Deep work and how not to avoid it

(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 21 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)

Maybe you’re lucky and sitting down to write every day is a huge treat.  Maybe you’re absorbed from the first moment you start.

Or maybe you’re a little bit bored.

My students used to say, “This is boring.”  I am a nasty old middle school teacher, so I used to say, “No, it’s not boring.  You’re bored.  That’s different.”  Boredom is something inside you, not something in your environment. It’s an unwillingness to focus your attention on one thing and only one thing, for fear that thing might not be important enough.  For fear you might miss something.

We value excitement and distraction instead, as if those were valuable states.  I’m all in favor of both of those things, but I want them later when I need some rest.

Where would you really like to focus your attention for the next hour?  What is the most meaningful thing you could possibly be doing right now?  What kind of deep work would you like to do?  You get to choose.  And if you committed to NaNoWriMo this month, the odds are good your choice is writing.

When it’s writing time, write.

Just write.  Only write.

Cal Newport suggests quitting social media, avoiding shallow tasks, and facing (and embracing) boredom.

Quitting social media is hard.  I admit that I check my messages first thing in the morning right after I wake up, but I don’t have to be awake to do that.  I have Facebook logged off on my desktop computer.  I don’t look at my other social media accounts.  My blog posts are set up to post automatically to Facebook and Twitter at 9:00 am the next day.  My phone has my personal Facebook account on it, but it’s set off to one side and it’s on “do not disturb” when I’m working.

It’s tempting, too, even when I’m not on social media, to take on all those little tasks I should be doing – entering receipts, tidying my inbox, organizing my doodad basket, cleaning the sink, making phone calls – but that’s stuff I can do later on, when I’m not writing.  At 9:00 pm the night before, so that it’s an appointment I have to keep, I schedule writing time in my calendar first thing.

Our willingness to be distracted by social media and shallow tasks is partly caused by the fear of boredom. We dread being bored.  Newport suggests you embrace boredom instead.

Before you read any further, take a few minutes and turn off all your notifications.  All the little bells, whistles, sound effects, ringtones, and beeps that let you know you have received email, messages, comments, news articles, or pictures.  Put your phone on “do not disturb.”  Or put it downstairs or in another room.  Go to your schedule and make a half hour appointment with yourself to check all your messages later in the day.  And after that, plan an hour later in the day for the other logistical tasks that dominate your attention.

Then close your door, and hang a “do not disturb” sign on it.  On the inside, where you can see it.  It’s not for other people, it’s for you.

Then prepare to write.  Maybe you’ll be bored.  Practice being bored, then.   When you feel yourself getting bored, write down the time you noticed the boredom setting in, and then get on with with your work.  See if you can be bored for five minutes.  I bet you can’t.  When the only thing you can do to avoid being bored is write, it’s wonderful how much easier it is to write.

Tomorrow:  C.A.S.E.

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