stop less, start less

If starting work is hard, why not start less? That’s the advice Nasir Kharma, a grad student in London, offers: He studies in four-hour blocks without a break.

I’m not sure what to think. Don’t we need frequent breaks to maintain optimal focus? Aren’t we more likely to procrastinate before chaining ourselves to a desk for a long stretch? In light of the video, however, I’m no longer so certain about these accepted productivity truths. That, by itself, is pretty cool—it’s rare to encounter a persuasive argument that even threatens to change my approach. Kharma’s tip runs contrary to the conventional wisdom in both productivity (25-minute Pomodoros) and health (sitting is the new smoking). I’m clutching my pearls here.

As controversial as it may seem (to people who read too many books on productivity), Kharma is advocating for doing what pretty much every successful and/or famous creator has always done. In fact, if you’re going by anecdotal evidence alone, there’s no arguing for any other way. Great writers, painters, musicians, and inventors sit (or stand, or lie down) in one place without interruption for vast stretches of time. Period. The latest addition to my “working methods” library, Joe Fig’s excellent Inside the Painter’s Studio, only confirms this impression.

Starting has always been the weakest link in my chain. Once I’m underway with a piece of writing, I can stay with it for a decent stretch. Getting going, however, is always tough. If anything, starting has only gotten trickier over the years as my life has gotten bigger and more complicated. Without a doubt, the starts are where my work runs off the rails. It’s my kryptonite.

If this is the case, why wouldn’t I keep the number of starts to an absolute minimum? Install a coffee maker in my office and just hunker down? From this perspective, the Pomodoro Technique is lunacy. If starting is the hard part, why inject eight or more starts into each day? Every time I step away from the page, there’s a good chance I won’t find my way back to it again. The actual reasons I end up working on something else are myriad, but they amount to the same thing: a blank page. Editing, correspondence, and admin are important, but new words come first. Each interruption slashes the odds of hitting my mark. It strikes me that all the advice about sensible breaks and reasonable intervals is flat-out wrong. What do you do when the “right” advice doesn’t work?

The main problem is I’m slightly compulsive. In a 2014 blog post at Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander, a Bay Area psychiatrist, wrote about an incident that resonated with me:

This one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hairdryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

This compulsion interfered with the patient’s life to the point that she considered quitting her job and going on disability. Psychiatrists and psychologists alike had tried and failed to help her. Then, one of Alexander’s colleagues made a seemingly innocent suggestion: bring the hairdryer to work. Every time she started worrying she’d left the hairdryer on, she’d look at the passenger seat and see it resting there. It worked. At that point, all hell broke loose among the other psychiatrists at the hospital. Apparently, this is just not how one deals with OCD. What do you do when the “wrong” advice works?

I don’t have full-blown OCD, but every time I sit down to write, I experience the overwhelming sense that I’ve forgotten something important. So I get stuck, staring into space, racking my brain. Eventually, I’ll wander around the apartment hoping something sparks my memory. I’m like Neville Longbottom and his Remembrall: “I can’t remember what I’ve forgotten.” (A magical device that says you’ve forgotten something—but won’t say what—feels like an inside joke for writers.)

To cope with my compulsion, I created a “preflight checklist“ for the start of every writing session. It begins “Have I left anything on the stove?” and runs all the way through “Start music.” Like the hairdryer, it works for my brain. Once I’ve run through my checklist, that nagging feeling lifts. I’m better able to start.

It sounds like heresy, but maybe I should get worse at stopping next.

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