The Deep Work Experiment

I have wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember. I have been somewhat seriously working towards this goal for at least the majority of my twenties. My desktop and dropbox folders are graveyards for projects that almostquite but never did get there. The magical moment of completion.

It’s not because this isn’t important to me – it’s one of my deepest held wishes to finish a book. Of course, I’d love to publish and make millions off said book, but even more than that (perhaps unrealistic) dream right now what I want is the deep satisfaction of completion. Of striving to do something, of putting my mind to it, and accomplishing my goal.

One of my problems, especially of late, is distraction. There’s always something else – something more entertaining, something easier, something that is not writing my novel – to do. Perhaps it sounds like a ridiculous failure of self-control and willpower, but I have genuinely come to believe that my fractured mindset has been inhibiting my ability to make the kind of progress I crave.

A change is called for.

Enter my recent exposure to the thoughts of Cal Newport and his book Deep Work. I first encountered Newport in an interview he did with Ezra Klein (here) and his ideas, although not exactly revolutionary, resonated with me. It’s not that you’ve never heard these ideas before (in fact a lot of them just feel like common sense) – it’s more that he offered a permission and a path towards implementing deep work in your life in a way that I immediately felt drawn to. Having read his book, I now feel ready to take the dive. To implement a deep work strategy in my life, with the goal of having an 80,000 word first draft of novel done by the end of August.

Ambitious? Sure, but no more implausible than the millions of people who complete Nanowrimo each year (in fact, this goal is significantly more gentle on me!) Important? Absolutely. This is something I desperately want to do, and ideally I’d love to have a polished draft of said novel before my 30th birthday in May 2018. The idea of using this life milestone as a deadline has a certain appeal to me, so I’ve decided just to run with it. Hey, if it works, right?

So, how am I going to do it, and what role is this blog going to play?

My plan is to follow Cal Newport’s 4 rules for deep work.

  1. Work Deeply: This rule is all about utilizing routine to schedule in deep work into my life regularly – times when I will work on the novel. Taking steps to limit distraction at all times and ensuring that my deep work times are periods of distraction free concentration.
  2. Embrace Boredom: This is an idea I’ve tried and failed to embrace before (see an optimistic blog post here) – that boredom is in fact good for creativity. Being constantly entertained doesn’t allow the mind to enter that contemplative state of drift that often gifts us creative insights. In Newport’s book, this rule is all about training your brain to not give into distraction, to be able to push through boredom.
  3. Quit Social Media: Here’s the scary and most alluring part of Newport’s book for me. One of the exercises in the book involves writing down your most important personal and professional goals, and then the tasks you need to achieve these goals. He then asks you to consider: does social media help or hinder you in achieving these goals. If the advice is that it is hindering you, his advice is to cut the cord. I have felt for a long time that my relationship to social media is not the healthiest. I use it for validation, and I use it compulsively. I waste hours of my life mindlessly scrolling through news feeds that could be spent doing the things I actually love: reading, writing, watching a great TV show, knitting a sweater. Things that actually bring me pleasure and joy,  rather than mindless distraction. So although at some level the thought terrifies me, I’m going to do it. I’m going to abstain from social media for the duration of this project. 
  4. Drain the Shallows: This rule is about using scheduling to structure your time so that you spend as little time as possible on inconsequential tasks, and as much time as possible either in deep work or, you know, relaxing and enjoying your life. Doesn’t that sound appealing? Working less but getting more and better quality work done?

I don’t know if this will work. I’m even a little tentative about putting this out there because ohmygoodnesswhatifIfail?! But what if I don’t? After 9 years of not getting where I want to with my writing, maybe this project will be the step that finally gets me where I want to be – and wouldn’t that be delicious?

It’s an experiment, then. An optimistic, throw caution the wind experiment, which I wildly hope will work, but which I am willing to accept might fail. And with this experiment, this big dream, part of my implementation plan is this: public accountability.

Drawing from the 4DX principles, Newport recommends implementing a system of tracking your deep work, and creating accountability. As a writer, writing up my experiences is always a good way for me to check in with myself how I’m really doing. As a writer with a blog, I give myself a public space in which to account for my actions, and to see how I’m getting on. Is the experiment working? Am I making progress with my novel?  And hopefully if you’re following along, maybe you’ll find something of value in my experiences too. On a weekly basis I’ll be posting here with insights into the process and letting you know how I am getting on.

(For obvious reasons – see rule #3 above – I won’t be sharing these posts on social media. If you’re interested in following along, can I humbly suggest hitting the follow button at the bottom right of your screen?)

3 thoughts on “The Deep Work Experiment

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