I have a lot of problems with writing.
I’m certainly not the first writer with such issues; writing is a nexus of all my insecurities, and it results in horrendous issues with focus, lack of planning, procrastination, and perfectionism.
These are what I think of as interstitial issues. Up until now I’ve been attacking the bones and body of self help - things like habits and how to form them and how to conserve willpower drains.
But in putting a system of productivity together in real life, it’s the small things that get overlooked. What you actually do or don’t do in the minutes and seconds before and during work can seriously destroy output.
I’ve been scrabbling around all this for a long time. I’ve attempted and failed to use planners since middle school, and I always look with awe at Lydia, who is maniacally good at this (She has a specific type of planner that’s color coded, plans in advance for her deadlines, and everything seems to work like clockwork). And that’s understandable - she has to be on the ball with her work. For lost freelancers ambling around in the void it’s a totally different story.
I’ve just read Cal Newport’s book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and I feel that he offers immensely detailed and practical advice in this arena. It's fast becoming one of my favorite self help books. He talks about:
-The power of rituals
-Confronting the distracting nature of the internet
-Creating a daily plan
This last point especially stands out as Newport suggests such an extreme form of it. He advocates to start the work day with a to-the-minute schedule of what you will do and to revise it as soon as possible as circumstances change.
He admits that this sound excessive, and I agreed until it dawned on me that this is an implementation intention. And everything else sort’ve clicked.
He continues to address common objections: What if something changes? What if the task time you’ve allotted takes more time? What’s the point when you know what you have to do already?
For Newport, the excessively nitpickckiness in taking time to immediately revise the schedule is well worth it because it activates adherence. I wasn’t convinced until I remembered that the best writing stints I’ve had was during the last NaNoWriMo, where I logged every break and metric of word count with Pomodoros to streamline the process and see if there were any patterns. But looking back, it also kept me on track.
The second revelation was that this is purely mechanical.
What I mean by that is that I know that all these little protocols work on long term habits. Do Tiny Habits and you’ll get to habituation faster. Do implementation intention and mental contrasting and it’s more assured. Make a habit of recording your habits and you’ll pick them up again after a break.
If you do X, then Y will happen, no “digging deep” required.
I just never thought of daily work distraction and procrastination as solvable by that means, but for the last week the protocol I created based on Newports ideas has trumped even my horrendously distractible mind.
My Deep Work Protocol:
1. I spent a few minutes writing down exactly how I intend my work day to go on a piece of paper. This is to-the-minute, including breaks. If it changes I take the time to immediately revise it.
2. I put my phone on airplane mode.
3. I use Self Control to block Reddit and Facebook, as these are my go-to mindless automaton methods of wasting time and procrastinating.
4. I get on Spotify and play the “Deep Focus” radio station, which I find blandly ambient enough to block sounds without distracting me.
5. I set my Pomodoro at the appointed time. I do 13 minutes for really hard tasks, 20 minutes for easier ones.
While none of these steps is particularly mind blowing (except the plan-as-implementation-intention) there is a lot of behavioral science at work:
-Steps 1 - 4 are a ritual.
-Pomodoros are like Tiny Habits. If I’m doing something painful, I don’t want long exposure to pain to prevent me from doing the task. In my NaNoWriMo wins I found that smaller bursts actually had me doing more across time. This may change as my focus builds.
-The plan is an implementation intention.
-The whole process already troubleshoots - I can’t be reached by phone, I can’t get to my number 1 and 2 procrastination outlets. It acts like the practical steps after a mental contrasting plan.
-The music soothes and relaxes me, while ridding me of external auditory distractions.
I have tested this out for the last week, and the boost in productivity has been startling. While habits got me to do my work, it was only after a lot of procrastination. These failures to start often ended up messing up my other habits further along in the chain. My focus was constantly being pulled by either random messages or sparkly new videos on the internet. These are all gone.
While before I felt like a train violently going off the rails, I now feel the only option I have is to chug straight ahead. And that’s a fantastic place to be.