I’ve tended to be quite negative about my propensity for ‘binge writing’. It suddenly occurred yesterday that this negativity may in part stem from the term I’ve adopted for it. “Binge writing” – it’s hard for that to sound anything other than negative, no? I’d implicitly framed it as a bad habit which, once it began to fail due to too many demands on my time, I resolved to train myself out of. But having been trying for months to inculcate a daily writing routine, doing two hours of writing (including planning and editing) on five occasions each week, I’m sick of it and giving up. It engenders clock-watching, superficiality and self-criticism. It strips all the fun out of the writing process. It’s also hard to sustain and this has left my motivation shifting towards sustaining the habit and away from the writing itself.
But rather than go back to ‘binge writing’ I’m instead shifting into ‘deep work’. This largely amounts to the same thing of course, it just lacks the implicitly negative connotations of the former term. Instead of setting aside a couple of hours each day to writing, I’m going to try and set aside a couple of days each week for writing and associated tasks, in order to focus entirely on the project at hand. I find Cal Newport’s explanation of the virtues of this really convincing:
It reduces overhead. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. It’s also easy, when the required time is short, to fall into the least minimal progress trap, where you do just enough thinking that you can avoid breaking your deep work chain, but end up making little real progress. When you focus on a specific deep work goal for 10 – 15 hours, on the other hand, you pay the overhead cost just once, and it’s impossible to get away with minimal progress. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.
This is a really lucid explanation of how successful ‘binge writing’ had been for me until recently. In retrospect, I’d confused a problem of regularity with a problem of process. This approach to writing clearly does work for me but I’d not made any effort to ensure I set aside time for writing in any sort of regular way. I just assumed that sometimes I’d have the urge to write or that deadlines would keep me motivated.
Part of the appeal of this new approach lies in demarcating different areas of responsibility within my life. I’m mystified by my wildly variable levels of productivity: sometimes I can focus with an occasionally scary intensity and at other times I can have an equally scary inability to focus whatsoever. I like the idea of setting aside days for writing (as well as days for other things I’m committed to) because I think it creates the conditions in which the focus I sometimes enjoy is more likely to emerge.
However a possible danger with organised binge writing is that the pressure to fill the allotted time with meaningful activity can be corrosive, as Neal Stephenson indicates in a discussion of his writing process:
I did figure out that I tended to write good stuff first thing in the morning. So I had all this free time in the rest of the day that I had to occupy with something other than writing. Because if I sat and wrote, I’d just bury the good stuff I’d written in crap and have to excavate it later. I did some construction work with a friend of mine. Basically the work habit I developed out of all that was of setting things up so I could write in the morning and then stop and exercise my penchant for getting into the nitty-gritty details of physical things. Not because that was productive in any way but because it kept me from screwing up whatever I happened to be writing. I tried to pattern things that way ever since. That’s worked fairly well
What’s interesting about this is the deliberate activity of ‘setting things up’ in order to sustain an engaged flow of writing at the time of day he has found, with experience, conducive to writing. One thing I’ve struggled with in the past is how to schedule the component tasks of writing. If I allot a set period of time for writing and any related tasks, I’ll often find myself sitting around reading at length whereas what I’d actually intended to do was, well, write. I like the idea of reflecting on what specific tasks are necessary to the writing project, doing them as tasks and then focusing on the writing in uninterrupted windows of time. I hope this practical focus on what’s necessary will stop me from reading endlessly as a procrastination activity.