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

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.

15 thoughts on “On Doing Less to Produce More: A Novelist Embraces a Minimalist Lockdown”

  1. Hi Cal,
    do you think personality (or tempermants) plays a role in the type of work we end up doing more off?
    Or do you think it’s all nurture and not nature?

    • I would block time. I’d pick the time when people are asleep or not going to bother you. Let them know that you’ll be not available at that time. Shut off the phone or put it away and work on it.

  2. Thought provoking article. I myself used to work long before the lockdown… remotely from home. Connecting with other designers and developers we would use platforms as trelo, invision, figma, email, whatsapp group, linkedin, google calendar, phone, google meet. Till someone said: “hey! can’t we just stick to free best tools because I feel like we are running in circles?!”.

    I thought recently a lot about my Dad (my best friend’s Dad passed away last week). My Dad was a professor of biomechanics and he trained runners for Olympics and marathons. He also created 1st Peace Marathon (which is now Warsaw Marathon) and he wrote lots of books about running and jogging. He always had his time regime. Time slots for his coffee and newspaper. For a time with me and mum. For his writings. For his business. For running events. For people in running industry. For tennis and his jogging. He taught me a lot about life.

    One of the lessons were that he always avoided using a cell phone. He said to me this tool is a prison. I don’t want people to call me anytime they want (he preferred landline). I want to be focused on my life in a present moment.

    When I set his first website for magazine Jogging. He said he liked it but he won’t be using an email. So I was reading him once every two days all emails from runners, advertisers and event directors. And to some of them he would “dictate” to me what to type back.

    He also had wooden house in the forest. We would go there every weekend. But as early as April started he would go there with our cat and spend few month’s (before my school finished) on his own.

    It was a reservoir terrain and he absolutely loved that there were not many people around. Fresh air. Deers. River. Lakes. And space where he could watch from a massive window the thunderstorms outside and the sun. And he would sit in his chair and write. Write on a type machine.

    Then he would revise it. In between he would then go for a 2 mile jogging in the forest, have a shower, have a light dinner (all fresh from the farmers in area) and then he would start writing again. No disturbances. Embracing the silence. Embracing the naturally flowing thoughts.

    Thanks to the lockdown and partially maybe I’m getting older I have to say my last two years shift towards going back to that forest were I spent most of my childhood. But for now I will embrace the silence in my city apartment.

    All the best. And thank you for your great work Cal.

  3. This is great, Cal! I wanted to add, my wife and I don’t yet have kids and I work from home anyway so I’ve developed the ritual of 430-930am is both deep work on artistic endeavors and exercise, and then from 930-1 I rest. I make sure I am truly resting. No texting, no TV. Just resting, usually a 30 min nap also. Then from 1-6 I work on income-earning activities. It’s proven to be highly effective because I find myself exhausted if I write for 2-3 hours in the morning and that early/mid-day break really sets me up for an afternoon of productivity. Also rarely check my phone and don’t use social media, which has been a huge help!

  4. I love this!

    I would love to hear more about how you have continued to implement this strategy as you progress through academia and take on ever-more responsibilities. I’ve always had the impression that you are very busy, but that your extreme efficiency allows you to get it all done in a normal work day. In other words, it seems like you get 60 hours of work done in a 40-hour week.

    But the more I read the blog, the more I wonder about that, as it sounds like you live a slow-paced (in a good way) life, even at work. If so, has that always been the case? How do you manage that? I’m especially curious about raw hours worked–e.g. you’ve mentioned working 9-5:30pm every day, but you also mention taking a long lunch and exercise break in the middle which seems to count as one of your work hours. How does this work?

    • I’m also curious about this. Given the time and effort Cal has spent in developing, implementing and optimising the ideas surrounding a Deep Life, he would be tending towards the point where there is not much that can be done to live a deeper life i.e. a saturation point of returns. This is my assumption.

      My question, then, would be ‘How is Cal trying to further his career or his academic output? Is it just a matter doing the same ideas correctly and consistently? Or do we need new ideas?’

      As I continue to seek ways to be more intentional and mindful about my attention and therefore my life, case-study posts like this one reinforce this intention and provide some inspiration.

      Waiting to hear from Cal…

  5. “Email. Zoom. Social Media. Texting. Back to Social Media. Email. Zoom.”
    Add to his “appearance of business”… Check news, the stock market. React to every “push” notifications – immediately.

    Ask anyone how they are progressing at a project and they will usually answer “busy”.
    Busy is the new status symbol of the average.
    Depth is the new analog.

  6. “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 heard somewhere that Ernest Hemingway used to stop writing in the middle of a sentence, so he would end with some momentum that could be picked up the next day.


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