Word targets and creative procrastination

by John Q on November 26, 2013

I think I’ve written before about creative procrastination, but I can’t immediately find it, so I’ll restate my idea here. Whenever you have an urgent deadline, the desire to procrastinate becomes irresistible. Rather than trying to resist it, the optimal response is to succumb, but to have a list of necessary but non-urgent tasks at hand (as I’ve argued before, there’s no need to prioritise non-urgent tasks. Just divide them into those you are going to do, and those you aren’t, then do them in whatever order suits). Now, the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever, so the desire to procrastinate will force you to tackle the jobs on your list. Then, as the deadline approaches you will finish the job. This works even better if (as is usually the case) an extension of the deadline is possible, but you can conceal this knowledge from yourself until the last possible moment. That way, you get a second round of creative procrastination, plus you have enough time to do the main job properly.

That’s all revision. My new idea for today links this to my long-standing advocacy of word targets. I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 100 000 words, which is enough for half a dozen journal articles and a small book. So, that’s my target. If I haven’t written enough one day, I try to catch it up the next day and so on.

And here’s the link. If you’re involved in a big project like a book, or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines. But, if you make a rule of being caught up on your word target at the end of the week, you create an automatic deadline for yourself. While doing your best to avoid dealing with this deadline, you create an automatic opportunity for creative procrastination, during which you can deal with admin tasks, write blog posts, sort out your reference system and so on.

Obviously, everyone is different. But this has certainly worked for me and, as a by-product, for CT readers (at least, those of you who don’t just skip over my posts to get to the good stuff). The marvels of creative procrastination have produced hundreds of blog posts, some of which have even turned into books.



Zamfir 11.26.13 at 7:18 am

I recently used the same system when moving house. I gave myself a target of unpacking 5 boxes a day, and 10 on weekend days. Most days I would not reach the target, but in the procrastination I put up shelves, lights, curtains, fixed the kitchen electrics, went to IKEA, etc. And once in a while there was a good day, and we would unpack 20 boxes in a row.


later 11.26.13 at 9:23 am

Anecdotes abound! But are there any empirical research results available on succesful anti-procrastrination self-controlled strategies?


Neil Levy 11.26.13 at 9:57 am

What do you about editing? On a good day, I will sometimes start with 8000 words and end with 7000 words. Unless you share with Russell the belief that your first drafts are always best, I assume you edit too. Is that on top of the writing?


John Quiggin 11.26.13 at 10:10 am

@Neil I don’t count editing down as negative words, but it gets zero credit. The word target is for new words, even if they end up being cut. I can type 25 words per minute, so if I gave comparable credit for editing and so on, I’d only be working 30 mins a day.


Neil Levy 11.26.13 at 10:52 am

JQ: the limitation is never typing speed, for me, but ideas. I think of myself as quite productive but I never have enough ideas to keep writing new words everyday or most days. I need to be rewriting old ones, or reading. Perhaps the advice needs adjusting for disciplinary areas (and for other activities, like blogging). Some areas – like mine – produce fewer papers per year than others.


Mark English 11.26.13 at 11:46 am

Has there ever been a time in the whole history of civilization when there was so much being written/published and such a small proportion of the available new material being valued and read?

I may be just rationalizing my idleness, but doesn’t this situation call into question the virtue of academic or literary productivity (the latter especially, as the old stuff holds its value)?


SusanC 11.26.13 at 12:07 pm

I’m familiar with the effect :-)

or a PhD, there aren’t really any deadlines

Grad students who attempt this may get some harsh words from their advisor…. (Exactly how harsh depends on how your PhD is funded).

Word count may not be the right metric for some disciplines though. e.g. for many lab experiments, writing up the results is not the rate-limiting step.


Trader Joe 11.26.13 at 12:27 pm

I like focusing on daily word counts but as others aluded to above, not all words are really equal. Last Friday I wrote around 900, every word was a struggle and subsequent revision probably eliminated +200 of these. Yesterday I wrote about 1,400, all of which came really easy and (hopefully) set me up for nice productivity today.

The question I struggle with when the words come slow is whether its better to just punt or procrastinate and hope for a ‘big day’ to make up for it rather than write stuff that isn’t top drawer that likely will lead to greater revision. Deadlines eventually become firm and will be met. So as long as the hole doesn’t get too deep, I’ve found that the pressure of the deadline can improve both quality and productivity.


JW Mason 11.26.13 at 2:26 pm

I can’t imagine writing 500 words a day. Just out of curiosity, John, what’s your teaching load?


Bloix 11.26.13 at 2:53 pm

“When I have commenced a new book, I have always prepared a diary, divided into weeks, and carried it on for the period which I have allowed myself for the completion of the work. In this I have entered, day by day, the number of pages I have written, so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face… I have allotted myself so many pages a week. The average number has been about 40… And as a page is an ambiguous term, my page has been made to contain 250 words; and as words, if not watched, will have a tendency to straggle, I have had every word counted as I went… There has ever been the record before me, and a week passed with an insufficient number of pages has been a blister to my eye, and a month so disgraced would have been a sorrow to my heart.”

The Autobiography of Anthony Trollope


Katherine 11.26.13 at 4:08 pm

the guilt induced by the deadline should stop you goofing off on FB, killing boars or whatever

Says you. Clearly you’re an amateur.


Shelley 11.26.13 at 4:13 pm

I’ve heard that even gold stars on a chart can work.


Alan Bostick 11.26.13 at 5:24 pm

JW Mason @9: I can’t imagine writing 500 words a day.

It’s surprisingly easy. I do it every day as part of my baseline creativity practice. It takes me between fifteen minutes and half an hour.

It isn’t artfully written, and it is generally not for any particular purpose (except to prime the pump) , but it’s an excellent practice for creative people of all stripes, not just writers. And sometimes I come up with material I can use in other contexts.

(My practice is derived from the “morning pages” practice outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, wherein one writes three pages every morning on whatever comes to mind, even if it’s repeating “The fat cat sat on the mat” over and over again. 500 words is my best estimate for the equivalent of three hand-written pages.)


Tom Slee 11.26.13 at 6:00 pm

JWM: I can’t imagine writing 500 words a day. Just out of curiosity, John, what’s your teaching load?

Writing 500 words a day is easy. It’s just that for me every day’s 500 shiny new composition replaces the previous day’s obvious rubbish. So one sentence in the OP needs editing:

I try to write 500 to 750 words of new material every day. 500 words a day might not sound much, but if you can manage if you can manage it 5 days a week for 40 weeks a year, you’ve got 500 words.


John Quiggin 11.26.13 at 6:46 pm

@JWM Just out of curiosity, John, what’s your teaching load?

I don’t have one. I’ve been stringing together research fellowships ever since I got my PhD. So, 500-750 words a day is a target for full-time writers. On the assumption that used to be standard in Oz that a standard university appointment was 30 per cent research, something like 750-1000 words a week would be comparable.


JW Mason 11.26.13 at 7:26 pm

Sorry, I meant: I can’t imagine writing 500 of the kind of words that will add up to be those 100,000 words of articles, books, etc. Of course I write many more than 500 words a day, if you count everything — I’m sure most people here do. It’s a sustained 500 words a day added to a coherent project that is hard.


JW Mason 11.26.13 at 7:27 pm

John Q.-

Well, that explains it. This is my first semester teaching fulltime and it is grueling.


Ed Herdman 11.27.13 at 1:31 am

Notes – constant streams of notes for yourself, if you can figure out a categorizing system (I need to get to work on that; computers these days – amazing search capabilities) are the kinds of words that will add up to be those articles, books, and whatever. Also, it should be clear that one does not write something worthwhile merely by addition, but also by extrapolating – it’s not a matter of making “filler” content, but by the same token if the central point or argument is so tortured that the pieces don’t fit together, then perhaps one should write more notes to try out new ways of approaching the problem.

Speaking of things, I’m still procrastinating on the whole “stop killing boars, start making complex machines in cooperation with the porcine race” switchover phase…but pigs is smelly (and pigs); I wouldn’t actually pay to play with them (plus my phone is just too old). I just do it in my browser.


QS 11.27.13 at 3:02 am


I certainly identify with that.

1000 words/week for someone teaching a 2-2 to a 3-3 seems reasonable. In 10 weeks you have a draft article, which you then spend the 6 weeks editing/rewriting. That’s 1 article per semester.


dbk 11.27.13 at 7:51 am

I find that CT provides just about all the opportunity for procrastination ad infinitum that I seek, especially when its owners are on a roll, as they seem to have been during the past few weeks.

As a translator rather than an author, when I have a job, I normally set a quota of ~2500 words a day to transform into English, depending on the difficulty of the original text. About two hours a day are spent editing and prepping; these hours are essential, given that editing is about one-quarter of the total time required for a translation project, though it doesn’t go towards word count.

For obvious reasons, during such stints I both hope – and fear – that BW will post, given that following the comment thread can entail 3-4 days of practically non-stop procrastination.

When I have a big job (i.e. a book), I find the daily routine has to be maintained pretty faithfully, viz. 5-6 hours daily translating ab initio, 2-3 hours editing what one’s done the previous day and preparing what one will do the following day.


Anarcissie 11.27.13 at 5:14 pm

Neil Levy 11.26.13 at 9:57 am:

What do you about editing? On a good day, I will sometimes start with 8000 words and end with 7000 words.

If we assume that the 7000 words are as good as or better than the 8000, then the process can be repeated several times to make the finished product as small as we like, approaching zero as a limit. For instance, (7/8)^10 = ~ 1/4; (7/8)^20 = ~0.07. 30
edits would cause the original 8000-word essay to be representable as 147 words.

Obviously, we would then want to inspect the process to see if some accelerations were possible. Instead of 30 iterations of 8-to-7 editing, perhaps they could be reduced to one edit if cleverer, more stringent rules were applied, perhaps by artificial intelligence programs running while the author got another cup of coffee.

Once the new algorithm was perfected, it could be run to any point one liked — the essay could go to 100 words, or 10. Or one. (Regrettably, it could only approach zero, however.)

One would also want the procedure to be reversible, so that running it in reverse on an 8000-word essay (or its 100-word representation) could be expanded to book length (100,000 words, say), or form the basis for some interminable series of postings on the Internet, greatly enhancing the repute of the author.

No need to worry about writing n words per day if you’ve got the right software.


Eszter 11.28.13 at 12:42 pm

I completely agree that a looming deadline is the best way to get other important things done. It’s amazing how productive this can make me at times.

The challenge for me in this plan is finding the time slot during the day. I have struggled with this for a long time. (And I say this as someone who actually does publish quite a bit so it’s not as though I’m incapable of fitting it in, I just don’t do it as optimally as I’d like.)

I’ve tried to get into the habit of reserving chunks of time on my schedule specifically for writing, but “immediate” things always come up. I’m probably still not good enough at prioritizing my own work over others’ (such as reviewing, editing, commenting, etc.). I hope one of these days I get there!

Overall, 500 words seems like a very reasonable daily target. After this hellish term is over, I may just try it out. One question though: How do you figure in travel? Are you able to do it while on the road? I’ve found that whenever I try to fit in work in addition to the purpose of the trip (e.g., giving a talk), I just end up getting really anxious about that work and don’t get it done anyway. Recently I’ve tried to reduce such expectations. The anxiety is no longer there, which itself is worth it. But so what with the daily target then?


Eszter 11.28.13 at 12:43 pm

PS. I’m assuming reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp don’t count. I can be exceptionally productive when it comes to such reviews.:)


John Quiggin 12.01.13 at 8:04 pm

Eszter, I try hard to get my daily words written when I travel. But it’s hard, as you say. Fortunately, I’m very relaxed about giving and preparing talks, so I don’t have anxiety problems, but travel is very time consuming.

An implication I drew a long time ago is that most academics travel too much. Once you have any sort of profile, people invite you to visit and talk, and the natural response is to accept. I decline as much as I can, offering the alternative of a videoconference or (for admin meetings) teleconference. I still end up at the airport more often than I would like, but not nearly as often as many of my colleagues.


Phil 12.01.13 at 8:32 pm

“Most academics” are on relatively low grades at relatively low-status institutions, I think you’ll find. It’s certainly not the travel that takes up my time. I was invited to a seminar in Finland the other month, but I had to decline – it would have disrupted teaching too much.

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