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Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and grant writing

Jake recently gave me Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.* Newport describes “deep work” as:

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task . . . And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

While I’ve not yet finished the book, I’m not sure Newport’s thesis is all that applicable or practical in today’s connected work places. Still, as a grant writer, the concept resonates with me. As I’ve written above before, grant writing is mostly a solitary activity—one RFP, one writer, one iMac, one project concept, and, eventually, a finished proposal. I’ve known this since dinosaurs walked the earth and I wrote my first grant proposal on a cave wall (not quite—a legal pad**—but it was so long ago that it might’ve been a cave wall). The challenge of any writer is to stay focused, which phone calls, texts, emails, random Internet browsing, Facebook (or in my case, LinkedIn) all conspire to dissipate, more or less meeting the general definition of entropy: “a trend to disorder.”***

In the nascent days of Seliger + Associates, I was much better at staying focused while writing. That was due in part to my relative youth, terror at the prospect of missing a deadline (since I had no backup), and no Internet, email or texts—just plain old phone calls, the occasional fax, and howls from Jake and his siblings when they got home from school. As the decades have unfolded, it’s become harder and harder for me to remain in a state of deep work for more than hour or two, compared to as long as ten hours in the good old days (to be fair, they weren’t actually all that good—just different).

I have strategies for deep work—especially when we face intense deadlines. These include listening to music while I write (I’ve never been distracted by music, unlike most writers), starting to write as early as 6 AM when I’m fresh, setting goals for the day’s output, taking walks every couple of hours (my dog insists on this anyway), a 20 minute nap at midday, a very comfortable Herman Miller Embody desk chair, and so on. Jake hews to Newport’s recommendations more faithfully than me by using a program called Freedom to suspend Internet access for designated periods of time, turning off the ringers on his cell and office phones, and turning off his email client.

I can’t turn off phone ringers or my email client during the work week, as I always have to be alert for incoming emails and calls from current and prospective clients. I probably wouldn’t anyway, because I’ve just have lost some of my ability to stay on point, perhaps due to age or the amazing allure of Internet access to all manner of distraction. Like many people, I don’t want to disconnect distraction.

Deep Work is worth reading, not only for grant writers, but anyone involved in knowledge work. Interestingly, Jake’s younger sister, who is a manager with a tech company, saw the book when she came over one day and told me she’d already read it and found it useful. I’m not sure how tech workers can concentrate in the open offices of most tech work spaces. I can’t even write in a coffee shop, let alone in a 5,000-square foot open office space with dozens of coders and other workers within earshot and vision.

Interestingly, I was talking about Deep Work and the solitary aspect of grant writing with a friend who’s been a successful TV writer/producer for years. She said that TV writers typically work in groups in “writer rooms,” without any real ability to focus. I’m not sure how this gets done, but this seems to be the practice. I know that, even if I could write dialogue, which I can’t, I could never do so in a group setting, headphones or not.

* This is unusual, as Jake typically gives me a WW II book for birthdays, father’s day, etc., which we collectively refer to as “Hitler Books.” It’s always surprising that, 70 years on, someone finds an unrevealed aspect of WW II to write about.

** About 35 years ago, I had to finish a proposal while on a ski trip to Mammoth in the Sierras. Since there were about eight of us in a condo, and everyone else was drunk and disorderly, I actually wrote the draft longhand on a legal pad in the bathtub well past midnight! As the Beatles wrote in Norwegian Wood “and crawled off to sleep in the bath.”

*** Or “kipple”, as Phillip K. Dick refers to the entropy of stuff in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, the inspiration for one of my fave science fiction movies, Blade Runner. And yes, I think Decker was a replicant, despite the implications of the sequel coming out soon.