A Flawed Axiom
Write every day.
If you’ve ever considered professional writing, you’ve heard this advice. Stephen King recommends it in his instructional memoir, On Writing (he follows a strict diet of 1,000 words a day, six days a week). Anne Lamott proposes something similar in her guide, Bird by Bird (she recommends sitting down to write at roughly the same time every day).
Having published four books myself, here’s my opinion: If you’re not a full time writer (like King and Lamott), this is terrible advice. This strategy will, in fact, reduce the probability that you finish your writing project.
In this post, I want to explain why this is true — as this explanation provides insight into the psychology of accomplishing big projects in any field.
The Planning Brain
Here’s what happens when you resolve to write every day: you soon slip up.
If you’re not a full-time writer, this is essentially unavoidable. An early meeting at work, a back-up on the subway, an afternoon meeting that runs long — any number of common events will render writing impractical on some days.
This slip-up, however, has big consequences.
It provides evidence to your brain that your plan to write every day will not succeed. As I’ve argued before, the human brain is driven, in large part, by its need to assess plans: providing motivation to act on good plans, and reducing motivation (which we experience as procrastination) to act on flawed plans.
The problem for the would-be writer is that the brain does not necessarily distinguish between your vague and abstract goal, to write a novel, and the accompanying specific plan, to write every day, which you’re using to accomplish this goal.
When the specific plan fails, the resulting lack of motivation infects the general goal as well, and your writing project flounders.
In my experience as a writer with a day job, I’ve found it’s crucial to avoid rigid writing schedules. I don’t want to provide my brain any examples of a strategy related to my writing that’s failing.
When I’m working on a book, I instead approach each week as its own scheduling challenge. I work with the reality of my life that week to squeeze in as much writing as I can get away with, in the most practical manner. Sometimes, this might lead to stretches where I write every morning. But there are other periods where I might balance a busy start to the work week with half days of writing at the end, and so on.
The point is that I commit to plans that I know can succeed, and by doing so, I keep my brain’s motivation centers on board with the project.
Misunderstanding Motivation: Knowledge Trumps Productivity
This approach, of course, brings up the question of motivation. Most people who embrace the daily writing strategy do so because they worry their will to do the work will diminish without a fixed system to force progress.
This understanding is flawed.
You can’t force your brain to generate motivation. It will do so only when it believes in both your goal and your plan for accomplishing the goal.
If you find that you’re still failing to get work done, even when you’re more flexible with your scheduling, the problem is not your productivity, it’s instead that your mind is not yet sold that you know how to succeed with your general goal of becoming a writer.
In this case, abandon National Novel Writing Month (which I think trivializes the long process of developing writing craft) and go research how people in your desired genre actually develop successful careers. Your mind requires a reality-based understanding of your goal in addition to achievable short-term plans.
Generalizing to Non-Writing Projects
I recalled this lesson recently in an unrelated part of my life. One of my interests over the past few months has been trying to increase the amount of time I spend engaged in deep work related to my academic research.
In December, I tested a rigid strategy that was, in hindsight, just as doomed to failure as attempting to write every day. I had a particular paper that I wanted to complete in time for a winter deadline. I told myself that the key is to start every weekday with deep work. If I commuted on the subway, I would work in a notebook while traveling. If I drove, I would knock off a batch at home while waiting for rush hour to end.
I believed this rigid schedule would help make deep work an ingrained habit, and the paper would get done with time to spare.
It reality, I crashed and burned.
The first week, I successfully followed my plan two days out of five — failing the other days for the types of unavoidable scheduling reasons I mentioned above, as well as the fact that writing in my notebook on the subway turns out to make me nauseous!
After that week, my brain revoked any vestige of motivation for this effort and my total amount of deep work plummeted.
My solution to this freefall was to take a page from my writing life. I went from rigid to flexible planning. I now approach each week with the flexible goal of squeezing in as much deep work toward my goal as is practically possible.
Some weeks I squeeze in more than others. Every week looks different. But what’s consistent is that I’m racking up deep hours and watching my paper starting to come together.
Because I am confident that I know how to accomplish my goal, and my efforts to do so are succeeding each week, my brain remains a supporter.
Hard scheduling rules — write every day! work on research for one hour each morning! exercise 10 hours a week! — deployed in isolation will lead to procrastination as soon as you start to violate them, which you almost certainly will do. At this point, the bigger goal the rules support will suffer from this same motivation drop.
To leverage the psychology of your brain, you need to instead choose clear goals that you clearly know how to accomplish, and then approach scheduling with flexibility. Be aggressive, but remain grounded in the reality of your schedule. If your mind thinks you have a good goal and sees your short terms plans are working, it will keep you motivated toward completion.
(Image from AJC1)