Hemingway’s Deep Work (Habits)

Since early summer, I have been devouring Hemingway.  No, not the person; he has been dead almost 60 years.  His novels.  Hemingway is considered by many to be the best writer of the 20th century.  But how did he do it?  He was a “deep” worker.

He worked early in the day.  He worked alone.  He worked uninterrupted.  His routine was writing each and every day (even when hungover) from sunrise to noon.  When he lived in Key West, he built an adjacent three story tower in his backyard as his writing office.  He worked on the top level at a small desk.  Uninterrupted.  He wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls from that room.  When he lived in Paris, he wrote in a small rented room without heat.  Uninterrupted.  He wrote The Sun also Rises from that room.  When he lived in Cuba, he wrote from a rented hotel room not far from his residence.  He wrote Farewell to Arms from there.  Uninterrupted.  Hemingway craved an environment that we now characterize as Deep Work.

Mark Twain worked in an isolated cabin in the woods from the main house, requiring his family to blow a horn during meal times.  And Bill Gates famously secludes himself for weeks at a time to engage in his “deep thinking.”  It was during one of these times that he came up with the idea for the web browser.

So I ask you, are you a “shallow” worker or a “deep” worker?  Do you multi-task listening to music or watching TV or something else while you work or study?

I am fascinated with this notion of Deep Work and recently read a book written by Cal Newport called, Deep Work.  It is a fascinating and instructive read.  Here are some of Cal’s takeaways on Deep Work Ritual Requirements:

  1. Dedicated Workspace: Your ritual needs to specify a certain physical location to conduct your work.  Hemingway had his tower, but yours could be as simple as your office with a Do Not Disturb sign on the door.
  2. Exact End Time: Put a specific time limit on your work, otherwise, it will become open-ended and you will lose motivation.  You have to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Hemingway’s end time was 12 Noon.  After this, he went for a swim in the ocean or a daiquiri at the local bar.  And not necessarily in that order either.
  3. Easy Starting Sequence: You want some rules or rituals around your work flow process.  Otherwise, you will find it hard to get started.  You will procrastinate.  The mind wanders.  Hemingway would always stop writing on the page the day before at a logical starting place for the next day.  Many times, he would mull over the next few pages hardly waiting to get at it again the next morning.  You want to be flying out of the bed each morning, like Hemingway, with anticipation!
  4. Power-ups: Your brain needs the ritual assurance that it will continue operating uninterrupted at a high-level of depth during your Deep Work period.  You may want to have a fresh pot of coffee or light snacks nearby so you don’t have to wander off disrupting the Deep Work.  Hemingway always had a generous supply of tobacco and coffee on hand.

In case you’re wondering…yes, I have a “tower” of my own.  It’s in my personal library I had built in the basement of my house.  My family calls it the “Bunker.” I am sitting in there right now admiring my Hemingway on the shelves.  I can almost hear him tapping away on his typewriter.  He’s calling my name.  The Hour has struck.  My time is up for this writing block.  Excuse me…time for a smoke and a Daiquiri!

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