Hemingway’s Secret To Maintaining Productive Momentum

The importance of being like Ernest? Treat your productivity as if it’s a renewable resource: always leave a little water in the well.

Hemingway’s Secret To Maintaining Productive Momentum
[Image: Flickr user Alba García Aguado]

To Ernest Hemingway, writers are like wells: “The important thing is to have good water in the well,” he told the Paris Review, “and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill.”


In this way, Hemingway coined the phrase leaving water in the well: instead of spending all your creative juices all at once, you leave a little bit of inspiration so that you can return to the same momentum that you left it with. Hemingway, whose habits of badass productivity we’ve talked about before, said to never stop writing without knowing how you are going to start again, to, in other words, never end a day’s work without knowing how you are going to start the next day.

But why does this help a workflow work so well? Leaving a task with an intention of how you’ll resume it is the compositional equivalent to packing your gym bag the night before–you reduce the friction of getting back into writing your novel, designing your webpage, or building that game-changing presentation deck, thus making it easier to do the difficult, deep work and giving you one less reason to procrastinate.

Think of it as doing a favor for you future self, especially if the task you’re tackling is a complex–meaning that it takes a longer time to load into your mind–or if it’s a side project that you won’t return to for a few days or a week. If you leave it during an exciting part, you’ll be excited to jump back in.

But as Uncommon founder Brian Bailey says, it’s easy to leave a task while you’re in a state of flow thinking that you’ll be able to get back into it with a total understanding of where you were before.

Quite unfortunately, our recall isn’t so total. So Bailey thought of an antidote:

After be surprised by (not remembering where I left off) way too often, I finally decided to take a preemptive step. Now, when I’m wrapping up for the day, I spend a few minutes making notes for my future self. What are the next three things I was going to do if I wasn’t out of time? What problems still need to be solved that I will have forgotten about next week?

The solution, then, is Hemingway-ian: if we want to avoid retracing our steps, we can leave a little water in the well.


Have your own productivity-maintaining system? Tell us about it in the comments or tweet it with #worksmarter. Do it for Hemingway!

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.