Step Away from the Vehicle
Perhaps that is why the legendary American writer Stephen King, in his bestselling book On Writing: A Memoir of Craft, offers the following advice to people who have finished a first draft:
You’ve done a lot of work and you need a period of time (how much or how little depends on the individual writer) to rest. Your mind and imagination—two things that are related, but not really the same—have to recycle themselves, at least in regard to this one particular work.
He then suggests that you “take a couple days off—go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle. And then go to work on something else. Something shorter, preferably, and something that’s a complete change of direction and pace.”
The British writer Zadie Smith offers similar instructions in her essay collection Changing My Mind. Once you have produced something complete enough to review, she says, the most important thing you can do is “step away from the vehicle.” Don’t tinker. Don’t linger. Don’t give in to the impulse to try to make any immediate improvements. You need to create sufficient space between you and your words. The goal, she explains, is to transform from “writer” to “reader.”
No Break, No Gain
What I particularly appreciate about King and Smith’s suggestions is that built into each of them is the acknowledgment that taking breaks can be a form of discipline. It’s not the discipline that lawyers are typically used to discussing—the kind often associated with early mornings, late nights, and marathon bouts of work. But it does require a certain amount of self-control. “Resist temptation,” King says at one point, describing the fortitude needed to push back from your keyboard, turn off your screen, and let your brain take a much-needed siesta. Resting requires rigor.
According to research by Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois and Atsunori Ariga of Chuo University in Japan, it also leads to significant productivity benefits. A study they published in the academic journal Cognition found that brief mental diversions help improve focus when trying to complete something that takes an extended amount of time and effort. “From a practical standpoint,” Lleras told an interviewer soon after the study was published, “our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Notice, though, that Lleras says it is best to “impose brief breaks on yourself.” That’s different from constantly being interrupted by emails, text messages, and Slack notifications. Deliberate diversions can be healthy and rejuvenating. Incessant disruptions are more often just maddening, not to mention a costly drain on our time and attention.
Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington Bothell School of Business has even coined the term “attention residue” to describe how part of our brain remains stuck on one task when we try to switch back and forth between multiple tasks. The negative effects of continually checking your phone can last well beyond the few seconds or minutes you actually spend looking at it.
The key, then, is to figure out a system for keeping your various devices and inboxes at bay while at the same time making sure you treat your brain to some much-needed bits of rest and recovery. Fortunately, a concept developed several years ago by a pair of psychologists at the University of Michigan, Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, can help. It doesn’t involve any screens. It doesn’t involve any apps. And it fits very well with the advice from Stephen King and Zadie Smith that, when trying to write (and edit) something substantial, it’s important to be strict about committing to regular mental cleanses.
The Kaplans call the concept not attention residue but “attention restoration.”
Attention restoration is the idea that your mental resources can be helpfully replenished by getting a dose of the outdoors. “The capacity of the brain to focus on a specific stimulus or task is limited and results in ‘directed attention fatigue,’” explains a team of researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in a systematic review of more than 30 attention restoration experiments. A good way to combat that fatigue, it turns out, is through activities like taking a walk, sitting under a tree, or simply peering out a window. Nature can be a tremendous form of nurture.
So the next time you tackle a major writing project, consider carving out space in your calendar—particularly between the drafting and editing phases—for at least a little scenic immersion. Pick some flowers. Head to the beach. Stroll around a nearby park.
You may feel a bit guilty at first, like you are shirking your professional duties and generally slacking off. But remember what Stephen King, Zadie Smith, and the research on attention restoration teach us. By taking these kinds of breaks, you are not being lazy. You are being thoughtful, wise, and helpfully disciplined.