On my drive home from work the other week I heard an interview with the author of Deep Work, which makes the case for work environments that allow us sustained time to focus solely on one task--periods where no one can interrupt and where we eliminate all distractions and temptations, especially electronic ones.
Now, those of us who write and think for (a portion of) our living know that it's important to have periods of immersion, but I confess that in recent years I haven't considered all distractions as equally harmful. If I set aside three or four hours to write, what's the harm, when I'm stuck on a sentence, in clicking over to Facebook for two minutes now and again? Surely that's not the same as being called away to a meeting! But the book's author, Cal Newport, claims that even brief distractions leave a "residue" that it takes 20 minutes to fully wipe away. Accordingly, he argues that 90 minutes, distraction-free, is the minimum required for "deep work."
I'm not sure that I'm convinced by those exact figures, but hearing Newport did inspire me to address my distraction-creep. I always intend to get X amount of work done (read a book of Paradise Lost, grade three papers) before a break to check my phone or the internet, but even though I'm pretty good at not allowing myself to get sucked into serious distraction, over the past year I've definitely felt my hands to be increasingly itchy for quick hits of email or social media.
So the week after hearing Newport, I challenged myself, when I had writing time set aside, to write for 90 or 120 uninterrupted minutes with no distractors (other than cats, or hunger, or the bathroom). It was blissful. Once or twice I went way past the mark because I just wasn't ready to stop.
And since I'm teaching a senior seminar on Early Modern ideas about the afterlife, I somehow also found myself thinking about the rhetoric of demonic temptation and whether it might bring anything useful to the way we talk about distraction. Now, I'm comfortable using the discourse of "sin" for the variety of ways that we fail or harm other people, and seeing our shortcoming as a result of our fallen condition has likewise always resonated for me--but the devil most emphatically has not. I'm not interested in the devil, just as I'm not interested in fairies or vampires or zombies. To the extent that I've thought about the psychological work that believing in a devil does, I guess I've always assumed it to be purely fear-mongery: stay vigilant! Because the devil wants your sooooouul.
But what with the class and my attempts to resist distracting urges, I wondered what it would feel like to reframe the desire to check my phone in the middle of a grading or writing session as a temptation sent by the devil. Presumably, there are people all over the world who see things in this light, just as there were in ages past. So when I was tempted to reach for my phone, instead of thinking, "aw, what's the harm? it's just for a minute or two," I told myself, "nothing new has happened in the past 20 minutes. You don't even want to do this. This is the devil trying to distract you."
And instead of feeling paranoid about my vulnerability to malign influences, I felt how true it was that this was a stupid distraction and one that I could resist--because it wasn't, after all, coming from me! I had a better self, one who was actually happier not checking Facebook every 15 minutes!
So there you have it: how the devil made me a better writer, no soul-selling required.