How to Write More with Less Stress by Writing Every Day

“Writing” by jjpacres is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. License

Sprint writing sucks.

Most people are binge or what I prefer to call sprint writers. People scramble to fill the pages, wringing every word from their brain in a flurry before a deadline. Not only does this impact students, it also affects older writers too. Dissertation drafts, term papers, conference paper deadlines, you name it, people sprint write it.

I too taught myself to write this way. In college, I had to literally sprint across campus to turn paper copies on time because I procrastinated so badly. When I began graduate school, I kept up the same pattern — putting off writing until I was so time-crunched that I spat something out at 1 or 2am to collaborators. In the moment, this feels euphoric because you feel like you’re tapping into something mystical that binds academics together in a scholarly sprint writing tradition.

Looking back, that work wasn’t my best. Most people wouldn’t put off training for a marathon until the night before the race, expecting to qualify for national events — why do we treat writing for a grade or conference submission that way? Plus, the hangover after a major sprint is horrible — days, maybe even weeks, pass before you can muster the energy to do anything related to work, let alone write.

I used to write like this because of imposter syndrome or self-doubt. I truly thought I couldn’t write because I couldn’t produce exceptional prose in the first attempt. Sprint writing reinforces this, because it says that the ONLY way to write is to wait for a muse or that brilliance only comes under crushing pressure.

On a whim, I started writing every day in the summer of 2017, when I was working at a research internship. Every day, I wrote a little bit — writing up yesterday’s methods, a few sentences towards my annotated bibliography, or short writing summarizing my results as they came in.

Piece by piece, those writings formed a paper, scattered across documents and lab notebooks. And when I compiled it all together? The paper was 80% completed, more than a month out from my conference deadline (and typical start point for writing).

By writing this way, it felt effortless to produce a draft, because I only spent about 25 to 30 minutes a day writing. It was much easier to produce a great submission starting a month out with a completed draft.

After that, I’ve committed to writing every single work day. This represented a turning point in the tone and approach I took to writing, and I can see the difference in the kind of paper I write now. In fact, I’m writing and editing this blog post now in a series of 25 minute sessions. My best streak yet is that I haven’t missed writing each work day for 10 months.

Proof of my streak. I track my writing with Habits app on Android, and enjoy not breaking the chain in my habits.

In this post, I’ll tell you my unsexy and unremarkable strategy to write every single day. There are no wood-paneled writing rooms and certainly no exotic productivity hacks. Below, I outline my step-by-step strategy so you can get started writing every workday.

How to Write Every Day

First, pick an amount of time that causes you no internal resistance. Zilch, nada, none. I want this to be so effortless that when you think of the time, you chuckle because it feels so comically short. Seriously, 5 to 10 minutes is plenty.

Set your timer.

Now start writing.

It’s important here to understand the goal, because this often trips people up. Don’t aim for perfection, as later editing will cover any necessary cleanup. The aim is to articulate a good representation of your thoughts, enough that you have a foundation for next time.

What counts as writing? Any activity that contributes to the written expression of your work. This includes mindfully thinking of what to write, stream of consciousness writing, sketching out ideas on a white board, outlining, writing what’s missing, writing about yesterday’s results or data analysis, editing a previous section, writing prose, sketching out figures for manuscripts. Don’t worry about where it is or what it is — are you writing about your project? It counts!! Just last week, I spent 25 minutes writing about 45 words on a whiteboard, and it counted.

When the timer goes off, make a note or comment of where you left off. This will let you pause but not leave behind unfinished thoughts the moment the session ends. At the end, do something you enjoy or value. Make a great cup of tea. Cross writing off your to-do list. Start a calendar streak that is publicly visible. Put a gold star somewhere you can see.

Why This Works

The biggest concern I hear when I pitch this approach to others is: “5–10 minutes is nothing, I won’t write anything good!!”

The only way to get this approach to work is to show up and write mediocre content every day. As a recovering perfectionist where every word had to be excellent on the first draft, I can attest that this approach forces you to stop worrying about only doing ok. The quality will come later during editing blocks. It is much easier to edit from a rough draft of mediocre ideas than it is to expect perfectly formed, coherent sentences from the first pass or when writing under pressure.

5–10 minutes/day will feel too short after a while if you stick with this. As you gain comfort, slowly increase the size of the block over time. For me, this came after about two or three weeks, where I added another five or ten minutes.

I’ve found that my happy medium of no resistance writing time is 20 to 25 minutes a day. On most days, I write for between 45 minutes to an hour — but 25 is perfectly fine on busy days or when I’m not feeling like writing. I can always squeeze in 25 minutes to write.

A secondary benefit of writing every day is that it keeps the project on your mind so your subconscious can solve the exact thing that got you stuck yesterday. I can’t tell you how many times a difficult transition or organization of a section left me frustrated at the end of a session — for the next day the solution was obvious.

Trying to leap to the level of an expert writer at the deadline is trying to run a marathon when you can’t jog a straight minute. Write every single workday for 2 weeks. A daily writing goal is a step that’s so simple, it’s hard to justify not doing it. Start small and sustainable, like parking your car at the back of the lot to walk to the front. Break bad habits like procrastination and perfectionism, and you’ll likely find your overall written output increase.

[I started writing this post before the COVID-19 pandemic. With schedules and patterns completely off and for some our lives upside down, small chunks of writing may be the only way to achieve any sense of normalcy and progress. If you’re ready to start this — great! If this feels overwhelming for you, revisit it later if it sits with you. The intent is to provide small steps forward amid uncertainty, and I hope this helps!]

Other Resources for Writing

  • The National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development’s 14 Day Writing Challenge has structure built in
  • How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. By Paul Silvia

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Professor at Minnesota CS, Georgia Tech PhD. Human-centered machine learning, work/life balance, and productivity. @snchancellor on Twitter

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Stevie Chancellor

Stevie Chancellor

Professor at Minnesota CS, Georgia Tech PhD. Human-centered machine learning, work/life balance, and productivity. @snchancellor on Twitter

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