It is with an exasperated sigh that I begrudgingly site Cal Newport, and his concept of “deep work,” as the basis for my systematic productivity.
[I read his book early on in my process of discovery, and I was as taken with its underlying concepts as I was repelled by its tone. He is at best a product of his environment—a high pressure, promotion-based, publish or perish, tenure-oriented, win-the-capitalist-game-by-hacking-your-life-until-you-can-squeeze-blood-from-a-carrot kind of guy. He’s also better than us because he doesn’t use Facebook and goes running in the winter.]
But, whatever…he has some good ideas that I used to streamline the habits I was already building, and I’ve got to give credit where it’s due. Most importantly, while he doesn’t use the terms attunement, engagement, and endorsement, the book still provides no-nonsense tips for turning the Aristotelean tripartite balance into reality.
On episode 65 of Write Now, Sarah Werner talks about the artistic version of the writer that we can find on social media (#amwriting) as part of the public imaginary. This writer is often eccentric, or experimental, or ponderous, or romantic in some way—the result of years of painful thought, or intellectual quirkiness, or gonzo journalistic style. This writer lives, man, and then sits down at the perfect desk with the perfect cup of tea/booze and writes the perfect novel while it rains.
I was, at one point, very much a sucker for this softer side of this stereotype. I never bought into the idea of causing myself pain to write painful things, but I did have this sense that if I could just ponder the right things in the right spaces with the right accoutrements, I could become a Writer.
Turns out, you don’t just magically become a writer when you put on a cardigan and pour yourself a drink. Attunement is more about internal environment than external show. It asks that you write every day, so that any environment can become your right environment, as long as you are focused. The best way to foster that level of focus is to cultivate your depth of engagement.
So, sure, pick a favorite pen, pour that cup of tea—the brain recognizes repetitive cues as a signal to start work—but then…just write.
You’re more likely to write every day if you are invested in what you’re doing. Part of investment is just picking the right topic and tone, which I’ll discuss in my self-analysis posts. But another practical aspect is, as Newport suggests, writing with an eye toward scarcity.
“Hah!” you say. “I have like literally no time to write anyway.” But that’s not quite the same thing…
The scarcity mindset means that you purposely limit the hours in the day that you work on the most focused part of your writing project—the brain can do 3 to 4.5 hours before you experience diminishing returns—and that you fiercely protect that time, enjoy your work, and then shut down hard and walk away. In the remaining day you do less focused tasks like email, research, reading, etc., and save a bit of time for whatever it is that restores you, lest you build resentment for the time you spend at your desk.
I work afternoon and evening retail shifts, at the moment, so that means I get up at 8 and write in three 1.5 hour blocks with half hour breaks until I either shut down to go to work or, on my days off, run errands, read, cook, and go for a forest walk.
There’s something magical, for me, about knowing my priority work is done by 1 pm, and the rest of the day is mine, but you can cultivate whatever system works for you, as long as you write every day and endorse what you’ve done.
Another way to think of endorsement is gentle accountability. You do not need a bizarre and intricate system of accountability to make this work. You do not need an FDX Framework, Newport, oh my god. All you need is a place where you write down your achievement for the day and watch your progress toward your goals.
Endorsement is always positive. It is not an opportunity to beat yourself up for not writing as much as you thought you would. It is an opportunity to congratulate yourself, equally, for doing ten words on a hard day, or two-thousand on a great day, and to build a record of your writing times and topics for later analysis. It’s also the last thing you do before you leave your desk, to close out your day.
[I’ll show you my writing journal and discuss the benefits/drawbacks of word count in my next posts.]
Other Deep Work Takeaways
Yes, it’s a good idea to ween yourself away from distractions as much as possible. As Newport puts it, you want to teach yourself to put your writing first.
Relatedly, yes, you do need to be selfish about your writing time. Even Lin Manuel-Miranda, world famous actual nice guy and role model for generosity, will ghost out of a party if the urge to write strikes him. Even he makes himself a priority.
Don’t be a dick.
Write because you love writing, not because you want fame and fortune.
When you’re not writing, work to become a well-rounded person who tries new things, builds relationships, and interacts with the world in meaningful ways.