Focus on Writing

I don’t know why I expected writing to be any different.

At work, I got interruptions all the time. It just went with the territory. I had tactics I used in special circumstances, like working at home, using the out-of-office email message, shutting the door. Growling at people who tried to interrupt me. That kind of thing.

It turns out, now that nobody but me cares if I ever finish my current novel, I’m better at interrupting myself than the most demanding boss or team member I ever had. The other name for these interruptions is “distraction.” There are multitudes!

Deep Work

So I just finished a book by Cal Newport called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He aims to teach us strategies we can use to be more like, for example, the guy who published 7 articles in peer-reviewed journals in a single year and had published over 60 articles and at least one book by the time he became the youngest full professor at the Wharton School.

Deep work is what you do in a state of distraction-free concentration. It pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit. It’s the opposite of shallow work which is not cognitively demanding and can be done while distracted. Deep work helps you learn hard things quickly and optimizes your performance. It’s good for you neurologically, because it means you’re paying attention to what’s important to you. It’s good psychologically, because you spend more time in a satisfying “flow” state. And it’s good philosophically, because your work is more meaningful.

Newport proposes 4 rules.

Rule #1: Work deeply. Decide what philosophy works best for you. Neal Stephenson writes his science fiction novels in monastic isolation – he doesn’t do email or conferences. You could do that, or divide your time between isolation and connected times when you’re doing your day job and gathering material for your novels. The approach that makes most sense to me is rhythmic, where you establish habits by setting daily goals and/or a regular schedule so you do deep work every day. There’s also the journalistic mode, where you fit deep work into your schedule whenever you can, planning for it when you plan your week. Then ritualize – set up your work space, your rules (word count goal, Internet ban), and your supports (coffee!). Maybe try a grand gesture like locking yourself up in a hotel room to fully commit yourself. Use business disciplines like focusing on specific goals so you’re saying yes to a few things instead of trying to say no to all the distractions; keeping a scoreboard – his is a checkmark for each hour spent in deep work, and he circles the checkmark when he achieves a milestone; and accountability – for writers, this could be a weekly review of progress and plans. Take downtime seriously; have a shutdown ritual where you review your unfinished work and decide to do it another time, then let your unconscious take over while you recharge your energy.

Rule #2: Embrace boredom. You may think you know how to concentrate, and all you need to do is make the time for it, but you’re probably wrong, Newport says. You need to train your brain by improving your ability to concentrate and overcoming your desire for distraction. Once you’re wired for distraction (smartphone while waiting for your table), you crave it. Schedule internet time in blocks as breaks from focused work. Even in your free time, you can schedule your internet blocks, so you aren’t constantly switching back and forth – you’re training your brain to resist distraction. Set deadlines that are just barely feasible, forcing you to work intensely without distraction; do this once a week at first then more often. Use productive meditation – think while you’re physically occupied with walking or whatever, resisting and redirecting when you notice yourself looping or getting distracted. Start by reviewing the relevant variables, define the next step question, and examine the answer you come up with. Do memory training such as memorizing a deck of cards to improve your ability to concentrate.

Rule #3: Quit social media. (Gasp!) Newport acknowledges that there are benefits to using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., but he argues that they may not outweigh the negative impacts. First identify your main high-level goals and then list the 2-3 most important activities that help you meet the goals. For each networking tool you use, assess its impact on those activities, and drop it if it doesn’t have substantial positive impacts that outweigh the negatives. Your time, your willpower, and your capacity for attention aren’t unlimited; invest wisely. Go cold turkey for 30 days and then ask yourself if your life would have been better and if other people cared that you weren’t using it. Use your leisure time better – don’t use the internet as entertainment. Plan how to use your free time for things like reading, exercise, time with other people, and hobbies. If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.

Rule #4: Drain the shallows. You can’t spend all your time in deep work. It’s exhausting – after about 4 hours you reach the point of diminishing returns – and other stuff does need to be done. Still, the other stuff tends to creep up on you. To control it, schedule every minute – block out your time in multiples of 30 minutes, and when things go over or interrupt, revise the schedule for the rest of the day. Set limits on your working time, such as 50 hours a week or ending every day at 5:30, so you don’t shift your deep work to an imaginary super-productive weekend or evening. Manage your email: instead of a general address, have separate ones for different purposes, so senders decide which to use based on what they want from you and on your statement about when and whether you’ll reply to each type; in answering email, don’t send a stop-gap response but take the time to craft a complete answer so the question doesn’t just bounce back to you; don’t answer email that’s ambiguous, uninteresting, or won’t lead to anything really good if you reply (or anything bad if you don’t).

For another perspective on this excellent book, see Eric Barker’s blog entry in Barking Up the Wrong Tree, which is where I first heard about it. Cal Newport’s own blog, Study Hacks, has more on how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work.  I recommend reading the book for the stories and research that bring the ideas to life. His take on managing the demands of an academic career seems especially valuable; I’ve been observing that life from the outside as my daughter pursues a PhD and I believe Newport’s insights are spot on.

…for Writers

Newport’s examples are drawn from academia and business. For fiction writers, I think the main difference is in defining what’s deep work and what’s “the shallows.” Newport suggests thinking about how long it would take a smart college grad to learn a task to decide if it’s deep or shallow. For me, I think the key distinction is this:

Does this task contribute directly to my writing?

The answer is yes for research, planning, plotting, drafting, and revising. It’s also yes for getting help on the plot from a writer friend or getting feedback on the draft in critique group.

Studying the craft of writing is probably sometimes yes, sometimes no – depends on the book, article, conference session.

The shallows are all those other things surrounding writing. Travel planning to go to conferences, keeping track of queries, dealing with software issues, researching agents, updating stats on NaNo. Doing the scheduling and time tracking Newport recommends. Maybe giving feedback to other writers on Scribophile, and (despite Newport’s advice) keeping up with social media news from writers and agents.

I’m excited to apply Newport’s principles to my writing life. I intend to spend more time in deep work, and less time in a fog of semiconscious Web surfing. Let me know in the comments if you try this, too, and how it works out for you!


Written by Shan
I spent 25 years conducting performance audits of state agencies, looking for ways they could be more effective and efficient. I helped write countless government reports. I worked with the smartest, nicest people in state government, and was honored to be a part of that group. Now, though, I’m writing fiction (yay! adjectives! dialogue!), learning banjo, traveling, hanging out with my fabulous granddaughters, and – big surprise – I’m still not decluttering that back room that was on hold for the past 25 years.