Each fall, I pause to evaluate my writing business. Call it an audit of sorts where I look closer at the backend analytics across social media and WordPress; look closer how and where my content is performing; and most importantly, determine if I’m meeting my business goals.
Then, I pivot.
I polish what’s working and sunset the tasks and projects that aren’t moving me forward in alignment with the career I want to pursue.
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Right now I’m reading Deep Work by Cal Newport. According to his website, he’s a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a writer who explores technology and culture. He focuses on sharing ways to hone our focus and attune to our creative rhythms so we can get more work done, efficiently and effectively.
Sounds good when it comes to writing tasks, right?
The 9-to-5 doesn’t work for everyone, especially those who have to think deeply about creating. This includes writers. That’s why Deep Work has stood out to me as a guidebook for revising some of my workflow processes in 2020.
I have a great method — which I outline in detail in How I Find My Creative Flow for Optimal Writing — but maintaining that rhythm is tough (especially during a pandemic where our routines have shifted). You can find a way to do things that work, but then you have to maintenance the heck out of it so it ebbs and flows with life and career shifts.
It’s easy to get caught up in the mountain of emails lingering in your inbox, social media notifications and pitch requests from publications, but if you don’t focus specifically on individual tasks that actually accomplish your key goals, none of that housekeeping matters. Let’s explore:
- What is Deep Work for a Writer?
- Setting Boundaries to Perform Deep Work
- Why Does Setting Writing Boundaries Matter?
What is Deep Work for a Writer?
Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. This type of attention is imperative for thoroughly consuming or creating complicated information.
So, what is deep work for a writer? This will vary by genre, but in my world of content marketing writing, I’m focused on meeting client deadlines. To meet those goals my deep work consists of creating engaging content that mirrors my client’s guidelines, maintaining professional relationships and scheduling myself so the work is gets done on time and to the best of my abilities.
Specifically, my deep work tasks include:
- Researching topics and people I’m writing about
- Creating outlines of my writing tasks, including articles, blog posts and white papers
- Drafting the first versions of my copy
- Polishing and editing the text until it meets the client’s needs and my professional standards
You’ll notice lots of writing and business tasks aren’t on this list, such as invoicing, marketing myself or doing updates to my websites. Those are important, foundational activities that are necessary to run my business, but they don’t fall into the category of deep creative work.
I feel deep work encompasses the focused tasks that advance you in your writing career and moves you toward your goals. These may be financial, word counts, deadlines or personal satisfaction.
Setting Boundaries to Perform Deep Work
What keeps you from getting things done? Is is the view of household clutter from your desk? Friends who text you throughout the day? That Facebook group you love to visit? For each of us, it varies. But if you can identify the people and things who derail your focus during your work hours, you can then implement some kind, but firm, boundaries.
Newport gives oodles of examples and ideas for removing distractions and preparing for moments of focused deep work. Well, that’s what the entire book is really about, so read it! But here’s a quick list of things you can implement to help you stay focused on your core goal-reaching tasks.
- Set a time limit for checking social media, and stick to it. Maybe it’s 30 minutes at the start of your day, or an hour block in the afternoon. Don’t let visits to social media sprinkled throughout your day hijack your mental energy. Ditto for personal texts and emails. If you need to have a 24/7 social media presence, consider hiring a social media manager to assist with strategy, posting and engagement,
- Isolate yourself to get the work done. Maybe you close the door to your home office or work in a quiet corner of your local library. If you need to hire a babysitter for the afternoon to get focused, do it. We can only effectively perform deep work for one to four hours at a time. Others can be without you for that small stretch of time.
- Set yourself up for a successful deep work session. Rolling out of bed and hoping for a productive day doesn’t work for me. I have a morning routine and a few habits that prompt my brain to know when it’s go time! Try taking a short morning walk, reflecting in a journal or simply using a specific coffee mug. Train your mind to know what’s coming up — deep work!
Why Does Setting Writing Boundaries Matter?
You can have the best workflow processes that perfectly align with your energy and lifestyle, then boom! Life changes. Your Internet service goes down for a few days due to inclement weather. You get sick. You are emotionally drained by the pandemic. Life is always evolving and asking us to make changes to how we get things done. But, if you have the mindset of preparing for and working with deep focus, you’ll always have those few hours to get core tasks done.
During deep work sessions, I focus on projects that turn into a paycheck. Period. So if the world is physically or mentally crumbling around me, I can use all those other hours in the day to stay afloat beyond my work tasks. I know that during deep work sessions I will complete the must-dos on my to-do list, which is critical when you’re self-employed.
If you’re new here, you may not know I’m a huge cheerleader for self-care. I will spend more hours a day nurturing my mental and physical health than writing if needed. Curious to know more? I document my health journey on the Cupcakes and Yoga Pants blog and on the corresponding Facebook Page.
Why is this so important to me? Burnout. It’s a real thing and can take you and your writing business down quickly and silently. I’ve written about my experiences with burnout for several publishers online and every single post offers a nod to self-care. Taking time to nurture your wellness helps you avoid falling into bad habits, which may lead to extreme fatigue and lower productivity.
Fun fact: The first draft of this post was written in one hour during a moment of deep focus work. During that time slot, I ignored three text messages from friends. I also scheduled social media updates to promote this post, but I didn’t go onto my feeds to poke around. I stayed focused on the task at hand — writing this blog post.
This is what an hour of deep work looks like for me.
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