A perennial challenge for freelancers is the shallow nature of many of our tasks. The need to keep on top of so many disparate items means that we often end up doing nothing well.

Here are some of the tasks I have done in the last week to keep my freelance business ticking along healthily:

  • pitched several ideas to magazine editors
  • sent LOIs (letters of introduction) to about 15 organisations in my areas of expertise (education, nonprofit)
  • followed up LOIs from the previous week
  • wrote up a quote for a potential client
  • sketched the skeleton of a medium length (1700 word) bushwalking piece
  • conducted a Skype interview with a source for the bushwalking piece
  • finished a small piece for a disability magazine
  • made several calls to a source to get a quote
  • researched possible leads on LinkedIn
  • wrote a blog post for my freelance website
  • Skype call with a friend who is designing a logo for me
  • researched main texts for some higher education research I am being paid for

Given this pile of mostly very simple tasks, I often find it difficult to focus on what is truly important. So, it was both a challenge and a comfort to read Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”, with its call to “drain the shallows” and create a life where focus and concentration become possible. It’s written specifically for knowledge workers, and so has lots of application to the freelance life.

I came across Cal’s book on a writing blog I read to help me with my PhD study. Cal has a blog called Study Hacks, but if you go looking for him on social media, you’ll struggle. This is one of the ways that Cal eliminates distraction in order to focus deeply on his work. Newport’s thesis is that our life is so crowded by distractions and shallow tasks that we have lost the ability to engage in “deep work”, defined as:

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. (p.3)

He recommends practising 4 rules to regain our ability for deep work:

Rule 1 – Work Deeply: this chapter outlines the basics of deep work, including differing approaches to deep work, and patterns and rituals that support its practice. It’s probably the most important chapter in the book.

Rule 2 – Embrace Boredom: this is the corollary of “Work Deeply”, as in order to concentrate intensely, we also need to reduce our addiction to distraction. Enter the embrace of boredom.

Rule 3 – Quit Social Media: I found this the most challenging idea for freelance work, as we depend so much on social media to publicise ourselves. But Newport brings a welcome chunk of perspective, because when I looked at the clients I’ve had in my brief freelance career, almost none have come from my Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter accounts.

Rule 4 – Drain the Shallows: Newport recommends reducing the amount of time spent in shallow tasks. He proposes that most people, even those practised in deep work, cannot spend more than 4 hours in deep work. But, conversely, shallow tasks easily consume more than 4 hours in the day if we are not suspicious of them, and consciously work to reduce those tasks.

The main challenge for me from “Deep Work” was the need to cordon off time in the day for deep work, and to quarantine time for shallow tasks in order that they not consume more energy and time than they should. So, I’m starting to implement some of Newport’s suggestions, including:

  • a new schedule for the day, that includes deep work time with phone and internet turned off.
  • deleting Facebook, Instagram and Twitter from my iPad
  • quarantining email and task review time into two 30-minute blocks in the day
  • I’m also implementing a “shut-down” ritual, where all unfinished tasks in the day are transferred to the next day or week, and then I don’t do any work-related tasks in the evening.

In what ways could you build time for “deep work” in your life?