Well, my friends, get ready to toss some confetti. Because I've just discovered another awesome book that you are going to love.
It's exciting, compelling, and challenging. It's definitely going to force us to build strength in a few areas.
But best of all? It works at developing a key skill in creating high quality work.
Which is what you're working on. Which is what I'm working on.
We all want high quality writing, yes?
So this is our next thing to learn.
The book is Deep Work, by Cal Newport. It's a bit of a wake-up call about how we are currently working, and what the results of that kind of work are.
Eye-opening, and oh-so helpful.
The subtitle is, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. No surprise, then, that Cal Newport is discussing how we can habitually work with a serious, life-changing amount of focus.
He has this equation that I just loved:
High-Quality Work Produced =
(Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)
... And if the math-ness of that makes your head explode (I hear you!), then here's the game-changing truth:
To make the best kind of work, we need to focus acutely within the time we have.
In fact, our ability to focus intensely makes a huge, across-the-board difference, within every single minute we spend at our work.
If you only have half an hour to write each day, you need deep work practices, to make that the most dynamic half hour possible.
And if writing makes up the main part of your day, like mine does: we need deep work practices as well to make the most of each day ... and to keep us from tricking ourselves about how productive we are.
(He makes it clear early on that mere busyness isn't the same thing as creating valuable, quality work. Yipes!)
Oh, and my friends who are gearing up for NaNoWriMo in a couple of months? Yeah. Cal Newport's got your back too. The principles of deep work are gonna make that your easiest 50K ever.
In other words, if you've ever gotten to the end of a writing session, or a writing week, or heck, a writing year (yup, been there!), and said, What did I do with all my time—
This book is for you.
It's for all of us.
Yes, some parts are challenging. But hey, you're a writer. You've signed up for challenging. You eat challenging for breakfast. So this is right up your alley.
Ready to start? Here are four of the best things I learned in Deep Work.
1) What the heck is deep work anyway? And why is it so dang valuable?
Definitions first. Newport defines deep work as:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
What does that mean for all of us writers?
Deep work is about using our total abilities to do our work. It means doing our writing with full imaginative capability, full mental capacity. The works.
ALL our brain cells doing their part, to help us dream up, draft, revise, sculpt, polish, and complete our amazing bit of writing.
So that's why it's seriously important.
Deep work means that you're writing valuable things.
It also means that you're getting better at what you do.
Just by working in this way, you're improving your characterization, dialogue, the flow of information in your story, the pacing, the structure, killer conflict, sentence style, all of it.
Bonus: Deep work practices help make sure that your work is especially unique.
Because you're dialed in, you're working with your whole self. You're tapped into your best ideas. You're digging past those surface clichés and narrative reflexes that we all are familiar with (and accidentally add to our stuff when we're not thinking deeply, whoops!).
In a nutshell, pursuing deep work means that you're going to write the best darned work that you can possibly muster.
Oh, and since your skill is growing all through the process, that next book? Will be even better. You'll keep breaking through your old limits.
... You can see why I'm sold on this, right?? Heck yes, give me a huge helping of deep work! I will sprinkle it on my cereal and stir it into my coffee and have it all the time.
Deep work is worth pursuing.
... But then we hit a few snags.
2) So, why has distraction stopped looking so cute and friendly?
Did you see the words "distraction free" up in that definition?
So ... yeah. Distraction free. That's kinda the first real bump in the road.
To pursue deep work, we need to take a hard look at what we're comfortable with. Where we're already operating from.
And we're gonna have to change some things.
If we're working in distraction-supportive environments (notifications dinging, email chiming, text messages chirping, Facebook facebooking, Twitter twittering), then, um, we aren't doing deep work.
Meaning: we are severely limiting our ability to write valuable things, to come up with our most original stuff, and to grow in our skills.
I mean, YIKES. That's a pretty sizable hit to take.
And ... it gets worse:
In Deep Work, Newport explains the concept of attention residue.
We experience attention residue when we're working on one thing, and then we switch reeeally quick to just check something else—a little look at email, a tiny Facebook snack, a peek at Twitter—and then go back to our first task.
When we come back to our original task, we have this kind of attention hangover. Even if we don't consciously notice it, part of our brain is still paying attention to the email, or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever else we checked out "real quick."
And attention residue can last for ten to twenty minutes.
In other words, our five-minute break isn't five minutes in its effect. Even if we come right back to our work.
We all basically knew that distraction wasn't harmless, but, if you're like me, it seemed like such a fun thing to keep around.
I'd go through periods of cracking down on distractions, but then I'd fall in love with Instagram again. Or want to keep tabs on something on Facebook. Or listen to an Internet radio service with those jarring ads. Or, or, or...
Newport's description of attention residue really convinced me. That hidden cost of switching tasks just seems way too expensive.
Up to twenty minutes of really bad brainpower, for every quick break?! Wasting twenty minutes of work time? Ack!
So, as I type this, my smartphone is shut in a closet. My computer isn't registering any notifications and I don't have any other tabs or windows up. No music playing.
My focus isn't perfect by a long shot. But I can feel it getting better.
(Stay tuned: We'll talk a lot more about how to strengthen our ability to focus in the next blog post!)
3) What do we have to know before we start practicing this stuff?
One of the points that Cal Newport really dwells on is the idea that 1) deep work is hard, and 2) it is a skill that we have to train.
It's not something we can just pick up and be great at. It's going to take work.
It is going to take training.
In other words, we are going to want to stop, give up, shrug our shoulders, and go back to our old ways.
In the book, he quotes some really compelling research findings about how our brains don't just snap back to being able to focus intently.
In other words, this isn't just a question of motivation. It's not just about trying hard and seeing if it works.
It's about taking a muscle that has atrophied and bringing it back to full health and then some.
Why is it so important to know this?
Because the breakthroughs are on the other side of perseverance.
Part of our brain has to learn to walk again: It's going to be painful! Progress might be really slow.
We might forget why we're even doing this, or if it even matters, when it seems like all the cool kids are interacting on Twitter every five minutes.
And if we know, in advance, that it's GOING TO BE HARD, we'll be more willing to stick it out through the challenging parts.
Right now, most of us work in a near-constant exposure to distraction mania. And those distractions actively deteriorate our ability to focus deeply.
Chasing distraction isn't a neutral habit, in other words. Running scared of being bored, scrolling through countless media sites as a reflex, keeping multiple windows going as we work—it's not just slightly bad for us.
It is actively, persistently, and ruthlessly breaking down our chances at doing our best work.
And it's creating a mental dependence on distraction, which is going to make it even harder to learn to truly focus.
Did I say yikes already? Because: yikes. Again.
So, he says, we have to wean ourselves off of distraction.
We have to stop letting our work sessions and our work breaks and our evenings and off times be defined by distraction-oriented activities.
It doesn't mean we all have to swear off Pinterest and the like. But it does mean that we have to be intentional about our use of Pinterest and its friends.
Newport recommends that we schedule our distraction time. That we, quite literally, write down on a piece of paper when we will be indulging in the distractions.
He points out,
The key here isn't to avoid or even to reduce the total amount of time you spend engaging in distracting behavior, but is instead to give yourself plenty of opportunities throughout your evening to resist switching to these distractions at the slightest hint of boredom.
That resistance? Super important.
He mentions elsewhere that, by doing this work, you are literally working to rewire your brain. To retrain it. To pull it back from being distraction-craving and distraction-driven.
And to turn it into something that can focus well and work hard.
(And, you know, write deep and amazing books.)
4) And why does it matter how we end our work session?
One of my favorite favorite parts of the book is Cal Newport's powerful idea of a shutdown ritual.
And believe me, a shutdown ritual is your new best friend.
It's a set series of things you do at the end of your work session to close things down. Pretty basic territory. You might even do a version of this already.
For me, it means:
- checking all email/notifications and dealing quickly with whatever needs my attention;
- checking in with any tasks that I didn't finish today and dealing with them in some way (canceling, rescheduling, etc.);
- planning the next day;
- and then planning specifically how I'm going to creatively refill and refuel that night.
Sounds simple, right?
Here's the key thing, though: our brains need us to officially stop thinking about our work at a certain point.
And here's why that's so cool:
Apparently our conscious mind and our unconscious mind operate super differently. We all pretty much knew that, right?
The thing that I, at least, didn't realize, was that, both parts of our mind are incredible problem solvers.
The conscious mind—the thing that's clattering along right now as you read and as I type—is super good at solving a certain kind of problem.
Newport says it like this:
Your conscious mind ... is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems.
Cool, right? Good job, brains. Very nice.
Here's the interesting part of that description, though: limited problems. The conscious mind handles the smaller things.
What does the unconscious do? Newport continues:
Whereas your unconscious mind is like Google's vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions.
Huge amounts of unstructured info: uh, that sounds exactly like all the info I generate while plotting.
Surprisingly useful solutions to difficult questions: sounds like exactly what I'm looking for!!
You too, right?
Let that sink in for a second.
Your unconscious mind holds spot-on solutions for your very complex, difficult questions.
Like how to save your character from the mega-mess she's made in chapter 47. Like how to figure out your business and marketing plans. Like how to do any of the other myriad, gnarly problems that we face all. the. time.
Your unconscious mind is your hero.
And I don't know about you, but when I'm trying to solve a big problem I can kind of panic, trying to just chug chug chug uphill with my dinky little conscious brain, thinking: If I just work later, if I just keep going, if I just don't let it go til I figure it out...
But this section of Deep Work convinced me: We have to send hard-to-solve problems over to the unconscious mind. To do that, we have to deliberately take them off the conscious mind.
What that means is, we need to kind of train our brains to make the switch. We need a clear, concrete end to our work days. Which is why that shutdown ritual is so dang important.
Newport recommends doing the same sequence of steps, each time you finish your work.
And he even makes the case that, it helps to say something out loud to help make this transition. You're essentially telling your brain, "Okay, the conscious mind is done with this. Over to you, unconscious!! Make me proud!"
This part of the ritual can be simple. Newport says out loud, "Shutdown complete."
I'm usually talking to a bunch of characters, so I say, "Good job, everyone! That's it for today! Sleep well!"
It doesn't matter so much what you say, but keep it consistent.
And the final super-critical key to a shutdown ritual is this: You stop trying to think about your work. For the rest of the day. Yes, really.
No after-dinner e-mail check, no mental replays of conversations, and no scheming about how you'll handle an upcoming challenge; shut down work thinking completely.
And instead of panicking about the problems that are unsolved, we're free to go about our evenings, or whatever our time off is—knowing that the massive resources of the unconscious are working hard on our problem.
COMPLETELY amazing, isn't it? And so very freeing. The shutdown ritual has been one of my favorite parts of applying this book so far.
There's a lot of really compelling information, insights, and suggestions in this book, my friends.
Honestly, it's a must-read for all of us who want to write things that will be valuable for our readers. Who want to write works that will last.
I'm applying the book slowly and steadily, so I'm not on top of everything he says yet. But the small progress I've made has felt really invigorating.
My mind feels a bit less like a sieve, and more like a machine that actually works. I feel less ready to jump up or click away at the slightest craving for a distraction. I feel more on task, more content, and more satisfied in my work.
Which, honestly, is super empowering.
So if you worry sometimes about how well you're working, or how deep you're digging: this book is for you. Get your hands on Deep Work, and let me know what you think.
In the meantime, let's challenge ourselves to get rid of distractions.
Let's be willing to engage our minds in this training work.
Let's give our conscious minds a rest at the end of the work day ... so the big scary-exciting work of the unconscious can begin.
Most of all, let's take courage. One of the best resources for a successful and fulfilling writing career is this deep work ability. And it's right here! Right within our grasp!
It requires no fancy equipment, no flashy tools. Just you, your mind, your willingness, and a whole lotta grit.
Let's practice it, get better at it, and write those amazing stories that the world needs.