Working like a writer

Ashutosh Priyadarshy author headshot

Ashutosh Priyadarshy, CEO @ Sunsama
October 27, 2020

We are endlessly fascinated with the working habits of writers and creatives. Even though there's a chasm between the work of a fiction writer and that of a product manager there's a lot we can learn about working well from writers. I read 277 interviews with writers about how they work and found it to be a fertile ground for examining how we might work better as we attempt to produce creative and intellectually demanding work, all while working in solitude [1].

Children are a focus superpower?

Child care routines force writers to work diligently and focus rapidly regardless of the external environment. Initially, I found it counterintuitive that writers would feel more productive with more responsibility and less time. But this phenomenon is a corollary of Parkinson's Law, which says work expands to fill the time that's allocated for it. When the time allocated for writing shrinks, the authors compensated through additional diligence, focus, and disinterest in non-essential tasks.

“The daily writing process right now is shaped around the school day because I’m a parent, so my son goes to school and I write when he’s at school. I basically have six hours to get all my work done, and then I go get him. That’s made me be much more disciplined—I get up, I have breakfast, I have a cup of tea, and then I sit down at my desk and try to get something done. I usually try to read over what I did the day before. Usually that’s enough to trick myself into continuing. And I try to at least look at it every day even if I don’t write something.”Celeste Ng

“It’s now driven by when I have child-free time. In a way I’ve found that’s really good for me. I’m a more productive writer than when I had whole days to mess about and put it off."Liane Moriarty

“But I find picking up the kids really concentrates the mind. The fact that I have to squeeze writing into a certain number of hours tends to concentrate the mind."Ruth Ware

Stretches of child-free time feel precious because their end is palpably close. With just a few available hours, it's hard to feel the "whole day ahead of you" and work passively. The feeling of having "the whole day ahead" creates the same passivity as the feeling of having "your whole life ahead of you". It's hard to memento mori, and live accordingly, if you don't know when the end point is.

Authors with children consistently mention getting right to it rather than spending time warming up to the day with email, walks, and elaborate breakfast routines. Interestingly, they don't mention any reduction in output or subjective well-being. Instead of searching for more time, they opt to be more economical with the time they have by cutting out non-essential activities.

"Then I had my daughter, and as you know, life changes. I started working whenever she would go down for a nap. I wrote longhand in spiral-bound notebooks. I would go to McDonald’s playland and let her play, and I would write." — Laurel K Hamilton

Another side effect of limited time that a number of authors mentioned is that they become less "precious" about their working environment or tools. Instead, they make do with whatever time, space, or tools they have at hand. Their ability to be in "work mode" becomes an internal psychological state they can summon at will regardless of external circumstances.

Set working hours

The magic of a child's school schedule is that it's truly inflexible. If you don't have kids, try setting non-negotiable work hours for yourself. Holding yourself to a set schedule will help you realize your time to work each day is limited. If you struggle to hold yourself accountable to this schedule, consider scheduling an exercise class, hobby, or shared meal to end your work day.

Time-box your work

We tend to work more passively when there isn't a deadline or specified end time in sight. Giving yourself a fixed amount of time to work on a certain task forces you to work more economically.

Plan work to be near capacity

Just as work finds a way to fill all the available time, your diligence and focus tends to find a way to meet the challenge of shrinking time. Use Parkinson's Law to your advantage by picking a challenging but feasible set of tasks to complete for the day.

If you want to work right at the limits of your capacity, Try this: estimate how long you'll spend on each task, then plan to do the ones that get you to about 90% of your working hours. So if you work a traditional eight hour day, plan to do approximately seven hours of work.

Experiment with Parenthood...?

If you can't focus after setting working hours, time-boxing, or working near capacity, then you might want to just try parenthood!

Ramping up to flow state

In order to get into a flow, writers are deliberate about how they start and stop working each day.

"I start the day by rewriting what I wrote the day before and then continue, so I pick up the tone and the emotion, so I’m back in" — Janet Fitch

A number of writers mentioned rereading or rewriting their previous day's work to get back into the flow of writing. This works because of a mental process called associative action: "ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas, in a spreading cascade of activity in your brain" [2]. When you review yesterday's work, you'll prime your brain and kick off associate action. Once primed, your brain involuntarily starts generating related ideas, making picking up where you left off a lot easier.

"When I’m writing at full speed (when the research is done and I’m tooling along), I will always stop at a point where I can pick up very readily the next day. That means I will stop in mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, even though I know that I can write another page that day. I will stop because then the next morning when I wake up, I know exactly what I have to do. I know that as soon as I sit down with that coffee and that Oreo cookie, I will become productive. All I’ve got to do is finish that sentence and I’m on a roll. But I also have come to trust that because the human brain is such an amazing thing, if you leave a sentence or a paragraph unfinished, your brain quietly, without you being aware of it, will be struggling to finish that sentence or that paragraph for the next 24 hours. That’s the way the brain works. So not only do you sit down and finish your sentence, but you probably have a pretty good idea suddenly of where the next two, three, four, five pages are going to go. And I find that very useful and very powerful." — Erik Larson

Erik Larson takes this a step further by using a stopping point that taps into the brain's ability to solve hard problems subconsciously. Paul Graham calls this the "top idea in your mind":

"Everyone who's worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly."

These strategies for steering involuntary mental processes transfer well to any form of knowledge work.

Warm up

If you can, start your day by reviewing previous work related to today's task(s). For example, when I'm writing code, I always re-read my diffs from the day before. Or if I'm designing and implementing a new interface, I look over related feature requests from customers before opening Figma.

Seed your involuntary systems

As you end your work day, plan out what you're going to do tomorrow. Then spend a few minutes reviewing relevant materials to seed the "top idea in your mind" for when you return to work. And don't limit this to the end of the day! You can also seed your mind before lunch or any other breaks.

Digital distractions prime us

Associative activation describes how the brain works. Once primed, our minds think of associated ideas whether we want to or not. If your body is what you eat, your mind is what it sees, reads, and hears. Accepting that I'm not as in control of how my brain functions as I'd like to be pushes me to be more prudent with what I expose my mind to during working hours. Choose your digital consumption carefully.

Creative work is exhausting

Writers work the fewest hours in the early stages of a book. As ideas start taking tangible form, they're able to write for longer each day. And towards the end of a book, when they're editing and the work is less creative and more analytical, they're able to work longer hours.

“Nonfiction writers tend not to understand this; they can write for eighteen hours straight, it seems. At the very end of a book I can manage to work for longer stretches, but mostly, making stuff up for three hours, that’s enough. I can’t do any more. At the end of the day I might tinker with my morning’s work and maybe write some again. But I think three hours is fine. There are writers who go to the gym when they finish working, and there are writers who go to lunch. I’m enthusiastic about lunch. Three hours, then lunch.”Peter Carey

Carey articulates what so many authors often intimate but don't say outright when explaining why they only write a few hours each day — it's not the process of writing that's draining but the process of "making stuff up." He even imagines that non-fiction writers, who busy themselves in research, analysis, and synthesis of existing ideas are able to work for all their waking hours.

"It takes me a while to get engaged with a book. But when I’m really locked in, I’d be happy to go to jail and be in solitary confinement. I just want to get it done. I can do 12-hour days."Kate Atkinson

“It depends very much on what phase of the book I’m in. For the bulk of the writing I aim to write 1,000 words a day, about two pages, which sometimes I can achieve very easily and sometimes is much, much harder. I do rather force myself to keep going, even if the words are awful, which often they are. It’s then going to be easier to work with something than to work with nothing. A lot of my time is spent rewriting, which is much harder to quantify. It’s just a sense of doing a good day’s work and moving the book along, even if it’s just by a millimeter. The bulk of the writing is like a day job—Monday through Friday, 9 to 4:30. But then in the last few months of it, it becomes much more intense, and I’m writing on the weekends. I just keep my head down and get on with it. It’s a tiring phase, but it’s also an exciting phase because you feel the book is really coming together.” — Sarah Waters

"In the beginning stages I don’t know much about it. I’m doing a lot of research and thinking, but I write every single day, because if you don’t write, the inertia builds up. So you want to do it, whether you know anything or not. It’s sometimes only half a page, but words on page." — Diana Gabaldon

Momentum builds and the author's engagement with a book deepens as it progresses. Creative work accumulates. Each bit of progress comes easier as ideas and thoughts come to form. Writers know how hard the start of the creative process is. Instead of fighting it, they resign themselves to move their work forward "even if it's just by a millimeter" each day. Projects tend to get easier as they go, and work that requires less creative thinking tends to drain us less.

Work less, when it makes sense

When you plan your workday, take a close look at the type of work you need to do and set your plans accordingly. If your work that day is primarily administrative or routine, you might be able to crank for eight hours. If you are tasked with something more creative, however, consider putting in less hours that day. There's little to be gained from burning out.

Start with anything

The hardest part of a new project or creative endeavor is the beginning, even for professional writers. If you're feeling stuck, set aside thirty minutes each day to move the project forward "even if it's just a millimeter." The following week, try setting aside an hour each day. Repeat this process until you are fully immersed and it stops feeling like a chore.

Work reflects the qualities by which you work

Authors hold themselves to a high standard when they work because they believe that the manner in which they work reveals itself to their readers.

"I have a theory: If the writer is bored, the reader will be, too. If the writer is having a blast, and is 100 percent invested in and committed to his or her fictional world, the reader will be, too." — Karen Marie Moning

The suggestion that an author's state of mind and enthusiasm during the process of writing shapes the writing itself is profound: high quality work emerges from a reverence for the act of working itself. This reverence for the work creates a virtuous cycle:

"And people ask you things like, ”Does Twitter distract you while you’re working?" And of course the answer is, No, I run Twitter in the background all the time, but if I am going to be distracted by something like Twitter or by anything else that I could be doing instead of writing, that’s bad news. It’s got to be cut. Because if I’m not more interested in my writing than I am Twitter, you’re not going to be more interested in my writing than I am in Twitter. So that’s a completely standard benchmark."Nick Harkaway

Harkway's strategy to avoid digital distraction is a robust and sustainable one: care about your work to the point where you lose interest in distractions. Unfortunately, you can't flip a switch to become more excited about your work, but you can cultivate more interest over time.

Imagine customers or colleagues next to you

If you can find a way to tie your work back to someone or something bigger than yourself, you'll naturally feel a sense of sanctity, importance, and interest in that work. Once you have that feeling, you'll feel your mind gravitate towards the work and away from distraction.

Here's a simple practice you can try each day: Imagine you're building something for a customer or colleague. It could be anything from software to a document or email reply. While working on it, imagine you're doing the work for them and that they're right there with you. If you feel they're there with you, you'll hold yourself to a higher standard. And if there aren't any stakeholders in your work, act as though you are in the presence of someone you admire, as the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne suggests:

"always imagine you are with Cato, Phocion, and Aristides, in whose sight the very madmen would hide their faults; make them recorders of your inmost thoughts, which, going astray, will be set right again out of reverence for them" — On Solitude [3]

Self knowledge is more valuable than any rule

Writers so often allude to how they "found" or "tried" various strategies and routines. The art of working well is, ultimately, the art of understanding ourselves. I hope this inspires you to examine your own working habits and craft your own rules.

"I’m rather allergic to rules about writing, and pronouncements such as “you must write at least an hour a day” or “you must plot everything in advance” or “do all your research before you write a single word.” My philosophy is “find out what works for you, and do that: Everyone is different.” So, for example, I wrote this book on my sofa, in the British Library, in a cottage by the beach in Western Australia, on Hampstead Heath, and anywhere else that felt right. I consider it a true privilege to have the opportunity to do what I love." — M.L. Stedman

References:

  1. I am indebted to the leg work Gwern's did in compiling hundreds of interviews with authors from Goodreads, the Paris review, and other source for his essay "What is the Morning Writing Effect".
  2. Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1st ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  3. Montaigne, M. D. (2010). On Solitude (Penguin Great Ideas) (Reprint ed.). Penguin Books.