the hemingway stop and other applications



~7 min read


1310 words

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

— Ernest Hemingway

In a 1935 article for Esquire, “Monologue To The Maestro: A High Seas Letter”, Ernest Hemingway laid out his advice for novel writing: stop before you’re done to make starting easier, avoid running on empty, and maintain momentum in the long process that is novel writing.

Affectionately referred to as The Hemingway Stop, Hemingway’s advice is applicable to more than just writing. Using it in other areas of life makes getting started easier, helps maintain high levels of energy throughout a project, and builds momentum toward completing large, multi-step goals.

Getting Started

Getting can be the hardest part of any project. Standing on the precipice of something new and unknown the fear of failure looms large. The Resistance must be overcome and any tactic making this easier will pay dividends in spades.(1)

In the Physics of Productivity, James Clear highlights two such tactics for this problem: add more force to overcome Resistance or eliminate the ways by which its introduced.

Clear endorses focusing on eliminating obstacles rather than forcing your way through them as a long-term strategy. Realizing that the Hemingway Stop does exactly that was a light bulb moment. By stopping an activity in the middle beginning again becomes so much easier. This makes sense. When you stop in the middle, you know where to go next. No decisions necessary.

As a project’s complexity increases, the ability to show up consistently becomes more important. This is where the Hemingway Stop shines. It offers a simple approach to make getting started every day relatively simple and provides an alternative to relying on willpower to complete a project.

Maintaining Your Energy

Alleviating some of the pain of starting is only one of the challenges for big projects like novel writing. Once you start, you need to be able to show up again the next day. And the day after that. In Great By Choice, Jim Collins and Morgenstern T. Hansen introduce the 20-mile march. Reviewing Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott’s race to the South Pole in 1911, Collins and Hansen conclude that Amundsen’s success was due in large part to his team’s adherence to marching 20 miles every day.

Amundsen and Scott achieved dramatically different outcomes not because they faced dramatically different circumstances. In the first 34 days of their respective expeditions, according to Roland Huntford in his superb book The Last Place on Earth, Amundsen and Scott had exactly the same ratio, 56%, of good days to bad days of weather. If they faced the same environment in the same year with the same goal, the causes of their respective success and failure simply cannot be the environment. They had divergent outcomes principally because they displayed very different behaviors…

Throughout the journey, Amundsen adhered to a regimen of consistent progress, never going too far in good weather, careful to stay far away from the red line of exhaustion that could leave his team exposed, yet pressing ahead in nasty weather to stay on pace. Amundsen throttled back his well-tuned team to travel between 15 and 20 miles per day, in a relentless march to 90˚south. When a member of Amundsen’s team suggested they could go faster, up to 25 miles a day, Amundsen said no. They needed to rest and sleep so as to continually replenish their energy…

In contrast, Scott would sometimes drive his team to exhaustion on good days and then sit in his tent and complain about the weather on bad days. In early December, Scott wrote in his journal about being stopped by a blizzard: “I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.” But when Amundsen faced conditions comparable to Scott’s, he wrote in his journal, “It has been an unpleasant day — storm, drift, and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.” Amundsen clocked in at the South Pole right on pace, having averaged 15½ miles per day. — Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, Great By Choice

The Hemingway Stop, without ever mentioning it, encourages 20-mile marches by tempering the exuberance that comes with hitting stride. Instead of allowing himself to keep writing, Hemingway’s stop ensured he always had a reserve of energy on which he could draw. Like Amundsen, Hemingway stuck to a “20-mile march” even on days he could have gone farther. Like the tortoise, Hemingway and Amundsen show how slow and steady maintains the energy necessary to win marathons.

Building Momentum

80% of life is showing up. — Woody Allen

Momentum is naturally created as a result of the Hemingway Stop as it is created by the confluence of getting started and a reserve tank of energy. Momentum is also a great way to overcome any obstacles you were not able to remove.

Back in 2011, published an interview with Brad Isaac who described a secret he’d learned about momentum from Jerry Seinfeld. Here’s what he said:

[Jerry] said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day…

He revealed a unique calendar system he uses to pressure himself to write…

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.

From Isaac’s story, it’s clear that the momentum of the chain helped Jerry Seinfeld become Jerry Seinfeld. The only problem is that Jerry never actually said this or even claimed to use the tactic (2). None the less, the idea took off and inspired Joe’s Goals and among others.

Momentum flows from the Hemingway Stop because its about doing something consistently. By lowering the effort needed to get started and keeping a reserve energy, the Hemingway Stop makes it easier to form habits and build momentum. Stringing days together, an activity which might have once felt daunting, now becomes habitual.

Just write everyday of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. — Ray Bradbury

Wrapping Up

Hemingway first articulated the “Hemingway Stop” in the context of writing. He understood that for long and complicated projects writer are well served by emphasizing endurance over bursts.

It’s not just writers who should use the Hemingway Stop, however. The benefits Hemingway derived from stopping when he knew what would happen next are available to anyone in any domain. The Hemingway Stop makes getting started easier, maintains energy, and builds momentum all of which make achieving goals and completing the biggest projects more attainable.

  1. I wrote more about Resistance as originally described by Steven Pressfield in Why I Want to Be Wrong (Sadly, this seems to have been lost.)
  2. Here’s a Reddit AMA in which Jerry briefly says he never came up with the idea and is vague on whether or not he uses it. James Clear also wrote more on this topic here.

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