The Deep Work of Writing, part 2 of 3

Header photo credit: Jeff Turner via (CC BY 2.0)

“If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved by a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired to a point where … it’s not ready for deep work—even if you regularly schedule time to practice this concentration.” (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, p. 159)

Yesterday we explored what Cal Newport means by the term “deep work” in his book by the same time. Before we look at specific examples of what deep work can be for writers, I want to discuss how distraction and boredom fit into his theory.

Training for Writing Focus

Newport makes a strong case for the need to train ourselves to work deeply. Rather than assume we can easily focus if we want to (how many times have we promised ourselves that this will be the morning when we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted, only to find ourselves checking Twitter or Facebook or email repeatedly by 9 a.m.?), we can accept that our focus muscles need some work and remain flabby without regular use.

“Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom.” (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, p. 157)

His approach is one of self-compassion, in a way—we recognize the powerful pull of the distraction habit. Just as we would not engage in self-flagellation if we tried but failed to run a 5K without any training or preparation, we should not beat ourselves up for trying but failing to write for two or three hours straight (or even 30 minutes) if, the rest of the time, we are teaching our brains to crave continual interruption.

Newport’s second rule of focused work is to embrace boredom, to re-train our brains to be comfortable with a slower but deeper pace, to resist the continual urge to scroll and check and share. This won’t be easy. It will be worth it.

I’m reminded of a few years ago when I decided to re-read the entire Harry Potter series from beginning to end, after not having done sustained, deep reading for quite a while. I wanted to recapture the feeling from my childhood of getting lost in books, so I read steadily, without checking my phone or laptop. It was surprisingly hard at first but soon became easier, and, before long, my reading muscles were back in shape. Since then, I’ve noticed that if I go too long without deep reading, I have to train myself again before it feels comfortable.

Choose the Right Interruptions

You might be thinking, but we aren’t robots! Yes, everyone needs a break now and then. Some problems don’t respond to forcing our way through. However, not all distractions are created equal, and Newport suggests that when doing deep work, we take deep breaks: breaks that don’t lead us down a social media rabbit hole or that otherwise reinforce distraction addiction. Examples include taking a walk, doing a quick errand, or simply daydreaming. All of these breaks allow us to continue to work subconsciously on whatever task is at hand and to transition smoothly back into our work at break’s end.

Read: “On Deep Breaks

He also suggests that, rather than plan for times of concentrated, digital-free work, we plan for and schedule our online usage. We might write this “appointment” next to us as we work:

10 – 10:15 a.m. — check email, update Twitter, skim the headlines

We can use this strategy even during evenings and weekends as a way to free our minds and time for more focused leisure activities and social interactions.

The takeaway? We can’t expect to be able to do retreat-level focused work if we aren’t training ourselves the rest of the time to be able to avoid distractions.

Questions for reflection:

  • Is focused work the norm for you with occasional digital breaks, or vice versa?
  • Do you feel in control of how often you check and stay on social media and other online sites and apps?
  • Are you comfortable with boredom?
  • What kinds of breaks and distractions are conducive rather than detrimental to deep work?

See Also

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

The Deep Work of Writing, part 1 of 3

Before we begin, a tweet that almost every writer can relate to (Julia, this one’s for you):

I first learned of Cal Newport from our son (now a political science graduate student), who began reading Newport’s Study Hacks Blog at least eight or nine years ago. Study Hacks started as advice about student time management and has since morphed into a blog “about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age.”

Over the years, I have continued to keep up with Cal Newport’s work. His most recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, offers some valuable ideas and insight for anyone involved in knowledge work, or work that, in the phrase of Thomas Davenport, involves “thinking for a living.” Deep Work is a perfect way to begin to think about how we can design a DIY Summer Writing Retreat. In this first of three posts about Cal’s book, we’ll look at his concept of “deep work.”

Aside: I would encourage every writer, regardless of whether we make a living or nary a cent with our wordsmithing, to think of our writing as work in the most positive and noble sense.

What is deep work?

Deep Work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacity to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, p. 3)

Newport distinguishes between deep work and shallow work, which he defines as “tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on).” He writes that shallow work “is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy….”

Read: “Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)

The application to writing becomes obvious. The deep work of writing occurs when we are truly engaged in our work while also pushing our capabilities. This means, as Newport reminds us, we know we are doing deep work because we often will feel a little miserable. (Note that this is different from—but not unrelated to—the concept of flow.)

Deep Work versus Shallow Work

For example, suppose we sit down to write one morning, intent on putting in an hour that we have between when the kids go to school and we have an appointment. We open our laptop, stare at the blank page, and begin to panic. We write part of a sentence, decide it is the worst beginning of a sentence ever written in any language. We have no idea what comes next. So we decide to work on our platform by checking Facebook or Twitter. Or maybe we open another writing file and begin to tinker with tenses or point of view, not because it’s part of a substantive revision, but just to do something.

That’s shallow work.

Let’s start again. Suppose we sit down to write one morning, intent on putting in an hour that we have between when the kids go to school and we have an appointment. We open our laptop, stare at the blank page, and begin to panic. We write part of a sentence, decide it is the worst beginning of a sentence ever written in any language. We have no idea what comes next, but we remind ourselves that this is what writing is. We finish the sentence anyway. We write another (still hating it), and another, and another. We pile up the sentences and paragraphs, perhaps writing slowly rather than at breakneck speed, pushing ourselves to describe what seems indescribable, feeling a bit miserable with each word. At the end of the hour, though, we also feel the good kind of mental exhaustion that comes from deep work and making progress, and we have a better chance of going to sleep that night satisfied and happy.

The bottom line? Deep work is personally meaningful in ways that shallow work is not.

Questions for reflection:

  • What is an example of the deep work of writing for you?
  • When was the last time you engaged in deep work?
  • Do you subconsciously expect that writing should be easy, perhaps because you’ve been told you are good at it?
  • Is deep work related to deferred gratification?

If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Ezra Klein’s podcast interview with Cal Newport, below (in which Klein’s insights are as valuable as Newport’s).

See Also

DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

New Blog Series: DIY Summer Writing Retreat

June has arrived and, with it, a new blog series! Readers who have followed this blog throughout the years know that I’m a fan of blog series as a way to write posts around a theme and, along the way, to share questions and possibilities and experiences that might be useful for others.

This summer I’ll be posting here about ways to turn the summer into a DIY writing retreat: three months of prioritizing our writing life without the travel or expense or disruption of formal seclusion. My goals are not only to finish some writing projects by the end of August, but, more important, to gain and strengthen habits of thought and action that I can take with me into the fall.

To that end, I will be posting every day during June, July, and August—some pieces will be short, others longer, with a few updated posts from years past. Main topics, because they are what I am most interested in at the moment, will be these:

  • Writing Practice
  • Writing Mindset
  • Reading as a Writer
  • Goals and Organization
  • Digital Life and Social Media

Please join me and share your own experiences, goals, and successes along the way! There is no sign-up required, no fee or commitment. Just a willingness to try new approaches and mindsets, to be honest with ourselves about what really keeps us from our best writing selves, and to put writing front and center each day in whatever ways we can, regardless of how busy or crazy the rest of our lives (or the world) feels. Throughout the series, my guiding purpose is that when we are writing well—meaning writing regularly and with purpose—a writing life really is its own reward.

Tomorrow’s Post: The Deep Work of Writing

Young Miss Magazine’s “Was My Face Red” Column

I’ve been going through my old blog posts for any that need to be updated or corrected, and when I found this one from 2011 (originally titled “Living with Our Mistakes”), I took an unexpected trip down memory lane.

The post was originally about a Japanese relay runner, who, 200 meters from the finish line, took a wrong turn, all caught on film. I then linked to an article from the Ice Skating Institute for developing both physical and mental responses to mistakes (after all, skaters who don’t learn how to bounce back from falls and bad landings won’t skate for long).

Anyway, the original post doesn’t do much for me today, so I started thinking about mistakes and was taken back to the 1970s and a magazine for girls called Young Miss. One of the two other girls in my grade introduced me to the magazine, and I can’t remember if I always borrowed her copies or convinced my parents to let me subscribe.

What I do remember very clearly is always turning first to a column called “Was My Face Red,” in which readers shared embarrassing moments, the kind of gaffes that, as a middle-aged woman, I now wouldn’t think twice about. For a pre-teen or young teen, however, calling someone one wants to impress by the wrong name or—as I once did—taking off my socks in gym only to have TAMPAX in blue ink from a tampon wrapper which I’d stowed in my sock tattooed on my shin was mortifying. The point of the column wasn’t to poke fun or laugh at another’s expense, but to show that other girls, too, did embarrassing things and somehow lived to write about them.

At first I couldn’t remember the name of the magazine, but when I typed “was my face red” in Google, the first three results referred to Young Miss, which I learned was originally “Calling All Girls” and later YM. It began in the 1930s and published its final issue in 2004.

All that from an old blog post.

See Also


Family Stories From the Attic book giveaway!

FAMILY STORIES front coverAs many of you know, last year I ventured into the world of small presses by publishing the children’s picture book, The Adventures of a Sparrow Named Stanley for Hidden Timber Books. I am thrilled to announce that Hidden Timber Books has just published its second title, Family Stories from the Attic, which I co-edited with Christi Craig.

Family Stories from the Attic is an anthology of nearly two dozen works of prose and poetry inspired by letters, diaries, photographs, and other family papers and artifacts. Every time I read through the pieces, I fall more in love with the stories of immigration and migration, time, history, family, love, and change. The contributors represent both new and established authors and are from throughout the United States and Australia.

To celebrate, the press is hosting a book giveaway. Click here to read the anthology’s introduction and learn how you can receive one of three free copies (giveaway entries end on Sunday, April 9 at midnight CDT).

Everyone is invited to the anthology’s official launch event, which will be held at Boswell Book Company (2559 N. Downer Ave. in Milwaukee) on Saturday, May 13th, at 7 p.m. There you will be able to purchase the book, get it signed, and hear several of the contributors read from their family stories. I hope to see you there! (And congratulations to Daniel Goldin and everyone at Boswell Book Company, which was just named by Real Simple magazine as the best bookstore in Wisconsin.)