Doing Deep Work: Everything I Know is Wrong


This is just being used as an illustration of how stupid I am. It’s also a great album; do some google-fu and find free Firesigh Theatre Youtube content, and then buy a CD re-issue. You’ll be happy. You’re welcome.

I’ve been writing fiction on and off, mostly off, for twenty something years.

I completed the prestigious six-week, fiction writing workshop Clarion West in the 90s, after selling a handful of stories to smaller professional-paying national magazines.

In the last three years I’ve sold a dozen pieces to some of the biggest  magazines in the field, including nine pieces to Asimov’s SF and two to F&SF, the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

So, brief moment of elation, Yay! Got that over with. Now, on to the informative self-loathing.

At my wife’s insistence I listened to the Unmistakeable Creative Podcast “Rules for Focused Success in a distracted world,” a conversation with famously efficient person, Cal Newport.

So, if you want, go listen to that now and come back.

This led me to buy a copy of Cal’s latest book, Deep Work for my Kindle. There were fifty-two holds for it in the Cambridge Library Minuteman Network, and after listening to the podcast I was all hopped-up and giddy so I spent the fifteen bucks. Yes. Fifteen bucks.

So I’m working my way through it. It’s not hard to read, the prose is easy going; what’s hard about it is the title of this article, this understanding that I have been doing this writing thing pretty much all wrong forever, so reading the book I am forced to stop and cry periodically. (And my consciousness, quite honestly, is fragmented by decades of network culture. More on that later. If I remember.)

Rather than paraphrase Cal, I’ll invert his messages, in keeping with my title, and my general spirit of wrong-headedness, so you’ll know what not to do.

These are the George Castanza writing impulses. You feel them. But do the opposite.

  • Write in short bursts, at infrequent, irregular intervals.
  • Write in an environment filled with distraction.
  • Write last. You have other stuff that is more important to do. Remember, your will power is infinite.
  • Don’t finish what you write. Keep starting new things. Ruminate on the things you have started. But don’t finish them. Ruminate on them for years.
  • If it is uncomfortable, at all, as you reach or stretch yourself, stop immediately. You could pull a brain muscle. And then where would you be, eh? Say, you notice you write 500 words and then you come up for air, and this is a pattern. Don’t push it. Don’t push your face back down into it. Just marvel at your 500 words. That’s twice what Hemmingway averaged a day. So you’re twice as good as him. Fire up Neflix, Twitter, Facebook, eat a tube of Pringles and drink a liter of Ginger Ale. You earned it.
  • Do not study the work habits of your heroes, or other successful people. You are unique. Your success is assured. as long as you are true to yourself.
  • If you want to make a change in your work patterns, set a very very stringent goal, and immediately hold yourself to it. As we know, this is how athletes are made. One day, you simply get up, and you run a marathon, shedding a hundred pounds in an afternoon, and you’re ready for the olympics. A period of sustained effort, reflection, trial and error, isn’t necessary. Your intent is all that matters.
  • With any effort to modify your process, avoid metrics. Don’t keep score. Use your own seat of the pants gut feeling about how your changes are working out.

In all seriousness, what Cal has to say about the effects of network culture on our ability to do  hard things, to sustain effort, is horrifying. He summarizes many studies and books which I have been avoiding reading for years on these things. Which is great. You don’t have to read them. Cal did. He tells you about them.

The news isn’t good. But you knew that.

Cal venerates the wealthy more than I do, and he tiptoes around the examples of CEOs who are jacked into the matrix 24/7; while I’m willing to push Cal’s thesis even there—these people are probably just assholes riding some wave of good fortune and ruthlessness and the sweat of others—Cal makes excuses for them, as they must be, as we say in business, creating value. To earn so much money.

Sure. Got it.

He posits a ‘journalist’s style’ of Deep Focus, which some can cultivate through long practice, which permits a worklife heavily punctuated with interruption and distraction, but for most of us, Cal has a stoic’s message, which is mostly what you were afraid it was going to be. Here goes.

deep-work-cal-newportFor those not wanting to invert the bullets above, I’ll just say it straight.

  • Periods of long, intense, uninterrupted sustained effort are needed to cause the metabolic changes that make you better at something. (Nerve myelination is referenced in the book, the process whereby heavily used neurons insulate themselves and become faster firing)
  • Distraction is distracting; at a deeper level, distraction produces _lingering deficits in cognition_ with every unfinished task in your inbox sucking away at your minds precious bodily fluids.
  • Social media is stupid and smart people avoid it, if not always, then at least for set-aside periods of time to get shit done. He gives many examples. Oh. So many.
  • There’s more, but that should be enough for now, to get you started on your own miserable inventory.

The good news? Cal is a positive guy, so his good news is that you realizing that business culture took a serious wrong turn and is now pushing idiotic, counterproductive stuff lets you get ahead, by figuring out how to wall off bits of time and focus for you to get your awesome on.

What dumb stuff is fashionable and bad, you ask? Open office plans; constant meetings and constant interruption; being forced to use social media, are all examples of mindless business fetish.

Oh, other good news is that all the stuff that business is wrongly focused on? Using easy-to-use social media tools? Churning out emails and attending meetings? Everything dumb? OK, AI is going to be doing more and more of the dumb stuff anyway. So Deep Work becomes more and more important, because by definition, it’s what can’t be automated.

So go Deep, and you stand a better chance of not being turned into Soylent Green by our new AI overlords, or the Koch Brothers or Donald Trump or whoever.

Whew! So. What’s next for me?

Figuring out how to put some of the horrible truth into practice.

He says, as he blogs. But. I’m focused here longer than I am on an FB post. So.

That’s a start.

Posted in Making a Writing Life, Uncategorized

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