Future slack

One of the most valuable things I learned early on from psychologist Robert Boice who studied academic productivity was that a writer must write, every day. But most people find writing to not be appealing and it is easy to find excuses to not write because pretty much anything can seem more urgent and appealing (doing the laundry, cutting the grass, sorting paper clips) when compared to writing. Some also feel that inspiration has to strike for them to write.

But the most seductive argument to not write right now is that there is not a sufficiently large block of time to do so and so one sets aside the weekend or holidays or vacations for that purpose. Academics are particularly prone to this because the structure of the academic calendar has breaks between the semesters that promise loads of time for writing. But that is an illusion and people who plan on writing during such breaks tend to end up writing less than those who do regular writing every day, even if it is for just a short time. This is because the future always has less free time than you think it has.

But breaking the myth of future free time was one of the biggest hurdles that I faced in persuading my academic colleagues that they would do better writing every day rather than waiting for large blocks of time. When you look at your calendar for the coming week it looks very busy but the calendar for next month is always less crowded. Writing a little every day is better than waiting for big chunks of writing time to materialize in the future, because those almost invariably disappear like mirages as the time approaches, driven out by the routine accumulations of life’s obligations. As next month approaches, that calendar will get filled in just the way that the coming week got filled in.

A nice study from back in 2005 illustrated this phenomenon of ‘future slack’ by comparing people’s over-expectations of how much time they would have in the future with their much more realistic estimates of how much money they would have. (G. Zauberman and J. G. Lynch, Jr., Resource slack and propensity to discount delayed investments of time versus money, J. Exp. Psychol. Gen, 2005 Feb: 134(1): 23-37>)

Here’s the abstract:

The authors demonstrate that people discount delayed outcomes as a result of perceived changes over time in supplies of slack. Slack is the perceived surplus of a given resource available to complete a focal task. The present research shows that, in general, people expect slack for time to be greater in the future than in the present. Typically, this expectation of growth of slack in the future is more pronounced for time than for money. In 7 experiments, the authors demonstrate that systematic temporal shifts of perceived slack determine the extent and the pattern of delay discounting, including hyperbolic discounting. They use this framework to explain differential propensity to delay investments and receipts of time and money.

So if you want to write, start writing now. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. As Peter de Vries said, “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”


  1. mnb0 says

    Yup, a good book. I’ve read it more t han a year ago. It takes effort though, because humans are not very good by themselves at midterm and longterm thinking. The book gives a scary example of a woman finding herself in huge debts within a couple of months due to this flaw.
    When it comes to writing (and studying and composing music etc.) there is also another mechanism at work. It explains why Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich had so much more output than Mussorgsky (even relatively), while the latter was at least as talented. Inspiration is a muse that has to be seduced. She doesn’t come by herself. You must earn it -- by trying every day. Produce something, even if you know you’ll probably throw it away later. Try again after a break or try tomorrow. Then at a moment you don’t expect it inspiration hits you and you amaze yourself how much quality stuff you can write within a short time.
    Btw it’s “doing the laundry, cutting the grass, sorting paper clips” stuff I’m always postponing because lame excuses.

  2. Sam N says

    I often find that whatever I write in the moment seems like absolute garbage, but then I come back to it a month later, and I can’t think of many improvements or it then seems insightful. It’s a real barrier when I try to write despite knowing this. Such a strange phenomenon.

    I wonder if the perception of increased slack in the future is based on prior experience or is a fairly universal trait. Are we taught to believe that is true (maybe by having long school vacations in the summer when learning?) Or is it something more fundamental.

  3. Mano Singham says

    Sam N,

    Peter Elbow gave me an excellent piece advice. He says that when writing we should have two different mindsets. One is an accepting mode in which every idea that enters our heads is seen as wonderful and original and worth putting down. Whatever words we use to express those ideas are also accepted as perfect. It is only at a later time, during rewrites, that we should switch to a critical mode, going back over what we enthusiastically wrote in the accepting mode and examining it carefully, checking for weaknesses, flaws, consistency, originality, style, tone, and word choice. Our reviewing of previous writing should be done in the critical mode but the writing of new material (even if in response to those self-criticisms) should be done in the accepting mode.

    That approach prevents so-called ‘writer’s block’ where you don’t write anything because you reject idea after idea because you think they are not good enough. As you discovered, some of those initial ideas that one thought were garbage turn out to be pretty good. The biggest danger is not that you will write down a garbage idea but that you will forget a decent idea because you initially thought it garbage and did not bother to write it down.

  4. says


    Unless you’re Issac Asimov--who was famous for writing perfect first drafts--all initial copy is crap.

    All good writing is rewriting.

    I often tell my students that there’s nothing wrong if the first draft sucks. You can fix that.

    What you can’t fix is a draft you didn’t write.


    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  5. Jenora Feuer says

    I have problems with the ‘two different mindsets’ aspect because I tend to be a bit of a compulsive editor/tweaker. I’ll write, but be going through multiple versions just within the first pass. It means my first drafts tend to be near-publication quality, but slows down the actual writing.

    (It also means I failed miserably the first and so far only time I’ve tried NaNoWriMo. I’d started that because I’d been working on a fiction story that was basically survival horror, and that relies so much on pacing for proper effect that the serialization I had been doing wasn’t working.)

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