Write Until You’re Done

Last Thursday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a fascinating article by Rachel Emma Silverman. It was entitled, “The Clock Hurts Your Creativity.” It reported the findings of a forthcoming research paper studying the effects that different types of scheduling have on our creativity. While there’s not much support in the WSJ article–it primarily lists the conclusions of the paper–what it does tell us is thought-provoking, and I think it has some interesting implications to consider in regards to writing.

The researchers, in several experiments, found that people tend to schedule daily activities in two ways. One way, which they term “clock time” is when you organize tasks based on a clock. You enter data into a spreadsheet from 10 to 11, then have a meeting from 11 to 11:30 and so forth. “Event time,” meanwhile, is when you organize tasks based on their completion. You enter data into a spreadsheet until it’s done, then email your colleague to see if he’s around for a meeting.

Basically, to quickly apply this to writing, “clock time” would be when one sits down to write for one hour, and then resolves to be finished as soon as the hour is up. “Event time” would be sitting down to write, and finishing whenever you feel like you’ve reached a stopping point for the time being.

That’s the distinction, but here’s one of the conclusions the paper comes to:

The researchers found that people who schedule tasks by the clock tend to be more efficient, but they feel they have less control and flexibility over their schedules. That’s because much of their day is controlled by an external force, the clock…By contrast, those on “event time,” who work on tasks until they feel they are done, feel they have more control over their schedules and feel happier at work. They tend to savor positive emotions more, perhaps because they move on from an activity when they sense it is complete, rather than when the clock tells them to.

That’s the first conclusion, and it seems to me that this is the application to writing: when we write until we feel we are done, we’re happier overall with our writing. And, at least in my experience, when I leave a writing session happy with the work I’ve done I’m more inclined to come back at a later time to continue. Right there seems to be one advantage to writing using “event time.”

The paper then concludes by making a suggestion:

To be sure, the researchers say that companies shouldn’t lose clocks and schedules altogether…But in more creative pursuits, such as ad copywriting or academic research, better to provide employees with bigger blocks of time and allow them to finish tasks as they see fit.[sic]

I certainly don’t think we can draw grand and exaggerated conclusions from this, but I do find that I, at least, might be helped by viewing writing this way. Perhaps I won’t get as much done in my writing without scheduling specific blocks of time in which to do it, but this paper seems to suggest that the best creative environment, the environment that best lends itself to writing, is one running on “event time.”