The law of diminishing returns for writers
One of the most common problems I saw as a physician at a busy university health clinic was students stressed out around their workload. These students would work ten to twelve hours or more a day and still not be able to keep up.
They gave up on all their leisure activities, everything they had enjoyed in high school, time with friends, literally everything.
By the time these students reached my office, they were exhausted, burned out wrecks who continued to put in insane hours studying.
The problem with working long hours
People commonly believe that if they just worked longer they would do better at whatever it is they do. Writers are in no way exempt from this belief. Employers often demand it of their employees, not understanding just how erroneous this belief is.
Your brain is like a muscle. If it’s overused, it tires and becomes less efficient. Think about lifting a 5 pound weight. Now lift that weight 20 times. No, wait, lift it a thousand times without a break. Can’t do it? Well, that’s what you’re asking your brain to do if you don’t give it a rest.
Your brain is subject to the law of diminishing returns
Thanh Pham, in a post on AsianEfficiency defines the law thus:
The tendency for a continuing application of effort or skill toward a particular project or goal to decline in effectiveness after a certain level of result has been achieved.
In effect, there is, for each of us, an optimum time frame for working. Past that our brains become increasingly less efficient. It doesn’t matter how long we stare at our computer screen, we aren’t going to work better or produce superior results after we reach that point. In fact, our work deteriorates and our brains are too tired to allow us to see it.
I particularly remember one student. She was in third year and a don in her residence. She devoted every minute of every day either to her duties or to her studies. She came to me with her grades plummeting. She was burned out and desperate for a fix. So desperate that she actually listened when I explained the law of diminishing returns to her and agreed to try a new approach.
Her change didn’t come easily. We had to start with small things. I talked her at first into sitting with her books for no more than 50 minutes with a 15 minute break before sitting down again. The next part made her cringe. I required her, at first, to take a minimum of 30 minutes to herself every day. This 30 minutes was in no way to benefit anyone else or to further any kind of work.
She took this hard, but desperation won out and when I saw her a week later, she had faithfully followed my instructions. She looked a little better, and said her focus and concentration were somewhat improved. That’s when I hit her with a bigger demand. She had to not only take an hour to herself each day, she also had to take one full evening off every week. Again, whatever she did could not be for anyone else’s benefit or in any way related to work.
The next time I saw her, she said she had taken an evening and gone to a movie with a friend. It was the first movie she had seen in longer than she could remember. She had also written a test that week and had done better on it than on tests prior to taking time off.
As the year progressed, this student took weekends away and in general built better study habits, with time off throughout each day. She never worked more than 50 minutes at a stretch and her marks skyrocketed. She made the Dean’s list.
What happened was that her brain became less fatigued. Her concentration and ability to understand and process what she read improved dramatically. Instead of staring at her books hour after hour with nothing sinking in, her reduced study hours became increasingly productive. Her brain worked better.
How this helps you as a writer
What I did with this student was to take advantage of an understanding of the law of diminishing returns (originally posited with regards to economic principles) as it applies to the human brain. It applies equally to you and your writing.
If you sit endless hours in front of your computer without a break, your brain will become less and less efficient. You may still be outputting words but I guarantee you their quality will diminish as your ability to concentrate and create slowly dwindles.
The effect is cumulative, not just over a day, but over days, weeks, and months. It can take a significant amount of time to recover from abusing your brain in this manner.
If you want to get the most out of your brain, to allow you to be at your productive and creative best, you must walk away from your keyboard regularly.
Write for an hour at a time at most
I know the temptation is there to keep going when you’re experiencing flow. Cheat by a few minutes if you must, but know that having ideas flowing when you stop makes it easier to start again when you come back. This is the principle behind stopping writing for the day before you finish writing everything you’ve thought of. You have a place to start the next day.
Set an alarm to go off 5 minutes before you’re supposed to break. That will give you time to finish your immediate writing and find a good place to pause. If necessary, jot a quick note to yourself to tell you where to pick up again when you return.
Take at least 15 minutes away from the keyboard
Don’t spend those minutes thinking about what you’re writing. That’s not a break. Play a game. Talk to your spouse or a friend. Make a cup of tea. If you’re disciplined enough, watch 15 minutes of a show. Don’t worry, you can come back to it on your next break.
Set a hard limit on your daily writing time
Remember, writing ten hours a day is not only inefficient, it also burns you out over time. You need to have other things in your life besides writing. Just. Walk. Away.
Refill the tank
Go out and live. You’re not going to write well if you’re constantly operating on fumes. Living life refills your tank and heals burnout. Get back in touch with the things you used to love doing but gave up because you convinced yourself you had more important things to do. Spend time with friends.
Nurturing yourself is essential to well-being and the ability to create on a regular basis. It’s a mistake to think otherwise. I would be willing to bet that much of writer’s block is due to empty tanks. However much you love writing, there needs to be more than a keyboard in your life.
Create increasing returns
This implies flipping decreasing returns on its head. By limiting your writing to set blocks of time and taking real time to yourself you’ll improve your ability to concentrate as well as your creativity. Don’t “lift weights” until your muscle (brain) quits.
Allow your brain to function at its best every time you sit down to write. You may find you actually write more and the quality of your writing may improve as well.
Also published on Medium