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Last night, I finished Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. It’s the kind of book that, when it arrives at the right time, can change a life. It changed mine.
The Distracted, Fragmented, Stressed Out Before of My Life
Before I explain how, let me describe how I was feeling in the fall with a toddler in the house, ever shorter work hours available to me, and ever bigger desires to write and do historical research more. My attention was fragmented and my stress high. So I followed the model of writer Nicole Gulotta and took December completely off from social media. The relief I felt at not having to post to several Facebook pages, Twitter, and Instagram every day (that’s the expectation I had set for myself before) was profound, and I got a lot more work done. . . plus, and this was the big one, I felt better. I could focus more.
When January came, I kept my social media use reduced, mostly by using the Kill The Newsfeed extension for the Chrome browser. Just that small change helped immensely since it eliminated the temptation to just scroll. But I was still distracted. I couldn’t work more than five or ten minutes most days without checking email or scanning my FB notifications. I still felt scattered, and I knew more had to change.
Choosing Deep Over Wide
Enter Newport’s book. I’d picked it up at a Little Free Library sometime, remembering recommendations from friends who had found it engaging and useful, and there it was in all its golden glory, peeking out from my TBR shelf. (Please note that my TBR shelf consists of hundreds of books, all of which I want to read, so that this one kept catching my eye says something about how badly I knew, at least subconsciously, that I needed it.)
I started reading and was immediately swayed about his argument on the necessity and value of deep work, work that is focused and pushing us to the edge of our ability. (He makes a compelling argument about how this work is what is in highest demand in our economy, which is interesting, too.) I knew that deep work from rare writing sessions when I felt like I slipped entirely into the flow of the words and lost track of everything else, but I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time. I missed it.
As I continued to read Newport’s words I saw myself in the distraction he described – the immediate impulse to answer emails, the switching to social media when I reached a hard moment in my writing life, the scrolling whatever I could while I watched TV at night. His argument about how continual distraction reduces our ability to go deep was so deeply true in my life, and I knew I couldn’t ignore it.
In the second half of his book, he describes techniques for going deep, and I started using them – setting out chunks of my day for distractionless work, turning off my email (I kept a tab open for it all the time), putting parameters around my shallow work time, etc. The results were dramatic:
- I immediately got more work done, finding myself able to take evenings off even as I write a new book, have my full editing load, and am in the middle of an intensive research project for a local client.
- I began to feel good about the work I was doing, like I was giving it everything I had instead of struggling to do it in bits and pieces of time.
- I relaxed, letting go of a profound level of stress I’d held around the available hours I had to work (between 3.5 and 4.5 a day depending on childcare) because I realized I couldn’t do deep work more than about 4 hours a day anyway.
- I felt the joy of life again, and I saw my joy reflected in my family’s joy (and maybe relief) that I wasn’t so overwhelmed all the time.
In short, focusing on doing deep work made my life better.
Plus, here’s the kicker. I didn’t miss most of the shallow stuff. I found I could manage email in two 15 minute sessions a day, and I could check on the social media I was using in less time than that. All that focus on the stuff that mattered – to me, to my clients, and to my readers – meant I cut out the pressure to show up in so many places all the time. I had to give up the wideness of my reach, but I got to go deep in exchange.
It is glorious!
Letting Go of Social Media, Mostly
Which brings me to the biggest – at least the psychologically biggest – part of this process. I’m quitting almost all social media. Now, Newport suggests not announcing this change because it’s easier to tell if you’re actually missed when you don’t call attention to your departure, and I get that and think it’s wise. But I’m not telling you so you can try to convince me to stay – it won’t work. I’m telling you because if this feels like it might be a good choice for you, I hope you’ll step back, too.
Here are the specifics of what I’ve doing:
- I’m staying on Facebook but only for my magical realism and cozy mystery reader groups and my Andilit and ACF Bookens pages. I won’t be on the newsfeed, and I won’t be posting personally, at least not much. I will check notifications once a day for less than 15 minutes, but that’s all.
- I’m getting off Twitter and Instagram entirely. I’ll leave my profiles up, but I won’t be posting there unless something auto-populates (like from Goodreads, where I’ll stay because I love tracking my books there and don’t find it distracting in the same way I do other platforms.
- I moved the writing community I coordinate off of Facebook to Mighty Networks, where the only thing I see is our group of wonderful writers. (Come join us if you’d like.) Even there, though, I’m limiting myself to 30 minutes or less a day in two sessions so that I don’t get distracted by the more of that space, too.
- I’m checking email three times a day – once in the morning, once at midday, once before I close out the work day. I’m going to work on unsubscribing from anything I don’t read, and I’m only replying to messages immediately if I can do thoughtfully and in the time I allot.
These changes mean I’ll be doing what Newport calls “shallow work” for about an hour a day, and given how few hours I have in my day to work, this is huge.
Please know that I’m not suggesting you need to do these things, claiming that social media is a wholesale negative (although more and more, I’m concerned about how addictive it is), or suggesting you can do your job on an hour of email and social media a day. You have to determine what works for you, but if you’re feeling like I was, maybe Newport’s book will give you some strategies to make changes that will serve you, your writing, and your readers more fully. That’s what it did for me, and I’m so grateful.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about these ideas. Do they entice you? Scare you?
A bit more about the writing community we have going over on Mighty Networks, a robust, focused platform for connecting that is free from the big numbers and ads of Facebook. The community is for writers of any experience level and any genre. We talk about our writing goals, share resources for learning more about our craft and for publication, lament, celebrate, and connect with each other.
Members get lots of benefits:
- The opportunity to participate in genre-specific discussion groups.
- The chance to share works in progress for critique and feedback from community members.
- A space to find beta readers for forthcoming books.
- A weekly email of encouragement and education from me.
- A monthly live chat with the members of the community to talk about writing in a casual, fun space.
- AND MUCH MORE.
The community is just $2.99 a month, and you can leave at any time. I’d love to have you join us.