Deep Work by Cal Newport and Its Uses for Fiction Writers

Last night I finished Deep Work by Cal Newport (link opens to Goodreads in a new window).

For the most part, I found it useful, interesting, and applicable to my own life, especially as a writer though I’ll be bringing some of the practices to my dayjob too. I’ve outlined all of those below, and if you have any questions, let me know!

But before we begin, in full disclosure, Newport has weaknesses that piled up on each other until they drove me screaming to screenshots on Instagram and whiny status updates on Goodreads. I know others commented on those posts that they’d put down the book for the same reason so I’m going to share those first, but with the additional note that I do still think this book is worth reading, despite these irritating moments.

So before we go on, know that Newport mentions one woman other than his wife in this entire book. Almost all of his ‘deep work’ examples, historically and currently, are men. Apparently women don’t do deep work? Or Newport knows no women.

I think the last is more likely because you’ll find that Newport also has a different approach to friendships and relationships than many of my friends do, and than I do. He shuns digital communications and repeatedly talks about how your friends on the internet can’t be that good friends because you only talk to them on the internet. I found this frustratingly out-of-pace with the real world. I can ignore his “I’m too enlightened for Twitter” attitude, which I’ll call Franzenlite, but his dismissal of online-based relationships was irritating to me.

There’s also a level of classism that happens here, and I wish there’d been at least one chapter that addressed balancing multiple jobs–because his advice that you stop work at 5:30 doesn’t work for those of us who dayjob, and then go home and do a different job, like authoring.

So! Know all of that going in. Again, I think the book is useful beyond that, but it was impossible to overlook the weaknesses and it’d be rude not to mention them.

Let’s talk about the parts of the book that I think are applicable to fiction writers (including women and nonbinary folk, because we can do deep work too, Dr. Newport).

Busyness versus Productivity

You know I love talking about productivity. I love productivity tips, I love bullet journaling as it relates to productivity, I love thinking about ways to be more efficient with my time. And yet, for all my productivity, I frequently feel like I’m spinning my wheels. Getting nowhere and expending a lot of energy. Newport calls this “busyness as proxy for productivity.” Or, essentially, we don’t know how to show productivity externally (how many of our jobs are measured, be it sales at a dayjob or word count), so we do lots of little, shallow tasks that are highly visible and yet don’t really push us, or our work, forward.

Newport says:

Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it. Deep Work

This was an important reminder that even on the days where I fill out author interviews and reply to email and fight with my website code and write postcards for promotion, that’s busyness. It’s important, and I have to do because I can’t afford to pay someone else to do it, but it’s taking valuable time away from the real work. The deep work of writing and thinking and building stories.

Later in the book, Newport talks about chunking up your time. I don’t do that for reasons I explained in a previous post on productivity because it triggers my OCD in ways that are literally counterproductive. But on a theoretical, less practical and applicable level, I’ve started to take those shallow work/busy tasks and chunk them up.

I’m still trying to train myself away answering emails right away–that’s another OCD thing (I stopped halfway through this sentence to delete an email from my inbox so there’d still be no unread emails)–but I am trying to do things like promotion work, website work, newsletter work, blog work all at once in a single chunk instead of whenever I want to procrastinate. Then it feels productive, but it allows me the bigger chunks of time (which I need, and Newport says are supported by science) to do my deep work on stories.

Take Away: Check in with yourself: am I being busy, because being busy looks awesome on social media or to my boss, or am I getting productive work done? Is there a way I can put my busy shallow work together in chunks so it interrupts my deep work less often?

 

Be Driven by Depth, Not Shallowness

Newport talks about the fact that neurologically, we’re less happy when our day is structured around shallow work. I know that’s true for me. It’s nice to clear my inbox, but if all I did that day is approve things that came into my inbox, then I don’t feel like I got anything done at the end of the day, even if a lot of things are checked off my checklist.

Regardless of the work, Newport argues that neurochemistry and psychology tell us “to build your working life around the experience of flow produced by deep work is a proven path to deep satisfaction.”

Is this possible in all jobs? No. I’ve been a waitress. There was no deep work for me to enjoy there to find deep satisfaction in my job. The job was what it was. I loved being a nanny, but I don’t know that there’s deep work to be found there, nor do I think you can really structure things the way Newport suggests, because babies don’t always stick to your schedule.

But it is possible when looking at life as an author. Building your life as an author (or writer, whichever term you’re more comfortable with) should be built around the telling and writing of stories. Your deep work is your writing. Nothing else. Structure your work, and your writing time around that, rather than your shallow work (like marketing, answering emails, promotion, checking your Goodreads reviews–I see you, get off of there–etc) around your deep work.

I realized while reading this book that I tend to view my days with book ends. My 9-5 job and my required 8-9 hours of sleep each day are mentally blocked out with book ends. My work exists between those two times. And once I started looking at my days like that, that’s when I was able to see where and when I had to do deep work, and chunking out my time for shallow work in other places.

Take Away: Look at your days and how you structure them. Are you structuring your writing time around writing, or around other ‘author duties’ like promotion, Twitter, marketing, blog updates, etc? How would you like that time to be structured?

 

Willpower is Finite. I know. That’s not the best news you’ve had this week.

It turns out that willpower is a finite resource and we spend all day fighting the desire to work shallowly because a) it’s easier and b) our brains have become addicted to it in the last fifteen years or so.

I know. It’s really not the best news. I like to think I can conjure willpower up from anywhere but that’s also not possible, it turns out. Who knew? At least I have a new answer to that question, “What would your superpower be?” “Bottomless willpower.” I mean! IMAGINE WHAT YOU COULD DO.

I know this fact feels true to me because I used to have a great memory. And for lots of reasons, my memory has grown crappy. And my attention is poor. But I know that just like Newport says in this part of the book, it’s hard for me to sit still and be bored these days. Especially with my phone in reach and with service. I want to flip through it. It’ll take me two tries to write a text message because halfway through it, I find myself checking Instagram, and my email account, and Neko Atsume because what if Tubbs was there, eating all the food, right then?

In Newport’s words,

…the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. Deep Work

This is really really true. As soon as I get stuck, I want to check Facebook. Or Twitter. When I’m bored, or waiting in line, or switching tasks, I pick up my phone to check it. It’s a problem, and one that I’m definitely going to be more conscious of. Seeing the research and the science was super helpful to me.

I’m still working on the phone, but I have figured out ways to fight this while writing on my computer.

As I’ve mentioned about a million times on this blog before, I use an app called SelfControl to block social media while I write. (I use Forest on my phone!) I used to block in 30 minute to 1 hour blocks. Now I block it for 5-8 hour blocks. Last Friday when I was hitting my deadline, I blocked it for 12 hours. And now, at night, I block it for more than the hours I’ll work to resist the temptation to open Twitter after I’m done work and futz around on there instead of sleeping. So if I sit down to work at 7pm, I turn on my blocker for 6 or 7 hours, instead of the three I would previously do.

I used to turn on my blocker, and almost immediately open a browser and try to open Facebook or Twitter without even thinking about it. It was that engrained in my mind and habits. But now, I turn on my blocker and I almost never type facebook or Twitter into my URL bar. It took about a year of consciously using SelfControl every single time I sat down to write, but now a year into it, I turn on SelfControl and I write. Every time.

In Newport’s words,

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Deep Work

In plain speak, using tools, like Freedom or SelfControl or Forest to block your usual productivity drains (Facebook, Twitter, NY Times, Instagram, Pinterest, etc) allows you to preserve your finite willpower reserves because the blocker does the work for you.

Here’s another Newport quote, one I’ll probably put on my inspiration bulletin board over my desk: “Distraction remains a destroyer of depth.”

Find tools to help you find focus and fight distraction without depleting your willpower. You’ll need that for the rest of life and surviving this presidency.

Take Away: Evaluate your time and identify your time-sucks. Find a tool to help you fight the time sucks. If your time sucks are your children, do not fight them. That’s frowned upon. But talk to your spouse about dedicated work time where they take over parenting so you can get work done, or about trying to find childcare a few hours a week to maximize your focus.

 

Be Disciplined

Newport talks about 4 disciplines:

  1. “Focus on the Wildly Important.” As in, make a top of mind or priority list, and make sure that you’re not putting 50% of your effort into an interview and only 10% of your effort into your book. Newport, like every other productivity person, suggests writing down your important goals. I make yearly and monthly lists in my bullet journal that I find are helpful. Some people find it helpful not only to write down the goals, but to list specific tasks to accomplish those goals.
  2. “Act on Lead Measures” This is where Newport started to get a little too business wonky for me. He’s talking about measuring success, and I’m wary of this with writers because so so  much of our industry is out of our hands. But he talks about lag measures versus lead measures. Lag measures are the results of lead measures. As in, lag measures might be the number of books that you write this year (I urge you not to say sell because again, publishing). Lead measures would be metrics of success that lead to writing X many books this year, such as 4-5 hours of dedicated writing time every day, or X word count a week, or however you measure it. Newport urges our attention to be on Lead measures, which I do approve of.
  3. “Keep a Compelling Scoreboard.” I track word count on a graph in my bullet journal now. I used to do Victoria Schwab’s method of star stickers and a calendar which really caught on, at least amongst the writers I follow. The star calendar is much more of what Newport’s talking about here because it’s right in front of your face, it holds you accountable, and it tracks lead measures, not lag measures.
  4. “Create a Cadence of Accountability.” Meaning, check in with yourself and find out if what you’re doing is working. Are there stars on your star calendar? Are there words on your graph? Did you make progress? If so, great. Rinse and repeat. If not, what can you change about your deep work schedule to create more success and deep work?

Take Away: Set goals, figure out how to measure your progress toward those goals, hold yourself accountable, create a review system to check in with yourself. How you do that will vary person to person, but those components are critical.

 

In Conclusion

This book was interesting, helpful, and had concrete takeaways that I’ll be applying to both my jobs. I also was glad to see that habits I’d already made out of instinct were reinforced by Newport and his science. While I had mentioned a handful of frustrating patterns throughout the book, and they did leave me irritated rather than excited at the end of the book, I do think Deep Work is a valuable resource for those interested in this type of thing.

I hope this was helpful to people!

Let me know if you have any questions!

 

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