The Hemingway Approach: Knowing When To Stop

The Hemingway Approach: Knowing When To Stop

Heminway was a prolific writer and workaholic. Yet, he managed to write sincerely and have a rather balanced and interesting life. Perhaps, his approach to work had something to do with it. Here’s the Heminway approach.

No time? Listen to it instead

The Nudge is ultimately a self-help section. There’s bound to be a post on productivity and the doing of things. Before we begin, I’d like to declare that this is not my idea. I read it on Medium some time ago on Darius Foroux‘s blog. So, this post is about why the Hemingway approach works for me.

Ernest Hemingway is my favourite writer of all time. Yes, he has his flaws, and not everyone is a fan of his style, but I love his stories and the life that he led. It was an adventurous one, and yet, one of the most reflective ones I’ve read about. Therefore, it was natural when I read his advice in the context of productivity that I had to implement it. Enough exposition here’s the advice,

“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. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Ernest Hemingway

While it is primarily about writing, Darius’ article made me look at it in the context of everything. It’s been roughly two years since I’ve used this in almost everything I did. It works, at least for me.

I’ve thought hard about why that is so, though, and I think I’ve finally figured out.

That’s Just Laziness, Hemingway

When I mention this to a friend or anyone during a casual conversation, their first reaction is that it’s just an excuse to be lazy. There are other ideas about getting things done. The poet Kabir famously wrote a couplet,

काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो अब । पल में प्रलय होएगी,बहुरि करेगा कब ॥


The couplet roughly translates to, “Do tomorrow’s work today and do today’s work now. The world will probably end soon, how will the work be done then?” Some scholars also take the second sentence in the context of laziness.

In any case, that is an exact opposite idea to what Hemingway suggests.

Why Should It Work?

That is because, in a world obsessed with churning out human productivity, Hemingway’s approach wants you to take a step back, and rejuvenate. It gives you time to subconsciously build a path, and yet, be completely aware of how to begin a task when you sit to complete it.

I think that is what he meant when he says that you’re as empty and also filling.

While most people want to complete it all today and be done with it, Hemingway wants you to complete the task with the same energy that you began it. The only way you can do it is if you stopped consciously.

The problem with stopping is twofold.

Firstly, indeed you break your flow, and that might impact your work when you begin it. Secondly, and more importantly, you lose track of where you were and resuming from there gets tricky.

How many times have we pulled an all-nighter during school or college because we had to do it in one night? How many times have we woken up the next day to find the horrifying errors in almost all of the work, especially towards the end?

If nothing else, the illegible handwriting or the unfortunate typos towards the last page have always made me reconsider completing a paper or assignment in one night.

Hemingway’s approach addresses both of the apparent problems that most people associate in stopping their work.

One, he wants you to stop at the peak of your flow. Here, you’re not breaking it rather you’re preserving it for the next step in line. Doing this helps you conserve your energy, and not run out of your juice as he puts it himself.

Two, since you stop at a place where you’re exactly clear with the next step, you also find it easier to resume. The beginning is usually the hardest part. You know how to begin.

The reason Hemingway says, ‘It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through,’ is because he knows how impatient we humans tend to get when they have the best ideas, and find themselves in the state of flow.

It is precisely during those moments that we exhaust and tire ourselves either of the task or of the work itself. Hemingway realises it, and so he suggests stopping.

Like everything, this approach may or may not work for you. I have followed it for enough time to know it works for me. I have never once struggled to resume something I was working on diligently.

The advice sure sounds a little counter-intuitive, but it comes from a place and man of exceptional consistency. I think that makes it worth a try.

The Nudge

Today, we’re all about finishing to-do lists and meeting deadlines. Our productivity, however, should come from a place where we know when to stop, and when to begin again. It is completely fine, and in fact, better to stop when we’ve done enough, and come back later. There’s always the next day irrespective of what the hashtags tell us.

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