Why you should spend LESS time writing

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

I know it might seem unreasonable that you should be spending less time writing (particularly if you’re a procrastinator) but read on to learn why I offer this counterintuitive advice… 

I meet with clients every week who confess they don’t spend nearly enough time writing. They’re usually embarrassed and ashamed to share this news. When I ask them to tell me how much time they’d like to spend, they’ll usually say something like, “at least an hour a day.” (Or, if they’re graduate students, they might say “at least five hours a day.”)

Many of these writers — particularly the grad students — will essentially shut down their lives to try to finish their writing. They’ll say no to parties and social events. They’ll stop their hobbies and time with friends. Some of them — the extra diligent, and extra unwise, ones — will even stop exercising.

If this sounds like you, here’s my strange, counterintuitive recommendation: Spend less time writing.

You may think I’ve lost my mind, but here’s why this suggestion makes sense:

  • Writing always expands to fulfill available time. Also known as Parkinson’s Law, this principle means that if you give yourself a large amount of time for writing you will need all of it. The rule applies to all areas of life, including house-cleaning and project-management, but it’s a particularly acute issue for writers. If you give yourself six hours to complete what should have been a two-hour writing project, I guarantee you will use every minute. Conversely, if you challenge yourself to write in a shorter amount of time — even an unreasonably short amount — you’ll likely get the work done in the abbreviated time frame. Think, for example, about how much work you can achieve when you’re getting ready to go on a vacation. Most of us become marvellously efficient under those circumstances.
  • It’s impossible to write a superb first draft, anyway. I know many people think that prolific writers such as Seth Godin, Stephen King and Alice Munro, have liquid gold flowing from their fingertips. In fact, they’re just like everyone else. They write crappy first drafts too, and then edit them into excellence. The secret to good writing is not in the writing, it’s in the editing. Don’t waste your time trying to produce a fine first draft. Instead get your first draft down as quickly as possible and devote more time to the really important work: editing it.
  • Spending too much time on writing takes away time to do the other things that feed your work. Writing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It comes from your life. And if you don’t let yourself have a life — because you’re so concerned about finishing your writing — your ability to do work will decline and your writing will suffer as well. I’m a long-time fan of productivity expert Chris Bailey and in 2014 he did a fascinating experiment in which he worked 90-hour weeks for a month. Here’s a summary of his argument, in his own words: “Working long hours pushes you to procrastinate more, work less efficiently, and causes you to get less done, usually without you realizing it. When I was working 90-hour weeks, I got a lot done, but only during the first few days of the week; after that I didn’t have the time or mental space to recharge, so my productivity practically fell off a cliff.” Don’t imagine that working more hours is going to save you. If you don’t have the time to read books, see movies, listen to music, go for walks, get exercise, visit with friends, then you won’t have the bandwidth to write. Here is Chris’s entire post, if you’d like to read it.
  • Our creative brain is reluctant and easily tired. When we write, we should use the creative part of our brain, rather than the linear, logical part. But here’s the deal: our creative brain is a shy cousin who needs to feel incredibly welcomed and comfortable before she’s willing to play. And even then, she can play for only a short time before she becomes too tired. Don’t expect your creative brain to be available for too long.
  • Spending more time writing only makes writing painful. And who wants to do something that hurts? If you can develop the habit of spewing out your first draft as quickly as possible, you won’t be stopping to correct grammar, fix spelling and find missing bits of info with more research. If you write slowly, however, doing all of these tasks will likely become irresistible. And before you know it, you’ll start to convince yourself that producing a fast first draft isn’t such a good idea after all.

Putting in more time writing sounds like a strategy that should always pay off. Instead, the “more time” strategy works only for editing — and, even then, you should be mindful of not exhausting yourself.

Instead of being profligate with your writing time, safeguard it and spend it only in small, regular amounts. The secret is to write daily so that it becomes no big deal, just something you do without thinking, like brushing your teeth or making your bed.

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on my blog March 10/15.

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If you’re trying to write a book or a thesis/dissertation, this week is your last chance to register for Get It Done starting Oct. 1. This highly effective accountability program will hold your feet to the fire by expecting you to write every day, five days a week. Application deadline is Sept. 26. Learn more or apply here.

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My video podcast last week described how to deal with rejection. Or, see the transcript,  and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Do you ever spend too much time writing? How do you deal with the issue? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/18  will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.