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“Write Every Day” is Bad Advice: Hacking the Psychology of Big Projects

January 13th, 2013 · 87 comments

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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.

Freestyle Writing

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.

Summary

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)

87 thoughts on ““Write Every Day” is Bad Advice: Hacking the Psychology of Big Projects

  1. Chris Beiser says:

    Thanks for this. It’s something I’ve been doing wrong a bit too much in the last couple weeks.

  2. Dean says:

    Cal,

    I am student in high school and kind of an autodidact. From cooking to math to psychology to learning — I’ve read countless books. From this, my mind has a vast web of views on how and why processes should work. But I get stuck when I attempt to apply ideas from school that work in theory but not in practice. A staunch believer in the validity of practice and experiment, Feynman is one of my idols, touting experiment; this is something I like but at which I fail miserably because my idealism about the results prevents me from taking the flexible, small steps in place of old habits of cue, process, and reward.

    In AP Chemistry, I know I should go through easiest problems first. This would work the best, but I know that if I have to skip something, I missed a very important concept. That bothers me immensely, but in hindsight, whenever I have done easiest problems first, it takes me less time in total than going straight through.

    I read you blog because I need yet another corroborating source for me to (kind of low-self confidently) justify my procrastination from not believing my homework systems will effectively work, because I continue to get stuck on problems whose processes I have not practiced. It is that human thing for appreciation over hardships.

    Cal, you wrote that short term plans toward a good goal keep motivation toward completion. When you say goals are clear to accomplish, do you mean that there is a hierarchy of goals (like health above staying up late to do extra essay work)?

    Looking back, I now re-realize the small steps to finish a project plan you before mentioned. On my wall,I am now putting a paper of hours spent to devour AP Chem, AP Calc, and AP Lang. My brain will believe I will make progress by seeing the hours.

    Moreover, I’m going to focus on deepening the concepts from all of my readings, during the time I’m not maintaining myself, doing autopilot work and research, and deep troubleshooting for school. I won’t ignore my family, and I have got to talk to them about this. It’ll make it fun.

    As for friends. . .although I’m listening to an audio book of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, I’ll focus on convincing my brain to continue my work. I fatigue easily when I don’t understand schoolwork, which is my main income of self-esteem. Strike that. It’s an excuse, a “why”.
    Friends have charged my brain, it’s just me superstitious of them. I will test my notions.

    Whew! Thanks for the mind churning courtesy of your post.

    Dean

  3. Choosing clear goals that you know how to complete is a BIG part of doing something regularly for sure. Being unsure of something is a VERY easy scape goat when you’re faced with a new habit to form.

    I find another fantastic way is to start with something small simply to build the habit. Most people (myself included) “feel” like they’re doing something weird or off putting when they try to adopt a new habit like writing more often. If you can make it so that you’re only do such a small amount that the “pain” of completing the task is very small, it’s far easier to rationalize your brain into “just doing it” every single time. Make the task you have to do extremely trivial to complete each time so there’s no excuse not to do it. After 2-3 months of doing this very small task the habit itself forms, becomes a comfortable thing for your mind to accept and then you can start building on it.

    Although you can’t do this with writing, automating the habit such as with paying off a higher amount towards your mortgage is both the best and easiest way I’ve found of forming a new habit. It’s also the key I think to beating long term problems.

  4. Siuon says:

    For clarification, could I say your post suggested careful and detailed planning is better than following a simple, rigid rule such as “Write every day”?

  5. Raindrop11 says:

    Cal Newport,
    personally, did you find that learning the humanities (general education requirements) in undergraduate were useful to you as a non-humanities major?

  6. KatieK. says:

    yes, so true so true. I get a real kick and charge to spend good productive time at a certain project and I keep at it for awhile. I set out a plan to work at it for x number of times per week, x hours per day. Then something happens out of my control related usually to family responsibilities or health issues and there goes the Plan. And negative feedback and a sense that the Plan doesn’t and won’t work. I’m looking forward to reading more of your new book to tweak my planning.

  7. Cal, thanks for this post!

    The idea of making plans that deep down you know will get you to your goals, really clicked with me.

  8. Matt S says:

    I think the point of say, writing 1000 words every day, is to form a habit. You’re right, if you are trying to get work done (the thing that pays the bills) it’s terrible advice. But if you using that strategy for deliberate practice, it makes perfect sense. If you want to be “so good [at writing] they can’t ignore you”, wouldn’t spending a few hours every day practicing writing be good advice?

  9. shrnky says:

    In my personal experience, I just can’t agree. Writing daily is a habit. Just like any other habit it needs time to be formed.

    I run my own company dealing with customers day in and day out. Every evening I put in at least a half hour towards writing(programming to be exact).

    In the past six months I’ve feature completed a project I had been day dreaming about for years. A happy byproduct is I find I’m picking up other things quicker than I used to also.

    In my experience you’re less likely to accomplish anything significant working only when motivated. On many days I’m barely motivated, but after 10 minutes of coding I really get into it and make gains.

    I have lots more thoughts on this and will probably write something up one day. :)

    Disclaimer: When it comes to learning/productivity there’s no silver bullet. I think most of us have to try a few different techniques to find the one that works best for us.

  10. Eddie Schodowski says:

    Charles Bukowski has a poem called “So You Want To Be a Writer”

    if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
    in spite of everything,
    don’t do it.
    unless it comes unasked out of your
    heart and your mind and your mouth
    and your gut,
    don’t do it.
    if you have to sit for hours
    staring at your computer screen
    or hunched over your
    typewriter
    searching for words,
    don’t do it.
    if you’re doing it for money or
    fame,
    don’t do it.
    if you’re doing it because you want
    women in your bed,
    don’t do it.
    if you have to sit there and
    rewrite it again and again,
    don’t do it.
    if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
    don’t do it.
    if you’re trying to write like somebody
    else,
    forget about it.
    if you have to wait for it to roar out of
    you,
    then wait patiently.
    if it never does roar out of you,
    do something else.

    if you first have to read it to your wife
    or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
    or your parents or to anybody at all,
    you’re not ready.

    don’t be like so many writers,
    don’t be like so many thousands of
    people who call themselves writers,
    don’t be dull and boring and
    pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
    love.
    the libraries of the world have
    yawned themselves to
    sleep
    over your kind.
    don’t add to that.
    don’t do it.
    unless it comes out of
    your soul like a rocket,
    unless being still would
    drive you to madness or
    suicide or murder,
    don’t do it.
    unless the sun inside you is
    burning your gut,
    don’t do it.

    when it is truly time,
    and if you have been chosen,
    it will do it by
    itself and it will keep on doing it
    until you die or it dies in you.

    there is no other way.

    and there never was.

  11. Jonathan Davis says:

    Thanks Cal for posting this. From the past, I have been confused as to when one should work on writing. Especially papers and such. Although lately your posts have been good, I like this one especially since everyone has to write and this is a common misconception that you point out. Thanks for helping us readers!

  12. Sean says:

    What about goals being SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results oriented, and Time bound)? If I don’t say, “work out 10 hours per week” or, “work out Monday and Friday mornings” then I either go too hard and burnout or procrastinate and don’t do any of it.

    I also tend to believe that it something is so flexible and dynamic as to work into my schedule whenever, then even small and trivial events can take precedence, pushing the flexible until ‘later’ because it can be pushed.

  13. This is a brilliant post. Most of the rules nascent writers try to apply to themselves come from professional writers, who have (mostly) forgotten what it is like not to be a professional writer. Also, aspiring writers do not take into account how easy it is, given the myths we’ve been taught to believe about writing and writers, to lose belief in their abilities. Thanks for writing this, and for thinking these thoughts. I’d like to re-post this on my blog, if you don’t mind; my clients and students need to see this!

  14. Harsh says:

    That’s very interesting Cal. I decided to write for an hour first thing each morning for the past month. I don’t always get as much done as I’d like everyday but I do make progress reaching my goal one day at a time.

  15. Brian says:

    I disagree.

    I think one can set rules for oneself that are rigid yet flexible. For example, set a goal to write 1000 words 4 days every week and then actually aim at doing 6 days. It will give you plenty of buffer if something comes in between.

    I have used this method extensively for different things and it works. I currently have a goal to spend 500 hours on programming until September and the strict schedule is invaluable for me.

    (Although, I think an argument might be made that as this method breaks work down into small chunks it has a high switching cost. ie if it takes you an hour to get into a state of ‘deep work’ it may not be the most effective.)

    But when it comes to compliance and doing consistent work on long-term projects it’s amazing.

  16. Alexander Boland says:

    This indeed is at the heart of the matter. Many failures of mine, both personal and collaborative, led me to realize that it was trust that determined what one could follow through with.

    This has been known in the military for a long time, and was talked about in the briefing “Patterns of Conflict” by John Boyd (free powerpoint is online somewhere.) He knew that Command and Control had to be organic and flexible; not based on people barking orders from some top-down system. Without that, there would be a combination of Soviet-style blindness and lack of initiative.

    But it was clear to him that you need to build trust in order to do this. Soldiers have to fight together, build up an esprit de corps, and communicate through complex and intangible bonds that come only from experience. There are no shortcuts, but your advice here may just help people avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

  17. Deborah Roggie says:

    Cal, I’ve found that when I write on consecutive days, I build momentum that allows me to go deeper and write more efficiently. It’s as if the story is present and more accessible because I’m still close to it. When two or more days pass between sessions, it’s harder to enter the world of the story and write fluidly. Not impossible, of course, but definitely harder.

    For me, writing daily keeps my writing “muscles” in top shape.

  18. I agree with almost everything you write, Cal, but I disagree with this one. Perhaps the issue is how much time you’re imagining that people are spending on writing. (I think five minutes per day may be enough.) It may also reflect your own relationship with writing, which seems very positive.

    For anyone who is scared of writing, or a “deeply committed procrastinator”, however, writing every day can be a huge benefit. Just make the goal SMALL enough, so you are going to succeed (ie: five minutes.) People need to understand that writing is not a great big scary thing. ANYONE can do it!

    I also don’t get your opposition to NaNoWriMo. I have never taken part in this event myself, but I think it’s a great idea — for someone who wants to learn how to write a novel. That doesn’t describe you, so it’s not a good use of your time. But that doesn’t make it a bad project for anyone else.

    As I said, I so seldom disagree with you that it makes me nervous to write these words….

  19. One thing I’ve come to like doing is having a “maintenance mode” in times of low motivation or unexpected external constraints that prevent me from doing as much real work on a project as I would like. For example, if I fail to get in my desired half hour intense workout, then in the past, I might feel like I failed, and like you said, feeling like a failure leads to giving up. But if I decide to do a few pushups and jump up and down for two minutes, then I can pat myself on the back and convince myself that I am still an “exerciser”, and maintain the “chain”. (And fact is, when I’m too busy, that is precisely when a two-minute break actually helps my energy level for whatever it is that I was working on.) Maintenance of self-image is very important indeed, no matter what your strategy is. For me, it helps to do a little bit of something rather than to go completely without.

    1. Thanks Franklin… I think I’m going to try that :)

  20. Mo says:

    Stephen King and Anne Lamott are both FICTION writers. The “write every day” approach is much more important for imaginative work, where the mind is both source material, creative engine and composition machine. It is, in many ways, doing the same thing every day, which is why there is so much advice about the importance of building a routine, so that the mind can more easily settle in to the business of writing.

    Some people do seem to be able to write fiction on a “flexible” schedule, but it is a definite minority. The “deep work” you are talking about is dealing with an external problem, and thus finding new places and spaces to write and flexible scheduling does help in looking at the work in different ways. Writing fiction often means being able to ignore new ideas which would not suit the work currently underway. That isn’t the case in academic writing. Or if it is, it is in inverse proportions as to whether restarting in the new direction is a wise idea.

    I’m doing more academic than creative writing these days. Creative writing does require more steadiness of mind from day to day, so building the habit is important. What works for me in both areas is having some flexibility. I must do something on the project every day, even if it is only opening the notebook and reviewing what my next steps will be, what needs to be done, or thinking about a reading and am I using it in the right way.

  21. David says:

    I disagree. I got my CFA (three year financial program with low pass rates) while working a demanding job. My goal, study every single day for at leat 30-min. Some nights i would get home from work at mid-night and study for 30-min. One night i stared at a few pages for 30-min after being out drinking. I almost never broke the rule. It created a habit, and i never procrastinated because no reason was an excuse – ever. You always had 30 min to put in the work. I breezed through the tests while friends who would study when they were rested or fresh, or when they had time, could do it because they would end up putting everything off until the weekend. Those daily 30 min sessions added up to a lot of time. Some of it not well spent, but most of it was very productive, but mentally it worked by giving me no excuses.

  22. Harish says:

    Cal,
    Thanks for this post! I could not agree with you more! Writing everyday works great if your main profession is writing and you do not have to do other things to lead to the writing. I feel that the reason why “the write everyday” may not be a good idea for all is because of the following reasons:
    1. It does not work for all and as you point out it can be a de-motivator to fail or slip up a day. Some people’s brains are just not wired for doing the same creative things repeatedly everyday. They need frequent creative breaks.
    2. If you are a scientist, the data drives the writing and not the other way around. I know this because for the last 2 decades I have worked on cancer and heart disease. There are days when the research is so immediately compelling that writing is not practical. In fact, as we produce small chunks of data, we can write but that sort of reductionism may not be beneficial for the whole picture. So we have to wait till we know more before we can begin writing.
    3. Inspiration does not strike everyday. Yes there are structures and rituals that might enhance inspiration, but there is a big difference between being motivated to write and being inspired to write! Yes perhaps we should write anyways and I see the merit in that. But I would like it better if I wanted to really write rather than having to write to satisfy some idea or rule. I think setting up a framework or an outline or an intention to write and then satisfying that intention may be a better approach for some. New years resolutions don’t work sometimes because people do not want to do the work and would be rather doing something else. It begs the question that if we have to force ourselves to write everyday, is writing what we should be doing and not something else?
    4. Finally, I believe that quality always trumps quantity. Yes, 10,000 hours to mastery is the buzz everywhere and it may be a good idea. But still just writing to produce a lot more content is like the difference between an unnecessary experiment and an elegantly designed one. I would rather write content that puts me out of my “writing comfort zone” and as with other practices, it is the uncomfortable that pushes the ante and produces genius. I guess what I am saying is that just doing a lot of something may not produce genius. Genius is possible by the repeated pushing beyond the comfort zone and improvising our work. There is no guarantee that writing everyday and writing a lot more will make my writing remarkable or genius. Writing is an art and different artists produce their work differently. We need to test what works for us and then go against the grain of popular advise if that feels natural and organic to us.
    Thanks again for a thought provoking post!
    Harish

  23. Evan says:

    Interesting post Cal.

    Concise Version: Trivial work needs an input of time, which can be rigidly scheduled, and almost always guarantees an output of the results sought. Deep work needs an input of time too, which can be time blocked out of a schedule. Deep work, however, doesn’t guarantee output every time.

    I think you’ve before made the distinction between getting more trivial things done and less trivial things done (deep work as you call it). I would contend that tasks the brain does not perceive as deep work–tasks with very clearly defined goals and little ambiguity–can be accomplished using a trusted system (such as fixed-sched productivity, weekly/daily goals, etc.). These systems work here, in part because the goals are relatively trivial and should be able to handle slip ups. Deep work is different. Deep work requires time to be scheduled, but it doesn’t guarantee output.

  24. T.K. Thorne says:

    Great post and discussion. One thing possibly overlooked is the definition of “writing.” I am primarily a fiction writer, but hold a full time “paying” job as well. I write every day, but not necessarily at the keyboard. For me, what happens in my mind is just as important. I play with dialogues and scenes. If I am driving or doing dishes and work out a scene, that is worth its weight in gold, and I call it “writing!”

  25. Dominikus says:

    Brilliant post!

  26. Daniel says:

    My mix of flexibility with rigidity on “scheduling” goals is something like:
    Exercice 8 times per month.

    With this I have a realistic and objective goal to aim to that makes some kind of pressure on me, but at the same time with enough flexibility so that I can adapt to some situations:
    8 times/month equals something like 2 times/week,
    but if at some week I’ve done only one workout, in the next week i would compensate with three workouts.

  27. Hein Hundal says:

    The choice seems to be either 1) Write x words every day, or 2) x words every week. Maybe you could use something like A/B testing to determine which option works best. (Is there a third option?)

  28. Floater says:

    I strongly recommend reading some of the works of Robert Boice. For years, he has researched what makes some academics more productive than others. And he has especially researched what distinguishes successful academic writers from those prone to procrastination and blocking. He has then used this information to train procrastinators to become productive. Writing in brief daily sessions is one of the most basic rules that he teaches for becoming a productive writer, both in terms of output and in terms of the quality and creativity and one’s work. This doesn’t mean that a flexible schedule won’t work for some people–and maybe it’s even the ideal if you can make it work–but it’s probably bad advice for most people.
    Another worthwhile read is How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia, himself a very productive academic. He makes a convincing argument that a regular writing schedule is, for most academics, the only way to be productive. That said, writing doesn’t just mean putting words to paper. As someone pointed out, you often first need to gather information, but Silvia recommends including such activities as part of your regular writing schedule.
    One also needs to be wary of thinking that whatever rule one adopts to be more productive must never be violated. That’s the problem most people face when dieting. The moment they violate the diet, they think the whole thing is shot (as you seemed to think a daily writing plan is shot the moment one has had a bad day). In dieting, it’s known as the abstinence violation effect. What people need to learn is that just because they didn’t stick to the plan one day (and inevitably there will be days like that), doesn’t mean that it’s a bad plan. Resilience and persistence is far more important than perfection.

  29. Cameron says:

    Great post, Cal. I’ve used this same mentality to develop an exercise routine for the first time. In the past, I would set goals for myself like “exercise Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday,” and then immediately give up on the routine when the craziness of student life forced me to skip a day. Now, I simply have the mentality not to exercise on particular days or even so many hours a week but to exercise every day where I can find the time. I now trust that even when I skip a day, my routine will kick in the next. I’d never thought about how fundamental trust was to this system before, but I think you’re spot on.

  30. Cecilia says:

    Thank’s for this post! I have been trying that thing with writing everyday and when things got in the way I just… Stopped, ‘forgot’ and lost the motivation for it. Now I dont have a schedule any more, and when I sit down to write now it’s easier to get the words down.. But guess it is as with everything in life, we all work in different ways..

  31. merle says:

    Hi Cal,

    Have been reading the blog for a few months now, and really appreciate your take on building skills and focus.

    I do disagree with this post though. Daily writing is a part of my autopilot schedule, and I think the benefit of scheduling time for this regular work (and thus knowing when it will get done) far outweigh the possible psychological down sides of one bad or missed session. I agree with the larger point that it is important to realise that an overly ambitious writing schedule can set one up for failure, but that is a different problem from a daily writing habit.
    Thanks for the work you do here.

  32. Malloy says:

    great post and very helpful for me to keep in mind as I am working on several different projects during a month long trip to CA. my schedule (and location) are different almost every day, so I’m trying my best to find time to “wire in” and get as much productive, deep work done as possible. here’s the latest update from my trip:
    http://wiki.waveborn.com/skim-sessions/2013-01-17

  33. Eugene says:

    Thanks for the stimulating post, Cal. It helped me to make sense of my own experience–my plan has to be realistic enough for my mind to buy in, otherwise, I’ll just be subjecting myself to self-criticism, leading to decreased motivation.

    But I do believe hard scheduling can be useful as a way to free yourself from making decisions. The key is to have some sort of plan or schedule, daily or flexible, to free yourself from deciding on what to work on at any given time.

  34. Aisha says:

    Great idea. Reminds me of Stephen Covey’s Time Management Style from the book on 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit 3 – Put First Things First

  35. Erin says:

    This is EXCELLENT advice. I’m developing a talk on finding one’s own writing rhythm and I plan to include the URL for this post in the materials I hand out. Great stuff.

  36. Laurie says:

    Very interesting post. I am near completion of my first novel and an MFA in fiction writing, so of course I’ve heard repeatedly that I should write every day. This is often not possible, as you pointed out. However, the reason the habit was recommended to me wasn’t about motivation. It was because when you write every day, you keep the story at the front of your consciousness, so your brain mind is more likely to keep working on the story even when you’re not at the computer. These are the ideas you get in the shower or driving (or at 3 a.m. when you don’t have a notebook handy). Also, and I wish I could remember which textbook had this — ideas come during the act of writing that wouldn’t otherwise, so if you’re just writing a chapter and throwing it in a drawer like I did for many years, the story’s not going to come. So there’s something to writing every day from the creative standpoint. You make a good point about motivation and practicality, so doing as you say and just getting in the time each week the best we can is the way to go.

  37. This is the reason that we should live by policies/principles rather than rules…rules are easily broken. Policies are more broad and provide guardrails so that we stay on the road, accommodating the changes in our lives.

  38. Personally, there’s no right or wrong way here. I’m a professional writer and I don’t stick to a rigid schedule. I attempt to write everyday as I have time, but remain flexible with my schedule. It’s whatever works for you, your personality, and your life.

  39. Abi says:

    Write something everything day may a good way to keep the writing muscle in good shape, be it be a chunk of prose or simply a list of ideas – at least you’ve visited the page.
    When I’m writing to deadlines (as a professional writer) I have very rigid schedules with fixed word counts per day. If I’m between commissions or developing a new idea then I have to be more flexible or my brain just won’t play ball, it simply sulks and won’t join in.

    I am currently enjoying So Good They Can’t Ignore You.
    Most TV drama writers starting out harbour the desire to have their own authored show – which I read as a ‘mission’ in the chapter on Missions Require Capital. But rather than gain career capital, acting small aiming to work at the cutting edge (of TV drama) wherein they can find the next big idea (authored series) in the adjacent possible – they have a vague mission (my own series about X) without the asset of being exposed to the adjacent possible where innovative and successful series are born (my experience is of the UK industry).

    As for ‘NaNoWriMo’ – I did the equivalent ‘Script Frenzy’ with a script idea I’d had on paper for years but could never kick start into writing up. It worked, I wrote scenes everyday and completed the script – but the bulk of the creative work had been done years before with biro in notebook. I wouldn’t recommend doing NaNoWriMo without a ton of pre-planning.

  40. I’m a psychologist and a writer and so much of what you wrote rings true for me. I actually did NaNoWriMo and loved it, but I did not write every single day. I didn’t write every day when I had my book publishing deadline either. I think it isn’t just that we’re not sold on the idea of writing; it’s that we know rigidity is stupid. As soon as we commit to doing something according to some inane rule, there’s a wise part of us that says, “Forget it!” My days are so full that I’m very resistant to doing anything else every day. Great post for fellow rebels. :-)

  41. Tyler says:

    I think this post is almost there, but it just needs some clarification. While I believe the act of writing every day, isolated from everything else, is beneficial, this is more as a bi-product of your doing the work of a writer. The issue I have with this piece of advice is that it focuses too much on the act and not on the results. Going by just the statement “write every day,” I could easily accomplish this by opening up Word and typing nonsense for ten minutes. Hammer out some nonsensical sentences, bam, I’m done. I could maybe even get it published. But when people say “write every day” they never just mean that, do they? What they mean is “write in a way that advances whatever your goals may be every day.” Which is sound advice, as long as writing every day is something that itself furthers your goals, or at the very least doesn’t interfere with them.

    I’m an artist, and in the art industry we have a similar piece of advice. “Draw every day.” I’m currently employed full-time as an artist, doing pretty well in my career, and honestly I’ve never followed through with that bit of advice. There would be times I would try, but it would always boil down to me focusing on the act of drawing and not as much on why exactly I was drawing every day, or what exactly I was supposed to be drawing. It wasn’t until I let go of all that and started setting specific goals for myself that my motivation kicked into high gear. I’d set up challenges for myself, give myself certain parts of human anatomy to learn, study the great masters, devour art books and lectures, you name it. Since I was focused on what I was getting out of it and not the actual act itself, I grew, I completed my goals, and my motivation stayed in check. I could comprehend what I was doing and not get lost by the vague goal of “drawing every day.”

    I had a music teacher once who gave me a better piece of advice: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. If all you do is practice mindlessly, you’ll wind up with bad habits and then have to work harder to break out of them.” By focusing on specific things, I wound up with some pretty awesome habits, and avoided a lot of the common pitfalls you get when taking on a creative endeavor.

    In summary, while I think the act of “writing every day” is sound, I think it should be more of a side effect of your actual goals and endeavors. Whether you’re just starting out and learning to write or tackling your next great American horror novel, you should be focused on the specific challenges you’re facing and not just on whether or not you wrote that day. If things get busy, you’d much rather be saying “Damn, I didn’t figure out the backstory for Sam the cyborg assassin” than it is to say “Damn, I didn’t write at all today.” In the former, you can easily rectify that; it’s a specific thing that you can sit down right then and tackle. The latter is a vague statement that, if failed, calls into question your ability to stick this whole writing thing out. Set specific goals for yourself, follow through on those, and don’t sweat anything else.

  42. Daniel says:

    I really liked this post and I must admit that I agree with it. I do try to write to a rigid timeline but now I feel that it may be better to be more flexible. Spending more time when I have time and good ideas is better than forcing myself to write when i don’t have time.

  43. A daring post; that’s the second Goliath you have taken on recently (David Allen and then Stephen King!) One thing that did occur was that perhaps the most successful students I know (medical students) do tend to stick to pretty rigid schedules. One of my friends has gotten up at six in the morning, every morning (Christmas, New Year, the day after exams etc) for the last three years in order to use Anki for an hour, and that is all the studying he does for medical school. I have always thought his ascetic-like devotion was admirable if hard to replicate for us mere mortals; it is good to have a successful academic like yourself saying that as long as the focus is there, it is okay to have ebbs and flows, as life gets in the way. A great post!

  44. Rob Haskins says:

    Personally, I cannot write to demand, for me it is the rigidity of the thing. I have noticed the more creative the person the more rigidity repells

  45. I was writing every day for a year, and now I’m just comming back to care about my website after 2 months not even looking at it as I burned out.

  46. Maddy says:

    I think this depends on your personality. For the choice-averse, having a set time every day works nicely. I wake up every morning and work in a coffee shop from 7-9 am, before anything else goes on, and only work on a project I care deeply about. Have been doing this for almost a year now and it’s worked brilliantly.

  47. Kynan Brown says:

    Dear Cal,

    When I read this, I agreed under certain circumstances, but I think we could break this problem down into two situations.

    1. Honing a Craft – As you have previously pointed out, longterm improvements in many crafts come through consistent and deliberate practice, with hard focus. To me, this seems to vindicate the “write every day” advice.

    2. Completing an Ambitious Project – As you aptly point out in this article, daily deliberate practice of one’s craft is not necessarily the best strategy for completing an ambitious project. Where projects are concerned, it may be better to realistically assess how much one can complete on any given day, strategically breaking down the week.

    However: I have a feeling these two approaches can support each other. If you are dedicated to daily deliberate practice of a craft, then you stick to it through the ups and downs, which allows you to stay on your game and keep reaching new personal standards. This way, when you are working on an ambitious project, your practice pays off in the quality of the project, but the time you spend hammering out that project work may be separate from your unwavering daily deliberate practice time.

    Thank you for your continually thoughtful postings.

    Kynan Brown
    Thimphu, Bhutan

  48. It’s ironic to read your blog the day after I was thinking about this very topic! I’ve been writing every day during the week for the last few months and am feeling burnt out. I started writing full-time last year to follow my passion and make a career out of it, yet was feeling just as stressed – even working from home. After reading your post, I am convinced that the decision I made yesterday to stop writing every day is the right one. I’m not fitting everything in. Especially if you write online, you need to keep up with social media, networking, research, reading, etc. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I’m changing the way I write from next week, and am excited. It’s been a while since I’ve woken up happy to be writing, and that’s what it’s all about – for me anyway. Thanks so much for the great advice here!

  49. Stacy Harris says:

    This is very interesting. For me personally, I find that I have to write almost everyday… sometimes I take off on the weekends to give myself a break. But when I don’t write, I find it hard to get back into it. I write on the fly and squeeze it in when I can. Since I stay home with my kids, I get a lot of interruptions. I tried sticking to a schedule and I just can’t seem to get anything done. But, if I make a To Do list – I find I can do almost anything! :)

  50. Vincent N says:

    Great points Cal. There definitely is something about overdoing the writing. I seem to work much better when it is something that just happens. The only daily writing I subject myself to that I find healthy is a daily journal that is totally open without a prompt to follow. There’s no deadline I have to meet but it’s just something for myself.

  51. Ted says:

    Hi Cal,
    While I can appreciate your opinion, I have to respectfully disagree.
    Although I do think that writing, and the approach to how to get it done, is very individualistic, I feel that all writers, and especially those that are not full time professional writers, benefit from having a set schedule and a word count to strive for every day.
    I wrote a book a few years back by waking up one hour earlier each morning and getting two pages a day for almost a year. Sure there were days that it didn’t happen, but guess what? The next day I tried for 4 pages.
    I think it all comes down to determination. I wanted that book very badly and got out of bed at 4 AM to write it.
    I really enjoyed reading your article.
    Thanks!

  52. This is great advice! I especially liked this when you were unmotivated to write.

    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.

    That really works in any goal setting practice. If you want to BE something, go see how someone who IS something got there. Don’t worry about becoming NICHE and DIFFERENT right away, as you progress, you’ll naturally throw your own flare to your pursuit and you WILL BE DIFFERENT! :)

  53. Graham Linehan (Father Ted, IT Crowd) says that he doesn’t start writing until he absolutely has to, when there’s nowhere else to go but to the page. It’s pretty good advice, and should eliminate writers block. Collect as much info and research as you can before you start and you can’t go wrong. The amount of work you release into the world may be less, but it’ll be better.

  54. JHersh says:

    Cal–

    This is a quite interesting post, and the comments are very good. From my perspective, I think as with many things in life, it is discipline-dependent. So Comp Sci will be different than math, than chemistry, etc.

  55. Janne says:

    Unrelated to the post, which was really insightful, thank you – What do you think of the Cornell Notetaking System? :)

  56. Bonnie Jay says:

    One thing I notice is that most of the people who recommend writing every day are fiction authors (and not just the ones you’ve quoted, there are many others). I also notice that you seem to be writing non-fiction exclusively.

    Since different types of writers seem to have different processes, I wonder if perhaps non-fiction authors might find your approach more workable? Any fiction authors out there who find that writing everyday kills their motivation?

  57. Luke Murray says:

    I agree with Cal’s point, but I don’t think that the advice “write every day” is necessarily a bad idea. To explain, let me touch on how triathletes train.

    Triathlons start with a swim, then a bike ride, then finish with a run. So, obviously, in order to win you have to be really good at all three, and in order to improve it is of course tempting to work on all three at once. Triathletes don’t do this…kinda.

    In order to improve your performance in triathlon you pick one of the sports and focus on it, perhaps for a week, a month, or several months. THAT is what your focus is and what you are consistently (probably daily) working on improving. However, if you ignore the other sports while focusing on this one, your ability in that one will slip to a degree that it costs you several weeks just to get it back to baseline.

    Enter “maintenance mode”.

    This is seen as the minimum amount of involvement with a sport necessary to keep it at its current level, or to at least significantly reduce its rate of decline. This might mean hopping into the pool only 1-2 times/wk just to keep your form from deteriorating and riding your bike for an hour on the weekends to keep some of those bike specific muscles from “forgetting”, just so you can focus on running 10 miles a day. Then, when you’ve got your running up to an acceptable level, you switch it into “maintenance mode” and focus on actively improving some other aspect of your game. I got an email from a triathlete that’s in the top 1% (finished the Boston Marathon in the top 100 overall) and he told me “ I alternate weeks between hard bike, hard run, recovery week.  So, bike weeks, no really hard running, and vice versa.” So, I promise, it’s how things get done by those that are “so good I can’t ignore them”.

    This method not only keeps you from being overwhelmed with working out all the time, it actually helps you get better faster because your body has a sufficient amount of recovery time.

    But the benefit that speaks to how I’d provide a more nuanced interpretation of Cal’s post is that you’re always still doing all three sports every week and this, more than anything, serves as a mental & emotional confidence booster. No, your swimming hasn’t probably improved much in the last 4 weeks, but at least you haven’t a) burned out because you are training at three sports daily and b) avoided the pool altogether, thus creating the cognitive dissonance that Cal talked about in this post.

    So while I think it’s true that you shouldn’t set a goal like “write 1,000 words per day”, I do think a goal like “write every day” is a good one. Yes, definitely take Cal’s advice and calibrate your expectations on a week-by-week or day-by-day basis. But if you look at a week and decide that you don’t have time for ANY writing, you might get away from it long enough that you feel intimidated to begin again that next weekend. So put it in maintenance mode. Set the goal as low as “write one hundred words”, or even ONE SENTENCE per day for that week.

    Like in triathlon training, this version, at least to some degree, slows the decline of your writing quality. But more importantly, it gives you the feeling of momentum & consistency that ensures that even if your writing takes up 2 minutes of your day for awhile, instead of the 2 hour goal you previously set, you are still succeeding at “writing every day”. It just becomes a matter of how much you write and not if you write at all. And consistency, I would argue, is massively more important to eventual output, than the quantity of any day’s worth, or even month’s worth, of writing (or working out).

  58. writerwrite says:

    “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.”

    Not really. Sounds like excuse – you can spend 30 minutes writing every day. You WILL find time. The average American spends 3.5 per day watching TV.

    It boils down to excuses.

    Oh yeah – I wrote 650k thousands last year. And no, I’m not a full time author.

    When push comes to shove, most people would rather backward rationalize and make excuse rather then do sit down and do the work.

  59. Debora Marchak says:

    This piece is written as if you had the formula for successful writing, when in reality it is no more than your own way of getting things done.

    Writing x words every day is more related to the creation of habit and behavior, and has much less to do with creativity rushes or the motivation itself for actually attaining your goal.

    I have a very creative (in my opinion, as I am proud of it) and successful way to write. It helps me with my papers, with the Thesis, research proposals and more; both during my PhD and now the Postdoc. Here it goes:
    0) Do the research. I am not going to help you with this one right now.

    1) Record yourself telling all you know about the subject. As if you were answering a friend’s questions: what is it that you do during this project? Why do you it? What is so special? If it is creative writing then this is more or less the whole plot. Let yourself go, fill in as much detail as you can.

    2) Prepare an overview and make it as visual as you can. In fact, you may have a number of goes on this one. For example: a simple list-overview, a flow chart-overview, plots/figures/drawings-overview. Imagine you are playing with the project as if it was a 3D object and you are observing from different directions to see how it looks.

    3) Write initial sentences or paragraphs for each section on paper, by hand! I mean… close the computer, sit somewhere nice and just throw sentences which express what should be written in each section in general terms WITHOUT ANY JUDGEMENT. Do not worry if it is not backed up by a reference yet or if you cannot explain it scientifically enough. Trust your intuition and fill in.

    4) Open your computer, start writing. Yes, commit yourself to do the job. The rate at which you write is very individual. However, in my experience, once you have chewed the material (as you should have if you went over steps 0 to 3…) the flow comes along.

    Well. I hope I helped.

    Deb.

  60. writeaddict says:

    The way I see it, writing is like going to the gym: either you exercise in the gym, or you don’t. Of course, humans are naturally lazy, so why bother writing when you can watch TV or go on youtube?

    Personally I write every day, because I see it as practice. The more you practice, the better you come (just like sex?)

    In the end, it’s about saying **** you to excuses and sitting down and getting the work done.

  61. Mister Rez says:

    Great article and I’ll take the chance to say that I just recently found your blog and it has been the only one where in 1 day I’ve avidly ready 30+ articles and saved them to study more deeply. The amount of insight here is fantastic.

    That said, I believe this is similar to the notion that to accomplish your goals you should announce them to someone. In this case making a rigorous schedule is like announcing it to yourself as an external person.

    For me, either case makes me demotivated. For some reason, telling someone what I’m going to do makes me not go through it. Also telling myself that I’m going to start following a certain pattern to make everything work ends up derailing as well.

    Up until now the most productive moments I’ve had were the ones where I didn’t decide to commit to something and stayed in that fine line between externalizing what I was doing both to someone and to myself.

    What do you think about that concept of externalizing your goals as a possible means of failure?

  62. Kynan Brown says:

    Just adding to my earlier comment on this article:

    It seems like there are two points of view on this subject.

    1) Regular deliberate practice is important to being a good writer. (People arguing this point seem to miss the point of the article — Cal is speaking specifically of finite and challenging projects, not one’s daily “practice”.)

    2) Getting ambitious projects done requires a flexible approach to one’s schedule, fitting in the requisite high-quality working hours wherever one can manage.

    Kynan Brown
    Thimphu, Bhutan

  63. Daniel says:

    Cal, can you send me research that supports this? This is intuitively compelling so I’m curious to follow up – does good research exist to ground these statements?

  64. Jim Stone says:

    Cal, you had me worried at first! I’ve been writing/coding for the first 2-3 hours of every day about 6 (and often 7) days a week for years. For some reason it works for me.

    I was worried you were going to tell me to stop :)

    Since your main problem is that people are unlikely to establish such a habit, and, since my habit is obviously already established, I take it I should continue one business as usual!

  65. Kristine Weite says:

    Thank You Thank You Thank You….I have for(don’t laugh) 8 years had a story in my head that has been doing it’s best to drive me mad in the attempt to put it’s self on paper. Not having the time to deal with it I kept it toned to a whisper by placing parts of it in a journal. I now have the time to start thinking about writing it and ….Uh Oh…where in gods name did all my words go? So to say the least the last month has been some twisted version of hell but, I am up every morning at 4:30 to put as many words as possible on paper (at this point that is not much). I am happy to read that perhaps I should relax and that doing so will not kill the story.
    thanks again.

  66. I’m quoting this post for my inspirational blog. I’m a psychologist and I love studying productivity. Thanks for a great post.

  67. Nordlys says:

    So i should not worry If I don’t write every day.
    I can draw every day without any problem, but writing is hard, I go from 2200+ pages at day to 0 page at days

  68. Hello World says:

    Not all brains are made the same, I think there is no solution adapted for all types of brains, otherwise you should test and see the results.

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