Deep Work: Why a $2 kitchen timer was one of the best investments I made in my writing

In a recent post, I talked about flow and the effort it takes to achieve it. Today, I want to talk more about that, specifically about making your writing space “sacred” and creating a “closed-loop system,” particularly with regards to distractions, vis a vis your phone.

In that post about flow, I discussed the pomodoro technique, which helps me focus. To quickly recap, I work for twenty-five minutes then take a five minute break. The problem is that I was using my phone to do this, and during my five minute breaks I’d usually check social media or any messages. Seems harmless enough, right? I’d briefly check my phone for a few minutes then set it aside and work, and then repeat.

The problem I found was that this was fragmenting my attention. I could never really give the task at hand my full attention. At the back of my mind was always whatever was going on with Facebook, messenger, etc. It felt like I was always trying to run with a parachute attached to my back.

In my research on flow, I came across the work of Dr. Cal Newport, a computer science prof at Georgetown University. Newport has a few books, a cool blog, and has done a lot of great interviews on podcasts, etc. Newport talks a lot about “deep work,” which is very similar to flow. In a word, deep work is working on a complex task for an extended period of time without distraction. He contrasts this with shallow work, which requires little focus and can pretty much be automated. So, let’s say working on a short story vs answering cursory emails.

The challenge of deep work is that it requires a lot of focus and attention. Newport goes to great length to show that you can’t just work on a problem on your computer screen while checking your Instagram feed on your phone every few minutes. In fact, Newport goes so far to argue that you should delete social media all together. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I definitely think that expunging it from your work space is a good idea.


With that in mind, I went to the dollar store and got myself a $2 kitchen timer. I also downloaded an internet blocker for my laptop. Now, I have no distractions and no excuses. All I gotta do is sit down and write.

I call this a “closed-loop system.” There’s nowhere for my attention to go except into my work. And guess what? It can get pretty boring. Some times I just sit and stare at the wall. And during my breaks, I’ll usually noodle with my guitar or sit with my cat. But, when I start working, it gets *all* my attention. My mind isn’t wandering to whatever dumb argument is going on in the CBC Facebook comments section. (Never read the comments section.)

And, perhaps most importantly, it just feels better. I come away from writing sessions feeling a great sense of accomplishment regardless of my word count that day. Newport argues that this is because we as humans are built for deep work. Our brains are at their best when they’re hyper focused on one task.

So, if you’re like how I was and find yourself struggling to really focus on your writing, then I’d recommend creating a closed-loop system for your writing space. Eliminate distractions, especially your phone and social media. Embrace the challenge of deep work and see where it takes you.


3 thoughts on “Deep Work: Why a $2 kitchen timer was one of the best investments I made in my writing”

  1. I like the deep work vs shallow work distinction. That makes a lot of sense to me. Social media hasn’t been too much of a distraction in my writing life, with the exception of YouTube. I really shouldn’t let myself have access to YouTube when I’m trying to write.

    Liked by 2 people

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