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The problem with realistic advice?

In an article entitled 16 Weeks, Thomas Basbøll ruthlessly lays out the time constraints that limit what a student will be able to write during a semester and recommends that students follow a plan:

Try to be realistic. If you need time for “free writing” or “thought writing” (writing to find out what you think) book that into your calendar as well, but the important part of the challenge is to find time to write down what you already know needs to be written. If you don’t yet know what you’re going to say this semester, then your challenge is, in part, to figure that out. But you should still find at least 30 minutes a day to write down something you know you want to say. Keep in mind that we are only talking about sixteen weeks in the very near future. . . . Assuming that you do have something say, then, here’s the challenge: write always and only when (and what) your calendar tells you to. Don’t write when “inspired” to do so (unless this happens to coincide with your writing schedule) and do everything possible to keep your appointments with yourself (the writer). Make a plan, always for 30 minutes & one paragraph at a time, and resolve to stick to it.

This seems like good advice, and I know that I always have a backlog of things that I know I want to write or to program but haven’t done yet.

But, but . . . is it a mistake to give too much realism? I have a million plans of things to do, I’m always starting things and not finishing them, but I’d be dead if I couldn’t sometimes chuck it all and start on a new project. For example, a couple months ago I was stuck on some revisions for my books and so I decided to . . . write an article with Thomas Basbøll!

Good frequency properties, unconditional on my own particular circumstances

An important part of my own productivity has been to plan to do more than I could ever realistically do. I think it can actually be helpful to not plan too carefully but instead to try to do way more than can ever realistically be done.

I remember how, when I was teaching at Berkeley, one of my senior colleagues (Peter Bickel, in case you’re curious) stopped me in the hallway and told me he’d heard I was working on a book and that he didn’t think this was a good use of my time. I think this was bad advice (and I thought so at the time too), but Bickel seemed to have had only good intentions. The problem was that he was giving me advice that had good frequency properties, unconditional on my own particular circumstances.

The anticipated effects of general advice

Back to Basbøll (I just looooove typing this, now that I have trained myself to type option-o with two quick flicks of the fingers): let’s stipulate that he is giving good advice for the average student. What would happen if everybody followed his advice? I worry that various mediocre projects would get finished, while more ambitious endeavors wouldn’t get started. But maybe I’m overthinking this. Perhaps the best students would follow Basbøll’s advice, whip through their dissertations, and then have more time to go on to the next step. It’s not like he’s advising them to devote themselves to crafting incremental contributions to appear in specialist journals.


  1. […] is some advice on writing under time constraints; Andrew via whom I got the link has other thoughts though! ZapperZ recommends IOP guidelines. Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. Ely Spears says:

    I think I side with the advice to ruthlessly stick to the schedule. Far fewer people should undertake ambitious writing projects, and the ones who should (because they have something interesting to say) will ignore this advice and say it anyway. The much harder problem is discerning whether one has anything interesting to say in the first place. For students, most “known” writing tasks are rote, algorithmic, and tedious. Yet learning to hammer these out at high quality according to a deadline is the lifetime best writing skill for most to acquire. These sorts of things hardly require much originality to know what needs to be written. It’s more a matter of coping with the boredom and dread of activity opportunity costs that needs to be tolerably lived with. The regimented-writing-only advice seems better suited to impart that skill.

  3. Dan says:

    Paul Silvia’s book “How to write a lot” advocates for a ruthless schedule. I haven’t actually tried this but the incentive is appealing because it forces you to write even when you don’t want to. Like Ely said, having to adhere to deadlines often means that you are writing at times where your interests are not necessarily aligned with the task at hand. But it allows you to accomplish more sooner rather than later, as the accumulation of your efforts quickly builds over time.

    With that said, I’m also a believer in making the most out of your own ebbs and flows in productivity. The idea that intellectual work can be done at a constant rate is obviously flawed. On some days, or times of day, your mental or physical capacity will allow for great productivity – other times, not so much. Of course, another relevant factor is the intense focus that some people thrive on when it comes to a deadline. But, using a deadline to focus does not bode well for the type of work that requires an adequate amount of time to achieve good quality.

    I agree with the assertion that different people require different routines. I suppose the advice being offered could be most helpful for students (or anyone really) that haven’t quite worked out a routine that has been successful at making the most of their abilities.

  4. Wayne says:

    My interpretation of the advice is to force yourself to learn to just do the tedium of actually writing, and thereby to become good at writing. In the same way an aspiring musician has to do scales and exercises every day that are tedious, someone who will write for their living needs to “just do it” a lot to get a feel for it.

    Taking an example from an entirely different field… I’d guess that everyone over the age of 12 in the US has a “great idea for a movie” somewhere in their head. Only a tiny fraction of these “great ideas” make it to the screen. A larger fraction of people actually try to write a movie script — myself included — and find that it’s hard work to flesh out a couple of good ideas into an actual (90-page) script.

    • Wayne says:

      A second part to the answer would be to learn to get yourself into a state of “Flow”. Flow is critical to creative pursuits and most of us haphazardly get into the Flow by either: a) procrastinating until the pressure/inspiration/creative-tension gives us the energy we need, or b) the whimsy/curiosity/fascination pulls us into Flow. Most professionals, though, have to learn to get into Flow on demand, not when inspiration strikes. Perhaps the “write every day” advice is to train you to get into Flow on demand, and perhaps once your in a state of Flow, more innovative thoughts will spring out of it.

  5. Thomas says:

    I think I’m basically advising people to write the workaday (I don’t want to say mediocre) parts of their research papers in a workaday way. More than 80% of an article often consists of stuff that is either simply “known” (i.e., by most readers) or has been known to the author for a long time (i.e., is part of their basic competence as a researchers). It still has to be written down, and my advice (which is especially relevant for people who have something important to say) is really intended to help you develop the habits of craft to write that prose. That same craft competence will come in handy when you write that fifth of the paper that may be truly brilliant or innovative. Once the ideas (knowledge) for those paragraphs come to you, after all, you can just write them down too.

    I try not to interfere too much with the way people generate their ideas. Learn things in your own way, but then write down what you know, one paragraph at a time. At least one paragraph a day.

    I think we’re robbed of the insights of a lot of brilliant people because they can’t get the ordinary parts of their research papers (or dissertations!) written. It’s my aim to help especially those people write their ideas down.

  6. Ethan Bolker says:

    What’s “realistic” depends on who you are, so the most realistic advice on how to write isn’t to follow this or that particular plan, but to find a strategy that works for you. Shameless plug: this is the theme of my wife’s Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day ( She says up front that the title is just a come-on.

  7. EmilyKennedy says:

    Basebøl’s advice sounds VERY similar to Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks by Belcher. My understanding of the method in Belcher’s book is that it’s really great for graduate students and assistant professors, or anyone who has not fully come to terms with writing being a critical component of a strong academic career.

    My impression is that you, Prof. Gelman, have already come to terms with the necessity of writing, and you’re in a space where you can kind of do as you like, because you will generally always be writing. For what it’s worth, in Belcher’s book I don’t remember there being any prohibitions against writing when inspired, just the rule to write at a minimum 15 minutes a day (shooting for 30 or more). That might be Basebøl’s innovation.