Taking a long view

My current plan for blogging is aimed at posting a new essay each week on Mondays.  This doesn’t always happen. Indeed, with respect to actually posting on Mondays, it’s been happening infrequently.  This is not ideal.  Of course, life isn’t always ideal, and learning to deal with the difficulties of the moment is valuable. This post is about taking a long view toward writing and writing projects, so that the difficulties of the moment don’t stop you in the long run.

I am thinking, in part, about a client who hasn’t gotten work done recently due to the death of a loved one. He wrote to me a few days ago to apologize that he has not been able to get moving on his project.  He is on a schedule—the project really needs to be done in about 9 months—so it’s not as if there is no concern for productivity.  But this is definitely enough time that taking the long view is meaningful.  The big question for this writer is not what he does in the next week or two; the question is what he does in the next nine months.  Sure, we can say that losing two weeks is losing almost 10% of the total time he has available, but that doesn’t take into account differences in his relationship to his work.  Basically the question is whether losing two weeks is worth it, if it helps the writer work more effectively over the remaining 90% of his available time.

Small changes in productivity make a big difference over long time periods

Suppose writing a project requires 100 units of work. (Yes, it’s a little silly to try to quantize work so simplistically, but it helps illustrate the issue.)  If a writer does 1 unit each week, then the writer will finish the project in 100 weeks.  But, especially with a lengthy project, a slight increase in productivity can result in a reasonably significant reduction in time: If a writer does 1.1 units of work a week, that 100-unit writing project will take about 91 weeks.

Let’s say the writer who lost his loved one has to do 100 units of work in 40 weeks time—that’s 2.5 units of work per week.  If he loses two weeks, then he has to do 100 units of work in 38 weeks, or 2.63 units a week.  Moving from 2.5 units/week to 2.63 units/week requires increasing productivity by about 5.2%, which doesn’t seem like a great increase productivity.  If we assume that each unit of work takes about 10 hours, then doing 2.5 units/week requires 25 hours of effort. So to increase productivity by the necessary 5.2% would mean spending about an extra hour and 20 minutes per week (assuming that productivity per hour does not decrease).

So, if we take the long view with respect to a writing project or writing practice, it becomes easier to take short periods of time off, especially if taking that time off can help improve productivity.

Can taking time off improve productivity?

The question actually has two parts because we can measure productivity in two different ways: in terms of absolute product, and in terms of productivity per unit of time.  With respect to completing a project like a dissertation or book, it is the absolute productivity that is of immediate importance: the manuscript must be written and submitted, and that’s all there is to it.  But in terms of a writing practice, the question of productivity per unit of time is more interesting: it’s not so much a question of completing a single work, so much as of what you get for your efforts.

When talking about taking time off increasing productivity, this split in measures of productivity leads to a split in the question. One question is: can taking time off increase overall productivity? The other question is: can taking time off increase productivity per unit of time?  For a writer facing a deadline, the first question is the one that is most obviously important: will I get the whole work done?  But for that writer, the question of productivity per unit of time has a crucial impact on the question of overall productivity, as illustrated in the simple example above.

I want to argue for the value of time off in increasing productivity per unit of time. It should be obvious that in the right contexts, time off can improve productivity.  This is pretty obvious in extreme cases: someone working 120 hours a week will probably be more productive per hour if they start working “only” 60 hours per week.  Meanwhile, it seems entirely questionable that someone struggling with writer’s block might not similarly benefit: if productivity is low and time spent is also low, can taking time off help improve productivity? This is more questionable.  But if productivity is already low, then it seems like a reasonable effort to try to improve productivity, and worry about losing time (in which, due to low productivity, little would be accomplished) doesn’t help.

One way to increase productivity is to improve your relationship with your work.  It has been argued that procrastination can stem from resentment (Fiore’s The Now Habit), and one way to resent your work is to feel trapped by it.  This writer who lost his loved one might resent his work if he feels forced to it at a time when he’s grieving, so my concern is that forcing himself to work (or my pushing him to work too aggressively) will not improve long-term production.  At the same time, I do want to encourage this writer to think about his work as a potential escape from his grief—engagement in an activity can, at least for short periods, give some relief from emotional difficulties.  This all is part and parcel of his relationship with his work.  I want to focus on helping him improve his relationship with his work, because I think that writers, who often lose enthusiasm for their projects as they near their completion, can gain great benefit from rediscovering the lost passion that initially inspired a work.  Creating such a shift of attitude can be facilitated by taking some time off.

How much can productivity increase?

In my quantized example above, I indicated that time off in a long project can be made up with small increases in productivity.  That is somewhat dependent on context, however.  The amount that productivity can increase is dependent on how productive one already is. 

Someone who is already very productive, and working a lot, won’t easily increase productivity.  If someone is working 100 hours a week and using the time effectively, then it might be really hard to get a 5% increase in productivity.

But, for people who have been getting stuck on a big project, like the writer who lost his loved one, the story is very different.  People who are stuck on big projects are often people who are facing particularly low productivity with respect to their historical norms.  A dissertation writer who gets stuck and fails to make progress on a dissertation is almost always someone at a relatively low level of productivity compared to their own history.  People advance to writing a dissertation because of their demonstrated ability to do scholarly work. So often, productivity levels with respect to large projects are relatively low compared to previously established performance.

A writer whose anxiety stops her from sitting down to write is producing no writing at all.  If she has a history of previous success as a writer, then there’s an opportunity for massive improvement. Recently, I worked with a dissertation writer over about nine months, at the end of which, she successfully defended a dissertation. During the first few months, little progress was made—perhaps one chapter was revised during the first three months we worked together. During the last six months, however, the remaining three chapters were revised and new introductions and conclusions were written, drafts submitted to committee members and revisions made with respect to the feedback received.  More importantly, perhaps, the writer went from saying “I can’t get anything done; I’m not getting anything done,” to saying “I am making progress.”  I can’t precisely quantify that difference, but that’s the real key, if we take the long view.

Emotions are key

I believe in practice. I preach the importance of practice. I push people to write every day (I also push myself to write every day).  But, in a long view, practice wants to be built on a good foundation—a foundation that brings the writer back to the writing day after day.  Emotions are key in that foundation.  If you feel bad about what you’re doing, and if doing what you’re doing makes you feel bad, it’s going to be really hard to maintain a good level of effort.  If, for example, writing is a source of anxiety, or if you resent your writing because it keeps you from attending to other important things in your life, then it’s hard to keep going.

In this long view of writing practice, taking time off for mental health and doing other things to support a positive relationship with writing help lay the foundation for a positive practice that allows the writer to access their abilities and put them into action on a more regular basis.  Writing is hard. It requires effort.  But, like many things that require effort, it is also rewarding.  If we develop a good relationship with writing, then maintaining a healthy and productive practice is much easier and helps unlock greater levels of productivity as focus and energy shift away from the anxiety or resentment and back towards the interests that really motivate us. And if we do that, in the long run, we’re going to be more productive.