Why writing is so hard, and how chocolate may help.

posted on
August 25th, 2011
written by
psychobabble, writing

Two words: “ego depletion.”

No, I’m not talking about what happens when you check your Amazon ranking too often (don’t do that!). I’m referring to the stuff in this essay (adapted by John Tierney from his and Roy F. Baumeister’s forthcoming book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength). The focus here is on something called “decision fatigue”, the real physiological/neurological aspects involved in the decision-making process.

There’s a lot of fascinating research covered in the essay, which encompasses everything from judges deciding who to parole (and how if your case is up around tea-time, and the judge hasn’t had a snack, you’re screwed), to the brain-whipping effects of filling out a wedding registry, to why people in poverty are more likely to grab a candy bar from the impulse-buy section when checking out at the grocery store.

Basically–surprise!–we are limited in our ability to make carefully considered decisions. Our brains, making decisions big and small all day, eventually reach a point of surrender or collapse, where we are more likely to say OKAY WHATEVER I’M TIIIRED.

The article got me thinking about writing. What is writing if not a constant series of choices? Writing is decision-making. This word, not that word. This much detail, this emotional moment, this plot point. Though it may look like we’re just sitting on our asses doing nothing, we are engaged in a very taxing mental activity that calls on a “muscle” that can poop out just like your quads at the gym. Which explains why I (and a lot of other writers I know) find it difficult or impossible to work more than two or three hours a day before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. That number of hours is of course different for everyone, but it’s infinite for no one.

I liked this:

“Part of the resistance against making decisions comes from our fear of giving up options. The word ‘decide’ shares an etymological roots with ‘homicide,’ the Latin word ‘caedere,’ meaning ‘to cut down’ or ‘to kill,’ and that loss looms especially large when decision fatigue sets in.”

In other words: If “killing your darlings” or, less violently, “cutting,” is a necessary part of good writing, that gets harder to do as the work day wears on, and you are less likely to make good decisions, and more likely to spend ten minutes deleting that semi-colon, putting it back in, deleting it, putting it back in, etc. At that point, you might as well call it a day and go watch some Kitchen Nightmares.

Or, have a snack! The brain runs on glucose, and if your body is depleted, your ability to make decisions will be compromised. Research shows that eating gives a temporary boost to flagging decision-making capabilities. If you were at SCBWI-NY, you may recall that I suggested writing with your hand in a bowl of M&Ms wasn’t the best idea, and that solid nutritional habits are an asset to the writing life. Perhaps I spoke too soon.

Oh, wait!

“The problem is that what we identify as sugar doesn’t help as much over the course of the day as the steadier supply of glucose we would get from eating proteins and other more nutritious foods.”

I love it when science-y people tell me I’m right. But, yes, there is a physiological reason for that weirdly intense need for snacks while engaged in under-deadline revisions and longer than usual writing days.

This all goes back to my recent posts about the importance of taking care of yourself, thinking about what you say “yes” to, separating the real “have tos” from the imposters, and accepting limitations. If you feel, somehow, that you’re a slacker if you’re not writing six to eight hours a day, and that if you only had more willpower, you could just do it, science says you’re wrong.

Tierney writes that successful decision-makers “structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices… Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.”

I add: Every page of good writing is the result of good decision-making. It’s real work. Do what you can to conserve that energy. Respect your brainz. Sustainability. Slow and steady wins it.

Speaking of resting, I wrote a bit more about my time off and what I’m doing for my brain and spirit, here at Good Letters.

Also, I’ve got a contribution to this LA Review of Books Blog appreciation of Charlotte’s Web.

See you back here next week!

Make a note of it:


  • Matt - August 25, 2011 at 11:52 am -

    Fascinating, Sara. This might also explain my experience of being in the zone, when the writing is really flowing, and I feel like I can go for hours and hours. It is in those moments where I feel like the decisions of storytelling aren’t mine to make. The characters are making them for me.

  • Lisa Schroeder - August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am -

    Wow. This is SO interesting. And it’s true, if I need to write for longer than that 2-3 hours, I need lots of snacks to do it!

  • Nicole Krell - August 25, 2011 at 1:27 pm -

    I have to agree, this was fascinating. You always know exactly what to say. (Great decision making on your part, right?) I think I will now step away from my WIP and start fresh tomorrow.

  • Lesli Lytle - August 25, 2011 at 1:53 pm -

    It also explains why we writers should take on mindless jobs, to conserve the important brain cells for our writing!

    I’m sooo sending this to my husband. He can decide what’s for dinner for the rest of our lives. ;)

    • Sara - August 25, 2011 at 5:14 pm -

      @Lesli Lytle, Ah, I totally agree about how mindless or semi-mindless jobs are optimal. Not always possible, and not desirable for all, but it definitely true for me.

      • Akilah - August 26, 2011 at 9:41 am -

        @Sara, Which also can explain why I find it so hard to write. As a teacher, who thrives on being creative in my classes, by the time the day is done, my brain is like, “You want me to do what now?” Makes me feel better about myself reading this.

        Or I can choose to be hard on myself and vow to write FIRST THING IN THE MORNING, which I will choose not to do just yet. Haha. See what I did there?

        • Sara - August 27, 2011 at 8:47 am -

          @Akilah, You know, some of us are just not made to get up at 4 am and write. When I was working full time, I often wrote after dinner. Not long. Maybe an hour or so. I hate 4 am.

  • Sera Rivers - August 25, 2011 at 4:01 pm -

    Oh Sara! You must be tapping into my brain right now. I have felt depleted alllll week. And I’ve been beating myself for not working hardere… well, okay, not really working much this week. I have to keep reminding myself that I push myself so hard and I need downtime and snacks! yes, snacks to be successful. Thanks for this post :)

  • Heidi - August 25, 2011 at 4:03 pm -

    I love this article. I’ve long been fascinated by the concept that the human brain is a physical machine with limited resources. In fact, for many semesters, I’ve used this article (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703478704574612052322122442.html) in my comp class because in addition to being a great example of analysis, it’s also fascinating. I always figured writing called for calories because of the willpower I was expending to write instead of watch TV or go to bed, and that’s undoubtedly a huge part of it, but it sounds like the creative process you’ve explained here is also a big part. Very interesting.

  • Stephanie Perkins - August 25, 2011 at 4:47 pm -

    Wow, wow, wow. Lots of mind-explosions in this one. Thank you, Sara.

  • Kristen Faulconer - August 26, 2011 at 7:15 am -

    Wow. What amazing stuff. I feel even happier about getting up and writing before school–and more determined to keep it sustainable for the year. After dealing with 200 teens, coming home and doing anything aside from staring at the sky(which is nice but unnerving to my husband) or reading is about all I can do, especially these first weeks.
    One week of pre-schoo/pre-dawn writing:about 5000 words. They may not all be good words, but they are revisable.*happy* *grateful*

    • Gordon - August 26, 2011 at 11:54 am -

      @Kristen Faulconer, 5000 words? Now I feel like an underachiever. I think I could use a lesson in recognizing the “impostors”, Sara. for me there comes a clock time (different every day) when decision-making ends. I may be able to become better at using the good hours for more “have-tos”.

    • Sara - August 27, 2011 at 8:48 am -

      @Kristen Faulconer, Wow, that’s great, Kristen! I’m writing “full time” and am very happy with 5000 revisable words in a week!

  • Kristen Faulconer - August 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm -

    Thanks, Sara! Thanks, Gordon! And then there are moments like today, where I have stared at WIP and after a few agonizing minutes changed one word. One. And then wondered, gosh, what if I just deleted the word that was perfect?
    And then I think, well, okay, so what.
    When that kind of eye-bulging neurosis sets in, it’s time to play with the dogs or read good books. And eat chocolate.

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