I’m investigating the boundary between work – what you do until you quit – and what Lewis Hyde in The Gift calls labor – what you do until it’s finished. (Notice the change in pronouns). Recently, I’ve started writing projects with the intent to work on them for 45 minutes and then quit, only to discover that I’m so excited about writing that blog post or revising my next chapter that I’ll finish it, no matter how long it takes. What changed?
Let’s start with the baseline of boring old work. Often, when I’m working on something for a spell, I stop because my productivity peters out: either because doing the task is hard, or because knowing what to do next is hard. The “tipping point” when timed work becomes labor has do with conceptualizing my task in enough detail to know the sequence of actions to take. Suddenly, all I have to do is my task, and I can stop thinking about what to do or how to do it. It feels like I’m almost possessed by a plan. I give up to the goal. And the work gets done.
According to Stephen King’s On Writing, Anthony Trollope wrote for exactly two and a half hours each morning before work – no more, no less (p 147). That’s the clock approach. Being possessed by an idea is the demon approach. What is your preferred habit of working – clocks or demons?