"Deep Work" in the Age of COVID-19 and Social Distancing

Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, became a productivity guru and a thought-leader with his 2016 book, "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World." His ideas can transform the way writers approach writing and research.

The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing might present nearly unlimited opportunity for "deep work" for some people.

For others, social distancing may make the idea of deep work seem like a hilarious joke.

Newport describes deep work as working on complex tasks that demand full attention and mental energy, that require significant periods of focus, and that are borderline unenjoyable while you're doing them. In a word, writing!

When you feel like you're struggling with a complex problem at the edge of your abilities, then you're doing deep work. Writing a thesis statement or piecing together a novel's plot is deep work. Or you know, making a home-made mask to protect against Coronavirus or sanitizing your groceries and mail. Just kidding.

It's ever harder to perform deep work in a work culture characterized by frequent meetings, even more frequent emails, and the pressure to stay current on recent developments by monitoring social media. Am I the only writer with a frequent urge to check Twitter?

Newport recommends scheduling large blocks of time for deep work and preventing shallow work, such as responding to emails, from infringing on the scheduled deep work time. The "fixed-schedule productivity" forces us to avoid distractions and to commit to sticking with the demanding, challenging nature of deep work tasks.

But what is deep work and what is shallow work? Newport suggests prioritizing high-value, high-reward projects for one's schedule of deep work. Writing a book, for instance, provides high value and has the potential for high reward. Scrolling Twitter for an hour to stay current on the news or trends in your field provides little value or reward.

For single, childless "knowledge-workers," social distancing creates a bonanza of opportunity for practicing deep work.

Such people can schedule virtually as much time as they wish to work on their high-value, high-reward projects. It's simply a matter of identifying which projects add significant value and offer the potential for large rewards and then blocking off chunks of time each day, or eve setting aside entire days, to focus exclusively on those projects.

For example, a single, childless novelist stuck at home could spend hours monitoring social media and trying to build a Twitter following through "writer lifts," "shameless self-promo Saturdays," and other "#writingcommunity" grass-roots marketing efforts. It might feel like productive work, but in reality, there's little value in devoting countless hours to following fellow writers on Twitter in the hope that they'll follow you back and maybe buy a book from you one day.

Instead, the single, childless novelist would be much better off to actually write his or her novel. Marketing efforts could be focused on developing relationships with influencers, editors, and publications that might prove fruitful down the road.

Notice that I keep qualifying, "single, childless." For married or single people with young children now homeschooling, social distancing decreases the time that could be spent on deep work.

Before quarantine, I could count on entire days to devote to my work. Now, I'm squeezing in an hour of research here and twenty minutes of writing there in between washing my hands and scrubbing packages with Clorox bleach wipes.

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What can one do? For starters, one can look for opportunities as they come and then pounce on them. When my son visits his grandmother's, then I take advantage of that time to get some work done if I can.

But I want to figure out a way to schedule some deep work and achieve fixed-schedule productivity. When I have no idea when I'll find the time to tackle an ever-growing "to-do list," then I become very stressed and anxious. I start contemplating pulling all-nighters out of sheer desperation.

At the same time, I don't want to hole myself up in a home office. I genuinely love spending time with my family. We spent a lot of time together before social distancing, and now we're focusing on the silver lining of having even more time together.

So, here's my three-step plan:

1. Focus my energy on essential goals.
2. Find the margin in my life's flow.
3. Remember to play the long-game.

Following Cal Newport's lead, I will focus on high-value, high-reward activities. By implication, I'll focus on essential goals, and I'll let the rest slide down my priority list. I can, and will, respond to emails whenever it's convenient, and the world will continue spinning in the meantime.

If I devote my precious deep work time to things I really want to accomplish, then I'll balance my work and family time appropriately and without feeling like I'm drowning in "to-dos."

When am I going to schedule that deep work time? I may start getting up early before my son wakes up. I may make my evenings more productive, such as writing before bed instead of reading. Or I may do something else. Wherever my life's rhythm has margin, free time that comes naturally, then I will find an opportunity for focused activity.

Perhaps most importantly, I'll remember that I don't have to get it all done today. Or this week. Or even this month. Most high-value, high-reward deep work spans significant periods of time, partially because they're big projects and partially because they're difficult.

Despite the gently mocking tweets about Shakespeare writing his great plays or Isaac Newton inventing calculus while social distancing during plagues, no one really expects us to be our most productive selves during the Coronavirus pandemic and we don't expect exemplary productivity from others. We should be as realistic about ourselves as we are about others.

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