It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write.

— Steven Pressfield

What does it take to have a successful career today?

For the modern knowledge worker (me, and probably you, too), a thriving career is often built on projects—specifically, a succession of increasingly complex long-term projects. Professors produce original research, attorneys draft intricate legal documents, programmers craft powerful software packages. Such long-term projects are marathons, not sprints, and they require us to chip away at our work over days, weeks, and months.

Such work isn’t easy, but the hardest part is often not the work itself—it’s simply picking the work up each morning. Getting started, in other words. Author Steven Pressfield put it well: “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”

Why is “sitting down to write” so hard? A lack of clarity is often to blame.

Clarity and ambiguity

Clarity is paramount. Psychological studies have demonstrated that when people are told exactly what to do—even if a task is hard or unpleasant—they’re surprisingly willing to do it. But when directions are ambiguous, compliance plummets.

Ambiguity is deadly. And although we don’t realize it, sitting down to work on a big project (especially one we haven’t touched in a few days) is a showdown with ambiguity. “Unnngh,” we moan inwardly, wallowing in self-pity, “I don’t even know where to start on this stupid thing. I’ll do it later.” Unaware of exactly how we’re supposed to approach this big, hairy project, our brains cast about for something else to occupy themselves. And they usually find it. The wages of ambiguity is procrastination.

Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to banish ambiguity. If we’re successful, it will be easier to pick up our project tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And like most good productivity hacks, the solution is simple, easy and free.

The progress note

Each day, as you finish the day’s work on your project, leave yourself a note summarizing the work you just completed and explaining exactly where to start next time.

Say you’re a college student working on a 5-6 page paper in Microsoft Word. After spending a couple hours on the rough draft, you might type the following note at the top of the document before you wrap up for the day.

Monday: Worked on first draft, producing about 3 pages. Tried not to self-edit too much. Intro is solid, but first body paragraph is weak. Tomorrow, pick up at the bottom of page 3 and write three more pages without stopping to self-edit. Then, and only then, start editing.

Here’s a real-life example, taken verbatim from a current research project of mine:

2019-01-07: Rough day. Started the document and left off in the Results section. Next time, pick up at "compute Cronbach's alpha" above and continue to describe, step-by-step, what was done in SPSS and what the results were. Strive to be dispassionate and just narrate the steps listed above in this document. With 2.5 more days to work on this before the semester starts, move briskly. You've got plenty of time, but not enough to waste.

And one more example. I’m writing this article over two sessions. Here’s the note I left myself at the end of the first writing session:

2019-02-25: Outline done, prose mostly fleshed out. Too wordy in places, so cut freely. Next time, quickly write conclusion, edit, polish, and publish.

Try this little hack on your own projects and see if it makes getting started each day a little easier. I think you’ll like the results.