Everybody has been talking about Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World so I finally decided to get the Audible for it. It’s amazing.
He’s a computer science professor who usually writes books for high schoolers on how to do better in school. But of late he has been writing for working professionals and Deep Work is powerful advice for writers and creatives.
Basically he is talking about the magical flow state. Only he calls it “immersive” but you get the idea. Things like multi-tasking, checking Twitter every ten minutes, responding to every email or slack is shallow work. It’s about speed but doesn’t enable major works (what I might think of as my “big rocks”).
He starts the book by talking about all the famous business people, artists, and scientists who have created groundbreaking work in their fields by going deep.
He then breaks down the type of deep work methods he has observed:
The monastic approach is basically Thoreau leaving the world to go write Walden. Bimodal is two phases of work. Say you are spending 5 days doing highly collaborative and shallow work and then 2 days of devoted immersive work. Rhythmic is the one I personally find most effective for me, which is to have a regular routine whether is daily or 3x/week. Journalistic is snatching time to create in the pockets you have, your train commute, while waiting at your daughter’s soccer practice. We’ve all probably been in that mode before too!
The part I most enjoyed was when he talked about the lengths that successful writers and creators will go to protect their blocks of time to do their deep work, and what they will do to immerse themselves while they are worldbuilding.
- Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash does not have an email address on his website. You can’t write to him. He’s stated that it’s more important that he spend his time writing a book that could reach thousands of people rather than communication one to one. He also apparently wrote Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle No. 1) entirely longhand with a fountain pen.
- J.K. Rowling, desperate to finish Deathly Hallows checked herself into Balmoral ($1k a night!) to get away from the distractions of her home and family. Apparently that dramatic isolation worked so well she is rumored to have built a replica of Hagrid’s Hut to pen her screen plays like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, presumably.
- Stephen King, who submitted frequently to publications and then pegged each rejection letter to a nail on the wall. He writes so intensely that he has stated that a first draft should take no longer than 3 months. This is a man who has published 50+ books in his career and sold over 350 million copies so I think he may be onto something.
The best part of this book is that not only does Newton share these examples, he breaks down concrete ways to create a deep work protocol.
Habit One – Plan Every Minute of Your Day
I found this a little intense, so what I tried was Plan Your Week In Advance. This has worked like a charm.
At the beginning of the calendar year, I sat down and tried to envision what my writing goals for the year would be. What could I attempt to complete each month of the year? A short story here and there, regular blog entries, a prequel novella. I didn’t hit all these milestones but I did get quite a few. I firmly believe that if I hadn’t written these out in January, I wouldn’t have come close because no deadline means I can spin my wheels on research.
Now that Ken and I are ramping up again on our main work, the Cold War, I’ve been planning my week. This helps me chart out how much of a scene to tackle each writing session. (I already have this habit, which helps me immerse in the scene writing immediately.)
In reading Deep Work, the main takeaway I have is that these folks who engage in deep work are being proactive. They don’t let other things get in the way of their priorities. This is basically Habit 1 and Habit 2 from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. This just goes to show you why that book stays a bestseller decades later–because he was right! Successful people do behave differently and it can be learned.
Here’s to your success. Keep planning. Keep writing. If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment. Thanks!