Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Easier Said Than Written

Everything is easier said than done. That is, for anything you can think of doing, it's much easier to say you are going to do it than to actually do it. It's easier to say you are going to get into shape than to actually go for that run. It's easier to say you are going to learn Bach's thirteenth invention than to actually play it. And it's easier to say you are going to write your article than to actually write it. Some people take the consequence of this to be that talk is cheap. Don't talk about it, they suggest, just do it. My suggestion is to do both, especially when you are stuck or—though it doesn't exist, remember—"blocked". If you are finding it hard to write, remember that there is a very easy thing you can do, namely, say you'll write tomorrow.

But be precise. (It's not ambition that counts in these matters, it's precision.) It is not significantly harder to say that you are going to write from 9:00 to 10:00 than to say that you are going to write "tomorrow" or "sometime this week". But it is much more precise. And notice that it is also both much easier to do and to leave undone. If you say only you will write tomorrow, then you are not doing that from the moment you get up until the moment you go to bed. Even if you write for an hour, it's unclear whether or not you're done doing what you said you'd do. But if you say you'll write during a specific hour you are only not doing it for that hour, and when it's over, you're no longer not doing it. It's over. If you do begin at 9:00 you know exactly when you will have successfully done what you said you'd do. That's the point of being precise.

It also goes to the content of your writing. And this is where saying, not doing, can be very useful in overcoming so-called writer's block, i.e., exposing its nonexistence. You may find it impossibly difficult to write, but you surely don't find it impossibly difficult to say that you are going to write. So pick something to write tomorrow. Pick something you know to be true, something you could talk intelligently about with someone else who knows it, something you can imagine writing a good-sized paragraph about. Resolve to write about it at a specific time tomorrow for 27 minutes. That was easy, right? Now, think nothing more of it until that time arrives. When it does, ask yourself, how hard is it really to write this paragraph for the next 27 minutes? It's harder, sure, than what you did yesterday, namely, say you'd do it. But surely it's not actually daunting now.

Planning is a version of "saying not doing". But it's not a cheap gesture. It's the easy part that makes the hard part doable.


Presskorn said...

There is, as you know, a distinct Popperian ring to your advice: Precise hypotheses are easier to falsify and are exactly because of that to be preferred...

Thomas said...

Yes, one of the things my authors get out of my coaching is a very explicit series of experiences, which amount to experiments. They essentially test hypotheses about what works and what doesn't work for them. Even when they prove me wrong (in their own cases, in their particular situations) they learn something.