To Write More, You Need Less Time

We often tell ourselves that it’s impossible to write unless we have a completely clear day. But that’s nothing more than self-sabotage. An uninterrupted day is a rare occurrence, so we ensure that those conditions are never met. And no writing happens. Introducing constraints can be the answer.

In Zen and the Art of Writing, American author Ray Bradbury explains how he produced the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days. Finding himself unable to concentrate at home with small children, Bradbury was driven to the library at the University of California. There in the basement sat neat rows of typewriters that could be rented for a dime per half hour. You inserted your dime, the clock started ticking, then you had 30 minutes to hammer away at the keys. As an aspiring author, Bradbury had limited funds: “Time was indeed money.” 

With such tight restrictions in place, Bradbury had to think carefully about how he’d use those sessions. There was no way he could spend the first 20 minutes wondering what to write. Those decisions were all made in advance while he was doing chores at home. When he arrived in the basement, he was ready to get going. As he explains, he needed to be “a maniac at the keys”. There was no way of getting more time, so he had to be highly effective in using the resources available to him.

It’s unlikely you can find a coin-operated typewriter, or even an open library at the moment. However, there are other ways of achieving the same effect:

1) The Pomodoro Technique improves focus by breaking down your tasks into 25-minute tasks. With a Pomodoro timer, you get a sense of urgency and a reminder to focus on your writing. Many researchers – myself included – find that doing a couple of pomodoros each day is far more effective than a whole day spent staring at the screen.

2) Focusmate matches you with an online writing partner for 50-minute writing sessions. You stay connected with your webcam throughout, which makes you unlikely to wander off. Yes, it’s like being under surveillance, which is exactly why it works.

3) Write or Die might be described as the nuclear option. This terrifying software deletes everything you’ve written if you don’t reach your word target. Other virtual punishments are available, too, including ear-shredding shrieks or pictures of spiders. Although this sounds ridiculously masochistic, some top authors swear they’d never get anything written without an overwhelming sense of peril.

These tools are all very different, but they share a common premise: constraint. By giving ourselves less time, we can achieve more. For an outlay of $9.80, Bradbury produced 25,000 words. Given Fahrenheit 451 went on to sell more than 10 million copies, this was a sound investment. I can’t guarantee that your thesis will go on to become an international publishing phenomenon, but you’ll certainly feel like a literary star if you get it finished.

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