Just Because You’re Hungry

July 17, 2018

“I love the beautiful distractions of the world – television and movies, video games, the Internet in general. But I try really hard to avoid them, because they don’t help me become a better writer. They subtract hours from my day. And a writer’s main currency is time. Time to daydream, time to walk and think, time to sit and do the work.”
~ Nick Petrie

Yeah, so just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I have to eat. And just because I have an urge to check email, doesn’t mean I have to do it. What doe this have to do with writing?

For me, everything.

Evil Email

Okay, email itself is completely benign. It’s just a tool with messages sitting out in cyberspace that I can choose to read or not, respond to or not.

So why do I have such a compulsion to check, even when I’m in the middle of writing?

Intermittent Email

Over the last few months I’ve been learning about the benefits of fasting. I’ve been trying some intermittent fasting and it’s been interesting how similar my experience has been with this email thing. When I first started with the fasting, I was watching the clock, planning what I would eat when I ended the fast and trying to keep myself distracted until I could eat. (It’s getting better now, but that’s a topic for another time)

In the same way, if I’ve given myself rules about when I can check email (I still haven’t tried that app that blocks internet usage—that may be next), I tend to watch the clock, imagining what responses might be waiting for me when I break my email fast.

And of course, fasting means not eating. Letting the hungry pangs come and then let them go (they actually do go away). An email fast means not checking or responding to email. I have noticed that if I really get into my writing, those “checking email pangs” go away. But if I’m not going deeply into my work, the urge to check—wondering if my agent got back to me or if one of my students or clients needs a response from me and so on—becomes nearly overwhelming.

Delving into the psychology behind that is for another post. Today I’m interested in getting so deeply into a story that email is not even on my radar.

Which brings me to my realization: I can’t do deep work anymore.

I hate admitting that. It feels like failing. But it’s true and I have to face it. I’m doing a lot of “shallow work” and my ability to focus for extended periods is pretty non-existent. It’s no wonder it takes me so long to finish a novel.

No More Multi-tasking

A year or so ago I came across the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. At the time, I did see some of myself in it, but I didn’t make many significant changes to my routine or writing practice.

Newport calls deep work “when you focus without distraction for a significant amount of time on a cognitively demanding task.” He says it’s like a superpower and it’s something we need to develop and practice like anything else.

And in a podcast interview with Work and Life program host Stew Friedman, Newport said:

“…there is no such thing as multi-tasking. When you switch, there’s a cost to switching from one task to the other…Even a quick glance at something like an email inbox leaves a cognitive residue, which could actually create a relatively significant cognitive impairment for quite a long time to follow. So, really the worst thing you can do, if you’re trying to use your mind at its maximum limit, would be what almost everyone does, which is let me just take a quick glance at the phone, or the web, or my email every ten to fifteen minutes. That’s like working with a significant cognitive handicap.” (Click here for the entire interview.)

Who wants “a significant cognitive handicap?” Not me! I’m 55 years old and have a lot of books to write, a lot of writers to learn from and support, and a lot of other things I want to accomplish.

So this week I’m experimenting with creating pockets for “shallow” tasks like email, rather than looking for places where I will do deep work and then using the rest of the time for those tasks that require less focus. It’s a very different way of looking at my time and it already feels uncomfortable—guilt waves have rolled in around not getting back to people in a “timely” manner (whatever that means) and I’ve barely been in it for 24 hours!

Next week I’ll talk about how it’s going and share any insights I gained. I’ll also let you know if I got hangry on my email fast and how I handled it. 🙂