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Deep Habits: Spend Three Months On Important Projects


A Productive King

In 2013, during a period of only three months, Stephen King published two full-length novels: Joyland and Doctor Sleep. This is unusually productive, even for a writer whose published fifty-five novels in his career (and sold over 350 million copies along the way).

Perhaps to celebrate this pinnacle of systematic wordsmithing, the Barnes & Noble book blog published a list of twenty tips extracted from King’s 2000 professional memoir, On Writing.

Nestled half way through this list was a piece of advice that caught my attention:

“The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

This tip resonates with my experience well beyond just book writing. Things worth doing take time, but if they take too much time your intensity might begin to wane to unproductive levels.

A period of three months seems just about right to hit that sweet spot where you’re accumulating enough deep work to produce something remarkable, but not so much time that your attention begins to diffuse.

(You might be wondering, of course, whether this advice conflicts with my veneration of the multi-year, Steve Martin-style diligent pursuit of becoming too good to be ignored. The expository difference here is that King is talking about a specific project, such as finishing a draft of a book manuscript, whereas my above-mentioned veneration refers to the honing of a craft over many different projects, like Martin’s quest to revolutionize comedy.)

To conclude, there’s nothing magic about three months — some important projects take more time and others take less. But the sentiment driving this advice is crucial.

Focus on things that take enough time to matter, but don’t let their importance dilute your obsessive drive to get something done.

18 thoughts on “Deep Habits: Spend Three Months On Important Projects”

  1. Excellent post Cal. I appreciate
    (1) The reminder: Stephen King’s great book – On Writing.
    (2) The resource: A list of twenty tips.
    (3) The distinction: “Honing a Craft” over many decades verses the concentration and self-imposed deadlines required for a specific project.

    Deadlines inspire creativity, improve quality, and demand solutions.

  2. It should increase productivity because you will be minimizing distractions. Excellent post and very timely. This methodology can be applied to all aspects of life.

  3. On Writing – awesome book. I believe he also talks about his writing space which has a non-Internet connected computer that only runs a word processor. I believe he spends 3 hours a day writing. 3 hours a day and 3 months to get to a first draft.

    Should a first draft of a PhD dissertation take 3 months?

    • absolutely!

      I wrote the first, second and pre-final version in only three months. Of course, this period came after all research was done, partly in published articles, partly in draft articles.

      If you think your first draft needs more than three months, you’ll not cutting up the work sufficiently in separate projects. Take one chapter/article at a time and give yourself a few months for it. And in the end you can give yourself a few months to write a consistent overview/bookform of all this work. Otherwise you’ll might get stuck forever in the “nearly finished-phase”

    • I’ll repeat common advice: start writing early. That will guide your research by highlighting glaring holes that need to be addressed. Those holes will appear in the most surprising places at times so it’s better to just write the quick draft and take a look. Whether addressing holes will count as writing up or doing research is a question for bean counters–it’s important work that needs to be done so do it now rather than later.

  4. Hey Cal, this was a nice post, but I would ask you about something that you advised in an earlier post and this seems to me that it contradicts it.

    I am taking the example of writing the first draft of a book: In this post you said that if you are not a full-time writer, then trying to write everyday seems like an impossible to-do task, so you labeled it as a bad advice and recommended to write not so frequently. And now on this post you are saying that 3 months are sufficient to finish an important project. If we are not writing everyday, but we have only 3 months time writing the book, it seems like an implausible task to finish, though.

    Can you please reply and help me get out of this confusion?

    • When I said “write every day” was bad advice, I didn’t mean to imply that you should write much less. I was instead arguing that strict rules are not a good idea if you cannot expect to comply with them for any extended amount of time. When working on a book, for example, I write a lot, but I don’t have a rule about exactly which days I should be writing.

      • I agree with the not-so-rigit approach. I’ve read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art recently and Pressfield suggests that the best way of dealing with any kind of procrastination, or broadly speaking resistance is to ‘turn pro’. And that’s basically about treating your creative activities like a job, so turn up every day, stay on the job all day, etc. The thing is, we don’t really go to work every day – there are days we have off (weekends), we get sick and have holidays. But I think as long as we treat *it* (eg. writing) seriously, eg like a career, we should do it the way we would do any other job should we be ‘formally employed’.

  5. I just read that Christopher Nolan one of the biggest (if not the biggest) director in the world right now doesn’t have a cell phone or email address. This is a quote below

    “A lot of the things people amuse themselves with really are just toys for grown-ups, and it eats your time and pulls your concentration,” he said. “The idea that you’re holding in your hand a device that will actually let you speak to another human being and instead of using it for that, you type some silly little message and send a one-way communication — it’s a very odd step backwards in communication terms.”

    When I randomly came across this I instantly thought of your blog Cal.

    • A PhD program is not a single project. The “three month rule” is referencing discrete projects, like penning a draft of a novel, or, in a PhD setting, writing an academic paper or thesis proposal.

  6. Stephen King is an incredibly talented author which is why such a high percentage of what he writes has been published by a major publisher and why publishing companies are foaming at the mouth to get their hands on his material. But in terms of productivity I’m not personally convinced.

    To be honest, society really should demand far more productivity. We really should not be all that impressed by Stephen King’s productivity, especially nowadays. The sad truth is most people, even many of those thought of as “highly productive” are actually incredibly unproductive compared to their capabilities. I think Stephen King is the perfect example.

    Virtually anyone could learn to type at a rate of 40 words per minute with very little work, and possibly far more with the right teaching and the right strategies. Many people can type at twice that rate, and very uncommon individuals can type at 3 times that rate. Getting to be efficient enough to think of creative content and still maintain that rate of typing for a full hour is a much larger challenge, but it is still within the bounds of human potential.

    Additionally, speech to text technology could create even a greater rate of productivity. A typical audiobook is spoken at a rate of around 150-160 words per minute while an auctioneer could easily speak at 250 words per minute. So leveraging technology they could create phenomenal levels of productivity.

    Now simply being able to maintain a speed of a particular number of words per minute isn’t the same as being able to write creatively and flawlessly, and some materials may be erased entirely. So let’s say they publish at only 20 words per minute. That is only running at 50% efficiency of the typical capacity of fairly average “typists”. But at this rate, how many minutes of actual typing would it take to publish two 75,000 word novels at that rate? 150,000/20=3750 minutes 3750/60=62.5 hours. The average person spends over 4 hours per day watching TV. If that time was used towards writing instead at a rate of 20WPM, they should be able to publish 2 novels in just 62.5hours/4=15 working days.

    Even if you had to rewrite your material twice after edits and it took twice that time, you still would be able to accomplish in a month what Stephen King accomplished in one of his more productive years in terms of production while treating it like a casual hobby, like watching tv. At that paced sustained over a 30 year writing “hobby”, someone could produce 2 a month or 720 books and put Stephen King to shame.


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