If you saw my last post on Cal Newport's stirring & motivating book Deep Work, you know that a radical new approach to focus is totally necessary if we want to write with super-high quality. It's also vital if we want to grow exponentially in our writerly skills.
Which: we do. Right? All of us. That's what we signed up for.
Focus. It's a big deal.
So ... how do we learn to focus with that kind of intensity? How do we adopt that training program mindset, so that we become writers who dive in deep and write our most incredible stuff?
From the last post, we already know that deep work requires literally rewiring our brain. Which ... is hard. We know that this is going to be a challenge.
So, do we have patience with ourselves as we practice, and a readiness to encounter difficulty? Check and check.
High five. Let's go strengthen our ability to focus.
Where do we begin?
1) Develop a deep work ritual.
Is it just me, or is everyone talking about rituals lately? Morning rituals, bedtime rituals, getting-ready-for-exercise rituals, planning rituals...
Personally, I love 'em. (Shocking, right?!)
Yes, I love the idea of using a clever sequence of little behaviors to naturally lead my mind into the next important thing I'm doing.
It's like an on-ramp for the brain.
Welp, Cal Newport says we need to ritualize our deep work sessions as well. Why?
After describing the rituals of a few successful deep thinkers, he points out:
Success in their work depended on their ability to go deep, again and again—there's no way to win a Pulitzer Prize or conceive a grand theory without pushing your brain to its limit. Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.
Minimizing friction: that is key!! I don't know about you, but some days I feel like my writing time is friction. I can be forever transitioning between activities and making decisions, instead of getting into a good groove and staying there.
I'm sold, Mr. Newport. So, what does a deep work ritual need to do?
He lists three things in particular that a ritual has to incorporate: where you will work, how you will work, and how you'll support your work.
If we're making and remaking these decisions every time we need to settle in, we'll be flooding our deep work time with that transitioning friction.
So, for starters, you need to ensure that your deep work area is a good environment. With a low chance of distractions and interruptions, and enough space to think.
And then, when working: how do you want to structure it? Do you need to keep a certain kind of pace, or consider a certain number of questions or read a certain number of pages?
Finally, do you need some good food (he suggests some good coffee, and you know I'm all "amen to that!"), and some space to move around a little? (He repeatedly recommends walking as a way to enhance thinking ability.)
Personally, I don't have a clear, solid ritual in place yet. But I do have bits of one:
- In my planner, I write deep work mode! next to the hours when I'm planning on being uberfocused. That extra bit of intentionality reminds me to be sure and keep distractions out of my work zone.
- Before I dive in, I sweep my desk space, and clear out anything that would derail me.
- Like my phone. I march it over to my closet, tuck it into a little drawer, and leave it there.
- I pull up a soundtrack of nature sounds on my computer. The rhythm of ocean waves works like an audible cue: time to go deep.
- Finally, I keep a notepad nearby, so that if a distracted thought drops in (I need to text so-and-so! I have to track down that one recipe! Did I ever deal with that one email?) I can note it and not lose it ... but without pursuing the distraction itself.
Yeah, I know. This is pretty basic, and certainly isn't up to the more quirky and eccentric rituals that we hear about. But I'm willing to get there. ;)
And so far, this has been a good framework for supporting my early deep work efforts.
The real key here is to experiment with whatever works best for you. To take care of all those moving parts that would derail you, and make sure that you have everything you need ... and nothing that you don't.
2) Have a plan for your precious deep work time.
The time to figure out how your session is going to go is before the session starts. We don't want to waste precious deep work minutes planning our deep work time, right? Right!
So before you start, be sure that you know how long you're going to work deeply. When you're starting and when you're stopping.
Because when we're working this intensely, it's vital to know that there's only a finite amount of time we're doing this!
Be sure to also give yourself a specific time frame to keep the session a discrete challenge and not an open-ended slog.
And yes, I've thought, "Oh, I'll be fine. I'll just work til I'm ready to stop." Hahahaha—no. For some reason, when my mind doesn't know when it's going to get a break, it starts tempting me to give up, get up, slow down, get bored, and get distracted.
Let's not do that.
Know when you'll start, and when you'll stop. And when you're done, get up and move around and take that break!
One more point about how long we're working: It's tempting to learn about the value of deep work, and then to swear you'll have an eight-hour deep work day, and charge out to save your world with focus.
But that doesn't work so well. That's kinda like me dashing out to run a marathon. (You'd have to scrape me off the pavement after about four miles.)
When we're new to this, it's essential that we start small.
Newport recommends that we aim for an hour of this kind of pure focus to begin with. And actually, it's really all we can muster before our brains are retrained.
If even a full hour sounds especially difficult, I hear you! There is zero shame in starting with even smaller amounts. Twenty minutes of total focus can be really challenging and super rewarding!!
And it's shocking how much good thinking you can get done, in twenty focused minutes.
(When we get super good, we'll be looking at four hours of deep work a day. Even the masters can't do this indefinitely!)
Also, what kind of work will you be doing? We'll answer that next:
3) Know the difference between deep work and shallow work.
Shallow work is another central concept in this book. Shallow work is the stuff that we still need to do ... but it doesn't require the same amount of focus, and it isn't generating huge value like deep work.
Newport defines shallow work like this:
Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
For me, shallow work is the busywork of dealing with computer updates and gathering resources. It's filling out forms, running errands, editing photos, fixing the printer. It's dealing with email and shuffling files and organizing papers.
Anytime I think, if I had an intern or a clone, I'd have her do this!—that's shallow work.
Shallow work isn't bad. In fact, it's completely necessary! It doesn't take as much focus, so it has a lighter feel to it.
The reason we need to recognize it is because we're tempted to drip our shallow work all through our day. It can sprawl across our schedules and just take over.
But it simply isn't coming from the same place as our deep work. If we blend the two all day, we keep ourselves from going deeply and doing the kind of lasting work that would, well, make a name for ourselves.
(Doesn't that give you shivers?)
If you have days that look like this kind of once-typical day of mine, then you get where I'm coming from:
- work a bit on the draft
- um, I'm bored/stumped, so I'll check email...
- oh, sweet, blog comment! I'll dash over and answer that!
- okay, right, focus: work a bit on the draft
- I need a new computer update!
- Oh, I should back up my computer while I'm thinking of it, can't risk losing data!
- while it's rebooting, let me just clear my email inboxes on my phone . . .
- that outfit on Pinterest is so cute. So are a dozen of the recommended pins alongside it...
- Oh, right! Drafting. Drafting drafting drafting.
- Geez, I'm hungry...
THAT is an oh-so typical blend of shallow work and deep work attempts. Sure, I can get some important shallow work done, but when I keep switching back and forth, my drafting (aka deep work!!) suffers.
Because when I'm drafting from a shallow-work mindset, my scenes feel more sketched than deeply dreamed. My characters act more clichéd, their dialogue a little too rehearsed.
We can't completely cut out our shallow work—some important things would fall apart. But, we can't let shallow work take over our valuable deep work time, either.
Newport recommends, instead, batching our work. That's why the deep work ritual is so important: Get into deep work mode, and do the deep work, no distractions!
And then, get into shallow work mode. Scrape all those lighter tasks together and knock them out at once, staying in that mindset throughout.
4) In fact, give yourself a shallow work budget.
This is such a cool suggestion, and it's one I have yet to implement. But I think that, when I do, it's going to be huge.
Here's the idea. Newport recommends talking to your boss (for those of us writing for ourselves, that's us) about the difference between deep work and shallow work.
Our deep work time will bring the most valuable work to our "company." Our shallow work time won't be so much about generating value, but it will keep everything running smoothly.
Both are important, no question.
Here's the question for our bosses, aka us, to wrestle with:
How much time per week should we spend doing each?
Wherever you're at, this is a great question to think through.
His suggestion for self-employed knowledge workers (like me, like you, if you're working on your novel and/or building your brand): the ratio should probably be around fifty-fifty.
So, roughly half our time we spend digging in deep with our novels, writing our best stuff. Working with pure focus, operating as our absolute best and smartest selves. Thinking amazing thoughts. Growing our skills.
The other half of the time we're answering emails, editing photos, planning social media campaigns, tweaking newsletters, etc.
And then, as you settle into this rhythm, track your time each day. He says it's an eye-opening and helpful way to keep yourself honest: to keep shallow work in check, and to keep your deep work in your sights.
So, if anyone has swamped her day/week/month by deciding that she needs to clean out allllllll her file folders instead of facing the next few scenes (who, me?? never!) ... yeah, this is gonna help with that.
5) We already said it, but, it's time to make it official: Distraction, we're breaking up with you.
Oh, Distraction. You talk so sweet, but you clearly don't love us as much as you say you do.
You mess with our game, you change our brains, and you keep us from doing our best work.
And you pretend it's all in fun.
Nope. Not okay anymore, Distraction.
We're all signing off. We're done with constant notifications, chiming, buzzing, dinging, ringing. We're going deep. We're practicing mega-focus.
We're not afraid of being bored. We'll find new ways to stay entertained. We'll notice what's around us and be fully present, instead of disappearing into your mile-a-minute maelstrom.
And when we truly need a Pinterest hit or a Facebook fix, we'll schedule that time like the deep workers we are, and go check our sites happily for that pre-scheduled half hour, or however long we've decided.
We aren't at your mercy anymore, Distraction. We're taking our power back. No more falling into your lost minutes, lost hours, lost days.
Distraction, we're done. It's not us: it's you.
Ya gotta go.
On the face of it, a lot of these tips are common sense, right? This "deep work" stuff can sound like just cleaning up some habits around working well. I get that.
I think what makes these ideas feel so weighty to me, though, is because Cal Newport treats deep work like a whole new level of working.
Near the book's conclusion, he says,
Deep work is way more powerful than most people understand. ... To leave the distracted masses to join the focused few, I'm arguing, is a transformative experience.
He makes the case that as we learn to do this, we won't be saying, "oh, yeah, I guess I polished that novel rather nicely."
It's more on the level of, "holy crap, I just took that whole GENRE to new heights," or, "I created a different kind of story form," or, "I destroyed the pre-existing limits on this kind of publication launch."
It's about solving problems in a huge way. It's about shattering our previous ways of working, our small successes and tiny increases. Trading all that in for absurd levels of growth, productivity, and understanding.
This is rocket fuel, in other words.
So, if you're in, if this sounds awesome, here are a few deep-workian questions to consider:
What's your deep work ritual look like? Or, if that sounds daunting, what's at least one way you can signal to your imagination and your brain: we're goin' deep!
How long of a deep work session do you want to start training with? Remember, a killer twenty-minute block is much better than a terrifying one hour, when you're getting started! Don't be ashamed to start small.
What kinds of activities in your typical work week qualify as "shallow work"? Nothing wrong with them, but they just don't come from that mega-focused place. What would it look like if they had to take up only half your time (or less!), and the rest of your time went to pure, total focus?
And yeah, we just broke up with Distraction. What do you need to do to make it official?
Remember: It's easy to feel like we're focusing well enough. That we already know what focus feels like, thanks, and why must we go to extremes? Isn't that a little harsh, a little crazy, a little weird?
The truth is,we underestimate the power of this level of focus, because most of us (myself included!) have never really, actually, consistently tasted it.
We don't know what it can do, and we assume that we're working as well as we can.
I think it's worth it, my lionhearted friends, to dig in and really try for this.
Personally, I love the idea of my time—that very finite resource!—doing radically more than it currently is. Of having richer insights, more imaginative work, and better everything.
Woo! I'm getting chills.
So I'm on board with this.
Oh, okay, and one last thing: If all this focus talk makes you feel like your brain is going to fall out, and also like, what the heck, Lucy, that last month was all self-care all the time, and now I feel like you want me to be a machine...
I got you. On Thursday we'll be talking about strengthening our ability to play. Which is the other half of this deep work equation.
OH yeah. We'll balance it out. High five, my friend.