Setting Limits – and Why Not To

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is all about goals. Daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, novel goals, etc. It’s about having an aim and working to achieve that.

Yes, sometimes you will miss a daily goal, or a weekly goal, but if you reach your monthly goal by November 30th, then that is all you need to ‘win’.

I’ve had a pretty easy NaNoWriMo this year, so far. I’ve only had one day I failed to hit my word count, and I made it up the next day. Some days I’ve been writing until 11pm, but I’ve managed to get it done without having to cut into my precious sleep time.

But it has me thinking about how we write. Specifically, in how we set writing goals…and limits.

Those two things may sound similar, but they aren’t. You set goals as something you hope to reach. Ultimately, they are often overly optimistic goals, but the point is not to necessarily reach them so much as to convince yourself that you can. They drive you forwards, encourage and inspire.

But although goals are important for your writing, so are limits. It may sound odd to hear, if you are just starting the writing journey of your PhD, but there will be days where you get so involved in what you’re doing that you just keep going.

Through lunch, through dinner, through bathroom breaks, and through bedtime. This is not healthy, obviously.

So let me talk about limits and why you should set them, when you should set them…and when you shouldn’t.

There are going to be periods of your PhD where you are mostly writing. These may come over the course of your entire journey, or all at the end. Wherever they fall, it is important that during your ‘writing time’ that you are focused on writing first and foremost. Do not allow yourself to get distracted by other things (particularly researching, as that is a black hole you will never crawl out of). Procrastination will be part of this experience, and that’s alright, but if you find it is dominating the writing time, you will need to re-evaluate what you are doing and how you are doing it. And the true reason you are procrastinating.

But as well as procrastination (which we all experience) will come moments when you fall into what I call writing mode. It’s when I become so focused and in the zone I lose track of time. I lose track, in fact, of pretty much everything. Which can be a bad thing for my bladder.

You may not experience these moments very often, but you will experience them. Whether it’s trying to get the wording perfect on a certain paragraph, or getting so in the zone you decide to crack out your entire 8000 word chapter today, or your brain is running a mile a minute and if you don’t get it all down onto paper, you’ll forget it forever (usually my biggest issue).

However, even if these moments are rare, don’t allow yourself to become a slave to them. It may sound like a grand idea to crack out 8000 words today (I’ve done it myself), but in the end, this is rarely a good thing. For one, in order to write that many words, you’ll barely stop to do anything. For another, it leaves you no thinking time to craft what you are writing. And, personally, I find my hands ache A LOT after that many words.

I also find that, the next day, I tend to not get out of bed.

And this is the most important reason to set yourself limits. Because when you don’t, you run the risk of exhausting yourself. And that generally leads to procrastination, or other forms of lost work time. It may seem like a great idea to write for 12 hours today, but if that means you don’t write for the next week, you’ve done yourself a disservice. You have taken yourself away from your story/thesis/article and you are no longer in the zone. You have also drastically limited your thinking time. You will also find that, when rereading what you have written there will be a lot of editing needed. Editing is all well and good, but if it ends up involving complete rewrites, you haven’t exactly saved time.

So there are reasons to set limits, particularly when you have to knock out quite a lot of words in a set time. This may seem counter productive, but pacing yourself is the best way to win the race.

I set writing limits every time I sit down to write. Whether it’s NaNoWriMo with it’s set 1667 words a day, or when I was working on my thesis. For my thesis, I generally set limits with sections, rather than word counts. The ‘I will write this subsection today’, however long it takes.

There are a good many reasons to do this. I found that on days I was having a hard time focusing, that it gave me a goal to work towards. A realistic goal. On days where I was so in the zone I could have kept going for hours and hours, it made me stop, eat, take a bathroom break, go to the gym, and all around take some time out. Often that was thinking time about what I’d written, or what came next, but it was always important time. It also means that you can create a realistic working plan of your project, with deadlines, and know that you have a good chance of making them.

If you know you can write a 1000 word section, whatever it is on, then you can plan your writing schedule for the rest of your thesis. If you know you have to write a 7000 word chapter in May, you know how many days you need to set aside for writing, and how many can be days off, how many can be days for extra researching or referencing, and how many can be days lost to procrastination, before you end up behind.

One of the best things about NaNoWriMo is that it teaches you you can do this. You can write to goals. And it also teaches you you can write to limits. I find most people get very good at it. If they know they need 1667 words today…they’ll usually write about 1670. I can generally stop myself in the middle of a paragraph to hit the right count, and know that I am in the middle of something I will be encouraged to continue tomorrow. This is one of the key suggestions to overcome writer’s block – always stop in the middle….



I have not forgotten about the last part of this blog – when not to set limits. Sometimes you will just need to get on with things, and then it is best to set goals – to be optimistic rather than realistic. Sometimes you may just want to let your writing zone take over, usually after a lot of careful thinking and planning time, when you know what you need to do and just need to get on with writing it.

You will probably have moments when you don’t know whether you need to set a limit or a goal, or both. You can only learn this from practice.

But although goals are important, don’t make them impossible, and remember that setting limits might actually help you more. And if you find you’ve been sitting at your computer for seven hours without a bathroom break…it’s probably time to set yourself a limit, if only for the sake of your body.




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