I recently listened to an episode of The Hidden Brain podcast about the subject “Deep Work.” Basically, the interview was detailing the benefits of focusing on a single task at a time. Many of us may believe we are already doing this, but if you answer your phone during the time that you’re working or intermittently check your email, you are disrupting the process.
Anne Rice purportedly needs four hours of unbroken time each day. Nathaniel Hawthorne stayed in his bedroom from morning til sunset before writing his first collection of short stories. Other writers, like Henry David Thoreau and MarkTwain, isolated themselves as well.
J.K. Rowling went to the Balmoral Hotel to finish her final Harry Potter novel.
“[…] there came a day where the window cleaner came, the kids were at home, the dogs were barking and I could not work […] I thought I can go to a quiet place so I came to this hotel because it’s a beautiful hotel, […] and I ended up finishing the last of the Harry Potter books in this hotel.”J.K. Rowling from The Rowling Library
Other well-known authors (the Bronte sisters and Robert Louis Stevenson, for example) were isolated at times in their lives by illness or other circumstances.
It is clearly evident by their work that all of the aforementioned writers have had great successes. Some of them have bestowed upon us arguably the greatest pages of literature ever printed. I decided to impart this concept of deep work, at least to some degree, to my own writing.
I say “to some degree” because I truly don’t remove all distractions. I apply it to my own circumstances and what I believe is feasible for me. I find that trying to write at home is difficult. There are always dishes to be washed, carpet to be vacuumed, other household chores, TV shows to watch. I also have two cats that are very entertaining (and distracting).
To eliminate these distractions, I do a lot of my writing at a local coffee shop. It may seem counterproductive, as there are customers coming and going, patrons chatting at tables, sounds of the percolating beverage machines, etc. This is all true, but the important factor is that it is a place apart from my own home. It is the place I have designated as my writing environment.
When I go there, I put my phone on silent and do not answer any calls or texts (most of the time; I’m not perfect). I am there for one focused reason–to write.
A study out of the University of California determined that it takes just over 23 minutes to get back on track after being interrupted. So, let’s say you delineate 2 hours for your writing, but in the middle of it, you receive a text message. You decide to reply to the message; after all, it’ll only take a couple of seconds, you reason. The problem is that your brain is forced to change focus, unless the text has to do with the robot zombie apocalypse that you’re writing about. Then, of course, we’d have to debate the fact that since robots aren’t alive, can they really be undead? Sorry, did I distract you from our subject?
After you’re finished with the text, you turn back to your writing. It will then take you approximately 23 minutes to truly get back to where you left off in your thinking process. You then hear an alert that tells you that you’ve received an email. You quickly open your email app, see that it is unimportant and decide not to reply. This takes a mere few seconds; nevertheless, your brain has been distracted by a task that is variant from your writing.
The two hours you have set aside for writing has now been cut down to an hour and 14 minutes of focused concentration. You have traded over an hour of writing for a few seconds of trivial distraction. If you take away the time required to really delve into the writing process when you sit down to begin, you are left with an hour of meaningful, deep work. Was it worth it?
I can’t afford to move into a hotel to write my novels and I don’t have a secluded cabin in the woods, but I can, at the very least, turn off my phone for a couple of hours to focus on something that’s important to me. Can you?
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