Knowing when to stop

by Suw on March 29, 2023

Hint: It’s sooner than you think it is.

Last week over on my other Substack, Word Count, I mentioned a podcast that I’d been listening to: London Writers’ Salon #048 with Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, had a lot to say that was interesting, but there were a couple of things that stood out. Perfectionism I’ll go into in another post, but what I want to talk about today is how to know when to stop writing.

I’ve written before about The Pomodoro Technique – 25 minute sprints to get yourself going on a writing session – but I’ve never thought about when I stop. Like many, I use sprints to break the mental ice and get my creative juices going. If I’m feeling really uninspired, I will put a timer on for just five minutes and get my head down. Even if I only open the document and type one word, that counts.

It always works. Once I start, something in my mind uncorks and off I go. And I keep going, often long past the original 5 or 25 minutes. Indeed, I keep going until I run out of steam and then I put my metaphorical pencil down and wrap it up for the night.

But that might well be a mistake.

“We hear so much about the importance of getting started,” Burkeman says. “And it’s all true. But we don’t hear so much about the importance of stopping, because people tend to feel that if you’ve decided you’re going to write for half an hour, or you’re going to do 300 words, and then you find that you can actually do more, that’s got to be a good thing.”

He points to work by psychologist Robert Boyce, who “found in his studies of academic writers that what’s driving that, a lot of the time, is impatience and a fear that inspiration will never strike again, and so it has to be seized right now. You can’t afford to stop and walk away.”

Boyce’s work suggests that we should, instead, stop when we say we’re going to stop, rather than carrying on writing until we’ve exhausted our creativity. If Burkeman’s going through a rough patch with his writing, instead of riding the wave of inspiration, he stops after 45 or even 30 minutes, obliging himself to “walk away and not do any more of that kind of work”.

“And if you do that for a few days,” he says, “what I find is it becomes really exciting to get back to the work, right? You execute some sort of judo move on your motivation, because instead of staying with it until you’re played out, and then building it up into something that you fear the next day, it becomes this very tiny thing, you realise you did enjoy it in certain ways, and you gradually can’t wait to get back to it. And then you can start extending again the amount of time that you’re putting into it.”

Indeed, Boyce found that “the most successful and most prolific academic writers were the ones who made writing only a moderate part of their lives, even if they could, in principle, make it a huge part of their lives.”

It’s completely counterintuitive, but if you find yourself constantly struggling to get started, perhaps instead focus on stopping.

I’ve heard of authors finishing a writing session in the middle of a sentence so that they have something obvious to start with the next day. I tried that once, but by the next day I’d forgotten how the sentence was going to end.

Instead, I think the trick is learning to stop when you feel like you’ve had a productive session but still have words left to write, and then use that as something to look forward to. And jot some notes down if you’re worried that you’re going to forget where you were going. It’s a relay race, not a sprint, so make sure you know how today’s you is going to hand the baton over to tomorrow’s you.

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