Three Take-Aways from “Deep Work” for Academic Writers

by | Nov 29, 2018 | academic writing, mindset

I found a new podcast that I love: #AmWriting. It has really put wind in my sails about a book I’ve been brewing on the back burner for about a year. I am so inspired by the completely relatable podcast hosts Jess and K.J., smart women, authors and moms, and have been binge-listening to the show.

At the end of each show, Jess and K.J. share what they’ve been reading. This made me have an ah-ha moment. Writers read. So I decided that I wanted to integrate reading into my workday on the days that I reserve for research and writing. I wanted to be more purposeful and deliberate about getting reading in, which is why I chose to actually do it during working hours.

On one of the podcasts, K.J. got excited about the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. I had heard about this book before, but had never picked it up. It became the first book on my deliberate reading schedule, and boy do I have some take-aways for you. 😉

Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown. Although he is an academic, Deep Work is not an academic book. I would call it well-researched self-help, the kind of self-help book that you would expect an academic to write. He cites studies published in peer-reviewed journals, but also tells stories and anecdotes. It reads easily and you don’t need a pencil in hand or tape-flags to follow the argument, which is a nice change of pace.

The main argument of the book is that in today’s knowledge economy, people who cultivate deep work will get ahead. Deep work is the challenging, thought-intensive work that we do when we put ourselves to solve problems, generate theory, and also when we write. Newport argues that the rest of the work, which he dubs “shallow work,” like pushing papers, answering emails, and all the other stuff that makes us look busy must be minimized to allow for deep work to happen.

For the first half of the book, Newport works to convince us of the importance of deep work in today’s economy. Frankly, as an academic, I don’t need much convincing. Deep work is what I crave doing, and shallow work is just getting in the way. Deep work is what I signed up for when I started my Ph.D. The bigger question is: how do we do deep work?

Newport dedicates the second half of the book to this question. What I love about this part of the book is that he suggests many of the strategies that I teach in my courses and coaching when I’m helping academic women write and publish more. (So yay! I’m on to something!) These strategies include: email management strategies that reduce your time in your inbox, including teaching people that you don’t respond to emails immediately, corralling your shallow work tasks to later in the day, and reducing the number of shallow tasks you do.

But what I want to emphasize in this post are the new things that I learned, because, wow, I did these three things and have felt a difference in my ability to do deep work that has me wanting more. So here they are, three changes that you can make to cultivate your ability to do deep work.

#1: Take social media off your phone

Newport advocates for quitting social media all together. The main reason he cites is the way that social media acts to change our ability to pay attention, while offering little value in return.

For me, I realized that I was addicted to Facebook. I was constantly picking up my phone and looking for the “hit” of a comment or like. Then I would get lost in mindless scrolling, and 30 minutes could easily go by with me staring at the screen. When I would finally stop scrolling, I didn’t like how I felt. Yet in a few minutes, I wanted to “just check” again, and down the rabbit hole I would go.

I really liked how Newport asks readers of Deep Work to seriously consider the value that social media adds to their lives. Maybe Facebook allows you to be connected to old high school friends that you wouldn’t otherwise have stayed in contact with. He argues that these many, shallow, friendships could easily be sacrificed for more deep, in-person friendships without too much loss.

Of course, I connect with academic women around the world through Facebook, particularly in my Facebook group I Should Be Writing, which is one of my favorite places on the internet. But did I need to do this from the palm of my hand? Nope. Now when I want to access Facebook, I have to do it from a computer. And at least for me, this has reduced my Facebook use substantially. I go in about once a day to check in on my groups, and that’s it.

What I want to emphasize here how this small change (taking Facebook off my phone) made me feel. After only about three days, I noticed that my ability to concentrate increased. I felt better because I was not mindlessly scrolling. And I can take or leave my phone (another important strategy Newport advocates: not having you phone in the same room as you when you are trying to do deep work).

#2 Take a walk

I love walking. Really, it is my favorite form of exercise. I felt so good when we visited Rome and I was walking 15,000-20,000 steps a day.

Although Newport doesn’t explicitly say “go take a walk,” he does relate the stories of people, such as Carl Jung, who integrated walking into their deep work practice. (Newport himself runs.) So I decided to integrate walking into my working day as part of my own deep work practice.

Yes, I walk during the work day. But before you say, “I couldn’t possibly do that!”, hear me out.

When I would walk for exercise, I would always be listening to a podcast or a book on Audible. Others listen to music, but I always loved talk radio, particularly NPR, and podcasts allow me to replicate that. I get great new ideas this way, walking and listening. My brain makes connections.

But Newport tells us that the brain needs to be bored in order to do deep work. So I thought: what if I walked without listening to anything?

To make walking (or running) support deep work, I decided to put myself to deliberately think about a writing problem that I had been stuck on. The first time I did this I actually solved the writing problem, got unstuck, and outlined the paper in my head. When I ended my walk, I opened a Google doc on my phone and quickly jotted down the outline.

Walking while thinking has seriously improved my writing practice. It has also helped hone my ability to concentrate.

#3 Create a deep work rhythm

After reading the book (well, truthfully, even before I was done), I changed my schedule to make room for more deep work. Newport says that a person can only really do 3-4 hours of deep work a day. This makes sense to me; I was never able to write for more than that in a day.

If you have been following my blog, you know that I advocate for a writing practice that utilizes your best, most energetic times of day (I call this “tiger time” after entrepreneur Amy Porterfield). You don’t have to write everyday, but you do have to write during your tiger time (not during other times). This writing practice fits perfectly with the new ways I’ve been cultivating deep work.

You also might know that I “stack” my week. This means that I scrunch all my teaching, prep, student meetings, and committee work into long Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then do my research and writing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I do this for most of the year. During crunch times grading spills over into other days, but this is just part of the deal.

Here’s how I modified my M, W, F, schedule for more deep work:

I don’t go to campus on M, W, F. By doing this, I save time during my best morning hours because I don’t have to get “dressed for work.” (I can shower and get dressed for real after my walk if I need to.)

I block three hours, 8:00-11:00 for deep work. Deep work, for me, is writing. During this time is the one hour co-writing session for the Academic Women’s Writing Collective on Mondays, so it works out great.

At 11:00 I take a walk until 12:00. I let my brain think about the writing problems I’ve encountered and plan next steps.

At 12:00 I prep and eat lunch.

From 12:30-1:30 or 2:00 I read. At 2:00 I start doing shallow work (checking email, following up on committee stuff, etc.). At 4:30 I start making dinner because my family gets home at 5:30 or so.

After dinner, I do not try to do anything related to work. I might spend 30 minutes checking in to my Facebook groups after the kids go to bed. I rest my brain (if you can call parenting “resting”.) I read fiction or creative non-fiction.

And that’s it! The result of this new “deep work” schedule is that I have actually succeeded, in the course of about three weeks, to increase me attention span and my ability to, frankly, think. I’ve seen an uptick in my writing production. But most of all, I just feel better–at a time in the semester when I usually feel completely frazzled.

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