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Boost your productivity with Hemingway’s hack

By Tessa Ivascu | Section(s): GET... , , | Add Your comment

by Tessa Ivascu

I have read many valuable "5 tips", "10 ways", "50 hacks" provided by productivity gurus to help you move forward when you have trouble being productive. To my surprise, none of these lists mentions an easy to grasp rule Ernest Hemingway applied to his writing process. His hack is perhaps too nonconformist to be part of the "getting things done" gospel…
The winner of the 1954 Nobel prize in Literature explains in simple words how to keep the momentum going and how to avoid writer’s block, a common affliction amongst authors. But his hack applies to any task related to an important goal. Here’s what you should do to avoid being stuck and maintain the flow state that maximizes productivity.


The quote :
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
Ernest Hemingway

(You can find Hemingway's tips on writing in Ernest Hemingway on Writing and A Moveable Feast).

Roald Dahl’s comment :

Let’s see what another famous writer, Roald Dahl, has to say about Hemingway’s hack (in The Roald Dahl Treasury). Excerpts :

« I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. Hemingway taught me the finest trick : “When you are going good, stop writing.” You don’t go on writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? You make yourself stop and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next. »

To summarize, Hemingway tells you :
Don’t finish your daily task if you want to keep the momentum going :

  • Make finishing your task your « next task »
  • Stop when you know what you will do to finish it
  • Stop when you feel the drive to finish it
  • Stop when you reach a creativity peak
  • Stop thinking about it until the next day
The benefits. You :
  • Avoid being stuck
  • Keep the momentum going
  • Start your day by the rewarding work of finishing a task
  • Boost your self-confidence and motivation levels before starting the « next task »
  • End your day on a high note
  • Put your brain to purposeful rest when you stop working
  • Allow you subconscious to work profitably on « it » = « the bigger picture » = your goal.
My comment

Of course if you want to get into the completion habit, you should start by finishing your daily task (related to an important goal), no matter how sloppily you do it. But often, if you limit yourself to this way of getting things done, you cannot help worrying about the poor quality of your work and feeling dissatisfied with it until the next day.

And this is not good for your self-esteem. What is not good for self-esteem is not good for motivation. And without boosting your motivation level you cannot get into the completion habit.

My experience

With some practice, you can go from don’t stop when you get stuck to avoid being stuck. In my 22-year career as a professional journalist I went through all the stages : I started by being a perfectionist , rereading and rewriting every sentence of an article, therefore getting stuck all the time. I moved on to practicing sloppy drafts whenever I was stuck and improving them afterwards. Until one day, when I stopped when I was "going good". Why ? Because it was a beautiful summer evening, because I wanted to listen to the Rolling Stones, because I knew exactly what to do to finish my article.

Since then, I always make myself stop when I know what I am going to do next ( and not when I want to listen to the Stones on a summer evening - which is what I dream of doing all the time). And I learned to apply this rule to other tasks, when I decide to clear up my wardrobe or to sort out my record collection for an easier access to my 325 Stones records (pretty obvious).

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unwieldy said...

This is a neat trick. I think I'll try it.

ginstrom said...

This hack is also nicely compatible with the habit of starting to drink heavily by noon.

j-turnbull said...

What is with people calling this kind of a thing a 'hack'? It's just advice.

BartelbyJones said...

I wonder if he stopped in the middle of this story.

macsenorg said...

I can imagine this process working for creative and imaginative fields. When I am implementing an algorithm in software, if I stop when I finally get going, its another weeks delay.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if it will work fo.....

capnofasinknship said...

I've noticed a big push for this "life hacking" recently. I've known about the site lifehacker.com for years, but I never realized there was a whole genre of knowledge called life hacking dedicated to improving one's productivity.

umbrae said...

I've heard this technique used with good success in coding as well - when you're done for the day, leave yourself with an obvious syntax error or something where you need to start off next. You'll have to fix that error and you'll be able to dive right back into where you left off.

Karolina said...

This makes sense. I once had to do a painting that took me a year to finish, and I had a set amount of time I had to work on it everyday. That set amount of time did it for me, but something I got into a habit of doing is standing back, looking at it for about 5 minutes, and thinking over what I needed to do next. I never thought about finishing it, because I knew I would eventually and it was huge. I think for that whole year I felt very satisfied with myself everyday, because I knew where things were going, and I knew I was going in a good direction.

Tessa Ivascu said...

Thank you for your comment, Karolina. Never thinking about finishing your work while working is definitely the best way to finish it. And to finish it on schedule. Hope to hear from you soon.

einexile said...

"Ernest Hemingway on Writing" is the best book of its kind that I know of.

likeahurricane said...

Hemingway has quite the reputation for his excessive drinking but he really was a devoted and prolific writer. He was pretty religious about writing almost every day, usually secluding himself in a studio where he could focus on nothing other than writing.

Coincidentally I'm a huge advocate of this advice. I've taught quite a few people how to fly fish/fly cast (imagine that, I'm a Hemingway fan...), and my piece of advice is to work on your cast no longer than 20-30 minutes and to walk away as soon as you've made your best cast. That way the last thing your body remembers is the right way to do things. Practicing until you fail or get frustrated gets you nowhere.

passwordispassword3 said...

I use it for programming. I don't do it how Hemingway describes, but something similar works for me. Namely, I don't go out of my way to stop when I'm going good, but I do make sure to have an idea of what's next when I stop.

At some point, my officemate and I realized we wasted a good amount of time on Monday mornings not doing any work. We speculated it was because we don't remember exactly what we were doing when we left Friday night, or are otherwise psychologically removed from it.

So we started tricking ourselves by leaving notes in our code in plain English with whatever we were currently thinking when we left on Friday. And it really works for me. It reminds me exactly where I was going and why, and even if I already had a good grasp of what I was doing it seems to kickstart my brain. It's also nice that it gives a syntax error when I hit 'compile' to force me to read it and deal with it immediately.

It's so effective for us that we both started doing it every night, not just Fridays. One thing I didn't realize until reading this Hemingway quote is that it does seem to be more effective if I was in the middle of something. But it also works if I've just finished something and checked it in. Then I just write down what I think should be done next and go home.

CoolKidBrigade said...

people are more likely to listen to you if they think your ideas are more powerful. Calling them "hacks" implies they can somehow bypass your own inadequacies in the same way a hacker bypasses the security of a computer system.

dmazzoni said...

As a professional programmer / software engineer for over 10 years, I find that I'm lucky if I get to spend as much as 25% of my time working on the really fun stuff - interesting algorithms, clever optimizations, making interesting discoveries in data. The other 75% of the time, it's the other stuff that's equally important and rewarding but less "fun" - tedious refactoring or writing documentation, for example. Those are perfect things to quit in the middle of.

For example, it might take me a while to figure out how I'm going to write a "how-to" article for a software library and to get it organized. That's a perfect thing to quit when I'm halfway through. The next day, it will be easy to pick up where I left off, finish it with a great sense of accomplishment, and then dive into the next task full of momentum. This is much easier than trying to start off the next morning with a blank page.

FlyingBishop said...

I have a double major in computer science and theatre... you are entirely correct.

Anonymous said...

That is some very good advice.

Anonymous said...

>What is with people calling this kind of a thing a 'hack'? It's just advice.

When you ask a question out of ignorance, it's best to stop at the question mark.

Anonymous said...

Gee, I don't know what to write here. I'll have to sleep on it.

Anonymous said...

This echoes some musical advice I once read, which has proven very true: "stay hot" - that is, quit while you are playing well and feeling good about it. I have found that playing too long only increases anxiety and frustration.

Warning: Do not apply this advice to sex.

Anonymous said...

This hack is so simple. I love it. I'm a computer programmer who is currently stuck in a motivational rut, and I hope I can use this technique soon, to avoid future ruts.

In terms of its simplicity, it reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld's productivity secret, which was also mentioned on lifehacker (http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret)

I wonder if we can combine the two techniques. Perhaps "give yourself a red x every day that you complete the task you set out for yourself the night before" ?

Anonymous said...

"Plumbers don't get plumber's block. Don't be self-indulgent. A page a day is a book a year."

-Howard Fast, author of Spartacus, as told by Susan Shapiro, author of Speed Shrinking

Anonymous said...

I've been stopping like this for well over 20 years.
I never get anything done.

Anonymous said...

Re: the comment above...

Yeah, I could never do this, because then I would never get anything done. I only accomplish things when I want to work anyway, and if I were to stop working when I wanted to work, then I would really accomplish nothing at all.

But what the dude said about leaving a comment in the middle of your code telling you where to pick back up is great.

Greg said...

Interesting advice.
I might just try it...but If I stop doing what I am doing half way and I know what needs to get done to finish, why wait? I mean what about the advice of not leaving anything off for tomorrow if you can do today?

Greg - http://www.shapeupamerica.com/

Unknown said...

I went snowboarding over winter break. First day, I charged it (I mostly ski, this was my 3rd or 4th time on a board, broke my wrist the first time) right through the entire day. At the very end, our agreed upon last run before heading to the lodge, I ate it off a jump. Landed hard and had to catch my breath. The entire ride back home was miserable and I was pissy the rest of the evening.

The next two days I played it easy and stopped right after my best post-lunch run. I had to force myself to go in, because I was always so stoked to get back on the chair lift. However, those were the best evenings going to dinner with my family and having some drinks before bed.

Such advice as "quitting while you're ahead" seem commonplace, but when put in the perspective that Hemingway does the deeper truth to it really comes out.

Honestly, the more I think I realize just how obvious this really is. Yet, I only seem to think of it when gambling. When applied to "tasks" or even stretched to things we enjoy doing it seems almost universal.

Chris Kemp said...

This is an excellent blog. Many insightful hints along a wide swath of subjects. The Hemingway trick works well. I have used it as an excuse to procrastinate for many years now! :-) But as a fellow blogger, I know that it DOES help stimulate and foment ideas. No doubt about that!


Thank you lo_fye, Greg, Zach and Chris for your comments and and for having shared your experience here. I am very impressed with your sites and blogs !

John said...

What a great idea! I think I'll

Larry Battle said...

Interesting. In other words, complete task in steps, with each ending in a clear path to the next until you're done.
But I wonder when this doesn't apply?

Anonymous said...

I have trouble with the idea of following the anti-block advice of a man who shot himself because he was blocked.

Frank Dickinson said...

Hemingway's hack resonates with my experience - when I stop at a good place - one where I know where I'm going, but haven't written it yet - the creative juices continue flow all the way until I write again.

kbub said...

I also want to know why this is called a "hack".

elfgod said...

Advice is the action of him telling you all this. The hack is the action that the advice is proposing you do. He is not using hack as a synonym for advice. He is giving advice about a hack. Hope that helps.

EDIT: By action, I meant "activity", or something along those lines.

In case my point isn't clear, let me put it another way. The advice is telling you to perform the hack. Saying something is being called a hack when it's just advice is a ridiculous criticism, because the two terms are refering to completely different aspects of what is involved in the situation.

fishbert said...

hacking is messing/playing with something, figuring out how it works, and discovering neat tricks along the way.

it works with a wide variety of subjects; not just in the typically-associated computer context.

hemingway obviously did a lot of messing/playing with writing, and discovered this neat trick/hack to improve his productivity with the task.

ingvald said...

in GTD you plan the most important tasks for the next day before you finish working today. that's another way of hacking the brain into being prepared when you start the next day - i.e., it's not necessary to stop in the middle of something.

Anonymous said...

That is an awesome tip!!!! I need to check out those links for more of Hemingways's insights...

I have a super simple method I've been using to get more done in less time with zero stress. It's all about doing one meaningful thing every day.


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