Today, digital distractions are aplenty. We are constantly connected—to our inbox, to some website, to 10 text messages we must send. Right now. Virtually any information is accessible with one or two clicks. Which can make it much harder to do what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” These are tasks that demand our full focus and effort.
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Newport defines deep work as “professional 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.”
Writing is deep work.
But we can easily let superficial tasks take over. “Social media is my kryptonite,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough: Invent Your Own Path, Find Meaningful Work, and Build a Life That Matters.
“If I’m on Facebook at 10 a.m. instead of writing a blog post or working on a chapter of my book, it likely means I’m going to spend 2 hours going down the rabbit hole and avoid actually accomplishing any real writing. It’ll be 1 p.m. before I know it, and I’m reading my cousin’s friend’s girlfriend’s post about some koala bear that can talk.”
Our smartphones are powerful distractions. After all, “The smartphone is a portal to friends, to family, to opportunities—both for work and pleasure—and to nearly every bit of information that’s ever been collected on the face of the planet,” said Peter Himmelman, author of Let Me Out: Unlock Your Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. “It’s hard to keep focused when it rings or buzzes, or beeps.”
One way to shut out digital distractions is, of course, to shut down. Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your Internet. But what else can you do?
Below, writers share how they refocus. While this piece is about writing, it really refers to any projects you’re working on. Any work you’re doing. Anything that’s important to you.
Use technology to your advantage.
When Himmelman, also founder of Big Muse, can’t get started, he sets the timer on his smartphone for 3 to 8 minutes. And he makes a pact with himself: to write the essay, song or book paragraph for just that time.
This also helps him cope with his inner critic, Marv (his metaphor for Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability”): “Marv feels OK about it. He thinks, ‘How much trouble can Peter get into anyway? It’s just a few minutes.’” Often Himmelman ends up writing well after the timer rings.
When he’s really stuck, Poswolsky posts on Facebook. “For whatever reason, the casualness of the Facebook post gets me out of my own head, and the words start flowing again.” (“Of course, I need to be careful to return to my Microsoft Word doc, or else 2 hours will go by, and I’ll be looking at pictures of that damn koala bear again.”)
Remember your greater purpose.
When you’re easily distracted and writing feels too hard, it helps to connect to your deeper purpose. Himmelman suggested answering this question in 3 minutes or less: “What is your purpose in life?”
If that’s too general, he suggested these other questions:
- What do you stand for?
- What would you give your life for?
- What is the reason you get up in the morning?
- What would you want your loved ones to say about who you are?
“You might not think unleashing your potential as a writer has much to do with these big questions,” Himmelman said. “But I believe answering them, or beginning to answer them, helps us to reduce our fear of failure, which helps us take immediate action toward the fulfillment of our dreams.”
(It also helps to calm our inner critic, who’s always ready to give us a thousand reasons not to write or create.)
Writer and master coach Melody Wilding, LMSW, has notebooks filled with made-up stories from her younger years. Some days she flips through these books as a reminder to reconnect with creativity’s inherent playfulness and creating just because. “It helps me eliminate all the noise…and reorient back to a ‘why’ and core purpose.”
Rethink small moments.
Typically, when we have a few minutes or 20, we reach for our phones. We check email. We scroll through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We think nothing of filling our spare minutes in this way.
But we can actually use small moments to make progress on our meaningful work. Writer Nicole Gulotta penned her forthcoming cookbook Eat This Poem: A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by “writing in the margins.”
She uses the term to refer to writing when she has small pockets of time. For instance, she writes during her lunch break, while waiting for an oil change and while her son naps. “After a month or so, I’ve usually made good progress and can spend time bringing all my notes and fragments together.”
It took Gulotta 2 years to write her cookbook. But as she said, “It’s rare that writing can be our sole focus, so we need to come up with strategies that accommodate our circumstances.”
She also stressed the importance of being content with slow, incremental progress and not comparing ourselves or our journey to others online. (Which is wise advice for life, too, isn’t it?)
Ask yourself these three questions.
Many of us can relate to the following scenario: You tell yourself that you’re going online to look up one thing—just one thing. An hour later, you’re scanning status updates on Facebook. These are behaviors that we unconsciously do, Wilding said. When she needs to refocus and recover from distractions, she considers these helpful questions:
- Is this the best use of my time?
- Why do I feel like I need to _________ (check Google, email, social media…) right now?
- What goal am I trying to accomplish?
Be deliberate with your research.
It’s all-too easy to go down a research rabbit hole. You can spend hours perusing pages of Google results. For Wilding, “This not only eats up time, but also sometimes fills my head with so much information that I then have trouble producing original thought.”
Instead, she thoughtfully focuses on different sources and fields. She might read about economics to understand human psychology and decision-making. She might watch a Ted talk that feels like a workout for her brain.
For Poswolsky it’s vital to write first thing in the morning. “I see a notable difference between the quality of my writing before I’ve been infiltrated by the outside world, and after.”
He typically tries to write uninterrupted from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or 1 p.m. “when nothing is really flowing”). The only exception he makes is for meetings or calls with his editor, speaking clients or anyone else who’s hired him.
Remember writing is an ongoing process.
Wilding encouraged writers to experiment with new ways of working. For instance, tools like Evernote and Trello may help you with organizing one project but not another, she said. In other words, “A certain writing habit may serve you in one season of your writing life and not another. It’s an evolving process.”
Deep work demands energy and exertion. Which can be tough to give when we’re used to performing superficial tasks like checking email and scrolling social media.
But at the end of the day, our writing, our deep work, is deeply satisfying. It makes a difference in our own lives. And maybe it even makes a difference in the life of someone else. Which makes a powerful reminder when distractions are aplenty and writing feels impossible.