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John Grisham’s 15-Hour Workweek

May 22nd, 2017 · 33 comments

The Deep Life of John Grisham

As longtime readers know, I enjoy tracking down the deep work habits of well known and highly accomplished individuals. This is why I was happy to recently stumble across a pair of interviews (here and here) in which the novelist John Grisham describes his professional routines.

Here’s what I learned…

  • Grisham primarily writes his novels during the winter months on his farm in Oxford, Mississippi. During this period he works five days a week, starting at 7 am and typically ending by 10 am.
  • Grisham writes in a period outbuilding on his property that used to house an antebellum summer kitchen. He and his wife refurbished the kitchen to maintain its period details (with the main exception being that they added electricity and air conditioning). Crucially, as Grisham explains: “[the building has] no phone, faxes, or internet. I don’t want the distraction. I don’t work online. I keep it offline.”
  • Grisham maintains strict rituals for his writing. He starts work on a novel on the same day each year, and starts writing each day at the same time. He works on the same computer. He drinks the same type of coffee out of the same cup. “My office routine rarely varies,” he explains. “It’s pretty structured.”
  • Grisham starts a new novel on January 1st and is usually done with the bulk of the writing by the end of March. He aims to be completely done with the manuscript by July. This leaves a nice half year period to recharge and work on new ideas.

What I like about Grisham’s deep work habits — beyond the obvious romanticism of writing in a refurbished period farmhouse outbuilding — is that the novels that support his astoundingly successful and lucrative writing career require only 15 hours a week, 6 months out of the year.

This example underscores what I think is one of the most compelling attributes of deep work: it can produce a massive amount of value in a relatively small amount of time.

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Unrelated Note: My friend Eric Barker, who is arguably one of the best (and certainly one of the most productive) science-based advice writers in the business, just released his first book: Barking Up The Wrong Tree (which includes a guest appearance by myself — so you know it must be good). I highly recommend checking it out.

33 thoughts on “John Grisham’s 15-Hour Workweek

  1. Travis says:

    Another great post! Check out this post from Tynan.com: Getting Huge Chunks of Work done. I thought of you as soon as I read it.

  2. Corey says:

    Not the best example in my opinion. Established, millionaire authors could write 5 minutes a day on toilet paper while using the throne and still earn massive book deals. I don’t relate to these types of examples. Show examples of Deep Work directly contributing to success versus successful people who have the luxury to practice Deep Work.

    1. Chicken or egg…the idea is that Grisham can do this now because he did it before. This Deep Work ritual got him where he is today – he isn’t working this way “now that he has the time and money” …

    2. Gerard says:

      You are missing the point Cal is trying to make. The point Cal is trying to make that if one can really focus, good work can be produced even in a short amount of time.
      I have read, yet cannot ascertain of the truth of it, that even with his first book, Grisham rose early to get several hours of alone focused time to spend writing his books. This is also written on his bio on his site:
      http://www.jgrisham.com/bio/

    3. Maz says:

      You definitely have a point, Corey.
      In my opinion, there are multiple tangible and intangible variables playing in any success case. Of 24 hours available to all of us, these successful people may spend 3 hours focused on something they already been spending 21 hours intangibly. In fact, his bio on his website says
      “Long before his name became synonymous with the modern legal thriller, he was working 60-70 hours a week at a small Southaven, Mississippi, law practice, squeezing in time before going to the office and during courtroom recesses to work on his hobby—writing his first novel.” that laid foundation to his later successful profession.

    4. Shivangi says:

      I agree. Cal should quote examples of artists/writers who are budding and probably are just a book old. Do they also work 15 hours week? John Grisham is over 60 sixty years old and is already so much learned. Did he follow this routine when he had just started around 1990? From what I know, there is no cutting down on the hours at least in the initial phase when you are still, say, ‘sharpening the knife.

  3. Dave Ardent says:

    I know we like to joke that Stephen King has a ridiculously impressive output when it comes to stories, but if you take a look at Grisham’s bibliography it’s fair to say he’s managed to produce a hell of a lot as well. Guess this helps to explain why.

  4. John says:

    I see his methods and habits in writing are quite helpful. It’s good to produce a work with good value in a short time. Thanks for sharing this good post.

  5. Chase says:

    Work life goals!!!

  6. Anatolii says:

    Thanks for sharing info about great books and their authors!

  7. Chris says:

    Something I’ve not seen considered with the deep work philosophy is that of survivorship bias … I wonder what percentage of people follow a similar pattern of working but failing? And if so, why?

    Also, how do you factor in the like of Elon Musk, Gary Vaynerchuk, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates etc. and other extremely succesful folk who are/were known for being workaholics; would they have been as successful if they didn’t have an insane drive? Would a deep focus method helped or hindered them?

    Just wondering…

    1. Gerard says:

      The survivorship bias is a good question.
      Your second question has been answered by his book and other posts on this blog. Check out the post “Why Are Maker Schedules so Rare?”. In that post Cal explains that someone who is a manager has a different schedule than someone who is a maker, like Grisham.
      http://calnewport.com/blog/2017/04/05/why-are-maker-schedules-so-rare/

  8. Tom Johnston says:

    Cal,

    Interesting, and useful. The part about ritual is crucial.

    Keep writing. I enjoy your perspective quite a bit.

    Tom

  9. Cole Harper says:

    Same seat, same cup of coffee, and a completely separate space.

    I know there’s a similar importance of having a set place for only using your bed for sleeping. I need to keep from using my phone in bed.

  10. Judy says:

    Interesting. Ernest Hemingway had a similar work arrangement. In Key West, he set up a separate office beside his house which could only be accessed by a narrow bridge from the 2nd floor of the house. Others were not permitted to cross the bridge. He started work very early in the morning and quit before mid-day when the temperature became hot.

  11. BRENDA says:

    I love that he doesn’t start a scene until he knows what the last scene is doing. It is so different from others who say the characters just take over. I’m a big picture type of person so telling me to just start is very frustrating!

  12. David Cloninger says:

    The videos were interesting… but he never said he only works 3 hours a day. He said he normally starts 7:00am in one video and in the other he said between 7:00am and 7:30am. He also said his most productive time is between seven and ten. In the other video he said he writes four to five hours a day, but never past noon. This is more like a 20 to 25 hour work week. Additionally, this only covered his writing. He also alluded to reading a lot of non-fiction on the subject on which he was writing. So, he may be doing 15 hours a week of ‘deep work.’ But this guy is working his butt off to produce his excellent novels. Thoughts?

    1. Maz says:

      Countless stories of successful people say deep passion and love for what they do makes them what they are and in turn they spend countless hours, some focused and the rest running their thoughts (aka passive work) in the back of their minds, but nevertheless working.

  13. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for this. His emphasis on a steady routine is crucial to productive creative work.

    As I understand what Grisham said in the Amazon video you link to above–he WRITES during those morning hours. However, he also mentioned that he does an immense amount of research for each book as well. I didn’t gather from his comments than he does that research from 7 am to 10 am five days a week six months a year. At best it is highly ambiguous.

    So you may be dramatically underestimating how many hours Grisham actually works, and the title of your post may be misleading. Still a good post, but it is crucial that people have realistic expectations about what it takes to find success.

    PS I really liked So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Profound book and an important counter-thrust to the Follow Your Bliss oversimplification of career management.

  14. Daniel Lock says:

    This approach makes some sense to me. And a good example of a two-phase approach to getting important creative pieces of work done. Grisham is no doubt a busy guy outside of writing books – he’s not sitting around all day after three hours of writing, rather meeting with managers, editors, PR people and so on.

  15. seema says:

    That really impressive schedule plan to follow

  16. Christina says:

    Really very useful and worth reading the article it is, there is huge knowledge to improve writing skills. Thanks for sharing with us.

  17. Anthony says:

    Great article. I love your work and So Good They Cant Ignore You has definitely transformed my life and thought processes. While I agree that its hard to use Grisham as an example (as well as any of these uber successful people who have the means to control their habits/practices – ie. Buffett can afford to read 500 pages a day)…its still a good example of what can be created with Deep Focus.

  18. Shiv says:

    Hello cal , Write also how to manage stress during Ph.D

  19. Nick Campbell says:

    I think the component I’m seeing missed by some people is that there is a determination to make time for this hobby and focusing so intently on it in that period. Sure, John Grisham can now afford to set aside the first three hours of his day to write, but before he was successful, he was doing the same things. He would rise early and put it towards the novel because that mattered to him. Nora Roberts at her kitchen counter is the other famous example. She would write novels at the counter each night after the kids went to bed, or so the story goes. In both instances, there is a determination to do this, there is a time set aside for that purpose, and distractions were removed to ensure focus on the task at hand. These are the lessons to be learned. If it matters, show it the respect it deserves as something that matters and focus on it.

  20. Amoranda says:

    RE: the term – “Deep work”= metawork?
    RE: the phrase – “massive amount of value in a relatively small amount of time” = HIIT working?

  21. Great article Cal. As an aspiring writer, I can really get on board with the period outhouse fantasy.

    Some really great, thought provoking comments in this thread too. Great to see some constructive criticism and back and forth going on. Very enjoyable.

  22. Thanks for sharing the video. I’m always interested in the process for writers — how it all comes together, including the day-to-day of just putting the time in and putting pen to paper. Doing the work. On a similar note, John Grisham is a pretty good guy in real life. He spoke at my UVA graduation years back.

  23. Mara says:

    In his podcast, Book Tour with John Grisham, he talks about his writing process further. And, he’s joined by other writers who share insight into their own habits. It’s actually worth a listen. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/book-tour-with-john-grisham/id1244579552?mt=2

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