Creative Leftovers

Stop while the going is good. Leave a note on what comes next. Your future self will thank you.

Nov 16, 2022

It’s the end of the day, but you just got into some productive flow. You’re on a roll, so you tell yourself, “Let’s just keep going. It’s almost done.” You’re almost at the finish line, so why stop now?

Unless you’re on a deadline, there’s value in leaving a little for tomorrow. The obvious reason to avoid overworking yourself. But there are a few other benefits to leaving creative leftovers.

I first learned this lesson years ago during a pair programming session, where I worked on a problem together with my coworker. We’d both sit at the same desk, each with a keyboard connected to the same computer, alternating roles of typing and talking along the way.

We were writing tests for our code using a technique called TDD, or test-driven development. With that approach, we write tests for code that doesn’t exist yet. We would run the newly written tests, expecting them to fail. Then we would implement the code needed to make them pass.

The failing tests serve as a handy guide for what to do next.

By the end of the day, we got most of the tests passing, but a few red failures remained. I suggested we stay a little later to finish them off, but my coworker shook his head. “It’s better to start the day with broken tests,” he said.

I was surprised. Why would we want to start the day with failure?

After thinking about it, I realized the value: The next morning, we’d sit down at our desks and re-run the tests. The red tests from the night before would fail, and serve as a clear guide of what to start with.

Thanks to the reminders of the night before, we’d skip the morning lull of figuring out what we need to do, and jump straight into action.

The value of leftovers isn’t limited to programming. You can apply the same idea to writing and other creative endeavors. Take it from Hemingway:

Stop in the middle. Never stop working at the natural barriers. They next time you start working, the barrier will be the first thing you encounter, and you won’t have the momentum to overcome it. Try to stop writing mid-chapter, or mid-sentence (or mid function). Know how to finish, but stop working. The next time you start, you know exactly what needs to be done.

The same way you’d leave failing tests in programming, you can leave notes for yourself in writing or any other creative endeavor.

I often leave notes at the end of writing sessions working on my book of fables. I usually just write a few bullets in-place, thinking about two things:

What happens next in the story?

What open questions remain?

When I come back, that context is invaluable. It still takes me time to start writing, but thanks to the notes, I start thinking about the right problems immediately. David Perell shared some similar advice for leaving yourself a summary, advising that you write down where you’re stuck and what to work on next.

I don’t always go in the same direction the notes suggest. They’re generous gifts from my past self—I can use them or ignore them. Notes to my future self are a guide, not a goal.

There’s another benefit to stopping mid-problem: It gives our subconscious a chance to work on it. Hemingway spoke on this, too:

Don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. If you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.

When I first read this quote, I flinched at the idea of having my brain ‘work on it all the time.’ But after reading the book Rest by Alex Pang, I learned that our directed cognition (active mind) gets valuable rest even when our subconscious continues to work on problems.

In a note on deliberate rest, I wrote: “It turns out that your best creative work is likely to come when you spend less time working.” Give yourself a break, and you’ll likely get more done.

Leave a little work unfinished, and write a note before you go. You’ll get some rest tonight, and hit the ground running tomorrow.