What’s ideal for writing session length? (video)

Viewing time: 4 mins. 25 secs.

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of issue #87,  which addresses a question about ideal writing session length. The post first ran on March 1/19.


Welcome to The Write Question. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant and my topic today is about how long a writing session should be.

I have a question from Michael Kovács, a writer based in Toronto, Ontario. Here’s what he’s asked:

“How long should a writing session be? Is longer better or does productivity go down the more you keep at it?”

Thanks for your question, Michael. I think you may have guessed that my first answer to your question is going to be: there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Every person is different, and it’s impossible for me to give you some specific numbers.

But you’ve raised such an interesting issue, I’d like to take the chance to explore it in a little more detail.

First, let me tell you what social scientists say about work in general. Back in 2014, the Atlantic magazine published an article with the intriguing headline “A Formula for Perfect Productivity: Work for 52 Minutes, Break for 17. Link below.

Among other points, the piece said: “The brain is a muscle that, like every muscle, tires from repeated stress.” It concluded that, “more hours doesn’t mean better work. Rather, like a runner flagging after a few miles, our ability to perform tasks has diminishing returns over time. We need breaks strategically served between our work sessions.” 

The article revealed that an experiment by the Draugiem Group — a social networking company — found the highest-performing 10 percent of employees tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. See my link to the study below.

But hold on just a second, before you try to write for 52 consecutive minutes. Exactly the same principle doesn’t apply to writing because writing differs from other types of work. Why? Writing requires conditioning!

Writing has much more in common with physical exercise than it does with other types of work. So, for example, if you’ve developed the habit of running 2 km, then you might be able to stretch yourself to 2.5 km. But you won’t be able to jump up to 10 km overnight. You need to train yourself to get to that distance.

Similarly, if you’ve developed the habit of writing for 15 minutes a day then maybe you can increase that total to 16 or 17 minutes. But you’re not going to ready to write for 60 minutes. Yet! Work yourself up gradually, over time, to be able to hit that bigger number. It’s not just a case of deciding to write. It’s also a case of training yourself to be able to do it.

Here’s what I find: Many people like to latch onto a nice big round number, like 60 minutes and tell me that’s the amount of time they’re going to devote to writing each day.

When people tell me that, I usually predict they’re going to fail.

Here’s what I suggest instead: Always start small. In fact, make your goal so small there’s NO QUESTION that you’re going to be able to do it every single day. This will make your goal far easier to achieve, which will allow you to build a habit of success. This is going to make you feel great about yourself, which, in turn, will further increase your odds of succeeding.

The basic message, Michael is that if you still want to aim for that 52-minute time commitment, then you need to build yourself up to it, gradually.

Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from American psychologist Martha Beck: “Find a tiny turtle step that you can take every day. Try ten minutes. What you write can be stupid and horrible—in fact, put at the top of the page “This is stupid and horrible”—but do it.

Thanks for the question, Michael! And if 10 minutes feels like too much time to you, understand that it’s also A-OK to start with just five minutes. The whole idea is to get started and then keep doing it, day after day.


A Formula for Perfect Productivity: Work for 52 Minutes, Break for 17 (Atlantic Magazine) 

Draugiem Group study

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