Ernest Hemingway’s Productivity Technique


They say that Ernest Hemingway always stopped writing for the day mid-way through a sentence.

He did this to ensure he had something to respond to the next day, rather than having to start from scratch.

My version of this approach is to work on several things at once. It’s rare that everything gets finished simultaneously, and when I do finish one thing, I’ve got two more in the works.

Responding to a work-in-progress makes it easier to stay productive. Because it’s hard to start from scratch.

If it’s been a while since you made anything, or if you get stuck once you’ve finished something, consider creating your own version of this technique.

(And if you’ve been reading the comments (here or here or here) on the Friday 20 Minute Club blog posts, you might have noticed many of your fellow readers use similar techniques to keep their momentum going too.)

Getting Started

Admittedly, getting started is the hardest part.

(That’s where the timer comes in–the concrete reminder of your agreement with the universe that you’re going to try even if it’s hard, but you also get to stop in “x” minutes and the ick will be over).

So turn on that timer and use a 20 Minute Session to just start a couple-three things.

Start. Not finish. (Don’t change the rules on yourself.)

Maybe that means you paint color washes for backgrounds on three 5″ x 7″ sheets of paper. Or iron the pattern pieces for a couple of sewing projects. Or lay out bead boards for 2 or three necklaces instead of one. Whatever your thing is.

Then, in your next 20 Minute Session, you can decide which one you want to work on. And if that doesn’t work out, you have another to move on to.

Or maybe you prefer to work in terms of big projects and small projects.

You can break your big project down into small sessions (20 minutes perhaps?) and bit by bit, it gets done.

Or you can use small projects as great in-between 20 Minute Sessions when you don’t know what to do next on your big project. (Or when your big project is almost done and you know it needs something–but what?!–and you’re afraid to ruin it.)

Working on small projects when you hit an impasse with a big project helps keep your momentum going by continuing your engagement with design, aesthetic, and technical problem-solving but in a mellow, low stakes way.

This, in turn, allows your subconscious mind has a chance to sort out what needs to happen next on your big project without your conscious mind freaking out. (Or chanting “you’ll ruin it, you’ll ruin it, you’ll ruin it.”)

Other Ideas

What do you think? Do you use any of these techniques to keep your momentum going?

Do have different tricks or techniques that work for you that you could share?

And if you’ve been needing a trick and like the sound of these, give it a try and let me know how it goes.

(And every Friday, I write up the 20 Minute Club‘s weekly minutes–sharing how it went for me and getting great comments of from other readers about how it went for them. Come join us!)

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  1. Sarah!
    It’s funny how we always think we’re the only one that works this way…I usually have a dozen or so things in the works at the same time! Sometimes finishing can be harder than getting started, but, it’s true that I always feel productive…at least I’m working on something!

  2. Carol J. says:

    Hmmm…and here I thought having more than one thing started just meant I was indecisive. Why is it that I never seem to have faith in myself??!!

    I’m glad you’re sharing all these ideas, Sarah; it helps so much to know that we really are all pretty “normal”! :)

  3. When I am working on a serious piece, I cannot do work on another piece at the same time. But, I do prep canvas to have it ready to go, and I sort through paper ephemera and books in *down time* to keep the mind active.
    When my current work is done (they are slow and require a lot of concentration) I have another canvas ready for paint and collage, and I have interesting tidbits picked out.
    It may vary from your working on several things at once, but in essence, it’s pretty much the same.
    The exception is if I have a matched pair to do, then I am working back and forth between the pieces, seeing what feels right where. Those are, hmmmmm, interesting if not fun!;-)

  4. Minerva Hopkins says:

    How funny I just thought I was ADD. Always have several things working at once in different mediums.Just get bored working on one at a time.

    Never even crossed mind it was creative.Now I can justify it.

  5. Perhaps the reason I am not a wealthy artist with showings across the nation or an author with more published material is because I have not learned how nor disciplined myself for a creative ‘space’ in which to work mentally, physically, spiritually. Creative momentum is what I would call my output:it flows, and I go with it. All else fades away. I might not ever go back to it, whatever the thing is I’ve begun: and I might absorb myself in it for days and days on end. I have a great (unofficial) mentor who told me to force myself into a disciplined routine of working on something every day in order to start, build, and maintain momentum. And, like everyone responding so far, I have a number of ‘in-progress’ works…another story for another time! But Sarah, you’ve inspired me to post something on my wall at fb about this~thankx.

  6. I like Hemingway’s technique for writing – its produced some of my best work that way. I do not like it, however, for making art and crafts.

    What I have found about myself is that I feel “potential” can be stifling, and that the more I have started, the more I feel conflicted about what I could be working on, what I should be working on, and what I am working on.

    What I have actually found is that the more I focus in, the creativity flows better. So instead of trying to have my scrapbooking projects, my knitting projects, and my designs going, I’ve found by focusing on a large and a small project at one time, my focus is kept, and I find the creative juices flow.

  7. fookie says:

    Would drive me nuts to leave a sentence in the middle, it’s like waiting for the other shoe to drop.

    I like to work one project at a time, if i’m painting. Sewing projects can wait for days, weeks, months or years for the spark to finish it.

    I had a bum day yesterday, did nothing and had a restless short sleep. So today I got out the Bob Burridge DVD “Aquamedia Florals” and his printed layout chart. When into my room with the layout (didn’t watch the DVD). Got out a canvas board and went to work. Oh, the best part! The “inspiration”. I put a CD of his Holiness the Dali Lama singing!

    In my exhuberance (I’m a messy painter) I poured out a big glob of Golden Fluid Acrylic Jenkins Green, dug in with a size 12 Cat Tongue brush with a load meant for a size 16, and with a florish toward my canvas I flung that paint all over the damn window and my white horizontal blinds, and my favorite green-gold t-shirt. 45 minutes later the paint is but a look-closely footprint, the shirt is outside drying and the now-dry brush is in the sink to soak.

    Went back to my canvas, the b/g is in and drying and I’ll work on the flowers before I go to bed because

  8. Joyce Barham says:

    I always have more than one project going at once. It has been a hindrance and have quite a few unfinished projects. This year I decided to get organized and focused on finishing four at a time. The concept is to limit the amount you are working on and list them as easy, medium (two steps to finish), and hard (more than 3 steps and will take several times to finish). You can start a new list when you have worked on all 3 projects. You choose the amount of time and the progress. This is called the Fab Four List over at Stashbusters Yahoo Group. So, I am always finishing at least the easy one every month and making progress on 2 more. I have added another category and it is long term projects. Currently, I am working with 2″ fabric strips and making string blocks. This is something I do after dinner but before I get too tired and time to go to bed.

    I have gathered up what I need to work on this project and keep it sitting by the sewing machine that I am using for this project. This makes it easy to start as I don’t have to spend time looking for foundation papers and strings. Also, my goal is to make one big block each day. One big block has 4 smaller blocks in it. I always sew my first string on 4 foundation papers so I will have a place to start the next day. This act fits one of my life mottoes…Always, be prepared.

  9. Ayala Art says:

    I also have several things going at the same time, but I have to be careful not to leave them that way for ever! :o P
    But the positive thing is that, at any given moment I have something I can finish, or work on, or add to it…..
    When I paint I have 3 canvas going on. When I make something small I can have like 9, but those I finish that same sitting.
    As for dolls, I have body-less heads, headless bodies and an arrangement of limbs that need to belong to something lol

    For inspiration, color works for me. I see a color and it brings some ideas, most of the time. :o )

  10. As a graphic designer, I am used to working on many different jobs/tasks at a time, and I often like the opportunity to go from one to the next, the variety helping keep things fresh.

    With my art, I find that simply putting in the time does help… I tend to have more than one thing going at once, although sometimes I’m ignoring pieces that don’t excite me anymore. Right now I have two paintings started that I don’t really think are going anywhere. One low stress task would be to sponge those off and get them ready to paint.

    It is helpful to do small tasks or painting exercises when I’m a bit tired or uninspired. Like painting swatches or reading through how-to books. Especially going through my watercolor instruction books gets me fired up and inspired. When I am enthused from a success or have gotten a boost from someone’s good words or good works – these are times when it’s good for me to take that momentum and paint more challenging subjects.

    Also early in the day, leaving more mundane or uninspired tasks for later. This makes me think that it would be nice to have an art or craft form where there’s a good amount of sort of mindless work. That can be soothing without the angst of having to be on the edge of one’s creative spark.

  11. Sandra L. says:

    I am so disgusted with myself. I can’t seem to get anything done! Every night I have good intentions to do something the next day, for 20 minutes, but then when “today” comes, I have these thoughts like, oh, it’s not worth mixing paint and then having to wash brushes for a 20-minute stint. Or I sit around waiting to see what my husband is going to do (we are both unemployed and he never seems to go anywhere without me!) before deciding what I want to do. He doesn’t get in my way–but I just feel odd about taking time for my art.

    I used to dream of having all day to do art. Now I’ve been out of work for almost a year, and I have hardly done anything. I have a swap coming up in less than 3 weeks, and not enough pieces done.

    I keep wondering, what is wrong with me? Depression? Maybe I don’t really like making art? I’m just plain lazy.

    Can anyone help?

    I even bought Shona Cole’s book and when I looked at the workshop schedule she had laid out, I felt overwhelmed.


  12. I have often thought that I have too many hobbies or things I really love to do. I have several works going in several categories from knitting, crocheting, jewelry and most of all painting.
    As far as hitting a non or nearly non productive stage in painting though, some times it helps to try a different medium from the one you have been working with.
    I started painting with water colors, went to acrylic and then to my current love: Genesis. The brushes don’t dry out even when they have gobs of paint in them. I have a couple of paintings that I started 2 or 3 years ago and am planning to get back working on them this summer. They are still workable as the paint only drys when heat is applied.
    I really enjoy switching from one project to another and have more ideas about things I’d like to do than I can possibly finish in this life time.

  13. fookie says:

    Group, I apologize if I am breaking some protocol here, and if I am be sure to inform me.

    Sandra L, I’ve spent the last 5 years or so in the state you are describing. It was caused by yes, Depression and medication for same. Against MA I got a new doc who said “you’re not Depressed, you’re bored. If you want to stop the meds, go ahead.” So I did and after a year long brutal withdrawal I’m interested in making stuff again. I’m no psych and not giving medical advice, just sharing that riding myself of that psychic pain released my desire to paint. Good luck and hope to see more of you.

  14. Lesley Riley says:

    Sarah – I have been using this technique for years. I had no idea it was Hemingway’s. Great minds think alike, huh, LOL.

    It’s so true though, knowing exactly where to start the next day gets you over that hurdle of starting. One thing I’ve learned is that the longer the time between starts, the harder is it to start. Leaving something undone is like getting a running start. And we need all the advantages we can get some days.

    Thanks for this great post.

  15. Sarah says:

    @Sandra–Thank you SO much for stopping by the blog and sharing your frustrations and struggle! You have really helped a lot of people just by being willing to share your difficulties.

    I want you to know that you’re not alone and I think it’s a very common phenomenon to have a hard time getting started when you finally get the time you’ve always dreamed about. And it definitely doesn’t mean you don’t like making art.

    Sometimes this stuckness happens because we’ve made the stakes really high and that makes it difficult to move forward. Now that you have the time, you might be afraid of what you find out–what if you don’t make work you like–that you decide is “bad”? It might feel like you “aren’t an artist”. This is a hard test to force yourself to take.

    Perhaps you could examine the rules and standards you are holding yourself to and ask yourself if you’d ever hold anyone else to such standards? Remember that everyone makes “bad” work–I know I do quite regularly–but it doesn’t make me a “bad” artist. It’s part of the process. And it helps me get to the good stuff.

    And every time I have a long stint of not creating, I usually am not so happy with my first efforts because I’m a little rusty and need to get warmed up again.

    Although 20 minutes seems so short, I’m always amazed at how much I get done. Certainly this isn’t always true–but what if you made it okay to set everything up–could you leave your brushes in a container of water without washing them out? I know I do quite regularly and my brushes seem fine.Or make something you hate and then tear it up or burn it or something. No one has to see. :-)

    Keep me posted about how things go for you–and thanks again for sharing your frustration! How you feel is totally normal!! I hope you give yourself a break.
    Internet Hugs, Sarah

  16. [...] Tricky Art of Finishing What You Start By Sarah SeveralĀ  comments in last week’s blog post Ernest Hemingway’s Productivity Techniques alluded to the [...]

  17. [...] had a few more almost-finished collages to work with. And feeling so tired, I was thankful to have work to respond to rather than having to start from [...]

  18. Teresa says:

    Well, here I am re-reading this and thinking hey yeah! – I am always most productive when I have several projects in the works. Funny thing is, it’s like new news every time I come back to that realization.

    Thanks, Sarah -

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