On Doing Less to Produce More: A Novelist Embraces a Minimalist Lockdown by Cal Newport

I recently received an email from a writer in New York City who sold her debut novel right before the coronavirus lockdown. She had until mid-April to finish her first round of revisions. In an effort to make the process more “fun and fluid and intuitive,” and feature less of the stressful long hours she had experienced working on the first draft, she deployed the following routine:

Around 10pm, I put my phone on a shelf in my living room.

After waking up naturally the next morning, I would eat breakfast and then go to my desk and work on my revision.

At first, it was for around 1 hour. Later, I worked until lunchtime. I always stopped while I still wanted to keep going, so that I would be excited to return to it again the next day.

I only looked at my phone and emails after lunch.

I mostly stopped using social media.

I really cared about resting.

She was convinced that this minimalist approach — a process personification of my exhortation to “do less, do better” — would prove inferior to a more familiar, frenetic work style. She began planning out in her head how she would ask for an extension.

“But then an interesting thing happened,” she told me. “Solutions to my manuscript problems started coming to me as I was falling asleep, waking up, or taking a shower. I would jot them down in a notebook, then try to implement them during the 1-3 hours in the morning. They worked out perfectly every time.”

She ended up handing in her revisions early.

“I felt like I unlocked something so valuable in my creative process, something that still feels mysterious to me.”

Obviously, this specific schedule is not something that most of us can replicate at the moment (especially those of us with school-aged kids stuck at home). But there’s a more important broader point lurking here that extends beyond our current disruptions. The human mind craves deep, difficult challenges, and can find real satisfaction in the process of sticking with something intricate but important for a long period of time.

And yet we’ve created a world in both our professional and personal lives where such long-form thinking is nearly impossible.

Email. Zoom. Social Media. Texting. Back to Social Media. Email. Zoom. All of this creates a sugar-rush sense of busyness. But when’s the last time you felt that “mysterious” sensation of the pieces of something deep finally starting to click into place. This requires a certain minimalist head space that’s becoming increasingly rare.

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