Deep Work, Shallow Work, and the Benefits of Insane Focus

Welcome back to my ADHD and Writing series! This week (technically week 5) we’ll be talking about Cal Newport’s Deep Work and how his theories about deep focus and its relationship to value within the workplace apply to the writing world.

So first, what is the central premise of Deep Work? It’s pretty straightforward. Newport posits that in every job there are two kinds of tasks. Deep tasks, which require intense focus and potentially years of training in order to complete them effectively, and shallower tasks that one could assign to a college student with 6-8 months of training and be just as well off as if you did them yourself. Another version of shallow work would be things like busy work or light cleaning.

He argues that when the average person gets to work on a task that would be considered deep work, let’s say…drafting, they have a tendency to put themselves into situations where the degree of focus needed for said work is nigh impossible to achieve. Any distraction that pulls said person from the task, like an email popping up, a buzz from their cell phone, kids knocking at the door (or partners for that matter), T.V. in the background, etc, breaks the necessary state of deep focus required to complete the task effectively.

So if I sit down to draft the next scene of Prisoner of the Hollow and I have my phone with the sound or vibrate on, every time it buzzes my brain will be pulled away from what I’m doing. Even if I ignore the buzz. If I decide to answer the buzz, it can take 15-20 minutes (and this is assuming I’m neurotypical!) to get my brain back where it needs to be to complete the task.

The solution he proposes, which is the one I use during my own work time each day, is to divide your day up into “deep work” periods and “shallow work” periods. I define deep work in my writing life as drafting, editing, outlining, developing presentations, writing blog posts and book reviews, developing the plans and brainstorming for said blog posts and book reviews, working on my pitch, doing research for my projects, and drafting the emails I send out to my mailing list each week. Shallow work is just about everything else writing related: scheduling ads for my books, answering emails, social media engagement, networking, working out, lunch (yes, I schedule my lunch during a shallow work period), making tea, looking over my budget for business and home, reading the books for said book reviews, etc.

Newport recommends several exercises that can help improve focus throughout the book. One of the first is (SURPRISE! I’ve already covered it) a daily meditation practice involving breathing and counting the breaths, with the conscious choice to redirect your thoughts if you get distracted. Another is to get on a treadmill or take a walk and do a deep contemplation on something that has you stuck, kind of like what I talked about in Week 1 when I mentioned I hop on the treadmill when I hit writer’s block and can’t figure out what I need to do to make a scene work.

He also recommends not making your deep work periods longer than 2 hours each day, and trying not to have more than 2-3 in each work day. Why? Because even with training, deep work is rough on the brain. It’s hard to write for 5 hours straight and not get diminishing returns. I know when I’ve tracked per-hour word counts, there’s usually a pretty sharp drop-off after 2 hours worth of work, and it just gets worse from there. By keeping timers and switching gears after the 2 hour mark, I continue being productive (because eating, my second work out, my mind dump, email correspondence, ad scheduling, budgeting, etc are all still productive activities that need to get done) while giving the part of my brain I just gave a mental workout a rest. When my timer goes off for my second deep work period, I’m usually ready to go.

If I’m not I meditate!

The thing I found the hardest about his prescription for deeper focus was the planned abstinence from social media and television. If you indulge in social media, check your email, and watch T.V. whenever the urge strikes, he argues, you’re priming your brain for instant gratification. He suggests not accessing social media of any sort until certain specified times, and only for a limited amount of time using a timer. Also, those times cannot be right before bed or just after getting up.

Boy was this bloody hard! I can see why he recommended it though. When I succeeded in staying off Facebook (my mental crack) for two weeks straight apart from two specific times (one in the afternoon and one in the evening), I saw my productivity go up by 25%. When I fell off the habit, I lost those gains. Due to the nature impulsivity that goes with having ADHD, I’ve struggled harder with this particular suggestion than anything else, so how well I do fluctuates from week to week. But when I invest the time for long enough, the benefits stick.

I bet you’re wondering where this stuff fits in from a scientific perspective. Like most sci-fi writers, when I come across a claim I’m not sure about, I check the source and do some independent digging. Turns out, a lot of these ideas have a pretty solid grounding in science. The more frequently we allow ourselves to be distracted, the worse our productivity gets. The only thing I couldn’t confirm in my research is the 2 hour limit, and part of that had to do with the studies he cited being locked behind a paywall I couldn’t get through with the software I used for research.

So there you have it. Next week I’ll talk about reading in your genre and the difference between reading for pleasure and reading for work, and why you would choose to do one over the other.

See you next week!

The Meaning of Resilience

To those of you who follow this series and were disappointed to find I hadn’t written an article on Friday, I send my deepest apologies. I normally try to pre-write some of my content to make sure it gets out on time, but last week was extremely hectic and I ended up having to draft the article day of.

Which didn’t happen, because on my way home from my writing group on Thursday, I fell on the sopping wet bridge leading to my house. I’d been nagging the guys to get it swept and scrubbed for a while because mildew and algae love this time of year, and they also love untreated wood, which happens to be what that bridge is made of. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I have a recurring back injury, and boy did the fall flare it up. I was out all weekend.

This didn’t bode well for my usual routine. Not only was I scared to go down the stairs with my back being what it was (so I couldn’t get to my office to work), sitting up was painful all of Friday and workouts were out of the question.

So what did I do instead? Catch up on my reading for the review portion of this blog? Work on my self improvement book list? Write things out by hand until I could get to my work computer and relieve my poor wrist cysts? If you’ve seen enough of these sorts of lists to have guessed that I did none of those things, good on you. Gold star. Well, okay, I did read a little more of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, which I plan on covering in a few weeks. But I digress.

What I actually did was mope about for a day, start playing a new video game on my gaming machine upstairs (which doesn’t have any of the software I used to work), complete all the achievements in that game, and beat myself up for not working.

I had mostly recovered by Sunday, which meant I was able to go downstairs and start catch-up. But I didn’t. Because at that point, I’d thrown myself into the ring with my old nemesis, the most powerful force in the universe (or at least in psychological terms. I’m a sci-fi writer. I know the most powerful force is technically gravity under some circumstances and the strong force in most others): INERTIA.

Inertia is simultaneously wonderful and terrible. For those of you who’ve been out of the educational system for 10 years or more (or just never got into the whole physics thing), inertia is the tendency for moving objects to keep moving and sitting objects to stay put. Like my butt parked in front of my gaming computer after two days of no working out, no meditation, and no working period.

It takes a ton of force to get a still object moving again. Once it’s moving, it’s much harder to slow it down, but those first few days after sitting around feeling sorry for myself are always going to be the toughest. When I got up Thursday morning, I didn’t have to think about going out to eat breakfast, heading downstairs to sweat said lazy butt off, doing my devotions, dumping my brain on paper, and meditating before I started work. I was on autopilot. I’d done these things every bloody day for over four months. They were my routine.

Today I had to make a conscious choice. Today my brain was reminded of the unstructured, Wild West days of staying in bed until 12pm and eating a bowl of cereal, heading down later in the afternoon and working from whenever to who cares. Today I had to force myself out of bed on time, make a healthy breakfast and log it, drag my butt down the stairs, start up the workout video, and really focus on immersing myself in it.

I had to conjure the image of my word counts going up day after day, the miserable days I’ve been too injured to work out and the way I’ve suffered more from that than the 20-35 minutes it actually takes me to sweat my way through to victory.

And the most amazing thing happened. As hard as it was to start the workout, by the time I was done the endorphin rush reminded my grumpy brain that it indeed had a routine it liked sticking to. So doing my devotions and mind-dump on time came easier. And by the time I headed back upstairs during my shallow work/lunch period to feed my aching stomach, it finally felt like a normal day.

Because all the work I did before made this particular slip-up go differently than in the past when a day or two long bender could screw me up for weeks. Making the choice, and making damn sure I knew it was a choice and not a requirement, jogged whatever circuits I’d built and made the workout the pleasure my brain wasn’t yet expecting. I changed my attitudes because I knew the inertia was the hardest part.

The takeaway here, at least for me, is that resilience is the ability to make the future now and focus on the benefits rather than the difficulties in the present moment. And I fully believe that takes the experience of several months of forced consistency to make that happen. Anyone with ADHD knows how hard it can be to pick up a habit, even one you’ve practiced for months, after the chain has been broken so to speak. Inertia gets a boost from having less dopamine receptors and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. The deck is stacked against you.

But if you put in the work for long enough, you can build quite a bit of strength in your corner. And the memory of the benefits, the conscious choice to acknowledge the real benefits these practices have brought to your life, can be enough to get you to start. And once you start the bottom of your brain, the part that keeps this whole thing running smooth on autopilot day in and day out, the one you had to fight with to get the healthy routine going in the first place, that part becomes your ally after you get over the initial hump alone.

That is the definition of resilience.

So what about the article on Cal Newport’s Deep Work I promised last week? It’s still coming. Preferably on Friday.

What was it like last time your routine got thrown off because of injury, illness, personal drama, or whatever? Did you manage to get back on track? How did you do it? Feel free to post in the comments below or comment on my Facebook page.

See you Friday!

New to the series and want to catch up?

Week 1 was all about how working out doubled my word count and why on earth our bodies work that way.

Week 2 was all about meditation and task transitioning, and why meditating between tasks helps with focus.

Week 3 was about why throwing my daily routine off mattered so much to my productivity, and how having a daily ritual before writing can benefit the practice even if it can’t be done at the same time every day.

Priming the Brain for Writing: The Power of Daily Ritual

Welcome to week three of my ADHD and creativity series! During Week 1, I talked about how exercise shattered my writer’s block and helped me double my word counts from February through March. Last week, I talked about how meditation helps facilitate the growth of new dopamine receptors to help soak up all those lovely exercise endorphins, and how meditating when transitioning between tasks helps me focus better.

This week, I’ll be talking about my pre-writing ritual and how writing at the same time every day, doing the same things before you write each day, or both can help get your brain primed for creative work.

First, on my pre-writing routine. I’m religious, so I’ll say that up front. I also write full time, so I have a bit more time for a lengthy writing ritual before I start my work each day.

After breakfast, I head downstairs to my mini-gym and do the first of two short workouts (around 30-45 minutes each) each day. I then move over to my altar room and do a set of daily prayers and devotions to align myself with my purpose. A version of this could be a mind-clearing meditation or a short daily reading related to whatever it is you’re writing about, if you’re not religious. I then head to my office, power up the computer, and dump 3 pages of stream of consciousness into a running word document I use as a journal. If I’m stressed out about anything, having doubts, anxieties, in a really good mood, or just can’t stop thinking about something, writing it all down REALLY helps with purging it before I get started.

I then do a 10 minute meditation, cement my purpose at the end, and start my first writing task of the day. I break my day into two deep work (read: writing) periods and two shallow work (read: journaling, blog posts, correspondence, marketing, submissions, lunch, etc) periods, and I’ll cover why I do this next week. Suffice to say my first deep work period follows the above, and for my second I do my second workout and another meditation.

Doing this specific set of tasks each day before I write brings two main benefits. One: it ensures I actually do these things consistently every day. Journalling is known to help aid in emotional regulation for both ADHD and neurotypical folks, and getting crap out of my head before I start writing means that crap isn’t going to stop me from writing. We’ve already talked about the myriad benefits of meditation. And working out. By making each of these steps a part of my pre-writing ritual, I’m training myself to get them done every day, and giving myself the best time frame to reap the immediate benefits to my productivity in that moment.

The second is a bit more complex. A daily ritual, like a habit, activates parts of the brain your mind comes to associate with tasks that come afterward. E.G., if you drink the exact same tea just before you start to brainstorm for writing, or wear the same hat or outfit or go to work at the same time, the parts of your brain that work together for brainstorming light up like neon signs in Vegas immediately afterward. This works particularly well if you can do these things at the same time every day, as this adds the dual benefit of engaging your Circadian Rhythms, or the parts of your nervous system involved in when to be more active and when to sleep.

So what can you do if you can’t write at the exact same time every day because of a day job with an unpredictable schedule or something else? This is where the behavioral rituals really shine. Back to the tea example – if you use a number of different herbal teas and only drink them just before you engage in a specific writing task, then your brain will come to recognize those sensory experiences as being prep for practicing that task.

Tea isn’t the only thing you can use, obviously. Specific exercises, particular visualizations for meditation (there’s a fantastic creativity meditation on Headspace that works really well for this), putting on a whistling kettle or playing a specific musical album, the sky’s the limit. As long as it’s something you only do before you engage in creative work, most things that engage the senses in some way can function as a pre-writing ritual. The key is consistency. If you choose a musical album, you can’t just randomly play it in your car or you’ll be working against all that training you’ve put yourself through to tie the sounds with writing.

And it does take a bit of training. It took me about two months before my pre-work ritual really sank in, and it may have even been sped up because I’d been doing at least a few of those things for years before writing prior to the setup of my office. The level of detail and complexity of behavior is a personal choice, but I caution you not to give up on the practice if it takes a while to sink in. Often the shift in mindset is a subtle one, and you won’t really physically see the benefits unless you’re doing some kind of tracking outside of just word counts.

I have my word count and habit tracking spreads opposite each other in my bullet journal so it’s really easy to see what happens if I skip one of my essential pre-work rituals. Having the immediate feedback and seeing the numbers grow over time confirmed my internal feeling that this pre-work set of tasks really does benefit me.

Next week I’ll cover Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport and why I segment my work day the way I do. This particular post extends beyond creative work, and I’m hoping some of you can find some use for it in your day jobs as well. See you next week!

Mind Segmentation and Task Transitioning: Why I Meditate Between Tasks

Last week I talked about exercise and how starting up a daily workout routine before I started my writing practice doubled my word count in about two weeks. In that post, I mentioned that I meditate every time I start a new task, and briefly touched on the concept of task segmentation.

Most writers have heard of the idea that editing and drafting use different parts of the writer’s brain and require different mindsets. Some famous authors would literally change outfits or physical hats when they were drafting, editing, or marketing/pitching their work to agents. There’s pretty good reasons for why.

The first is personal, but I’m sure many of my fellow writers (and ADHDers in particular) can relate. If I try to edit while I draft, I get so fixated on getting things right that I end up cutting my productivity to shreds. Accepting that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft, or even a good one, that every first draft I’ll ever write is going to be crappy and that’s okay was the first step I took on the way to mind segmentation.

The second is a bit more broad. Breaking down tasks makes them seem more manageable, which means we’re more likely to do them. We’ve all heard the advice that, “write a novel” is a massive, overwhelming task when thought of as a whole, but drafting a specific scene or even outlining that scene before we draft it is far smaller. Taken this way, task segmentation makes sense. “Draft a scene,” is far less overwhelming than “write a scene and edit as I draft it so it’s as close to perfect as possible when I’m done so I don’t have to do a bunch of editing later, even though I know I’m still going to have to edit no matter how much work I do now.”

Whether I think about things in those words or not, that’s the implication of editing while writing. But in my personal practice, I take things a step further.

Covenant of the Hollow converted me from pantsing (E.G. writing by the seat of your pants, or without a written plan) to plotting for a simple reason. If I had to figure out what was happening in a scene as I wrote it, I wrote a lot less. So outlining a scene, or the “generative work” of creating that scene in my mind, became another segmented task.

Whether or not I outline my whole book (which I did for Covenant of the Hollow and my current project, Prisoner of the Hollow but not for Diary of the Hollow) or just one ​scene at a time is less important than the fact that I outline the scene and its important details before I start the drafting process.

Which brings me to meditation and task transitioning.

Now, writing a scene is broken into the following three tasks, each of which present a different mindset. “Visualize and outline the scene, including important sensory details, emotions, point of view, other characters and their motivations, and how it all relates back to the book’s theme,” then, “Write a crappy first draft of the scene and accept the fact that it’s going to need to be cleaned up later,” then, most likely further down the line, “edit the scene with the outline and the book’s outline in mind, making sure the scene accomplishes everything it needs to for its place in the book.” Notice how each of those stages require a different type of thinking?

We’re back to ADHD. People with ADHD often have a hard time transitioning between tasks. Neurotypical people do too, but to a far lesser extent. It’s hard to shift gears when your brain naturally loves to jump all over the place, and the blank space between “Task A is finished,” and “Start Task B” is a vacuum, and as with all things in nature, mind-vacuums are begging to be filled with STUFF.

What kind of stuff? Writer’s block stuff. Surfing Facebook stuff. Chatting with a friend stuff. Watching a YouTube video and getting sucked into a 3-hour long binge stuff. Eating everything in the fridge stuff. Starting a video game for just one round and playing for hours instead stuff. You get the idea.

Not writing stuff.

So what do? What I found helps the most is to quiet my mind with a 3-10 minute meditation when transitioning between any tasks, including transitioning from drafting scene 1 to drafting scene 2. Even though it’s the same mindset, quieting my mind before it can tell me “how much more interesting the buzz from my phone is than drafting scene 2,” and how “scene 2 will be just as hard to draft tomorrow as it is right now,” has made a huge difference.

I adore the Headspace mobile and desktop app for this reason alone. They have a number of mind quieting meditations, some of which come with visualization and reflection on a particular topic built in. At the end, when the narrator tells my mind to “be free,” I set an intention for when I open my eyes, so I’m ready to sink fully into whatever task I transitioned to.

If you don’t feel like paying for an app, a simple breathing meditation can be a simple alternative. Set a timer on your phone for 3-10 minutes, then set it down and close your eyes. Check in with the world around you. Sounds, smells, bodily sensations, the mood of your mind. After a few moments, focus on your breath. The length, the depth, where you feel it. Then, start counting. In breath, 1, out breath, 2. Count up to 10, then start over. Over and over again until the timer goes off. Thoughts are going to show up and distract you. Don’t judge yourself for that. If you catch yourself thinking, let go of the thought and come back to where you were when you were counting. Can’t remember? Start at 1. When the timer goes off, tell yourself (out loud if possible and not too embarrassing) what your intention is next, as though you were doing it. “I’m drafting scene 2.” Then sink into the task.

If you find yourself stuck in the middle of a task, where your brain is telling you you can’t go on or are spent for the day, try the 15 minute exercise burst from last week or the meditation from this week. It can really help, especially if you build a regular practice outside of just task transitioning. Meditation teaches that all of our thoughts are fleeting, including limiting beliefs about our own distractability or the feelings of anxiety that can crop up if we get stumped. It allows us to let these thoughts and feelings pass, rather than fighting them and giving them power, then move on and get whatever it is done.

Next week I’ll touch on my pre-writing habit ritual, and why I write at the same times every day if possible. I’ll also discuss habit triggers, and how to redirect unhelpful ones and deal with the need for consistency even if your day job gives you a random schedule.

What do you think? Have you had trouble transitioning between tasks? What does meditation do for you? I’d love to hear from you.

See you next week.

Working Out Broke My Writer’s Block

Time to reveal an open secret. I’ve got ADHD. Like, hardcore developmental I-couldn’t-get-homework-done-as-a-kid-but-passed-all-the-tests ADHD. And yes, you read the name of the blog right. I’m also a woman. And, to top all of it all off, I’m a writer.

Okay, now that I’m done being sarcastic, I should probably mention that all those things together are exactly as challenging as they sound. Probably more so. There’s a cacophony in my mind, like a concert going on all the time that only I can hear. And when I’m trying to pay attention to someone speaking, or something I’m supposed to be doing, like you know, writing, I have to push through the concert and force my bucking attention to stay there. Whether my interest is fully engaged or not.

This second point is really powerful. For those of you who are blessed/cursed with ADHD as well, you’ll likely have some idea of what I mean by interest fully engaged. My nervous system doesn’t let me do things unless I’m so hooked I lose track of time. “Well Ali, why don’t you just make yourself get engaged or interested? Think about the good things that’ll happen in the future, or the bad stuff!”

Rewards and punishments don’t really work an an interest-based nervous system. The problem with trying to think of the future as though it were now is that my brain is already off listening to the concert of my other thoughts or staring at some speck on the wall I hadn’t noticed before that kinda looks like Elvis’s head. And it’s easy to belittle this kind of problem when you don’t suffer from it. For my fellow neuro-divergents nodding along right about now, I have good news.

There are things you can do to help improve your attention. And for those of you who aren’t, but still want to help improve your focus for the times you suffer from wandering attention, stick around. You might find something useful here too.

Recently, I joined Weight Watchers. This isn’t an ad for them, though I’ve lost 16 pounds so far and am pretty happy with the program. When I joined, I was pretty sedentary, but over the past few weeks I’ve been doing daily workouts through one of their partners, Daily Burn. Again, not an ad, I’m just pretty happy with the service, though if you do decide to try it out they’ll give you a free month because they’re awesome like that.

At first it was friggen hard to get myself to do it. Why would I want to make my whole body sore when I could be sitting on my ample rear tapping away for the benefit of my readers and the kind authors who send me their books for review? But after about a week, I noticed something.

I have a FitBit tracker (all the brand name drops in this post!) and one of the features I use the most is the sleep tracking function. After a week, my total minutes spent in deep (theta level) sleep increased by fifty percent, my time to fall asleep decreased by thirty percent, and my minutes spent awake (people wake up periodically in their sleep naturally, so I’m not weird here) was cut in half.

So why should the writers in the room care? My word counts also doubled with no additional work time on the days I worked out. I’ll let that sink in for a sec. Remember what I said about interest based immune systems and immediate rewards? Seeing this was my hallelujah moment. And it gets better.

I’ll do a post on meditation next week, but I’ll simply note here that I’ve been pairing my workouts with 3 minute meditation segments when I transition between writing tasks. For me, writing tasks are segmented into four groups: Drafting (duh), Editing (reviewing notes from my writing group, line edits, structural commentary, reviewing my outline), Generative Work (outlining, prompt writing, world building, 1st person POV rants from characters so I can get their voice down), and Correspondence (answering your emails, sending out requests of my own for Covenant of the Hollow reviews, chatting with colleagues about events, etc).

Each of those tasks engages a different part of my writing brain and requires a different sort of attention, so the meditation smooths the transitions between them. I did this long before I started exercising, but the exercise gave a specific boost to my performance that, when paired with the meditation, engaged the ADHD state of hyperfocus without any additional effort on my part.

Meditation helps the body build additional dopamine receptors, which ADHD folks and those suffering from chronic anxiety and depression don’t have as many of as neurotypical folks. Exercise causes a MASSIVE release of dopamine when you’re done. That sore feeling after a workout, and the subsequent warmth all over your body? That’s a flood of dopamine similar to the flood you were looking for if you ever got into your fridge after a breakup or played video games for hours on end.

But wait, there’s more! Exercise also helps build new neural pathways. Translation: it makes learning and holding one’s attention easier. It does so by facilitating production of BDNF, a hormone essential to the production and maintenance of neuron pathways. If you meditate during or after exercise, it can also help with the construction of those wonderful dopamine receptors I talked about earlier, which help your brain become more responsive to the “feel good” you get after doing something hard. Or working out.

Armed with this information, I tried walking on my treadmill when I got stuck on a particularly difficult transition point working on Covenant of the Hollow. Anyone who’s read it and is reading this would understand why I’d get stuck a few times working on it. It’s an immense plot spanning centuries, involving equal parts political thriller, cosmic horror, hard science fiction, and alternate history genres.

Getting on the treadmill with no distractions (and this is the key right here, because it didn’t work with music or a podcast) broke through all my blocks within 15 minutes. Who wouldn’t want a cure for writer’s block as simple as throwing on some running shoes and heading outside or hopping on the treadmill? I got hooked.

Keep in mind exercising didn’t eliminate my need for medication. It did, however, increase its effectiveness. I can feel when my Ritalin LA kicks in, and after a workout, I can jump right into my work without the itch to hop on Facebook or call up a friend instead of whatever set of tasks I laid out for myself that day.

I’m thinking of doing a series on ADHD, attention, writer’s block, anxiety, and tools and techniques you can use to break through it. It’ll be primarily aimed at creative types, but anyone can use it.

What do you think? Is that something you would be interested in? Is there a particular topic you’d like me to cover?

Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email over on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.