Distracted (PC: Jeff Turner)

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.

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