel bad and realize that people aren’t actually waiting with bated breath for your next post. So you should get over yourself.

But it actually gives me hope. Because if I can disappear from online for a few months, posting just occasionally, then no one will notice I’m gone and I can get on with that deep work that will help me finish this book and make it good.

I like.

Integrating Rule 4: Drain the Shallows Absolutely Everywhere

Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. It’s logistical in nature, undemanding, and easy to replicate. Things like answering emails, attending (most) meetings, researching the best laptop to buy, and calling to set up a dentist appointment.

“. . . Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated. This type of work is inevitable, but you must keep it confined to a point where it doesn’t impede your ability to take full advantage of the deeper efforts that ultimately determine your impact.”

So my plan?

Get rid of all the things!

I’m already getting rid of extra clothes and stuff around my house (thanks to the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), so now I’m just going to extend that logic into everything else, like clearing out commitments that clutter up my schedule. I’m going to be a lean, mean writing machine with zero distractions!

Oh wait.

“We should see the goal of this rule as taming shallow work’s footprint in your schedule, not eliminating it.”

Hrm.

Still though. There’s a lot I can do to cut the fat in my life to make room for writing time.

Things I Want to Implement Immediately:

  1. “Schedule every minute of your day” is his first suggestion. But that’s a little extreme for me. I won’t be scheduling my days down to the minute, BUT I do respect the idea that I should know what I’m doing with each portion of my day.
  2. Saying “no” a LOT more. My first response should be a “no,” not a “yes.” I’m going to start guarding my time more jealously.
  3. Start ranking the depth or shallowness of each task, so I can make sure that I’m prioritizing the right things.
  4. Finish my work by 5:30 p.m. Every. Day. He suggests setting a hard and fast deadline for the time you leave the office (or in my case, shut down my laptop) and then sticking with it–no matter what. This forces people to work backward and truly prioritize their time (and work deeply) to get their work done.
  5. Be hard to reach. Thankfully, I’ve already cultivated that particular talent when it comes to texting. So next up, extending it to emails.

In Conclusion

Since finishing this book, I have gotten all fired up about changing my habits. I’ve deleted all the games off my phone and have created a line on my monthly tracker to count my hours of deep work. I completely agree with Newport’s basic premise that deep work is essential to completing real projects, and that it makes us happier, more fulfilled people.

And since I want to write novels, each of which are huge projects that require hours and sometimes years of intense focus, I know that I need to be able to master the ability to focus completely and deeply on the work in front of me, without distraction, if I am going to publish and sell books.

By implementing the strategies in this book, I hope to get there.

 

A Sorta Disclaimer + Note of Encouragement: This post is definitely NOT a full, complete summary of Deep Work. It’s a big book full of research and strategies, and I’m only pulling out the stuff that is especially interesting to me and my own writing practice. I HIGHLY recommend you pick up the book for yourself!

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