Setting a pace for writing a paper seems like simple arithmetic. So simple in fact that almost everyone gives the same advice. If you have a five-page paper and six days to do it, you’d do well for yourself if you can write a page a day and then leave a sixth for editing. But how many people do you know who write this way? Chances are not too many. Perhaps you’ve got one friend, but it’s likely s/he’s the kind of person who always has their Christmas cards out the weekend after Thanksgiving.
In other words, the conventional advice most receive for how to pace their writing has very little connection to the way most people actually write.
What’s worst, the conventional advice can cause the procrastination it attempts avoid. Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, notes, “While it is common practice to try and motivate ourselves with statements such as ‘I have to do it’ or ‘I should do it’, such statements loudly communicate to the mind, ‘I don’t want to do it, but I must force myself to do them.'” (Incidentally, Fiore’s book is the best I’ve ever read on procrastination, and as someone who has fought hard to overcome procrastination for years, that’s saying something).
Getting started writing, even about something you’re interested in, takes a tremendous amount of will power. When you don’t want to do it, it’s twice as hard. And if you know you were supposed to be writing a page a day for the last three days but haven’t, day four becomes miserable. Each page you didn’t want to do the previous three days have now morphed into a four-page mountain that you still don’t want to do. It’s likely that facing these circumstances, you’ll put everything off until the night before, when fear of failure is at its highest.
Because of this, it’s much better to start a paper early with very low expectations. A week before a paper is due, you’ll probably not be able to write much, but you’ll be able to write something. Ironically, these lowered expectations become the perfect opportunity to build momentum. Sit down and set a clock for fifteen minutes and start writing the paper. Because you’re expecting nothing will come of it, even a few sentences is exceeding expectations. And who wouldn’t rather sit down at the end of the day feeling like they’ve exceeded their expectations?
Stacking the deck so that you exceed expectations sounds like cheating, but it still works. You get a burst of good feelings AND a start on the paper. Fiore’s system and the system advocated by Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day are both based around this idea of setting up low expectations with the goal of getting you into a position where you feel better about yourself for the work you’ve done rather than overwhelmed by the work that you didn’t.
In fact, you’ll notice I’ve stolen Bolker’s time period. This is no accident. Five minutes is an easier expectation to meet, however, it’s tough to get into a flow state where the writing feels easy during that time. A half hour or an hour time can seem too intimidating. However, each writer has their own perception of time. Experiment and come up with your own.
The great benefit of this approach come when the fifteen minutes are done. If you feel like you can keep going, do so. Anything after that first fifteen minutes is bonus. And it’s highly likely you’ll feel better at the end of the fifteen minutes than you did when you started because one of the hardest parts of writing is getting past the inertia of the idle mind, meaning that the writing you weren’t expecting to be able to do is actually a lot easier to complete.
This approach has obvious limitations. Only doing fifteen minutes work the day before a paper is due doesn’t work. However, the basics work always. It’s always easier to write after you get past the first fifteen minutes, and you’ll always write better if you focus on feeling like you’re exceeding your own expectations.Even if you do so by setting arbitrarily low expectations.