This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Productivity Is For Robots
. . .
In the early 1920s, a young writer sat at his desk, struggling to write a new story. He was poor and it was cold and he sat in front of the fireplace, squeezing the peels of little oranges into the flame to watch the sputter of blue they made.
From his window, he looked over the rooftops of Paris and told himself, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now.”
When the young writer sat down in front of the typewriter the next day, the words came easy. He didn’t use any pre-game rituals or chant any mantras. What this writer knew was that it mattered less how he started and more how he had ended the day before. This young writer was Ernest Hemingway.
“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” —Ernest Hemingway
Picture yourself stuck at your desk. Uninspired and unfocused. There’s work to be done but you can’t find the rhythm. You pace the room, check your email. Blank page. Empty head. And then it happens…
You find the right word, the right answer, the perfect design. Words fly onto the page and emails soar out of your inbox like messenger pigeons from heaven. It feels as though you’re floating above it all, transcended to a realm of focus that would make anyone from Elon Musk to the Dali Lama jealous.
You’ve entered the promised land. The land of flow.
Hours pass. It’s dinner time, but you can’t stop now. You learned a long time ago that the greatest sin of high-performance is to leave anything on the table. The sun goes down. The midnight oil has been burnt. Finally, you stand up and walk away from your work, drained yet triumphant.
Or so you think…
High-performance coach and chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin once described a conversation he had with skiing legend Billy Kidd about the most important turns on a ski run:
“…the three most important turns of the ski run are the last three before you get on the lift. And it’s a subtle point. That’s when the slope has leveled off, there’s less challenge. Most people are very sloppy. They’re taking the weight off the muscles they’ve been using. They have bad form. The problem with that is that on the lift ride up, they’re unconsciously internalizing bad body mechanics. As Billy points out, if your last three turns are precise, you’re internalizing precision on the lift ride up.”
And so it goes with flow. When we walk away from our work drained, dazed, and confused, we internalize those feelings. That all-nighter where you worked until you literally couldn’t? It may have yielded production, but the brain drain you felt when you walked away followed you home and hitched a ride back to your desk the next day.
The bitter gambler always has the same story, “If it wasn’t for that last hand, I’d be rich.” But the gambler who laughs all the way home after doubling her money knows better. She knows it’s because she walked away before her luck ran out.
Hemingway understood that flow wasn’t a ghost to be strangled to death on every chance encounter. He knew better than to try and swim upstream from his natural programming. Rather than fight, he embraced the fact that humans don’t have bottomless pits of creative output and turned it into an advantage. His strategy to “never empty the well,” allowed him to walk away from his typewriter while he still had gas in the tank and inspiration on his side. For him it wasn’t about entering flow. It was about never leaving.
“I always worked until I had something done, and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
. . .
The last thing most people want to hear when they start a project they are passionate about are “limits.” But placing constraints around the work we do helps to bring out more of what matters most. Limiting the hours dedicated to a new project forces us to zero in on what’s possible as human beings with limited time and resources. Once we know we can’t do as much, we’re free to focus on what we can do better and—most importantly—how we can be different.
The filmmaker Robert Rodriquez learned this when he made his first film, El Mariachi, for only $7,000. It forced him to ask, what do I already have available to me? What if I only shoot every scene once? What if I use 16mm film instead of 35mm?
El Mariachi didn’t become the classic film it is today in spite of its low budget, but because of it. The limits around where it could be shot, who could be hired, and what the script could contain forced it to become something unique. It won Sundance. And showed a whole generation of young filmmakers how limits can create possibility.
We’re not robots, but we do have limited bandwidth. Placing limits around the hours we work and things we make helps us maintain a state of flow. Limits encourage creativity, just as unlimited options create overwhelm. We already have robots that can work 100 plus hours and sift through endless options. Why try to compete?
We’ve been led to believe that beating our head against the wall in search of quality work is a rite of passage. That it’s those who can stay in the pressure cooker the longest who will eventually win. But anyone can learn to outlast the others. Any robot or machine can put in round-the-clock hours. The real discipline comes from walking away before you’re cooked.
It takes a cool, Hemingway-like confidence to tell the muses, “We’ve worked enough today. I’m sure I’ll see you around tomorrow.”