How to Appreciate Your Finitude

You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Ernest Hemingway

Begin in the present, today. No matter how big your project is, you must admit that today, at least, will come to an end. Will you be finished with your project? Probably not, unless today is the last day of your plan and you stuck to your plan. Maybe the deadline is today and you’ll hand in whatever you’ve got; that too, is a way to finish. But on most days you will not finish; you will put your books and papers away and you will go to bed knowing there is more to be done. Tomorrow is another day.

This basic idea — that today will end and tomorrow will come — may sound banal but it is enormously powerful. Given a deadline, you can count how many times you will have this experience — of stopping your work even though it is not finished. Once you understand that this will be a famliar, everyday (indeed, daily) experience, you can begin to get comfortable with it, and with the incremental progress that it implies. At the end of every day, you can survey what you have accomplished and look ahead to what you will be working on tomorrow. Get used to it.

I recommend you do this a few hours before you go to bed. Late afternoon or early evening is a perfectly reasonable time to call it a day. I understand that many students think they need to stay up late but, since you do have to get your sleep, that really just means shifting the day by a few hours. (What was it Hemingway said? “In Spain there is no nightlife. They go to bed late but they get up late. That is not nightlife. That is delaying the day.” Something like that.) The important thing is to make sure that you have some time after you have finished doing your work to relax. Don’t study until you sleep and then get up and study all day again. You’re a human being.

If you’re following my rules even a little, you are taking a moment at the end of the day to make a plan for the morning. I normally focus on the writing tasks, which shouldn’t occupy more than three hours of a day, but it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of how you will spend at least six hours of the next day before you stop for today. Now, divide those six hours of deliberate, predictable work into half hours. And put some breaks in between. Decide what you can accomplish in each half hour. If you’ve been working your discipline you can probably write about 200 words every half hour. And you can probably read about 5000 words if you put your mind to it. Try to consider your other tasks (searching a database, analyzing your data, etc.) in similar terms. Get a realistic sense of what you’re capable of and plan to make use of that capacity.

Now, I’m by no means saying you have to spend six hours every day on your research project. I’m saying that’s the maximum, and that if you are working at the maximum you’ve got time to do roughly twelve specific, deliberate things. It’s fine if you’ve got other things to do on some days and will only do five or six, or even one or two, things related to your research project. Just make it a plan rather than a hope. Try to have a list of those things ready for every day already the day before.

Don’t just stop once at the end of every day when you are too tired to continue. Make a plan to stop a discrete number of times every day, roughly every half hour. Give yourself some tasks to fill those moments. Give yourself a realistic amount of time to do it. Stop when you run out of time, not when you run out of juice.

Hemingway stopped when he knew how the story would continue. I recommend you stop simply because it is time. You will side with him or with me or find your own reasons to stop. But my advice, in any case, is to learn how to stop working, every day, very deliberately, long before you reach the deadline. Every time you stop, knowing that you are not yet finished and there is more work to be done, you appreciate the finitude of the problem. Don’t worry for the rest the day, you will get there. You will get it done. Worrying will not.

NOTE: I wrote this while preparing for my “How to Finish Your Project” talk in the Craft of Research Series.

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