A few days ago, I was sitting in my car at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change, when a thought suddenly popped into my head. In a flash, I recognized the relevance of a paper I’d read several decades ago for a current project on which I was working. I had been thinking about ways to justify the narrative I was trying to set up, and I’d been frustrated by my inability to find recent literature that could be cited to justify its importance.
Why did that idea suddenly occur to me? The paper wasn’t due for several months and I felt no obvious pressure to make rapid progress on it. Nevertheless, some weeks ago I had decided to begin working on the paper. Following my normal routine, I’d begun jotting down interpretive notes on the papers and articles that I read, sticking them in a purple manila folder which I carried in my briefcase. As the folder grew thicker, I found myself thinking about the project occasionally, when I took breaks from other projects or was just relaxing.
I believe I know where the idea came from. Material I’ve been reading over the past several years on how the brain works tells us that most of our thinking takes place below the level of conscious awareness. We are thinking all the time, intentionally or otherwise, including when we are sleeping. In fact, I would say, especially while we are sleeping. It is difficult to shut this activity off, as is shown by yoga exercises during which we are advised to “clear our mind of all conscious thought.” Initially, most of us can’t do it. Apparently random thoughts buzz about like bees in our brain, and no amount of mental swatting can drive them away.
Luckily for us, what could be a very distracting feature of our seemingly uncontrollable brain can be put to good use by authors. I’m referring to the practice of putting all this mental firepower to work on a problem facing us by beginning to think about our projects well before they are due. In a sense, starting to think about how a project will be framed, how it will be solved, how it will be explained, and so forth, gives the brain its marching orders. By intentionally telling our brain that this is a problem that needs to be worked on, we take advantage of a resource that otherwise would be wasted: the brain’s search for meaning and patterns in the information it’s storing.
The brain never shuts completely down, even while we are sleeping. Some sleep research suggests that while we are slumbering, our brain is trying to sort out what’s happened to us recently, tidying up a bit and perhaps trying out tentative solutions. I like the idea of being able to claim to my friends that I can work even while I’m sleeping!
By starting on a project early, I increase the chances that subsequent experiences, including not only reading but also conversations, will inform my thinking. Although it’s good to take notes, I trust my brain to recognize potentially relevant material and throw it into the mix.
In addition to the cognitive benefits of engaging my brain early, two other benefits follow from getting an early start. First, the earlier I start, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to seek help from friends and colleagues, such as with reading a first draft. Discussions with them may direct me to a literature that I wasn’t aware of and scholars elsewhere whose work is germane. Second, the earlier I start, the more chances I have to revise my work. With a 3 to 6 month head start, for example, I have a chance to do several revisions on the first draft so that when I submit the final version, it will be a much more polished version of the ideas that sparked the initial project.
My message is simple: when you take on a writing assignment, such as a conference paper, a book proposal, or potential Journal article, don’t procrastinate. Deliberately set aside time early on to think about the project and perhaps free-write about it, and give your brain a chance to do its work.