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!