The Nothing Alternative

Raymond Chandler had an interesting approach to getting things done. In his case: Getting things written. Here’s what he said, according to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in their book, Willpower:1

Chandler had his own system for turning out The Big Sleep and other classic detective stories. “Me, I wait for inspiration,” he said, but he did it methodically very morning. He believed that a professional writer needed to set aside at least four hours a day for his job: “He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.

[…]

Write or nothing. […] I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.

Interestingly enough, it seems like Flannery O’Connor used the same strategy. Here is what she recommended to a young writer in 1959:

“You ought to set aside three hours2 every morning in which you write or do nothing else; no reading, no talking, no cooking, no nothing, but you sit there. If you write all right and if you don’t all right, but you do not read; whether you start something different every day and finish nothing makes no difference; you sit there. It’s the only way, I’m telling you. If inspiration comes you are there to receive it, you are not reading. […] If you don’t write, don’t do anything else.”

I have experimented with this for a while now: At some point of any given day3 I open a time slot dedicated to nothing but writing. Normally, this time slot will span over one hour to start with. During this time, I don’t do anything but write – or sit in front of my computer, looking at a black screen with a green cursor on it.4

Theoretically, it would be okay to just sit there and wait. But that’s the only alternative: Write or do nothing. More often than not, some good stuff gets written during this time. More often than not, procrastination isn’t an issue. Actually, the results have been so positive that I’m thinking about expanding this “Write or Nothing” slot to three or four hours myself. My next book might be just around the corner!

Here’s Why it Works

1. Clear Rules

When I start a session, my phone is switched off. I went to the bathroom, I got some coffee and water. There are many temptations inviting me to procrastinate a little, but the rules are so simple and crystal clear that I won’t break them: I may sit and look at my screen. I may look out of the window. Or I may write. Other than that? Nothing. No email. No Twitter. No reading. No sleeping. No talking. Write or nothing.

2. Limited Time

Many writers prefer to have a word minimum for the day. Or a word limit, like Cory Doctorow. While I get his point, I prefer a time minimum to get started. It lowers the barriers and it’s easier to schedule. It never means that I may have to spend seven hours just to reach my 1000 words for the day. If I sit down to write at 10am, I’ll be finished at 11 if I wish to.

The fun thing, of course, is that once I start writing, I’ll often get into flow. I’ll enjoy the process so much that I keep doing it for longer than initially planned. But when I don’t, I’ll just spend the hour doing some editing or outlining (or window-watching) and call it a day.

3. Idleness Included

I sit down to write, but I don’t really expect anything great to come out of it. Often, I’ll actually spend a minute or two looking out of my window, feeling quite fine because I’m sticking to the rules. But then, after those couple of minutes, I generally find it to be more interesting to write than to keep looking at my neighbor’s realty. Turns out their house isn’t all that exciting after all. So I look back at my screen and just start to work.

This may sound silly to many, but don’t discard it before giving it a try: The great thing about the Nothing Alternative is that you  actually are allowed to “do” something else than your work: You may be idle.

Having the permission to drop work for a minute seems to be just what my inner idler needs. It’s also something that can help any writer to clear their head a little, think about their phrasing, or get inspired by some random memory that pops up in the moment.

P.S. The Flow Bonus

Apart from helping me to get something written each day, this approach has another advantage: If I manage to find this hour of writing time at any point in the morning, the generated flow will fuel my whole day: Doing things leads to doing more things.

After getting some writing done, I’ll often be eager to work on other things I care about: Clearing my inbox, editing some photos, outlining an upcoming project. Or, as mentioned, I’ll just keep writing.

While I’m not an early riser, getting something done soon after rising will create a productive mindset for the rest of the day.

  1. More on Willpower very soon. That book really is a blast if you know what to take from it. []
  2. Do you notice how she says “three hours”? Another case of a writer admitting to be working less than most people would expect. Three to five hours writing time seems to be the sweet spot for most great writers, as I already noticed here on TFA! But then, three to five hours of quality writing each day is still more than most of us would manage, I guess. []
  3. From Monday to Saturday, preferably in the morning hours. See the last part of this post to learn why! []
  4. Yes, I still love Writeroom. []