Can ladies do Deep Work?

I recently re-read Cal Newport’s Deep Work in preparation for my new book on writing and wellbeing. And soon enough I started to notice that the people he uses as exemplars of doing deep work were … all pretty similar.

By my reading, there are only two women in the book who are described as doing deep thinking: Winifred Gallagher, the author of Rapt; and Radhika Nagpal, then Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University. And only Professor Nagpal is described as doing the kind of deep work that is the purpose of the book, not just paying attention or researching attention.* I closed the book and found myself asking… ‘So, actually, at least according to Newport, can ladies do Deep Work?’

I did a quick Google, and yes I am far from the first person to notice this. Imogen Mathews wrote a widely cited Thesis Whisperer blog (regularly misattributed to Inger Mewburn), Kelly Dombroski wrote on deep work achieved by mothers, there is a fantastic visualisation of gender data by Simon Morrow, and Pauline Deschryver has created a short but diverse list of female authors to exemplify deep workers according to Newport’s Four Types. There is a lot else to be said about race, gender, class, family structure etc. as well, for example Kim Schlesinger writes on the absence of BIPOC, LGBTIQA+ or womxn representation. So the problem is well identified.

There is also a strong counter movement. When I put out a call on Twitter for things to read to address this issue, Inger Mewburn (@thesiswhisperer) sent me to read Melissa Gregg Counterproductive:Time Management in the Knowledge Economy and Belinda Tan (@badtanline) recommended Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy . Both of these point out the other issue with Deep Work, that it is all about focusing not so you can change the world or create new knowledge, but so you can meet your metrics and make other people money.

And yet, perhaps, ladies* would still like to do deep work. To enter a state of flow where we think hard thoughts at the very edges of what we can comfortably do, and make intellectual and creative breakthroughs. That is, after all, why so many women enrol in a PhD.

I often think of a talk I once went to, given by legendary Olympic medallist Cathy Freeman, of the Kuku Yalanji and the Birri Gubba people of far-north and central Queensland. In her talk, she spoke about how, when she performed at her highest levels, she entered a state of flow; and how her Foundation aimed to offer educational opportunities to young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to aspire to having that same experience.

So I’m thinking about another way to categorise the time management strategies to access Deep Work that might be useful for women—as imagined and explained by women. And about creating work that is aligned with our values, and that stretches our scholarly capacities and creates new knowledge.

Here then, I propose a new, feminist systematics of time-management for deep work.

First of all, I think we need an amended definition of what Deep Work is, more closely aligned to ‘flow’.

Deep Work:

Knowledge activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new knowledge, improve your skill, are aligned to your values, and create original or unique outcomes.

(Compare Newport’s original in Deep Work (2016) p. 3)

‘Knowledge activities’ are both research/scholarly activities and professional tasks in ‘knowledge worker’ industries. The purpose of a PhD is to create an original contribution to knowledge, which I am using as the basic purpose of deep work for readers of this blog.

So what are some ways to achieve deep work if you are a lady? Here are four examples, to help us get started.*

The Room of One’s Own: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf, in her feminist classic A Room of One’s Own, says that for a woman to be able to manage her time and space to write books, she requires ‘a room with a lock on the door’, and also, and she is very clear about this, ‘five hundred pounds a year’. That’s AUD$50,000 in today’s money, just under the average annual Australian salary. Woolf had a supportive publisher husband; belonged to a wider group of family, friends and lovers who were also writers and thinkers and artists; and had no children. And, in 1918, she was bequeathed a legacy from an aunt that meant, as she wrote later, ‘food, house and clothing are mine forever’.*

The “Room of One’s Ownis the structural, social, physical and financial ability to choose what you will pay attention to, to plan for the future, to say no, because you are secure. Prior to this legacy, Woolf had worked a number of casual jobs, so she understood the fracturing of attention and time caused by insecure, badly paid work.

The news of my legacy reached me one night about the same time that the act was passed that gave votes to women. A solicitor’s letter fell into the post-box and when I opened it I found that [my aunt] had left me five hundred pounds a year for ever. … Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918. I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)

What Woolf points out, again and again through the pamphlet, is that really what ladies need to be able to do deep work, is to have the same material conditions as men.

Read more about how I was influenced by A Room of One’s Own in Walking on the Grass, Dancing in the Corridors.

The Burst of Light: Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde chronicles the three years after her fiftieth birthday, when she was travelling around the world while diagnosed with metastasised liver cancer. A Woman of Colour, a lesbian and mother, a Black woman in America—Lorde was vocal about her marginalisations, but also about living intensively and positively. The memoir records Lorde rocketing between the US, St Croix, Berlin, Melbourne, Switzerland, Anguilla, and France. She fits her poetry and essays in among teaching, travelling, being treated for her cancer, ‘doing her morning visualisations and eurythmics’, and political campaigns.

The Burst of Light is the chosing to create a structure of the day which includes deep writing work, alongside self-care, activism, activity, travel, family, teaching and more. She often talks about her ‘daily activities’ and these are consistent, even as other aspects of her life change.

Among my other daily activities I incorporate brief periods of physical self-monitoring without hysteria. I attend the changes within my body, anointing myself with healing light. Sometimes I have to do it while sitting on the Staten Island Ferry on my way home, surrounded by snapping gum and dirty rubber boots, all of which I banish from my consciousness.

Audre Lorde, A Burst of Light (1988)

What Lorde suggests is that really what ladies need to be able to do deep work, is to have a daily routine and habits of mind to support physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and political wellbeing, while simultaneously being out there engaged with the real world.

Read more about Audre Lorde and academic life in ‘Self care for everyone‘ and ‘Writing is not a luxury’.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo’s bestseller is often misunderstood. At its centre is a singular, massive action of getting your house in order, so then only the tiniest actions are required to keep it that way. And that means then you have space and time and energy to quickly get into deep work. Once we only have what we need, only things that we value, there is no clutter to manage, only tools to take out and space to use them for ‘your mission in life’.

Suprisingly, the task of tidying up might be, for a short season, deep work of its own. Tidying up might not seem to be deep work, and certainly Newport would not think so, but for Kondo, the arranging of an environment has deep spiritual and mindful resonances. Kondo was, for five years, a miko in a Shinto shrine. This connection of the ritualistic or shamanic, with the every day tasks of arranging our physical and digital living environments, might make the one-off project of clearing out the clutter a kind of deep work too.

You can put your house in order now, once and forever. The only ones who need to spend their lives, year in and year out, thinking about tidying are people like me who find joy in it… As for you, pour your time and passion into what brings you the most joy, your mission in life. I am convinced that putting your house in order will help you find the mission that speaks to your heart.

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying (2011)

For Kondo, then really what ladies need to do deep work is to put our mental house in order, not through a brief attention fix like a ‘digital detox’, but by generously and bravely letting go of things that we don’t need anymore.

Read more about using Marie Kondo in your research in ‘Is it time to de-clutter your to be read pile?‘.

Big Magic: Elizabeth Gilbert

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles her development as a writer. She points out that she kept her many day jobs (which she put down and picked up between travels) through years of writing for magazines like GQ and Esquire, plus three critically well received books: a collection of short stories, a biography and a novel. She set a timer and wrote for half an hour, anything at all, during her 20s. She continued to scribble her way to her first novel. Had her fourth book not been ‘freaking Eat Pray Love for heaven’s sake’, Gilbert would still be juggling jobs and her writing career.

In other words, Gilbert argues that to do deep work, you need to keep turning up for your creativity, but also accept when your creativity doesn’t turn up for you, either in terms of inspiration or recognition.

I held on to my day jobs for so long because I wanted to keep my creativity free and safe. … I was also willing to work hard so that my creativity could play lightly. In so doing, I became my own patron; I became my own studio wife… There is no dishonour in having a job. What is dishonourable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that is pay for you entire existence… You can always make your art on the side of your bread-and-butter job.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic (2015)

In a later chapter, she expands on this idea of art ‘on the side’. ‘Even if you have only fifteen minutes a day in a stairwell alone with your creativity, take it. Go hide in that stairwell and make out with your art!’

For Gilbert, what ladies really need to do deep work, is to commit a few minutes to their creativity, without expecting their creativity to pay them back. This gives space to play, to experiment, to feel alive, to feel sexy.

Read more about How to Have Ideas.*

None of these women became productivity robots just because they had found a strategy to do deep work. Virginia Woolf’s writing was interrupted by her mental health, Audre Lorde’s by her physical health, Marie Kondo tidied too much and was paralysed in her neck and shoulders, Elizabeth Gilbert planted a whole garden while she was stuck without a novel idea for three entire years. There is no secret key to unending productivity, but there are ways that women have made writing work, in their own words, from their own position.

Seeing these options, perhaps you too can find a way to do deep work, in a way that works for you, from where you are. You don’t even have to be a white dude to do it.


* On second checking, I think J K R*wling may also be listed as a woman who does deep work, so two of them.

Nagpal wrote a brilliant article about her approach to the tenure track, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. She reframed her tenure track time as 7 years of job security (something she would never get in industry), drew boundaries, and had fun. Do read her story in her own words.

* So I’m using the term ‘ladies’ when I mean ‘outdated, culturally constructed category of non-cis-male, generally created for exclusionary purposes’, and ‘women’ when I mean real people, including trans-women. Any terms denoting gender are pretty crude, so if any of this blog post feels like it helps you, however you identify, welcome. And if it doesn’t, there’s other stuff on the blog that might be useful!

* You may notice some overlap between my exemplars and Newport’s: the Monastic (abjure the world), Bimodal (go on regular writing retreats), Rhythmic (write every day), and Journalistic (fit the writing in when you have the time). I don’t think they are incompatible, but they are definitely starting from a different place, taking a different route, and highlighting different stories.

* Woolf’s legacy comes from an aunt ‘who lived in Bombay’ but it seems the aunt had travelled to India later in her life and died there rather than deriving her fortune from the then-colony.

* An alternative way to think about this is exploring writing along caring responsibilities in James Burford & Genine Hook (2019) ‘Curating care-full spaces: doctoral students negotiating study from home’, Higher Education Research & Development, 38:7, 1343-1355, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1657805

Photo by Subtle Cinematics on Unsplash


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