Habits for More Productive and Less Stressful Writing
The Case for Ritualizing a Deep Writing Practice
It’s Monday and I had planned to start off my workday with a two hour writing session. I sit down at my keyboard and decide to check email quickly before diving in.
Turns out, I had a whole string of emails come in over the weekend about the upcoming semester, including a graduate student who needed a rather quick turnaround review of an application. I decide to just get these tasks done quickly and promise myself I will get to my writing in a bit.
Two hours later when I’m finished with the email related tasks, it’s finally time to write. I start writing, and after about 20 minutes, my email "dings" with a follow-up question from one of my students. I stop writing and fire off a quick response before returning to the page. In 30 minutes, a Twitter notification sings on my phone. I chuckle at my friend's joke about burnout in the academy and quickly reply with what I think is a similarly witty response.
I spend the next two hours bouncing back and forth between my writing project, my email, and Twitter. Oh, and there's also the group chat I have with my TAs about class-related matters.
At the end of the “writing session,” I feel tired from all the work I had done that day. Despite this, the "two hours" I blocked for it only resulted in a very small number of words on the page. I also feel frazzled and a bit stressed even though none of the issues that came through my inbox were actually dire.
It is simple to identify a problem after reading the description of my workday: distraction and a lack of quality writing time. Digging deeper here also reveals another truth: my distracted work flow contributed towards my mental fatigue. I was busy and working all day, but I had very little to show for my writing session. My mental fatigue increased throughout the day as I switched back and forth between numerous work tasks.
Many of us intuitively understand that jumping between writing, Twitter, and email does not promote intellectual productivity, but it is much more difficult to commit to creating a deep writing practice free from interruptions.
In today’s post, I’ll outline steps for ritualizing a deep writing practice instead of a distracted and shallow one. To do so, I lean on the work of Cal Newport who wrote a book called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
What is Deep Work?
Newport defines deep work as
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit (p. 3).
Newport’s basic thesis is that the intellectual tasks that require the most brainpower thrive when we perform them in isolation and without interruption. Academic writing requires a lot of deep work, such as analyzing, coming up with fresh ideas, organizing arguments, revising major paragraphs and structural elements, etc.
Writing in a state of deep work produces a few major benefits: 1) more productivity, 2) less stressful and frantic workdays, and 3) more time for other things. A deep writing practice can produce more high quality work in less time and with less stress. As Newport contends,
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration (p. 100).
Here’s the steps I recommend for developing a writing practice based on the principles of deep work.
Determine When to Schedule Deep Writing
Scheduling deep work shares a relationship with the time management strategy of time-blocking. Time-blocking is the process of chunking related tasks together in order of their cognitive difficulty and in terms of similarity of the task. Academic coach Becca Mason divides these tasks into a-tasks and b-tasks:
A-tasks are cognitively demanding tasks that require your full attention, whereas B-tasks can be done when you are more depleted or distracted. For example, reading a journal article is cognitively demanding, so it’s an A-task. By contrast, responding to email doesn’t require intense focus, so it's a B-task. Most of the time (but not always!) research activities are A-tasks, and teaching and service activities are B-tasks.
Writing is generally the highest value and most cognitively demanding task I do during my workday so it gets the prime real estate on my calendar. I try to schedule it first thing in the morning when my brain functions best at these tasks. Although it's not always feasible, writing in the morning is the objective. I try to save the majority of my meetings and emails for later in the day when my focus begins to wane.
Also, not all writing tasks are the same. Line editing, for instance, is a b-task for me because I don't find it as challenging as coming up with new ideas or refining an argument.
Each writer has determine when they are most alert and ready for deep work. Are you a night owl whose brain comes alive in the twilight? Then guard that time for deep writing and do all your b-tasks during the day.
Deep writing rituals are ways to signal to your brain that it’s time to write. Rituals are actions you take or environments you create before each deep writing session. For me, I pour my coffee and turn on epic movie soundtracks to write with. The combination of caffeine and film scores instantly transport me to a space of working deeply.
According to Newport, deep work should, whenever possible, take place somewhere different from work devoted to b-tasks. While I find this unrealistic for most of my work life, on occasion I go to coffee shops to write and I make it a habit to only do writing while I’m there. If you frequency write in a coffee shop, you might make it a habit to only focus on writing or other a-tasks while you’re sipping your fancy javas.
The most effective way I enter deep work is to commit to a period of time where I will not check email and turn off all notifications. Since my partner also works from home, I usually tell her “I’m going to focus for a while” and shut my door. Keeping distractions to a minimum is crucial for deep work because switching between tasks requires more mental energy than staying focused on one. The more we switch throughout the day, the more it taxes our concentration and makes writing tasks take longer than if we focus without distractions.
There are two main reasons that minimizing distractions is a challenge for academics.
We are inundated with email and other forms of communication throughout the day. Many of us feel pressured to respond instantly because an email or other missive comes in. We also have so many other demands on our time in the academy that go beyond writing that drain our capacities throughout the day. On top of work, many of us also have children at home. You can’t really tell a two-year-old, “don’t tell me you’re hungry when I’m deep working, honey.”
Distractions are a dopamine fix when writing gets hard. For example, say I am writing outside of my deep ritual and I have my phone next to me. I’m writing along and suddenly articulating an idea is difficult. Humans prefer to avoid challenges, so my natural inclination is to grab my phone and do something enjoyable, like scroll through Instagram reels of dachshund puppies. Doing something that makes us feel like we have accomplished something, such as fixing an APA citation, is another way we can avoid a hard space in our writing. Even though it is still writing, formatting citations requires a different part of the brain than coming up with ideas, and this switch can still strain our brains' cognitive abilities.
The answers to overcoming these challenges will vary according to each individual’s particular context. For the second challenge, I try to recognize when my brain wants to retreat from a difficult patch of writing and try to push through. Other times, because deep writing is so mentally taxing, I just need a break from it. I have limited capacity and time for going deep in any given day.
Like all modes of writing, we are more productive if we have goals in mind. In my deep work, I consider writing objectives in two different ways. The first is a ritualized metric, like a word count target or the pomodoro technique, which gives every writing session a measurable result:
I will write X words.
I will write for 30 minutes before taking a break.
The second is a particular deliverable. As I wrote about in Planning Writing Like You Plan Your Syllabus, I don’t just say, “I’m going to work on my article in today’s writing session,” because that is way too broad and I don’t know where to start. I say, “I’m going to brainstorm the connections between these three scholar’s ideas for my literature review in today’s writing session.”
Newport urges that measurements and deliverables are ways to keep yourself accountable to working diligently in a deep state rather than wandering aimlessly.
In the end, I’ll be the first to admit that a deep writing practice is hard to implement in a distracted world with so many demands on our time. Having said that, the benefits of increased productivity in less time outweigh the work required to make a deep writing practice a reality.
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Thanks for the shoutout and link!