Cal Newport: Don’t Think of Writing As Running A Small Business

The following is a transcribed excerpt from Episode 71 of Cal Newport’s Deep Questions Podcast. In it, he warns authors (especially those with book deals) of getting caught up in self-promotion, social media, and lots of general “busy-ness.” Instead, they should focus on their most valuable activity: writing more good books.

It has been slightly edited for readability. It takes place at around the 1:01:04 mark.

Transcript begins…

Lily says: “I’m living the dream, by finally being published. I even got a lovely New York Times review for which I’m profoundly grateful. But I’m trying to figure out this whole “being a published author” thing. I started a Scrum Kanban board and have your planner, which has helped immensely. Do you have any other advice to tackle what is basically becoming a small business owner? Also thank you so much for Deep Work. I read and listened to it repeatedly to help me get through writing my book that sold.”

Lily, here’s what I’m gonna say, perhaps controversially: don’t think of yourself, as a writer, as running a small business. 

When you get a good book deal, and by you I mean debut authors in general (and I’m thinking of myself as well, back when I was first getting started) there’s this tendency for freneticism. “I gotta do things now. I need things, I need wheels in motion, I need projects, I need endeavors. Right? Because this is a big deal, and I need to have a level of activity and busy-ness commensurate with the sense of “big deal-ness” that comes with (rightfully so) “hey, I got this deal, and I got a New York Times book review and I’m doing serious writing.” 

But that’s counterproductive, because all those efforts actually take you away from the thing that the publisher wants you to do, and the thing that is going to be most responsible for having a sustainable successful career, which is: writing more good books. 

The number one thing you should think about is: “I’m not a business, I’m a writer, and it’s a completely different type of job. It’s a job in which my number one priority is to have time to think and write.”

So I’d be wary of having a Kanban board. I’d be worried about having a Scrum board, because that’s a different mindset of, “I’m a task executer. I should have more tasks because more tasks means I’m trying harder. I’m gonna earn my keep as a writer, I’m gonna live up to this advance I was given.” 

Long term, that’s counterproductive. It slows down how long it takes you to write the next book and how good that book is going to be. So… make writing the center of your life. Make exposure to the type of creative inspiration you use for your writing a major part of your life. 

Make sure you have a ton of solitude. You need time alone with your own thoughts just observing the world around you — so you can make sense of this information. So you can create the cognitive scaffolding on which you’re going to create new ideas, whether they are fictional characters or non-fiction theories. 

And a lot of that doesn’t feel like work. “I’m reading a lot and I go for a lot of long walks.” But that IS work if you’re a writer. None of that requires that you move a card around on a Scrum board. 

For the sake of the [non-writing] stuff that does come up, it helps to be organized so it doesn’t bleed into your head. Time-block planning your days is fine, because that helps you minimize the footprint of the non-creative stuff. You wanna have daily planning, weekly planning, seasonal planning. That’s very useful. Capture Configure Control is very useful, but it’s less about enabling you to do lots of stuff, and more about taking the stuff you have to do and putting it into a smaller package. 

I’m kinda famously slow to do things as a writer. My lack of social media has raised a lot of eyebrows. I didn’t start my blog until a few years in, and that’s all I did until I started this podcast last year. It took me over a decade to add a second thing. And that’s kind of it. 

If I’m really in writing mode, I don’t do a ton of speaking, so it’s not that fun for my speaking agents. And if i’m in book publicity mode then may be I’ll do more. 

But I’m not very busy as a writer. I don’t see it as a business. I don’t have a staff. Actually, I like the advice I heard Joe Rogan once give, which was: “in creative endeavors, if you have enough things going on that you need an assistant, the key is not to get an assistant… but to do less things.” I think that’s probably right. 

Because of that, I’ve published six book and the Time-Block Planner. I can spend more time thinking and writing. I have a FULL TIME JOB that’s not writing, so it would probably be a dozen if I didn’t have that. [Time spent writing] by far will outweigh almost any other thing I could be spending my time on. 

I’m speaking to an abstract new writer. When you get that first big book deal, resist the urge to get BUSY. Have a life that seems to yourself and to other people, like almost, unusually languid. I write, I walk, I read, I think.

But if you can do that you’re going to be much more valuable to your publisher your life will be much more interesting. And you’re going produce the books that I look forward to reading next. 

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