|On the plane home from Seattle, I realized I was living with a brain cramp that had been there for a while. Not just days, or even months, but probably since 2012, the year I bought my first smartphone.|
The Wi-Fi on our plane was on the fritz. Just knowing my phone didn’t work caused my brain to relax. The experience fit perfectly with the book I’ve been reading, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.
Cal argues that the constant barrage of distractions we face, from email to 24-hour news cycles, to social media, to Netflix/Disney/HBO Max/Hulu/every-other-binge-worthy platform to over-scheduled kids and lives, to the pressures to capture videos and photos of our ourselves is killing our creativity and focus.
Writers face additional pressures to not just generate excellent writing, but to develop platforms that maximize our reach.
No wonder I have a brain cramp.
And no wonder I’m struggling to write.
That cramp released on the plane, because for the duration of that flight my body and brain knew there would be no dings and pings, no email refreshes, no status updates to check. It was free to wander, which is essential for creativity.
To get more of this requires us to re-engage with deep work.
According to Cal, deep work is “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
He says, “deep work is necessary to writing every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.”
Its value stems from its ability to generate states of flow where new creations are born. Yet the sheer volume of distractions available to us has made deep work increasingly rare. More and more of our time is spent handling not just the external distractions available to us, but also the physical addiction we have to them.
Each ding and ping of our smart phone or social media app creates a tiny hit of dopamine that lights up our brain. We rarely realize these hits are happening, but we miss them when they’re gone. That’s why we reach for our phones in grocery store lines, during dinner, or when we’re trying to write.
Our brains want that hit.
Plus, shallow work, like email, social media, creating videos of hiking, cleaning the house, and cooking meals makes us appear busy, which is also rewarded by society. The gold stars we get for being multitasking superstars generate a second hit of dopamine, reinforcing this cycle, even as it steals our focus and exhausts us.
So, what’s a writer to do?
Establish routines that promote deep work: Identify your energy rhythm and when you’re primed for peak work. For many of us, this is the first three to four hours of the morning, but for others, it might be at the end of the day. Once you know your peak time, PROTECT IT like the pot of gold it is, and spend some of it writing.
Identify the “vital few tasks” that create the most value, whether they’re related to work, family, or your writing life. Eliminate as many of the leftovers as you can. Cal offers some great tips for doing this.
Schedule everything: At the end of your workday, create a schedule for the next day that covers everything from wake up to bedtime. Slate your vital tasks during peak energy hours, then using the rest of your day for shallow tasks. This will mean checking email, news, and social media AFTER your peak energy time rather than before or during it. In fact, he suggests scheduling email and social media times throughout the day, so you know when they’re going to happen. Once you do this, your job is to stick to your schedule.
Allow for down time: This can be anything from sleep to meditation to staring at the clouds to baking a pie. The point is to do something without a purpose or goal in mind. This kind of mental and physical rest recharges your brain and allows your peak times to truly be peaks.
Embrace boredom by engaging in digital detoxes: You don’t have to trash your cellphone or computer to do this, but you will need to turn off notifications and eliminate the apps that distract you, so your brain can do the wandering needed to write.
As soon as I arrived home, I implemented some of Cal’s strategies, and quickly learned it’s hard AF to stay away from my cellphone when my brain whisper screams, “But what if there’s an EMERGENCY!?!”
As the week progressed, I realized I needed help.
During a recent interview on NPR’s 1-A, Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, suggested we buy timed lockboxes for our cellphones to free ourselves from the constant need to be with them.
Just thinking about a lockbox made me sweat. But then I remembered that feeling on the plane, so I purchased one. It will arrive in a few days. Next week, I’ll share an update on my progress.
If you’d like to know more, here are a few links to Cal and Johann’s work:
A Look Inside Cal Newport’s Deep Work Hideaway
Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century
It’s Not Your Fault You Can’t Pay Attention
Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention
As you consider your relationship to technology, I have a few questions for you: At what time of the day do you first check your cell phone, email, or social media? How long do you think you could go without checking them?
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