Applying “deep work” principles allows freelance writers and nonfiction authors to get more high-quality work done in less time, and that’s what we’re all about here at Productive Writers.
Cal Newport’s highly successful (and highly recommended) book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World came out in 2016. While the concept itself is not new, he clarifies what it is and, more importantly, what we as writers need to do to get more Deep Work done. Here’s Cal’s definition:
“Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
What Does This Mean for Us as Writers?
The book is widely applicable across many types of work that involve high levels of creativity and skill. In this post I focus on what this means for those of us who make our living by writing.
Performed in a state of distraction-free concentration
This is crucial. I have much more to say about this below.
That push your cognitive capabilities to their limit
This happens when you fully focus on your writing project, giving it your complete attention and using all of your skills.
These efforts create new value
In our case, we are creating work of high value to our customers and to the marketplace.
Improve your skill
When you write at your highest level of concentration and focus, when you push yourself to be as good as possible and as efficient as possible, you develop stronger neural connections in your brain that will improve your overall professional skills, making you better at what you do and thus more valuable.
And are hard to replicate
The better you are, the better you rank relative to the competition in your field — which means you can charge premium prices for your freelance writing or get more book contracts and sell more books.
Cal has an equation that neatly captures the essence of Deep Work:
High-Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of Focus
So What Is Shallow Work?
Cal Newport again:
“Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.”
The distraction usually comes in the form of social media, your smartphone, or mindless web surfing. Some of the tasks can be necessary — such as answering important emails, staying current on professional trends, or researching new markets — but they can all be done much more efficiently when you’re not distracted, and they can also be done outside of your Deep Work time (more below).
Getting Your “Deep Work” Writing Done
Designate Specific Time Periods
Identify the best time or times during the day when you know you can focus on your work with minimal or no distractions from the outside world. Try to find a block of at least 60 minutes, although 2-3 hours is best.
If your life allows it, consider setting aside several days or even weeks to concentrate solely on your important projects.
Focus on Your Important Projects
Work only on that which is of the highest importance and takes all of your skill and concentration.
Focus on Both Product and Process
We’ve talked about different types of goals at Productive Writers. A product goal is something you can actually measure, like a complete article, a book chapter, or a certain number of words completed in a certain amount of time.
A process goal, by contrast, focuses on how you do something. For example, paying attention to how well you focus on your work, or how efficient you are at getting the work done.
Too often we get discouraged because we’re missing our product goals, but, if we’re focused and efficient, we’re doing the best we can; we likely have just set unrealistic product goals that need to be readjusted.
This is whatever works for you. It could be cleaning everything off your desk except for the current project. It could be making a cup of tea or coffee. A ritual cues your brain that it’s time to to do the real work.
Keep a running tally of how much Deep Work you get done in a day, a week, a month. It’s motivating both to see how much you’ve done and how much more you can potentially do, especially if you see a period of time where you did substantially less than you know you could have.
Defeating Distractions and Conserving Your Energy
Schedule Down Time
Your brain needs time to rest and time for your subconscious to process work issues and come up with solutions. You need specific time away from your work and anything work related.
I’ve had a lot of success with a key suggestion of Cal’s: Set a specific time for the day after which you will only engage in pleasurable activities or those of daily living: no work! Set it for late afternoon or early evening and then stick to it.
You should also seek to have at least one day a week completely free of work.
You still want to wander the Internet? You still want to spend 30 minutes a day on FacebookThat’s OK, as long as it’s within reason, and, most importantly, as long as you put it as a time block on your daily schedule and that you only do it during that time block, not as an impulse move you make when your important tasks get tough.
You Need To-Do Lists!
You must have both a running list of the things you need to do and a detailed time chart for every day in which you schedule all the day’s tasks.
What about when your daily schedule gets off track, either because things take longer despite your best efforts, or because unexpected events arise? That’s OK. Just adjust your schedule and move some items to the next day if necessary — but keep that detailed daily time chart!
Read the Book
I’m serious. This book has had a huge impact on both the quality and the quantity of my writing.
Buy it here. Or try your local library (likely a long waiting list) or your local bookstore.
Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of your writing? Would applying Deep Work principles help you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.