Writing Sprints: Winning the Race

More than a dozen years ago, when I was working in a newsroom and our three daughters were in diapers, an early-morning ritual helped me get my writing done. Every weekday, I'd wake up, stumble downstairs, steaming cup of tea in hand, to my desktop in the basement, and work on my extracurricular writing dreams until it was time to get ready for work and tell other people's stories.
A few years ago, another self-imposed ritual helped me finish the draft of a novel. Hopelessly blocked, I told myself I had to write at least 500 words of fiction every day -- scenes, description, exposition. Notice that I didn't say good words; the point was to create first and then take time to criticize and revise. One hundred and fifty-four days later, I had produced about 90,000 words, which gave me plenty to rework.

These days, my daily writing ritual seems to break down this way:

  1. check e-mail

  2. clean out spam filter

  3. surf the Web

This ritual doesn't pay off with lots of copy.

I think that's why I'm so excited by what I've been reading in "The Power of Full Engagement," by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, a book that identifies rituals as a key component of success.

Loehr and Schwartz aim their message principally at "Corporate Athletes," so I was pleasantly surprised to find a writer among their case studies of CEOs, administrators and other executive types.

"Peter D" is a pseudonym, but their description of him -- a writer with a deadline he wasn't sure he'd meet -- sounds a lot like me and people I know.

Peter was normally a literary workhorse, used to spending long days at the computer. Lately, though, he'd found himself running out of steam, his concentration withering as the hours passed.
Peter needed to shift, Loehr and Schwartz say, "from the mentality of a marathoner to that of a sprinter."

That metaphor struck a chord in me. A lifetime as a news reporter accustomed me to running sprints, turning out stories on tight deadlines. I'm fast off the blocks, but often stumble toward the finish line. Sustaining my energy and discipline for daily races as well as longer runs -- magazine pieces, books, screenplays -- has always been a challenge that made me wish I had the heart and habits of a marathoner.

That was the change that bicycling phenom Lance Armstrong said had to happen to him. "My reputation was as a single-day racer; show me the start line and I would win on adrenaline and anger." To win the three-week Tour de France, however, "required a longer view," he said. "I just couldn't get it through my head that in order to win I had to ride more slowly at first."

While the long view helped Armstrong win the Tour six times, "The Power of Full Engagement" is teaching me a different lesson that I hope will be as effective. Loehr and Schwartz have convinced me that, where writing is concerned, the sprint is eminently more practical, and may be far more effective, than long-distance running. In the world of the professional writer, where the clock is always ticking, writing in sprints is the key to productivity, especially when they are balanced by rest periods, however brief.

Loehr and Schwartz pair the discipline of interval training with the sustaining power of ritual.  Successful athletes, they say, whether they perform on the tennis court, the golf course, in executive suites, the newsroom or at the keyboard, understand "the power of positive rituals -- precise, consciously acquired behaviors that become automatic in our lives, fueled by a deep sense of purpose."

The key is the word "automatic," because will power takes not just commitment but energy. Loehr and Schwartz point to recent research that "suggests that as little as 5 percent of our behaviors are consciously directed." It's not self-control, but habits (good and bad), demands and anxiety that propel most of what we do. "The sobering truth is that we have the capacity for very few conscious acts of self-control in a day," they argue. Anyone with an addiction, from chocolate to heroin, or on a diet, knows the truth of that statement.

"If we want to build into our lives new behaviors that last," Loehr and Schwartz say, "we can't spend much energy to sustain them."

That's where rituals come in. If self-control pushes us, then rituals are the ultimate in pull technology.

My friend and mentor, Don Murray, long ago taught me the power of writing rituals. He likes to quote the Dutch mystery writer, Jan Willem van de Wetering, who said: "To write you have to set up a routine, to promise yourself that you will write. Just state in a loud voice that you will write so many pages a day, or write for so many hours a day. Keep the number of pages or hours within reason, and don't be upset if a day slips by. Start again; pick up the routine." 

Here's the ritual Loehr and Schwartz developed for Peter D:

6:30–8 a.m. -- Writing Session 1: They scheduled it early because Peter said he was freshest then. To limit distractions, he shut off his phone and left his e-mail alone.

8-8:30 a.m. -- A healthy, high protein, breakfast. As sportswriter Sally Jenkins points out, "any athlete will tell you that what goes into your body is what comes out, in the performance."

8:30-10 a.m. -- Writing Session 2

10 a.m-10:20 a.m. -- Exercise and snack. Push yourself, then give yourself a break; that's the way to build endurance, Loehr and Schwartz maintain.

10:30 a.m.-Noon -- Writing session 3

Peter stopped work at noon for a jog and lunch and devoted his afternoons to reading, research and other business.

Instead of feeling burned out, he had enough energy left to enjoy evenings with his family.

The book doesn't say whether Peter made his deadline, but the initial impact was impressive enough to make me a believer in the power of writing sprints. With four and a half hours of focused writing time, "Peter was able to write nearly twice as much as he had sitting at his desk for up to 10 hours a day in previous years."

Like many writers, I tend to binge once I start writing. It's almost as if I'm convinced that if I stop I'll never start again. Inspired by Peter's example, I took a different approach to this column. I wrote and revised it over two days, working in 90-minute sessions which I scheduled in advance. Write it down; make it happen, says productivity expert Henriette Anne Klauser, and I consistently find that to be true. Instead of writing until I was worn out, I deliberately took short breaks, once to step outside and read a book for about 15 minutes; another time I broke for lunch and a brief walk.

Of course, I recognize that I may have more freedom than other writers. You may not even have 90 minutes to work on a story. What if your shift mixes day with night work?

But we still may be able to take a lesson from athletes who've learned to push hard and then back off from that lead, or that tease or online blurb, that chapter or section, even if it just means getting up from your desk and walking to the watercooler.

Positive rituals, Loehr and Schwartz believe, can help us manage our time and energy, conserve our limited supply of self-discipline, help us cover long distances in a series of short runs and perhaps best of all, create our own finish lines.

Whether you're a marathon writer or a sprinter, what rituals help you get the writing done?

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    Chip Scanlan

    Chip Scanlan is an affiliate faculty member at The Poynter Institute. From 1994-2009, he taught reporting and writing in its real and virtual classrooms and coached journalists worldwide. He spent two decades as an award-winning journalist for the Providence Journal, St.


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